‘Fiona Tan and the Photo-Filmic’

Fiona Tan, 'Ascent', Izu Photo Museum Japan / De Pont Museum Netherlands, 2016

An extended essay commissioned on the occasion of Fiona Tan’s work, Ascent.

Slip case binding with 3 softcover books, 80 pages each. Illustrated in colour

Published by Izu Photo Museum, Shizuoka, De Pont Museum, Tilburg, NOHARA Publishers, 2016

ISBN 13: 978-4-904257-36-4  Language: English and Japanese editions

Texts by David Campany, Toshiharu Ito, Shinichi Takemura, and Fiona Tan

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 11.14.09

Fiona Tan and the ‘photo-filmic’

by David Campany


The screen is dark. Out of the black, small still images emerge. Sound rises … ambient, crackling, inhabiting the images. What follows is seventy-seven minutes of still photographs appearing, disappearing, dissolving and scrolling across the screen, complemented by sounds, music, and two scripted voices – one English, one Japanese.

Ascent takes as its subject Mount Fuji, or more precisely, the shifting representations by which we think we have come to know Mount Fuji. Fiona Tan has made an imaginative journey around the object of her fascination. Mount Fuji is not revealed directly or in its deepest mystery (not even photographs can do that) but it is conjured for us nonetheless. Tan has solicited, sifted and sorted all manner of images and set them in motion. It is not the literal motion of the cinematic image but the figural motion of a ‘photo-film’: a rich weave of associations that are personal, poetic, historical, scientific, anthropological, military, geological, political, literary and artistic.Ascentis a bowl for images, a vortex of images, with Mount Fuji at its centre.

Early in the film we hear these words, spoken by ‘Mary’:

Emptiness or void, you explained patiently, never has negative connotations in the Japanese language. Just like the shining bamboo, a void has the potential to be filled. In Japanese the word for void isutsuro. But if you change the last syllable to wa, the word becomes utsuwa, meaning bowl. A bowl can receive and hold some very important things; a bowl for rice, a bowl for tea.

We are then shown an image of the crater of Mount Fuji and we hear the male voice of ‘Hiroshi’, speaking in Japanese:

If a ‘roi’ is added to the end, the word then becomes utsuroi – transience, a word which represents a concept of time rather than of space.

By these words Ascent prepares us for what is to come: a sliding in and out of history and memory, facts and impressions; an invitation to exchange space for time, or at least to think about the possibility of such an exchange. Mount Fuji is pictured over and over, but somehow it remains elusive. It is as if the real thing was in another place, another time. Or perhaps it is right there but unknowable.


There are many ways to get to Mount Fuji.  Fiona Tan has visited Japan several times, but she has constructed her film in her studio, in Amsterdam. If we are dealing with images, and in particular photographic images that can travel on our behalf, we could reasonably begin anywhere. Let us go via Paris. Here is Roland Barthes:

Maupassant often lunched in the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, though he didn’t care for the food: “It’s the only place in Paris,” he used to say, “where I don’t have to see it.” And it’s true that you must take endless precautions, in Paris, not to see the Eiffel Tower; whatever the season, through mist and cloud, on overcast days or in sunshine, in rain – wherever you are, whatever the landscape of roofs, domes, or branches separating you from it, the Tower is there, incorporated into daily life until you can no longer grant it any specific attribute, determined merely to persist, like a rock or the river, it is as literal as a phenomenon of Nature whose meaning can be questioned to infinity but whose existence is incontestable.[i]

What Barthes describes of the Eiffel Tower holds at least equally true of Mount Fuji, the strato-volcano on Japan’s Honshu Island. It is the nation’s highest peak and on a clear day it can be seen from Tokyo, sixty miles to its northeast. It is there, always there, ‘until you can no longer grant it any specific attribute’. Like the Eiffel Tower, the only way to make the mountain disappear from view, is to climb it. But unlike the Eiffel Tower, Mount Fuji really is a phenomenon of Nature.

As a Parisian, Barthes was pondering the most obvious of Parisian subjects. Mount Fuji could well be the most obvious of Japanese subjects. But when the nimble mind of an artist or writer resolves to contemplate the overly familiar we may feel a kind of disarming excitement. In 2001, the British artist Victor Burgin wrote:

I am in Barcelona. I find the genius of the place, which for me is where my internal world and the social and historical reality of the city intersect, in Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion for the 1929 International Exhibition. Embarrassing, as if I had gone to Paris and discovered the Eiffel Tower. I must nevertheless accept the fact that the pavilion haunts me. It remains to be seen why.[ii]

We must not fear the obvious, or be embarrassed by it, especially if it haunts us. A cliché may well be a truth worn out by use, but it is better to accept it and find one’s own relation to it, find the intersection of one’s internal world and the external realities. This is the task Fiona Tan sets herself in the making of her film. In 2015, she writes:

I wish to make a new video piece entitled Ascent with Mount Fuji as its starting point.I envisage a projection consisting of a carefully edited compilation of photos of Mt. Fuji. This work will reflect upon and question the status of this mountain and of all the images there exist of it. For me it is only fitting that I wish to make this piece using images which are not mine. Constructing, imagining, mapping the mountain from a distance, through the eyes of others. Strung together all these images will form a composite like frames in a film. This multitude of images represents two paradoxes, both the impossibility of true and complete (photographic) representation and the nature of the mountain itself, always unchanging and yet never the same. These thousands of images encircle the mountain like a cloud; revealing it and hiding it at the same time.

A composite like frames in a film. Remember that phrase.  Tan’s words appeared on the website of the Izu Photo Museum, as a call for members of the public to send her their images of Mount Fuji.[iii] These images would then be complemented by those from the artist’s own research, and from all the gathered material the visual component of Ascentwould be pieced together.


The most celebrated representations of Mount Fuji are of course those comprising the suite of woodcut prints made by the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1876-1849). These views remain so loved around the world that it is tempting to see them as the source of Mount Fuji’s enduring hold on the popular imagination. But in many ways Hokusai was emphasizing the strange way in which Mount Fuji alwayswas, always has been,an image. Many of the world’s celebrated peaks resemble themselves only from particular angles. Viewed from the wrong spot, the Matterhorn, on the Italian-Swiss border, is barely recognizable. Mount Everest (known in Nepal as Sagarmāthā and in Tibet as Chomolungma) has a shape so indistinct it refuses to become a fixed icon.The mysterious allure of Mount Fuji is quite the opposite, hiding in plain sight, we might say. With its near-perfect conical shape it invariably looks like itself, and this puts it into an unusually accommodating relation to its image.

Indeed, Mount Fuji is as much an image for those who live around and within sight of it, as it is for those who have seen it only in pictures. (This is what Barthes was getting at in his contemplation of the Eiffel Tower, which also always resembles itself). This is not to deny the brute physicality of Mount Fuji, nor the enormous geological forces that created it. What is at stake is an unusual conflation of fact and image. To depict something that always resembles itself is to re-depict, to make an image of an image, taking the viewer over the lip of representation and into its vortex. Each and every picture of Mount Fuji has something of this quality. We point, with our finger or our eye: There it is… see how it looks the way it is supposed to look, the way it always looks.

Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa,1829-32, color woodblock print, 27.5cm x 37.8cm

Katsushika Hokusai, Ejiri in the Suruga province, 1830-32, color woodblock print, 25.4 x 37.1 cm


We can never know for sure but it is reasonable to assume that it was something of this phenomenon that finally attracted Hokusai, so late in his life, to encircle Mount Fuji with his own series of depictions. He produced at first thirty-six views, and then added a further ten.  Each image would be its own masterwork but seen together they would form a composite. This composite would be the appropriate way to show moments from life around an unchanging and instantly recognizable landmark. It would also be a profound contemplation of what images really are, a challenge that all visual artists must face sooner or later.

With Japan isolated from the rest of the world, Hokusai worked on his project right through the period of the invention of photography in Europe. As his project grew, and as his images were being multiplied through woodblock printing, a whole new epoch of the reproducible image was coming into being.[iv]

In the West at least (I am writing from London), the two best known of Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji are The Great Wave off Kanagawa and Ejiri in the Suruga province. Both are notable for their depiction of sudden moments of human danger: a wave at its peak before it crashes down upon small boats; a gust of wind catching people by surprise. In both images Mount Fuji is present as a small but definite shape on the horizon. Hokusai created these works around 1830, when photography’s exposure times were still measured in minutes, not fractions of a second. And yet, to a contemporary audience there is something ‘proto-photographic’ in Hokusai’s moments. Moreover, to leaf through a book of his views of Mount Fuji, or to see them projected as a slideshow, or to scroll through them online, is to assemble a mental composite. Mount Fuji becomes the pivot around which life and art revolve.

Consciously or not, Hokusai was anticipating some of the fundamental qualities of experience in the modern world: the proliferation of images, the misfit between permanence and transience, the paradox of the copy without an original, and the tensions between the centre and the whole, the one and the many. A century after Hokusai, in what turned out to be a fragile moment between one world war and another, TS Eliot described a similar set of feelings. I cannot quote all of his 1935 poem, ‘Burnt Norton’, but in the following section you can sense the magnitude of what Eliot was attempting to express:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, therewe have been: but I cannot say where.

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.[v]

Eliot is taking ideas of common wisdom and undoing them, twisting apparent opposites until they do not feel like opposites but do not quite reconcile either.  In words he suggests what Hokusai was alluding to in images. Whatever its charms, no single image, no single representation, no single way of fixing or viewing the world will suffice. No single conception of time will suffice either. It is into the gaps between representations that modern life falls, and meaning falls. Art, be it printmaking, painting, sculpture, film, photography, literature, music or theatre, will have to address these gaps and make them palpable, make them thinkable. Hokusai’s suite of images may be one way of doing this. Eliot’s collisions of almost-opposites may be another. Viewing one medium through the prism of another might be a third way, and this is where we find the work of Fiona Tan, which is so often made in the uncharted places where photography and film intersect.

It is tempting think of still photography and the moving image existing in some kind of opposition, and we can easily to draw up a list of binaries to reinforce the differences: photography is always in the past whereas the moving image is experienced in the ‘now’; photography fixes but the moving image remains fluid; photography is a ready substitute and prompt for memory but the moving image absorbs us in its own time; and so on. But there are other possibilities that complicate such oppositions.

The first is what we might call the photographic encounter in which filmed people appear to be posing for a still image. The second is the filming of a static world in such a way that we cannot be entirely sure whether we perceive the image in a filmic or a photographic way, not knowing if time is coursing through what we see or if it has been stopped for us. The third is the temporal arrangement of photographs within a filmic structure. The fourth is the spatialarrangement of multiple photographs either in the gallery space or across the pages of a book. Such practices scramble any strict opposition between the photographic and the filmic. In different ways Fiona Tan has explored all these approaches, and in what follows I shall try outline them.

Needless to say, photography is ubiquitous. It has long permeated all the spaces of visual culture, from the magazine page and the billboard, to the state archive, the family album, the Internet and ‘social media’. This promiscuity permits an artist to move easily between various ways of being with the medium. Photographic images can be made, or commissioned, or gathered, or edited, or recontextualised, or filmed or written about. Fiona Tan has been doing all of these things but there is nothing promiscuous about her methods. The rich resonances that are so characteristic of her work derive from her economy of means: the carefully chosen elements and their precise treatment.

Consider Calendar Girl 1993/99, a very short film that could not be simpler in its form. With a 16mm movie camera Tan records, one by one, the twelve printed pages of a little monthly calendar. In the corner of each page is a different photo studio portrait of the same little blonde girl. The portraits come from one sitting. The photographer (or automated camera) has caught a sequence of her informal expressions. With words in French and Dutch, the graphic and photographic style of this humble object suggest somewhere between the 1930s and 1950s. Such calendars were quite common in Europe, made as Christmas or New Year gifts for friends and family. The film lasts barely more than a minute. We see each successive photo/month for less than a second, the annual sequence repeating a few times. Somehow, Tan has allowed the filming of this forgotten and rescued object to compress so many of our ways of thinking about time: the instantaneous snap of the photographer’s shutter, the duration of a studio portrait sitting, the ‘real time’ of cinematic unfolding, the length of seven days / twelve months / one year, the recall of decades past, the official time of collective history and the less official time of individual memory. In Calendar Girl, as in lived experience, all these different temporal frameworks overlap, inform, modify and contradict each other.

Frame from Fiona Tan, Calendar Girl1993/99, 16 mm film installation, colour, silent, 16 mm filmprint, film projector, no-rewind, projection variable. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

Calendar Girl seems to me a proposition about the dynamics of still photography (from the act of photographing and being photographed, to the distribution and viewing of images) and how they can be re-considered through the different but related dynamics of the moving image. And vice-versa. This isn’t exactly the playing of one medium against another, since the still photograph is the elemental unit of the moving image. Rather, Tan initiates a dialogue or encounter. For the philosopher Gilles Deleuze,

The encounter between two disciplines doesn’t take place when one begins to reflect on another, but when one discipline realises that it has to resolve, for itself and by its own means, a problem similar to one confronted by the other.[vi]

Even in translation Deleuze’s words, which were not written but spoken to an interviewer, are eloquent.  In any encounter the two parties may hope to find commonalities, and may even come to an understanding of themselves and each other that they could not come to alone. Nevertheless the very idea of an ‘encounter’ will also preserve differences. This way of approaching still photography and the moving image has proved to be one of the richest aspects of Fiona Tan’s work. She does not collapse all imagery into ‘mixed media’, neither does she defend the singularity of one discipline against another. Instead each is a prompt for the other, an interlocutor for the other.

Fiona Tan, frame from Facing Forward, 1999. Video installation, 11 min. b&w/tinted, stereo projection. ca. 2.7 x 3.9 m

Tan’s 1999 film Facing Forward revisits a number of pieces of ethnographic and anthropological film footage held in the archives of the Dutch Filmmuseum. Some are from Dutch colonial missions, others are French, American and English while some are of unclear provenance. The ‘aboriginal’ people being studied appear in arranged groups and look into the camera. They pose, as if for a still photograph, but are being filmed. They hold their positions pensively, shifting and twitching in response to their physical and emotional discomfort. As they stare into the camera, the camera stares back. In turn, we viewers are invited to scrutinize the resulting images, and contemplate the whole strained situation. What we are permitted ‘see’ is not merely the ethnographic footage, or the subjects before the camera, but the social conditions that has given rise to these images. The space Tan opens up for us is technical and aesthetic, but it is also the dialectical space of discourse, of politics, desire, power, ideology and therefore misunderstanding. We are invited read these image against the grain, permitting them to be examined and undone.

Fiona Tan, Countenence (2002), installation view. Video installation, tinted b&w, mono 4 digital betacam safety masters, 4 dvds, 4 video projectors, 4 hi-fi audio speakers, room 1: screen 60 x 44 cm, room 2: 3 translucent projection screens 1.9 x 1.42 m

Tan continued to explore this space in further works, notably Countenance (2002), a video installation comprising two hundred and fifty contemporary portraits of Berliners drawn from the diversity of the city. The citizens pose as if for photographs but are filmed for half a minute or so. Tan placed her movie camera on its side to produce a portrait format image. We see the ‘sitters’ move a little sometimes with the world going on behind them, betraying the contrivance of the whole set-up. Countenance was a response to August Sander’s Citizens of the Twentieth Century, a grand attempt to assemble a vast photographic album of the German people in the 1910s, 20s and 30s. Many of Tan’s images reference Sander’s own. His famous portrait of a pastry cook with his great pudding bowl is restaged, this time with the baker’s bowl rotating on an automated mixer. Sander’s attempt to survey the social order of his time was always a little hubristic and has even less currency today when appearances generate as much doubt as certainty and the demographics of our cities are so volatile. Tan accepts this. In a voiceover to her filmed self portrait included in the work, she speaks of the antagonism between the inexplicable desire to make such a project and its inevitable shortcomings. The poses, compositions and lighting may echo Sander’s order but the move from photography to the moving image becomes a measure of the instabilities of the present.[vii]

Several of Sander’s individual portraits have become very well known, but he understood them as being parts of his larger project. In 1951 he wrote: “A successful photo is only a preliminary step toward the intelligent use of photography… Photography is like a mosaic that becomes a synthesis only when it is presented en masse”.[viii]The pleasure and the depth of meaning of a photographic series derive from the relations between the parts and the whole. These relations have energized photographic culture almost since the beginnings of the medium. Even by the 1840s photographs were being brought together as coherent bodies of work for publication.[ix]In its contingent relation to time and space there is always something radically singular about any one photographic exposure, but it is rarely experienced in complete isolation. It has become perfectly commonplace to organize photographs, often large numbers of them, in one manner or another: albums, archives, scrapbooks, typologies, sets, suites, juxtapositions, sequences, narratives, lyric poems and so forth. And yet, since each image is so individual there are always gaps – physical, temporal, cognitive gaps – between one image and the next. Often language is used to smooth over these gaps but in any group of photographs there is as much discontinuity and continuity, as many voids as presences.

Today, in the age of the Internet, the intended links between images can seem very fragile indeed. The visual world that surrounds us can feel more like a disorganized and ever-growing heap than a series of cogent statements, more like a draw full of snapshots than an organized arrangement.[x]Family albums become folders on computers. Printed newspapers become updatable websites. Books become electronic reading tablets. Semi-random ‘clicks’ produce new associations. In part, this is why so much contemporary art practice has become a matter of editing: choosing images, arranging them, establishing the relations between them. Making sense out of the apparent chaos.

Fiona Tan, The Changeling, 2006. Digital installation b&w tinted, mono 2 digital safety masters, 2 lcd monitors, 2 mini computers, 1 built-in audio speaker.

For The Changeling2006, Fiona Tan placed two video screens in the gallery space. One screen shows, in brief succession, around two hundred photographic portraits of Japanese schoolgirls, from a 1929 yearbook found in a flea market. In an upright pose, and with a neat black bob haircut, each girl looks obediently into the camera. The first impression is of an uncanny conformity but the few seconds we have with each portrait is enough to see hints of individuality. Tan uses this photographic/filmic form to open up the space between sameness and uniqueness, between quick judgments and slow thinking. The second screen of The Changeling faces the first on the opposite wall. It shows just one of the schoolgirl portraits, unmoving, unchanging. For twelve minutes we hear a woman’s voice telling stories of the girl’s life. They are possible stories, imagined stories. For each successive exhibition venue a new portrait is chosen from the group, and a new biography is imagined and read by a local woman performer. So The Changelingis never the same twice, and will not be complete until every one of the schoolgirls has been singled out and given this special treatment.

Walker Evans, License Photo Studio, New York, 1934.



Almost since their beginnings, photography and film cameras have been deployed in formulaic ways to standardize appearances (think of the conventions of visual anthropology, the passport photo, the school photo, the police photo, the family snapshot and home video, and so on). But these conventions also emphasize individuality. No two people look the same, no to people arethe same, and the more similarly they are photographed the more starkly we see their visible differences. We might speak of a person we see on the street or in a found photograph as being anonymous, but anonymity is entirely relative. Nobody is truly, absolutely anonymous. Rather, a person can be anonymous to, or for, someone else. Photography multiplies and makes virtual the encounters we have with others who we will never know. This is what makes the medium so cold and impersonal and yet so connected and intimate. It is a paradox that has long been important to many artists. While Tan’s Countenance was an updating of August Sander’s portraiture, we can see The Changeling(and indeed Calendar Girl) in the light of the work of the American photographer Walker Evans. For example, in Penny Picture Display, Savannah1936, Evans captures two hundred and ten typical photo portraits displayed in a studio window. It’s a fascinating image, in which Evans prompts his own medium to confront its complicity with modern state citizenship. But Evans knows that the same medium also shows all the individualities too. To take in the picture as a whole is to experience ‘photography as a whole’. But when we look closer, at each individual person, this generalized notion falls away and we are left with particulars. Photographs rather than ‘photography’. Interestingly, when Evans first published this image, in his 1938 book American Photographs, he placed it after another that expressed similar concerns (License Photo Studio, New York, 1934).  Our response to the second image is informed by our response to the first. Evans sustained this palimpsest of reading for a whole book, at the end of which we find a text describing what is going on:

Physically the pictures in this book exist as separate prints. They lack the surface, obvious continuity of the moving picture, which by its physical nature compels the observer to perceive a series of images as parts of a whole. But these photographs, of necessity seen singly, are not conceived as isolated pictures made by the camera turned indiscriminately here and there. In intention and in effect they exist as a collection of statements deriving from and presenting a consistent attitude.[xi]

Sequenced photographs are not cinematic in the traditional sense. What is at stake is not the mimicry of physical movement or even duration, but the psychical movement, associative and suggestive, that is encouraged by montage. As the American scholar Blake Stimson has noted

“The photographic essay was born of the promise of another kind of truth from that given by the individual photograph or image on its own, a truth available only in the interstices between pictures, in the movement from one picture to the next.”[xii]

Fiona Tan, like Evans invites an active reading of these gaps, these ‘interstices’. Photographs are mobile, with meanings shaped by the contexts in which we encounter them.  Even when presented in the fixed sequence of a film or book, photographs cannot overcome the provisional nature of the arrangement. To sequence photographs is to ask what if?What ifthis image follows that? What ifthis one repeats? What ifthis one is chosen and not that one? What if this one echoes the one before but contrasts with the one after? What if an image of this time and place is put next to one of that time and place?

Between 2004 and 2012, Fiona Tan created several versions of a project titled Vox Populi. In Norway, Sydney, Tokyo, Switzerland and finally London, she assembled collections of photographs by drawing on family albums from a cross section of citizens from each place.  The albums were borrowed from willing participants and Tan made her own selections. From these she assembled a sort of ‘location portrait’ of around three hundred images.[xiii]No city or country can be represented with total accuracy, so Tan’s gesture should be seen as a contribution to understanding, rather than a definitive will to please everyone (and hence no-one). “Can I satisfy that in any way at all?” asks Tan rhetorically. “No, I don’t think so, but it has to somehow ring true. It has to be in some ways authentic, authentic for me — and I must be a very weird person if it would be authentic for me and for no one else on earth.”[xiv]


 Fiona Tan, Vox Populi Norway, 2004. Detail.


For each location Tan resolved Vox Populias an installation anda small format book. In the gallery, framed reproductions of the selected photographs are presented as a cloud or cluster, while each book is sequenced in three categories: portraits, home and nature. The installation can be viewed by many people at once and only in the country/city where the work was made. The intimacy of the small format book is an experience for the single viewer, anywhere.  But in each case the place is explored through the tension between ‘photography’ as an abstract, quasi-sociological category and ‘photographs’ in all their particulars.

This tension between photography in general and photographs in particular has shaped our visual culture profoundly. It has also shaped critical discussions and artistic practices. Susan Sontag’s book On Photography(1977) and Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983) both avoid any specific photographs, preferring to approach the medium as a technical/social phenomenon at large. John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs (1973) and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida(1980) attend to specific images in great detail. The artist Jeff Wall makes singular images, each for careful contemplation on its own terms. Hans-Peter Feldmann orchestrates hundreds of images in a critical parody of mass image consumption. Macro or micro, each approach suspects the other of missing something.

Fiona Tan offers an alternative to this false choice. She is deeply attentive to the specifics of each and every image that she makes or selects, and she invites you to be equally attentive. At the same time, her work is mindful of the social parameters of imagery (genre, use, convention) and the technical parameters (cameras, darkrooms, screens), and how together they have shaped our image world.  In this sense, the figure Tan most resembles is Antonino, the hero of Italo Calvino’s remarkable short story ‘The Adventure of a Photographer’ 1958. Antonino tries to get to the heart of photography, to solve its deepest mysteries. He watches other people making images. He makes his own images. He stares at individual images. He steps back and contemplates the near infinite number of images. He contemplates how they have determined his understanding of himself and the world. He re-photographs pages from newspapers and magazines.  He looks at domestic snapshots.

“Perhaps true, total photography, he thought, is a pile of fragments of private images, against the creased background of massacres and coronations.”[xv]

Are the ‘true’ and the ‘total’ the same thing? Is the truth of a photograph the same as the truth of photography?  Does the truth of photography reside in the one or the many? Both. Are photographs about their subject matter or are they about photography? Both.

In Fiona Tan’s Ascent, we move over the surface of Mount Fuji and its surroundings. We do so by moving over the surface of hundreds of photographs presented as a film, over which an episodic story is recounted. We move across time, memory and history. Across attitudes, across cultures, and through so many perspectives.  For seventy-seven minutes we are with Mount Fuji.  Like a lover or close friend we get to know it so well that we take it for granted and it disappears. And then, suddenly, we are surprised by a minor revelation and it becomes the object of our attention once more. Fascination returns afresh. Ascentapproaches photography and film in the same way. At times, film seems to be merely the vehicle to bring us photographs that in turn bring us Mount Fuji. But there are moments when we feel how film can treat photography, how photography is and is not film, and how Mount Fuji is and is not its image. Nothing is resolved, everything revolves. It is not a circular revolution. It is more like an ongoing spiral.

[i]Roland Barthes, ‘The Eiffel Tower’, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, trans Richard Howard, University of California Press, 1979.

[ii]Victor Burgin, Components of a Practice,Skira Editore, 2008.

[iii]Fiona Tan, http://www.izuphotoproject-fionatan.jp; and http://www.izuphotoproject-fionatan.jp/?page_id=1013(English version). Accessed April 1, 2016.

[iv]This was before the appearance of the Eiffel Tower, which opened in 1889.

[v]TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’ (1935), Four Quartets, Harcourt, New York, 1943.

[vi]Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Brain is the Screen. An interview with Gilles Deleuze.’ Gregory Flaxman, editor, The Brain is the Screen. Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema, Routledge, 1997.

[vii]I first wrote about Fiona Tan’s Countenancein my book Photography and Cinema, Reaktion Books, 2008.

[viii]  August Sander, letter to the photographer Abelen, January 16, 1951, cited in August Sander,Citizens of the Twentieth Century, ed. Gunther Sander, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1986.

[ix]In 1843 Anna Atkins published Part One of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.In 1844 William Henry Fox Talbot published the first fascicle of his The Pencil of Nature.

[x]But even as far back as 1920s, as what we now call the modern mass media began to take shape, there were worries about image proliferation. Olivier Lugon has noted how the optimism that characterised discussions of media culture in the early 1920’s – with its unprecedented numbers of images in the illustrated press promising new forms of knowledge and greater artistic possibility – gave way in the space of just a few years to a weariness and even anxiety about unchecked proliferation. See Olivier Lugon, “Photo-inflation’: Image Profusion in German Photography, 1925-1945’ History of Photographyvol. 32 no. 3 (Autumn 2008).

[xi]Lincoln Kirstein, ‘Photographs of America: Walker Evans’ in Walker Evans, American Photographs(Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1938) pp. 189-198. The point was also made in capitals in the text on the front flap of the book’s dust-jacket: ‘THE REPRODUCTIONS PRESENTED IN THIS BOOK ARE INTENDED TO BE LOOKED AT IN THEIR GIVEN SEQUENCE.’

[xiii]For each locale of Vox Populi, a small format book was published, each containing around one hundred images grouped into three loose categories: portraits, home and nature.

[xiv]Fiona Tan in Coline Milliard, ‘Images of a People: Fiona Tan Assembles an Intimate Portrait of London From Old Family Photos’, Modern Painters, September 11, 2012.

[xv]Italo Calvino, ‘The Adventure of a Photographer’ (1958), in Difficult Loves, trans. William Weaver, Mariner Books, 1985. Tan’s work, especially Ascent,also descends in a meandering way from the work of the French photographer, writer and filmmaker Chris Marker. La Jetée, his 1962 fiction film comprised almost entirely of still photographs, is announced in its opening credits as ‘un photo-roman’. It is the story of a man sent into the future with the memory of an image from his childhood.  Marker’s jumps from one photo to another express the mental leaps and gaps demanded by the work of traumatized memory groping for sanity. Two decades later, in Marker’s essay film San Soleil, a distant Mount Fuji presides over a landscape through which streaks the world famous ‘bullet train’. Geological time and modern time co-exist within the same frame. And two years after that, Marker was right there on Mount Fuji to document Akira Kurosawa filming his epic Ran, a state of the art movie set in medieval times and filtered through Shakespeare’sKing Lear. Marker shows us the movie’s extras dressed as samurai warriors, wearing sneakers between takes, sitting on the slopes of an unchanging mountain. Chris Marker and Fiona Tan belong to an extended family of artists for whom filmmaking is a kind of time travel, with still photography as the passport.



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