‘Once more for Stills’

Paper Dreams: the lost art of Hollywood stills photography, Steidl, 2006

Once More for Stills

First published in Christoph Schifferli, ed., Paper Dreams: the lost art of Hollywood stills photography, Steidl, 2006. 

Almost every film production has a stills photographer. Stills provide the movie with everything from working descriptions of interiors and locations to archival records. And of course they are made for publicity purposes. After the director has a take in the can the actors may be called upon to repeat their performance, ‘once more for stills’. What is performed firstly for the cinematographer is performed again for the photographer.

Movements must be converted into stillness. The transfer is not always as straightforward as it might seem. Actors need to be posers too, but the essence of an unfolding scene may not be achievable in a single shot. The art of film acting is above all the art of movement. Performing for the still camera is not always easy. Stillness may deprive the actor of their métier.

So one task of the stills photographer is to condense and distil a filmic scenario into a readable image. Gestures are altered, body positions are reorganised, and facial expressions are held. The lighting is perfected, wayward hair and clothing are groomed so as not to distract and the camera focus is pin sharp. Caught between cinematic flow and photographic arrest, the film still has a unique pictorial character. It also has a sense of time all its own.

Many of the images gathered here are from 1920s and 30s, when stills were often shot on the largest format available. The eight-by-ten inch camera, always mounted on a tripod, produced negatives of near limitless detail. They were far superior to any blow-up of a 35mm frame of movie footage. Even today individual frames are of low quality. The film grain is coarse and they suffer from motion blur or loss of focus.  The richness and precision of the moving image we see on screen is in part an illusion, conjured by the real time projection. Flashing up, twenty-four frames per second, our visual pleasure derives from a constant tease. Always shifting, always changing, it is forever out of reach. It can never be trapped and held.

The stills photographer can suggest movement but cannot recreate it. The static photograph made on set requires something else. It must satisfy the much more fetishistic desire for fixity. The still photo must hold the stilled gaze.

The images you see here are reproductions – actual size – of original contact prints. The negatives would be placed directly on the photographic paper without enlargement. The result is the richest, most faithful photograph possible. But these pictures were very rarely seen in quite this way. Many were for ‘in-house’ use by the film studios. Others would be reproduced in the popular press as pictures of much poorer quality. Occasionally such prints would have been seen ‘front of house’. Outside the cinema, behind glass, they became tantalising advertisements for the movies.

In the 1920s the silent movie was perfected. The 1930s then saw the introduction of sound. Styles of acting began to change. No longer did physical gestures need to carry everything. A line of spoken dialogue could be enough to energise a scene. The arrival of sound also changed the relation between cinema and the still image. Silent film had a secret affinity with the silence of photographs. Both were mute. Both were voiced by text  – the inter-title, the caption. The ‘talkies’ interrupted that. Just as the arrival of cinema’s movement made photographs look still, the coming of sound emphasised their silence.

In this transition cinema became a truly popular form and a systematic industry. The finest technicians were under contract and the filmic image became a source of beauty, of desire, seduction and spectacle.  The 1920s and 30s were also the time when mass media magazines were dominant. It was here that the film industry and the popular press began their co-dependence.

Magazines carried publicity for the movies – advertisements, portraits, profiles, gossip, previews and reviews. They were also the home of photo-reportage. The crafted film still and reportage might at first strike us as total opposites. After all, cinema had already become an escapist world of fantasy while the subject of reportage was actuality, the real events of the world. But each in its own way had to solve the same two problems: visual clarity and narrative stillness. Film stills achieved it through staging and the use of  large format. Reportage took another route, a picture taking rather than making. It elevated quickness, lightness, mobility and economy of expression. The technical tools were minimal and immersion in the changing world was the key. Motion would be frozen in fleeting frames by solitary photographers working with the Leica camera. First introduced in 1925, it was small, neat and portable. It used the 35mm film that had become standard for the movie industry. Where cinema celebrated movement by recreating it, reportage celebrated by suspending it. Searching for beautiful and symbolic geometry, the photo-reporter would pounce when the world appeared to be organised momentarily as a picture: the ‘decisive moment’. And where the film still staged arrestedness, reportage used fast shutter speeds to freeze it. Both sought to trap fleeting detail and to halt time. And both pursued, as the artist-photographer Jeff Wall put it, ‘the blurred parts of pictures’.

Cinema, photography and the ways they have been understood have changed constantly. But there have been moments when the change has been rapid. For example, in the 1970s the study of cinema was radically transformed. For the first time theorists and academics gained access to Steenbeck viewers. With these tabletop machines movies could be examined in detail – forwards, backwards, sequence by sequence, frame by frame. A good memory for films seen in movie theatres was no longer needed. One could sit alone in a room and ‘possess’ the film. Theorists began to open up the ways that film works on the viewer. They grew almost forensic in their attention to the detail of movies and how we watch them. Serious publications were suddenly filled not with film stills but with grids of actual film frames. Perhaps rightly the staged film still was regarded with suspicion. After all it did not come from the film ‘itself’. It was not strictly speaking a part of the object being studied. So it was disregarded, seen as frivolous, as distracting marginalia.

Today the close analysis of films is open to anyone with a video or DVD player. A movie can be watched as a whole or as a set of bits and pieces – scenes, chapters, freeze frames, alternative edits. To some extent we are all film theorists now. To watch is to analyse. Meanwhile the DVD has given a new life to the film still in the form of ‘picture galleries’ that are frequently included as extras.

The 1970s was also a turning point in the material fate of the film still. Many distribution companies and movie theatre chains dumped great quantities of their photos onto the second hand market. These holdings from long forgotten movies were thought to have little cultural or economic worth. Cut loose from their sources, the glossy prints were left to fend for themselves. Suddenly the photographs and their meanings were up for grabs. New audiences of collectors, film fans, historians and dealers began to scramble for these exotic fragments. With a freshly acquired exchange value the stills were assembled into new collections, with all kinds of archival intention. Some buyers admired the original films from which they came; some liked particular movie stars; some were attracted to the individual styles of particular photographers; some collected by genre, or director, or film studio or period.

Others developed more enigmatic ways to view the film still. They saw in these drifting images more obtuse, less obvious meanings – perhaps a mood, or a feel, an oddness of gesture, a fascinating composition or an unusual situation. There is something intriguing about the gap between the film still and its distant origin. What new sense do we make of an image when we do not know exactly where it has come from? What does it mean if we cannot recognise the film, or the actors, or the genre? What does it mean if the photo barely resembles a movie still at all? The care, the craft, the beauty of the image is robbed of its raison d’etre. It becomes a luxury with no obvious purpose and as a result a new kind of beauty may emerge. In this way the fate of the film still embodies the potential fate of any photograph. Made for one purpose it is easily detached. Outliving its first use it can be reinvented in other times, other places, other cultural moments. The stills assembled here were selected with something of this in mind, as much out of a fascination with photography as with film.

Many artists have been attracted to those chaotic boxes of discarded stills to be found in old bookshops and thrift stores. Three decades ago John Baldessari in the US and John Stezaker in the UK began to work these loose pieces of popular culture into their art. Their experimental collages and juxtapositions were charged with enigmatic, suggestive power. They invented their own ways of seeing, thinking and re-using. To classify his unruly archive Baldessari developed his own A-to-Z . It had little to do with film industry categories. ‘A’ was for for Attack, Animal/Man, Above, Automobiles (left), and Automobiles (right); ‘B’ was for Birds, Building, Below, Barrier, Blood, Bar (man in) Books, Blind, Brew, Betray, Bookending, Bound, Bury, Banal, Bridge, Boat, Birth, Balance, and Bathroom. No stars, no titles, no studios.

Around the same time a revolutionary essay by the writer Roland Barthes appeared in the American magazine Artforum. ‘The Third Meaning: research notes on some Eisenstein stills’ was a kind of revenge upon the power of the moving image. Barthes looked at single frames from movies by the Russian avant-garde filmmaker and found all kinds of new meanings, many of them non-specific and incomplete. Released from the tight grip of motion the arrested frames allowed free rein to the viewer. The eyes and mind could wander and chance upon details beyond the intention of the director or actors. Movement, he felt, ‘tamed’ the image, giving it a tightly defined function. Strip away the movement (and with it the sound, the speech) and we can see that all images are anarchic on some level.

Barthes had used the word ‘photogramme’ in his original French, designating the frame taken from a strip of film. The English term ‘film still’ is of course more ambiguous. It refers both to extracted film frames and to images taken on set with a still camera. While at points they can certainly resemble each other the differences are stark. Each has its own relation to movement, stillness and time. And while the film frame might have a particular enigma, the staged still has its own mysteries.

By the early 1970s photography had found its way into vanguard art as a form of documentation. Live performances, site-specific sculptural works and constructed environments were recorded by the camera. The resulting images occupied that curious space between the artwork and the functional document. This was a phenomenon already established by the film still, although the connections were rarely made at the time.   But by the end of that decade artists’ awareness of the film still did begin to open up new narrative possibilities. Photography was freed from an over-reliance on painting, literature and theatre. Some artists were able to see in the found film still an instruction manual for new forms of storytelling. Others, such as Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall were attracted by its compact power. The pictorial conventions to be found in film stills were rich in association and full of dramatic possibility. No other kind of photograph seemed to imply such a rich world beyond the boundaries of the frame. It could pose so many interesting questions without having to answer them.

This elusiveness could be played with.  Artists constructed imagery that set in motion meanings that could never be fully resolved. No longer confined to ‘posing’ for the camera, figures in art photographs began to ‘act’, or at least pose as if they were acting in isolated scenes. This new art approached ‘narrative’ as an adjective rather than a noun. In other words photographs could be narrative in style without having to be narratives, in the literal sense. Cindy Sherman’s highly influential Untitled Film Stills from the late 1970s were black and white photographs mimicking the look and feel cinema. Her evocative imagery was an endless staging of herself as various female personae from popular and art-house cinema. And for her, the term  ‘film still’ seemed to encompass both the staged photo and the enlarged film frame. Sometimes her camera felt like a stills camera, sometimes it felt like a movie camera.

Art also looked to the film still as a symbol of our fragmentary experience. Modern culture and memory come to us in pieces that are difficult to put together. In the 1970s and 80s Victor Burgin’s allegorical chains of photos and text echoed the suggestive picture/caption conventions typical of movie posters and advertising. By contrast Nan Goldin’s slide work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was an ever-changing sequence of autobiographical images accompanied by a soundtrack of her favourite pop music.

By the 1990s it was clear that just about all art forms were going to have make their peace with a world dominated by the moving image. Once the epitome of speed, photography was now looking decidedly primitive. Its slowness and silence made it attractive in new ways. Yet the allure of movement pervades contemporary art photography.

Until recently much of the photographic art that has engaged with the cinematic has been made on very small budgets. Sherman used thrift store clothing, found locations, a few lights and just herself in front of the camera. Similarly, buying old film stills to re-use them cost next to nothing. But in the last decade the market for art photography has grown beyond expectation. In 1995 a full set of Sherman’s sixty-five Untitled Film Stills sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for a million dollars. For the first time in the history of the medium some contemporary artists have been able to make photographs with budgets more typical of movies. Not since the film stills of the 1920s, 30s and 40s has so much craft, attention and narrative possibility been present in single photographs. The American artist Gregory Crewdson has even recruited Hollywood stars to appear in his spectacular tableaux. Teams of assistants – electricians, props people, make-up people, wardrobe people fuss over the production. The ‘film still without a film’ is now so widespread in photographic art that it has become a genre all its own.

Photography has triumphed in art not by asserting some unique essence but by connecting itself to the widest world of images.  The gallery has become the space to look again at the general field of the photographic, to engage directly or indirectly with a commentary upon the image world at large. Thus the gallery has come to be the host for ‘art versions’ of all the different fields of photography: fashion; the snapshot; the portrait; the medical photograph, the architectural photograph; the passport photo; the archival image; the legal image; kitsch; the topographic image and of course the film still.

The space of art has become either a dissecting table to which social photographs are brought for creative reflection, or as a set upon which they can be reworked. Dissecting table and set: these two metaphors map very well onto what seem to be the two important impulses behind recent photographic art. On the one hand there is the forensic interest in detail – the photograph’s unrivalled but questionable relation to the real. On the other there is the cinematic interest in staging and narrative. Photography in art is somehow obliged to find its relation to visual evidence and to the dominant culture of the moving image. Or both.

From this perspective we can see that the kinds of film still gathered here are the precursors to all this. They have a split character. They float between the forensic and the cinematic. Between fixed evidence and fleeting invention, between the reality of visual fact and the fantasy of contrived fiction. In the film still there is magic in the realism and realism in the magic.

All of this is new and yet not new. In the 1920s Dada artists such as Hannah Höch incorporated film imagery into her subversive collages, along with press photos and adverts. At the same time the Surrealists André Breton and Jacques Vaché would visit the cinemas of Nantes but not to watch whole movies. Whenever boredom took hold or their concentration broke they would simply get up and leave. Slipping out of their seats they would enter another movie house mid-film. For them cinema could be like a daydream. Half controlled, half random, the mind could be set free to wander between disjointed parts. Breton and Vaché became active editors. Viewing became a form of collage, assembling bits and pieces in the mind, on one’s own terms with no regard for origin. To indulge but resist the seduction of narrative was for them a creative and radical intervention.

The story of art in the twentieth century has been played out as a tension between the artwork as fragment and the artwork as unified whole. (Should art show us the disunity of modern life or attempt to piece it together?)  So it is little surprise that the film still has engaged artists in different ways at different times.  However consummate its composition, however assured its realisation, however perfect its technical control, the film still always remains a piece of something else. It is a total image and a partial image at the same time. Full of meaning yet half empty. Fragmentary yet whole.


David Campany, 2005. 

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