Seeing The Scene


Why do we bother to refer to certain photographs as "still" pictures when the individual picture is by definition a stationary object?


I.

For me and my contemporaries as young persons, television, more than any other single thing, framed the way photography entered our regular lives. What we understood, without need for explanation, was that a camera saw things and that something "remembered" what it saw long enough to show it to us at a different time.


We didn't need to know how it did the remembering or the showing; it was reliable. In effect, the images themselves streamed by as the skin of flowing narratives, our expectations originally constrained by the way we already understood the use of time and speed from radio, but we very quickly adjusted to how tv time compared to real-life time.


Otherwise, the two most important phenomena in the life of our viewing were known as "Repeats" (we got to see the same show again) and "Pause" (we got to freeze the flow of images in its tracks).


Magazines, showing pictures, were still plentiful, but they mainly belonged to the previous generation -- and except for the construct of "essays" the function of photography in them was mainly illustration. And in photo illustration, what was mainly dominant was advertising, the strategic promotion of imagined narratives.


For the most part, tv also used pictures to illustrate imagined narratives, only more explicitly, while making the same experience gotten with films suddenly available and personal at far less travel and cost.


But along with advertising, the formative force on how we learned to see "still" photographs, and the most important force both then and for 10 years more into our adulthood, was comic books.


II.

Comic books made it entirely explicit that images were created from scratch, formatted, sequenced, and most of all individually functional. No frame in a good comic was gratuitous; it specifically included or excluded things that needed to serve a single purpose at the point where the frame was used. It taught us what jobs "still" pictures -- and therefore still photographs -- could have, and how they do their jobs.


About those jobs: the aesthetic of the "still" photograph has two faces. Like a single frame in a comic strip, the still image either implies conditions or it distills them.


With implication, it points outward to the conditions that give it meaning. It may be transitory, pointing both at where it came from and where it is going. What that means is that the image is depending on a context to guide how it gets interpreted.


With distillation, it defines a condition in a way that has meaning. It orchestrates or models its visible subject; it decides what ingredients or parts are in the formula that equals what we think the subject must be. In that way, it doesn't point outward to something not in the picture, rather, it points inside itself to that something.


But what are these "conditions"?


Broadly speaking, they are either ideas about experiences or they are experiences of ideas.


A given image can present either, or both, of those conditions. And, it doesn't matter whether the conditions are imaginary or actual. Finally, while there are those two different faces of the aesthetic, they can appear concurrently as the character of a single given image.

Living Room

III.

And what about our assumptions, as predisposed by how we think an image was produced? Was it successfully built (grown) or was it successfully found (caught)?


This difference is neither fully factual nor fully artificial. For example, invention is very much about discovering something by building it. And documentation is very much about "capturing" elements that make what is seen distinctive (that is, identified as something specific).


A still photograph can easily be the result of an unplanned "dialogue" between invention and documentation. Simply put, the two modes contribute together to the outcome, as technique. Like guiding a car at high speed through a tight curve in the road, the trick requires multiple different influences simultaneously: the steering, the gearing, the brakes and the accelerator. Success is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.



IV.

When we say "still" picture, the value in saying it is that it represents appreciation -- our appreciation of how that static image contains and performs the harmonizing of multiple influences that create a reference to ideas and experiences, imagined or actual, whether inside or outside of the scene. The ability of the image to give us the conscious sense of witnessing its own performance is frankly fundamental to its status as successful work.


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