A photograph, a ‘shot’ Bang, dead.
The photograph and death – that well-worn metaphor.
Memento Mori, death mask, or the ‘having been’ as Barthes would say.
We know how to ‘think’ photography and death. But is there room to talk about the animate photograph or the photographic life force? Perhaps even photographic vitality?
We could entertain the subject for a while at least. Eschew the morbidity for a few paragraph.
To move past death we must first push against the notion that a photograph is an exclusively static thing. Yes, the photograph depicts arrested movement. A scene or object that was once moving finds its mirror image preserved motionless in the photograph – frozen and inert, banished from the hard slog of sequential temporality. Sure, that ‘thing’ we see depicted in the image is out cold and comatose. But what about the image itself? The photograph?
© Isobel Parker Philip, ‘Static I’, 2013
Those who define the photograph as a static and unchanging image prioritize the instant in which the photograph is taken, when the shards of reflected light are thrown onto the strip of celluloid or the digital sensor. That ‘decisive moment’. Yet, surely that’s somewhat reductive? There are other (subtle – yet no less crucial) moments in the course of photographic genesis. It’s not all in the ‘take’ or the shot. There’s always fallout.
Before we can talk about photographic genesis, we must specify which type of photographic process we are dealing with. Analogue or digital – the two work very differently. Let’s start with the analogue photograph (surely it’s earned that privilege).
Bear with me while I survey some very basic (and probably familiar) territory – it’s best to start at the beginning
When the shutter opens in an analogue camera, the light reflected off the subject exposes the strip of film. Once the film is developed, laced with sequences of inverted and reversed images, it is taken into the darkroom to produce individual prints. It is here that the evolutionary narrative of the photographic process takes flight. Beyond the instant of the ‘take’, the photograph is still mutable and volatile. It is not yet ‘fixed’ (if indeed, it ever is).
© Isobel Parker Philip, ‘Satic II’, 2013
In the darkroom, the photograph moves through three different states of being. The three distinct phases that the photograph passes through correspond to the three basic states of matter: solid, liquid and gas.
To produce a photographic print, the film negative is placed within an enlarger. Light is projected through the negative and onto light sensitive paper. As the projected image is singed onto the undeveloped paper, the photograph exists as free-floating photons of light. It is gaseous and non-concrete: it hovers untethered.
The exposed paper is then submerged in trays of liquid chemicals so it can be developed. It is only then that the image begins to solidify. Yet this is not an immediate transformation. The solid image does not materialize instantaneously but slowly seeps into existence. This image, the image in the process of emerging, is a liquid image. It is an intermediary between the gaseous and the solid photograph. A metamorphosis caught mid-way.
Each of these transformations occur during the formative stages of a photograph’s life. But what happens after that? Are these irruptions of dynamism and plasticity short-lived? Are they the final throes of animacy before rigor mortis sets in?
Does the photograph’s evolution end here?
A photograph is, by its very nature, fragile and unstable. While it allows the images of objects and people to (often) outlive their referents, the photograph itself is not immortal. It is prey to the entropic pull of time. The image degenerates. Sometimes the deterioration is almost imperceptible. Quite often it is devastating.
Photographic atrophy is more severe than the rudimentary marks or stains more durable objects accrue over time. The image itself decays. Exposed to too much ambient light, it fades and withdraws from view.
© Isobel Parker Philip, ‘Static III’, 2013
The slow erasure of the image is another movement. No matter how slight or gradual, the disintegration of the image perverts the notion of stasis. The photograph isn’t fixed or stable – it is entangled in a permanent state of flux. And we aren’t simply talking about the photographic print. Negatives degenerate too.
Where does this leave us? What can we do with the mutability and micro-movements of the photograph – with the transition from emergence to erasure that contaminates stillness?
Perhaps it allows us to broaden our symbolic vocabulary and entertain new metaphors.
What about: ‘the photograph as a non-organic cell’
Like a cell, the photograph is a malleable, singular and contained form. Both a cell and a photograph are perishable and impermanent. In both, the slip into decay is not obviously demarcated. Life breeds decay. The cell is never static but is enmeshed in a perpetual state of development and destruction. The photograph is the same. Never static but held in a state of constant (yet imperceptible) motion within which it pulses and mutates with an almost (but not quite) biological intensity.
According to this metaphor, the photograph is larval, embryonic even.
Can we describe the digital image in the same terms? Is it also mutable and embryonic? Or is the latent dynamism facilitated by the analogue process under threat from technological obsolescence?
Sure, a digital print can fade – but the file lives on.
In moving into the digital we sacrifice the fragility of the film image and that quiet dance between the image in its gaseous, liquid and solid states that occurs in the darkroom. Is the photograph’s delicate life force surrendered too?
© Isobel Parker Philip, ‘Static IV’, 2013
Certainly the ability to extend a photograph’s life expectancy and introduce safeguards against degradation is a welcome technological advancement, yet there remains something quietly seductive about impermanence. It is not necessarily the death drive (that old metaphor again) that is so alluring, but the flicker of life it substantiates.
Not the fade but its impending threat.
I’m not trying to sound morose. This is not a prophetic death knell to mark the end of the analogue image, nor a condemnation of the digital. There is potential vitality in the digital image, it simply manifests differently. But that’s another story. Here we are merely trying to make sense of the space between the two.
The images interspersed throughout this text navigate the rupture between the analogue and the digital.
They are digital photographs of light projected through segments of pre-existing (pre-exposed, pre-developed) 35mm negatives. Photographs of photographs. Spilling onto distorted surfaces, the projected images warp and contort. The analogue is enshrined in the digital.
That non-organic cell is embalmed. Submerged in pool of pixels.
animate / inanimate: kinetic inertia
Originally published in Issue two of Try Hard Magazine