CAN YOU NAME?
How many times have we been riveted to the TV screen, watching images of wars, natural disasters, trials, terrorist acts? Who has not in the last days been watching horrific images from Libya and Japan?
Can you name one of the camera operators who produced those images, who often endured terrible hardship and danger? Why not?
The most celebrated maker of moving images of an event in the last half-century (more!) was Abraham Zapruder, a bystander whose brief 8mm movie footage provided a crucial otherwise unobtainable record of a few seconds of the assassination of JFK. If the assassination had taken place in the cell phone era, there would be countless moving images documenting the event. The NYTimes on line is currently calling for submission of cell phone images from the disaster in Japan.
There are many significant issues here. I can’t explore them in great detail here, but I will consider a few of them.
MOVING VS. STILL
There are crucial differences between still photographs and moving images, many very well known.
For at least a generation the moving image has been the dominant record of an event, purely as an event. Compare the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue with the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima. Both were somewhat staged, one by a still photographer, the other by a large group including the camera operator (there was an interesting article in THE NEW YORKER a few months ago about the Hussein statue event.) Both took place in time—the raising of the flag was as much a time event as the falling of the statue.
Rosenthal’s genius was finding the exact instant that would embody that event that took place over time. He created an image that served as an icon for many things—not just that single event. How much is that “genius” worth, as opposed to a moving image of a comparable temporal event?
Most moving images are nowadays given as a “feed” and the producer selects the actual footage (to use the film term) that is broadcast. The producer, not the camera operator, selects where the broadcast shot begins and ends, so one important element of cinematic artistry is denied to the camera operator. This is analogous to the situation where a newspaper would decide how to crop a photograph for publication.
Numerous vintage press photographs found today come complete with cropping markings from the newspaper or magazine. Cartier-Bresson, as part of his successful effort to give the photographer his full credit as an artist, insisted that his photographs not be cropped . Sometimes the moving image can be entirely without temporal boundaries altogether, as the months-long continuous presentation of the oil spewing out of the pipe from the Gulf oil spill.
The TV image (as opposed to the movies) has a relatively nebulous frame border, so the artistic cropping of the frame, so important to the photograph, and emphasized by matting and framing, is diminished. Cropped versions of movies that one can still sometimes see on TV are execrable, but only some movies are cropped, not normal TV imagery.
Nevertheless the moving image has enormous power. Consider this: what if only still images were available on TV?
Think of the recent footage of the raging flooded river in Japan sweeping along cars, boats, houses. A still could not have this same impact.
There is a practice, that I deplore, that started in some film documentaries and now is almost everywhere (such as those Ken Burns documentaries that are so beloved) that, by panning and zooming, converts still photographs into some kind of moving images. This is a desecration of the photograph as well as a weakening of the real power of moving images. (It is the Muzak version of cinema, as is the sickeningly repetitive use of sentimental music that goes along with it, or the blah blah blah voice-over.)
So why is the collection and selling of photographs an industry, while there is no comparable collecting of moving images?
To be sure, there is some collecting of DVD’s s of news material, but this is fading, as CD’s of music are being replaced by computer storage and streaming digital access. Video images of historic events are consumed when the news is current, and if we have need of looking back at them we can find them on the internet. There is not much need to own them.
Collections of DVD’s of films or CD’s of music are analogous to libraries of paperback books (I applaud them), but this is not what bibliophiles and photography collectors are after.
There is little understanding of or need for understanding of the difference between “original” and “copy” for most TV coverage. Any version of the material that is fairly clear counts as a presentation of reality as much as any other. Very few TV viewers are even aware of the person behind the camera. The persona of the commentator assumes authority over the images. Walter Benjamin’s idea that photography would make the “aura” of the unique original artwork no longer have fetish value did not turn out to be true for photographs, but it is true for TV coverage.
Nobody has successfully figured out how to make moving images into a collectable commodity on the level with photographs or other cultural artifacts.
There has been a concentrated effort to promote the value of the actual original photograph. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, most people who looked at the photographs in LIFE Magazine and other illustrated magazines thought of them as valid photographs. They found them fully satisfying as such, and to a great extent this continues to this day in the many publications that present photographic images for news, fashion, sports, erotic titillation, travel, advertising. Most people happily “consume” these images and have no desire to collect vintage original photographs or later copies made for the art-collecting market.
But there are collectors, and an industry has evolved that valorizes and promotes such collecting. I am part of that industry, and think it serves an important cultural purpose. But like any industry it also fosters personal and corporate gain. My questioning about why there is not a related industry devoted to the collecting of the moving image is connected to aesthetic issues pertaining to photography itself.
I think it’s important to constantly question the value of the creative aesthetic effort behind a photograph. To me, putting the camera in front of a person or event does not always constitute a great achievement. It is sometimes the lucky break of just having been there, or a clever idea. Simple cleverness or opportunism can be rewarded in many fields, but should not be in art.
Think of how many “talking heads” we see on TV– standard, boring shots, lit and composed according to formula. They are rightly not prized as creative artworks. What about the numerous portraits we see in the history of photography? I think it should be our effort, as collectors, to try to assess the creative achievement of the photograph.
Some photographs are very important just as records of events or images of people, and we should value them as such. But this should not be confused with photographs that offer something else, having to do with the vision of the photographer.
Collectors should endeavor to understand whether they are collecting photographs primarily because of the subject, or because of the artistry. There are of course many photographs that are artistic and documentary at the same time. Be-hold treasures those photographs. There should be a constant endeavor to question each image as to its aesthetic merit, if that is what you are after. This is even the case with photographs by famous photographers as well as relatively unknown ones.
A great collection is the work of the “eye” of the collector as well as of the photographer.