Age of the Image : Series 1, Episode 1

I recently watched Age of the Image, a BBC4 documentary on the history of images and how they are used up until present day. I really enjoyed this series even if it did try to pack a whole lot of information into each episode.

Episode 1. A New Reality starts by exploring artists’ obsession with representing time in images. This varied in application in mediums like painting, cinematography and photography. Painting compressed time into one moment with the still life by Paul Cézanne: ‘Cézanne had seen even in this, in the stillest thing he could think of, a world in perpetual motion.’ (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 1, 2020, 00:04:34-00:04:41). Cinematography is described as being ‘the seventh art, and the only one that truly united space and time’ (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 1, 2020, 00:08:10-00:08:15).

Fig. 1 © Jacques Henri Lartigue - ‘Yvonne, Koko and Bibi’ (1924)
Fig. 1 © Jacques Henri Lartigue – ‘Yvonne, Koko and Bibi’ (1924)

Photography has a peculiar relation to time in that it freezes time in an instant. If used skilfully like with Jacques Henri Lartigue’s oeuvre described in Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 1 (2020), time, like the object depicted, can appear to be suspended at a moment just before something is about to happen. This made me think about how the two mediums: cinematography and photography differ. Unlike cinematography where there are multiple moments making up a narrative, because photography is picking just one moment it makes the medium potentially more precious as the moments (especially traditionally with film photography) are standalone. Of course it is possible to build up a photo essay but these tend to be more fragmentary than cinematography’s multiple frames per second and tell the story differently. For me only certain single-image narrative photographs exhibit this suspension of time; it requires movement frozen by the camera not obvious to the naked eye. So moving people tend to be good subjects for depicting time in a photograph.

I looked again at my images for my Body of Work and without people, there wouldn’t be much sign of time within my single photographs, discounting trains. I suppose there is the juxtaposition of old and new in many of the compositions but the people add vitality and, by extension through their momentarily stopped motion, a sense of time to the images. The people in my images are frozen, usually mid-step, which adds to the images’ illusion of time being inert. However, in my opinion the composite approach to my images (that people were present at the locations but at different times) makes the images somewhere in between a painting and a photograph. The images resemble traditional photographs but have been digitally altered to condense time to create a more cohesive and ordered picture of Deptford. This does raise questions of ethics because it could be seen I am misconstruing the identity of a place by altering time within the image. I feel though my intentions are artistic and only influence the meaning of the images in a way that isn’t damaging to the sense of place. Therefore, as long as I don’t present my images in a photojournalistic context I believe they subjectively portray, along with the poems, my feelings for Deptford.

Anyway, I digress! Lartigue’s photographs are precious in terms of their freezing of time (and his ability to make many of them possess charm). It also raised for me the topic of charm and time in the history of photography. It seems to me photographs in the 19th and 20th century tend to have more charm. This is in my eyes caused by three factors. Firstly the process of making photographs in this days was much slower with analogue photography and not being able to review the photos straight away made the photographer generally more careful when making the frame. Secondly, there is a proliferation of images today: ‘we now take more photographs every minute than were made in the entire 19th century’ (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 1, 2020 00:00:57-00:01:03). I feel there is a kind of charm to looking at archives of photography from history as opposed to the ubiquity of photographs and the throwaway culture of today. Thirdly, it allows for a window into a past world; one that has since changed irrevocably.

War photographs from the archives don’t possess charm because of their nature. As wells this, Frank Hurley, who was a fearless Australian photographer, found it hard to document photographs of war actually taking place and so turned to other methods for recording the impact of war in pictures (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 1, 2020, 00:26:17-00:26:25). Hurley started employing composites (multiple images overlaid) to depict a more dynamic, action-packed vision of war (See Fig. 2). Hurley’s technique altered the realities of photographing war and in the process brings into question the legitimacy of composite photography. I would say the way Hurley implemented composites was quite clever but also extreme in that it changed the authenticity of documenting war which is obviously a serious subject.

Fig. 2 © Frank Hurley/National Library of Australia - ‘The Raid’ (1917)
Fig. 2 © Frank Hurley/National Library of Australia – ‘The Raid’ (1917)

However, for Hurley, ’this was a lie that told a bigger truth: about the drama and tragedy of war’ (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 1, 2020, 00:28:18-00:28:25). I would tend to agree with this statement; that while Hurley’s composites do distort the truth, it’s not in a malicious manner. Instead they aim to dramatise a subject in which it is hard to capture in order to convey the damage and scale of that war. I would argue though that it matters which context the composites appear in. By appearing in a photojournalistic context and without a statement to infer they are composites for the viewer, they are passable as accurate documents of war.

An Example of a Composite Image for My Body of Work
An Example of a Composite Image for My Body of Work

Hurley’s composites are a more extreme manipulation of photographs than my composites for Body of Work and are made from analogue negatives rather than digital files. Also they tamper with both space and time, where mine only conflate time. Nevertheless, there are parallels in that they are both composites which change the timing of things appearing in the eventual image. In terms of composites affecting ethics, I feel intention (what the photographer aims to achieve with the images) and context (where the image appears) are the main factors. With my composites I am comfortable they aim to retain a sense of Deptford and its people and that they appear in an artistic context.

Buster Keaton’s film Sherlock Jr (1924) is described and analysed in Age of the Image (Series 1, episode 1, 2020). I found this part of the episode clever and intriguing so I found the film and watched its entirety myself. I was surprised to find how imaginative the film was. For its age it also possessed many modern twists (like Keaton entering the cinema) and I am glad I watched the whole film.

While there was much detail to digest, I still found the first episode of Age of the Image highly enjoyable. I feel it has been useful comparing my composites produced for Body of Work with the work of Frank Hurley. Also seeing how my work fits in amongst other mediums like painting and cinematography has been rewarding.

References:

Fig. 1 Lartigue, J.H. (1924) Yvonne, Koko and Bibi. [Photograph] At: http://www.atgetphotography.com/Images/Photos/Lartigue/lartigue_64.jpg (Accessed 10/06/2020).

Fig. 2 Hurley, F. (1917) The Raid. [Composite] At: https://www.insidehook.com/article/art/world-war-one-photos-frank-hurley (Accessed 10/06/2020).

Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 1 (2020) [Television programme] BBC iPlayer 02/03/2020. At: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000fzm9/age-of-the-image-series-1-1-a-new-reality (Accessed 04/06/2020).

Sherlock Jr (1924) Directed by Keaton, B. [Amazon Prime Video] At: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/video/detail/B07KXV16T7/ref=atv_3p_bfi_c_7bpyfz_brws_8_9 (Accessed 10/06/2020).

4 thoughts on “Age of the Image : Series 1, Episode 1

  1. On my watchlist, but my kids have banned all things arty from family viewing time. Must watch alone on iPlayer! I’ve been thinking about composites a little too. I think they help us escape the ‘tyranny of linear perspective’ and help us understand what happens to space across time, which is unobservable as we go about our business. Composites can bring the gift of time travel!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s well worth a watch, that is if you can find time away to watch arty programmes! I agree that composites function in a different way to traditional photographs. I think the unobservable is a very interesting part of life which composites can help highlight.

      Like

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