Monday, January 25, 2010

film stills

The film still, considered photographically, has been under the wire as a primary document, a thing without interest in itself, its meaning generated only in consideration of its subject.

In terms of production in Hollywood it was an integral part of the industry. Stills would be used for publicity & continuity. Classic Hollywood stills were produced throughout productions, with the hyperreal optics of a large format camera. Key scenes would be re-staged for the camera. In such a visual theater the exact perimeters of a drama were made evident, formed into a visual icon.

There have been some great collections of film stills. My 2 favorites have been the Marvin Heiferman/Diane Keaton collaboration Still Life, & the John Divola project, Continuity. Subsequently there have been great collections of silent film stills in lavish editions from Twelvetrees Press & Steidl. One could relate these collections as well to books such as Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon I & II, although the Anger books are much more iconoclastic in their devotions to the shadows of the silver screen.

The film still is a curious document. For narrative films it is a document of a fiction. In classic Hollywood tradition it is the delineation of the drama is at its most concentrated. How a narrative would transmute to an image, at its apogee.

The Heiferman/Keaton Still Life was published in the heyday of black-&-white artistic photography, when the images included were at their most suspect in terms of integrity: artificial, staged, commercial, unreal - yet resonant with ideologies, in fact very clear about values & positions, & likewise, strange, in their all too quick obsolescence as a consumable object. The paradoxes of a photograph in a media based society, with its limited shelf-life & yet its ubiquity, presented themselves in glorious technicolor. From Jane Russell to Lassie.

Along with the classic industrialized Hollywood still, there has been its avant-garde shadow, in innumerable images of various louche productions. Disparate productions that come to mind are the Jack Smith book The Beautiful Book, & the various images by the cinematographer Babette Mangolte, which include work by Richard Foreman & Chantal Ackerman, among others. The Metropolitan Museum has collected photos taken of various performances in the 1960s, such as by Claes Oldenburg & Red Grooms - another example of "primary documents" entering the field of fine art as a collectible. Among filmmakers, I would cite the film stills of Ulrike Ottinger, which, more than most, replicate the high production standards of a classic Hollywood studio, & which also surpass any studio in creating images that could exist independently of any project.

Such a lop-sided juncture of fiction & document has always inspired me. I don't collect stills, the way I do stereocards or cartes-de-visite, but among my treasures are:

Dennis Hopper in Nightide

a collaged image from Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome

Harry Baer in Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King

Candy Darling in The Death of Maria Malibran

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