Why the Still Image is Still Vital

I was going to say, “Why the still image is still relevant” but that’s already a conceit: it’s merely not irrelevant. What I’m talking about might be most evident in photography, say, when you compare it to watching an artsy 70’s film with lingering shots that work as portraits, and it’s one beautiful image after another, presented seamlessly, for the duration of a couple hours. Why, a single still excerpted from the film might trounce an anonymous photographer’s best snap. There’s the doubt in the photographer or painter’s mind (if the painter is a realist, anyway) that this criticism might be true, that a single image can never compete with millions of combined images that move, with sound, and are projected on a movie screen.

But, my God, when I saw the latest Star Trek, in 3D no less, at the local theater here in Siem Reap, my eye was never allowed to linger on anything. Apparently, the good people who made the Fast and Furious franchise got involved with Star Trek and made it unwatchable. Your eye doesn’t move around the scene, but rather a quick succession of scenes is projected on your retina like a strobe light. I found I didn’t have the requisite critical lack of attention span to process a constant barrage of visual action. The eye could never rest, never settle down on anything, never move along the contour of someone’s face, never stop and relish what it sees. You never get to really navigate through the movie, visually, but instead your eyeball is bounced around like a seeing super ball, and all navigation (far too much and too fast) is done for you. When I caught onto this I started counting how long the camera would linger on a single scene. The people could move, but the camera angle had to stay relatively still. I never counted beyond 3. Within every 3 seconds you got bounced to another viewpoint (the hundred and thirtieth explosion?); got jerked from visage to visage during unwitty banter; were never allowed to move your own eyes where they wanted to go. No image would be savored or digested. It’s the gustatory equivalent of having your food pumped into you through a tube.

Watching the full movie isn’t much different from the experience of watching an extended version of the trailer. Behold:

Star Trek is now an action movie with gratuitous motorcycle racing and stunts in it.

With a still image the impact is immediate. You don’t get it all immediately, and to think you do so is worse than speed reading poetry, but, the artist has laid all her or his cards on the table, face up, and your eye moves around from metaphoric card to card, or you take in the whole impression… The composition may be a satisfying geometry, pattern, arrangement of form. It doesn’t move around your eye like a swarm of bees attacking your head, but your eye moves around it, a bit like a jumping spider, crawling, lingering, pouncing.

The image is curiously outside of time and language. It doesn’t matter if the artist or the audience is Chinese and not bilingual. I do take some satisfaction in knowing that anyone can look at my art, and there’s no need for translation. There’s no rational argument to unfold in sentences, in time. All that is skirted around. Everything is already there, instantly, and you are allowed to explore, engage, and savor. Meaning manifests itself in a non linear (as in non-sequential, not absence of lines, which would exclude Mondrian) fashion, and even outside or independent of the purely rational intellect.

Christ in the Garden of Olives, Paul Gauguin, 1889.

In the painting by Gauguin, above, notice how your eye follows the strokes, the forms, the lines, returns to the unusual red of his hair, snakes up the branches, rests in the aquamarine paint.

With a still image you have a manifestation of human intelligence and imagination that is outside of  the tenacity linguistic structures and foregone conclusions writ in sentences. This makes it a unique kind of expression with the capacity to convey understanding that other mediums cannot. This is always vital, or at least potentially so. Depending on your disposition, it may appeal to you more or less than other art forms, but no significant art form encapsulates or replaces another. To believe that moving images are superior to a still image is to make the mistake of the latest Star Trek which prevents thinking and looking by doing it all for you.

Francis Bacon, Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968

In the dual portrait above, by Francis Bacon, our eyes get drawn along the two hanging chords, which direct us to the head of the sitter in the chair. Eventually we settle on the ashtray on the floor and the scattered cigarette buts. we notice the texture of the rug on the floor. The second portrait in the background – the painting within the painting – is pinned back with painted nails, which are also angled lines directing our gaze. There’s the wonderful, abstracted, flat green shadow behind the sitter’s head, and the implied action of the flung white paint integrated into the knee and driving down the leg.

I’m reminded of when I traveled in Myanmar/Burma around a decade ago, and I had a guide for part of my stay who would tell me what to take pictures of. I need to think, explore, and investigate for myself, at my own pace, and sometimes it needs to be good and slow. When hiking, for example,  you might not see many animals (except scurrying away), but if you sit and take a rest, quietly, they come out around you and you can witness their behavior.

And so, when you are presented with a still image, everything is already there, you don’t need to think and come to conclusions so much, but you need to wait and absorb, not being passively bombarded with multiple images, but actively looking at one. 20th century art criticism/theory and practice tried to eliminate the still image as at hing to be actively looked at. This was seen as a radical leap forward in philosophy, but ultimately just offered us other kinds of art (which IS a good thing) while sewing our eyes shut.

Looking isn’t going anywhere, and the visual imagination can’t be squelched indefinitely. Some contemporary artists are returning to the still image with a vengeance, and, if need be, can make a case for what  they are doing.

Ecstatic Communion, by me.

~ Ends


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