Thursday, March 13, 2008

Photographers in Film and Literature

I've been thinking about the role of the photographer in literature and on film.

Portrayals of photographic artists can tell us so much about how we approach the literary or filmic artist’s work of representing reality. Ideological viewpoints, national and local identities, and the boundaries of otherness uniquely manifest in those characters responsible for recording the world around them. By following this recurrent character in literature and film, we can begin to understand what counts as realism, what serves as memory, and what is recorded as history during the 155 years from the first fictional photographer, Holgrave, in Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables (1853) to today.

In “Hiawatha’s Photographing,” Lewis Carroll, 1857, describes the process in a poem which opens:
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.

This he perched upon a tripod -
Crouched beneath its dusky cover -
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence -
Said "Be motionless, I beg you!"
Mystic, awful was the process.

That's a photo of Alice of the Wonderland fame by Lewis Carroll. (1858)

Before the movies stole the spotlight with extraordinary photographic characters (we'll get to them later) there was the stage. Two plots, entirely dissimilar, involve photographic evidence: The Octoroon, a melodrama by Dion Boucicault, 1859 and The Wild Duck, Henrik Ibsen, 1884. In "The Octoroon," the playwright speeds the plot along (I guess collodion glass plates were just too tedious for 19th century audiences!) by inventing Polaroid a full 88 years before Edwin Land introduced the process in 1947 (and, sigh, 150 years before it's possible demise in late 2008).

Scud. Just turn your face a leetle this way--fix your--let's see--look here.

Dora. So?

Scud. That's right. (Puts his head under the darkening apron. ) It's such a long time since I did this sort of thing, and this old machine has got so dirty and stiff, I'm afraid it won't operate. That's about right. Now don't stir.

Paul. Ugh! she looks as though she war gwine to have a tooth drawed!

Scud. I've got four plates ready, in case we miss the first shot. One of them is prepared with a self-developing liquid that I've invented. I hope it will turn out better than most of my notions. Now fix yourself. Are you ready?

Dora. Ready!

Scud. Fire!--One, two, three.

Women photographers have a complex literary history of their own: as conventional romantic objects of the narrative gaze, but armed with cameras, pointed at history. In W.E.B. Du Bois's 1919 short story, "The Comet," included in the collection Darkwater, the two last people on earth in this almost-romance are a black man from Harlem and a woman from the Upper East Side, who stops by her place to develop a roll. In Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984, the diffident Tereza is a dissident photojournalist. In a very watchable version of Hamlet, set in NYC circa 2000, Ophelia, played by Julia Stiles, has a darkroom/studio on the Lower East Side; she carries Polaroids instead of flowers. Here's a clip montage:

And can we forget Julia Roberts shooting Natalie Portman (with the wrong lens and format) in her Avedon-esque studio in Closer? Or Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus in Fur? Clearly, shooting medium format provides the women in the movies with an expressive opportunity that complicates a Hollywood tragedy, or even a Shakespearian one.

Two recent articles bring up the popular figure of the photographer in the movies. In the most recent Aperture, David Campany's "From Ecstasy to Agony: The Fashion Shoot in Cinema" considers the portrayal of the fashion photographer in films, from Funny Face to Blow Up, while this month's American Photo has a tribute list of photography in the movies. I'll close for now with my top-five list of (male) photographers in the movies:

Blow Up
City of God
Rear Window
Funny Face

I'm off to watch The Wire (check it: B'more police use 35mm film) and Rear Window as "research:" photography as surveillance.

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