#38 ‘TROUBLE WITH TROPES’ BY FRANCIS HODGSON

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Goalkeeper, Brindley Road 1956, by Roger Mayne

A long time ago I wrote a book about goalkeeping. I tried to persuade the publisher to put on the cover one of the number of Roger Mayne’s street pictures which so eloquently describes the business of keeping goal in games of street football. The publisher refused, saying that something more like the commercial experience of watching sport in a stadium would sell more copies, but still allowed me to put one of Mayne’s on the back cover of the hardback issue [1].

Mayne’s pictures would fall comfortably into a number of the categorisations of photography. They are street photographs, documentary photographs, sports photographs, photographs of childhood… . They have historical interest, social interest, a certain ethnographic or anthropological quality. If one were keywording for a picture library, they would also be filed by the superficial descriptions of the people within them, street names and the wider district, the date, perhaps the type of camera or film used. These overlapping descriptions would place them in a context of other pictures, more or less similar, more or less connected. We are used to this kind of external classification of photographs and use versions of it all the time. That’s how we search on Google, order our hard drives, label archives. It’s completely standard and while individual classifiers don’t always agree, the system itself is beyond question, like the Dewey decimal system for libraries or the SI units.

People write of ‘tropes’ in photography and that seems an extension of the same filing system.  The tropes are external categorisations of pictures, even where they are expected (or analysed) to have an internal, emotional effect. So, for a single example from something I was reading recently in another context, Marta Zarzycka discusses the functioning of visual tropes in regard to a particular picture by Samuel Aranda which won the World Press Photo Picture of the Year award in 2011 [2] . The picture conforms to a pietà-like pattern of a grieving or mourning mother holding a son and Zarzycka follows the general usage of the phrase when she writes that “Aranda’s image thus exemplifies the fact that photographic tropes, circulated as evidence of a common perspective or ideal shared by many, may force certain associations and prohibit others, neutralising the local and the particular into the global.”

Since the trope is sometimes used to describe very broad patterns and sometimes very small ones, I often wonder whether it isn’t a word that might better be replaced by different ones according to the context. Trope sometimes means no more than a shared subject of a number of pictures, sometimes a ‘type’ of picture and sometimes a manner of photographing. It is even sometimes used interchangeably with the word ‘cliché.’  But a word which can be used equally in phrases like “the visual trope of the white UN Land Rover” [3] , and “She  [Dorothea Lange] photographed African Americans with the same visual tropes she used with whites, representing them as equally hardy salt-of-the-earth farmers – part of the American yeomanry [4] ”,  is maybe not isolating a specific phenomenon with any great clarity.

But even if we can arrive at clear language to use, I find myself thinking that this isn’t the way we store photographs in memory and access them for use.

I believe that in addition to a substantial vocabulary of remembered photographs, filed somehow and accessible by their relevant file-tags, most of us also hold within our minds an architecture of access to those photographs which is the reverse of that familiar external system of classification.

There is no difficulty in the more usual system. If I need to recall a picture, say, of great achievement against long odds, I can effortlessly search my mental filing cabinets and come up with Sherpa Tenzing on top of Everest [5], or one of the versions of Khaldei’s view of the Russian soldier on the Reichstag [6].

But that’s reducing photography, as it has so often been reduced in the past, to its role as illustrating tool. I think it’s much more. I think we actually think in photographs. At least some of the time, the tropes are not types or patterns of photographs so much as types or patterns of thoughts that we hold in photographs.

I was, in the past, a goalkeeper. That’s why I wanted to write about it. I was not necessarily at all good as a goalkeeper, but I was sufficiently committed to think like one. I still get into trouble at football matches for applauding the ‘other’ goalkeeper when I see a fine stop, even when all those near me are hoping to see a goal. I admire the athleticism and judgment of goalkeepers, their individuality. I have learnt to some extent to live by the negative scoring whereby a goalkeeper who does something of fearsome difficulty and skill has nothing at all to show for it on the score-sheet and can have it instantly wiped out. I acknowledge the whole complex of this peculiar sport within a sport. As a result, there are large numbers of situations which have nothing to do with goalkeeping that I understand in the terms derived from it. Got to drive a sick child to hospital? Want to make a ticklish presentation to a difficult audience? You’re briefly a goalkeeper, and anything less than utter success is total failure. Member of a group, but not conformable to it? Goalkeeper.

But I don’t think of these things in terms of the words I’ve just written. I certainly don’t think of goalkeeping as furnishing a kind of super-metaphor for many circumstances. I think more in terms of a lexicon of pictures which add up to the metaphorical place that goalkeeping holds in my head. At the centre of that lexicon will be actual pictures of the business itself: Gerry Cranham’s astonishing study of Tottenham goalkeeper John Hollowbread leaping all alone in the murk at White Hart Lane in 1964, Munkacsi’s various studies, the Roger Mayne series.  A circle beyond those would be images that help me articulate my view that the world is understandable in goalkeeping terms. These would include studies of movement and grace, but also of despair and disappointment, self-possession, reliability, calculation, membership of a particular subculture, and so on. There is, in another words, not so much a trope of goalkeeping pictures in my head.  There is a trope about goalkeeping which governs a certain amount of my thought and can be expressed in pictures.

The point is that I don’t think I’m alone in this. The great difference in Barthes’ formulation of the studium and the punctum, after all, is that the studium is really public and the punctum is really private. We see a picture clearly on a subject or depicting a scene. But we react to it sometimes for reasons which the photographer could not have predicted, often encapsulated in a detail which means something to nobody but ourselves. The public subject and manner of the image, and its membership of a public type of similar images, are given meaning by the private framework into which it lands.

I find some version of this in many different places. David Bate, for example, blends to great effect his personal associations with the public ones in a discussion of Fox Talbot’s 1844 picture of the construction of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square and its effects upon him as a viewer [7]. In effect he’s describing the insertion of the Fox Talbot image into a pre-existing complex of ideas of his own, and that I think is exactly what happens. To take another and much more elaborate example, David Campany’s A Handful of Dust [8] is both a brilliantly exciting and unexpected collection of pictures which could only possibly be connected by that one individual through his own private resources; and at the same time a pleasing ballade through some of the best-known and most-discussed theoretical positions in twentieth-century photography. It would be grotesque to look for the entire intellectual contents of Campany’s magisterial exhibition and book in a glossary under the index-word ‘dust’. Yet the process that Campany put himself through – of identifying a host of unmatched thoughts and experiences, many of them wholly personal, then ‘fitting’ them to the more public history and ontology of photography – is in effect the indexing of that section of the contents of his mind. The whole rich mess of ideas which I think of as the trope became, under his careful self-scrutiny, catalogued under ‘dust’ as its cipher.

Campany chose to open A Handful of Dust with this epigraph from W.G. Sebald: “A photograph is like something lying on the floor and accumulating dust, you know, where these clumps of dust get caught, and it steadily becomes a bigger ball.  Eventually you can pull out strings. That’s roughly how it is.”

So I’m complaining here that the word trope is sufficiently imprecisely used to mean not very much in photography (or at least to demand care in its handling), and yet I am adding in the same few lines still another meaning to the bundle. That’s absurd. As I wrote further up, I think that a trope is in effect the complex architecture of access to thoughts that individuals hold in memory in pictorial form. It is rarely articulated in words precisely because those words tend to make supple and fluid globs of feeling and memory rather more rigid. To thoroughly articulate a trope in words is to make the effort that Campany made in A Handful of Dust, impractical for most conventional references to the pictures in one’s head, even if not beyond the abilities of most. It’s like the phenomenon of the mental caption: when one can reduce a photograph to a single one-liner, a caption in mind, it becomes increasingly hard to remember the detail of the picture, since it is so much easier to file words in one’s head than pictures. Without a caption, we’re forced to keep the picture ‘live’ in memory, subject to re-evaluation and under constant challenge from the other ideas and pictures it comes up against. So the tropes that make up so much of our visual lexicon of the world. They exist. All of us have a number of them. Yet the minute they are indexed into clumsy single words, they lose their lovely flexibility and strength, and become planks or bricks – useful enough, but necessitating accumulation along predictable angles and lines.

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1 Hodgson, F., Only the Goalkeeper to Beat, Macmillan, 1998.

2 Zarzycka, Marta, The World Press Photo contest and visual tropes, Photographies Vol. 6, Issue 1, 2013.

3 Smirl, L., Building the other, constructing ourselves: spatial dimensions of international humanitarian response. International Political Sociology, 2(3), 2008.

Gordon, Linda, Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Agricultural Sociologist. Journal of American History vol. 93, issue 3, 2006.

The picture, by Sir Edmund Hillary, is credited to the Royal Geographic Society.

6 I discussed this picture a little once for Bonhams magazine: Bonhams Magazine, Issue 41, Winter 2014, Page 38.  Many other scholars have discussed it at greater length.

7 Bate, David, The Memory of Photography, Photographies, vol. 3, Issue 2, 2010.

8 Campany, David, A Handful of Dust, MACK/Le Bal, Paris (and London), 2015.

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Francis Hodgson is the Professor in the Culture of Photography at the University of Brighton.

#6 ‘Two Film Stills’ by David Campany

Here are two very different publicity stills from two very different films. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), which I watch often, and Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), which I saw only once and will probably never see again.

 

 

A Matter of Life and Death (in America it was titled Stairway to Heaven) is a very English fantasy film. David Niven plays Peter Carter, a Second World War pilot shot down over the English Channel. Leaping from his flaming aircraft he doesn’t die but washes up on a beach. He soon falls in love with the American radio operator (played by Kim Hunter) to whom he thought he’d given his last words.  But he may have been affected psychologically by the brush with death: he begins to have hallucinations in which the world around him is temporarily suspended while a messenger appears from the afterlife to summon him. He should have died. In this suspension Peter argues with the messenger that he’s now in love and therefore cannot be summoned. His girlfriend and his doctor try to monitor these hallucinations. While Peter sleeps in the adjacent room they play table tennis. Suddenly they freeze. Peter wakes up. He knows the messenger is here. He rushes next door to tell the doctor but finds him immobile. Peter stares at him.

You can watch the scene here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sbjD9SpiRo&feature=relmfu

Now strictly speaking, I guess this scenario shouldn’t ‘work’ as a still photo. How can you show an animate person looking at a frozen person when the photo freezes everything? But somehow it does work. The doctor’s body is so contorted, while Peter’s stare is that of a man poised with cogent intensity. It’s quite a grotesque photograph, like a punch-line for a missing joke. I watch the film often but I rarely look at this image. Nevertheless once seen, it is not forgotten. I don’t know of any other photograph that expresses this very unusual sense of time.

 

 

I saw Bresson’s Mouchette several years ago and I’ve never been so moved by a film. I was shaking when I came out of the cinema. It’s about a young adolescent girl, the Mouchette of the title, whose poor life in a rural French village is hard. Her father is an alcoholic and her mother is very ill. She looks after her younger brother and does all the housework. She is teased and tormented at school, and ostracised in the village. Despite moments of joy there’s really nothing but pain and tragedy in her life. She seems strong enough to deal with her lot. One morning she is by a river. She rolls herself down the bank in her shawl and is stopped by a bush at the water’s edge. She seems to be doing it for the dizzying little pleasure. A stolen moment of abandon. But she does it again, this time rolling into the river to drown herself. It’s the last scene. Mouchette should be a ‘coming of age’ film but she doesn’t get that far.

At a fleamarket in a French village last summer I found this photo and I treasure it, both as a beautiful picture and as a memento of a film I don’t think I can bring myself to watch again. I can think about Mouchette’s fate without having to put myself through it.

Both of these photos were taken by stills photographers. Almost every film production has a stills photographer. Stills provide the movie with everything from working descriptions of interiors and locations to archival records. And of course they are made for publicity purposes. After the director has a take in the can the actors may be called upon to repeat their performance, ‘once more for stills’. What is performed firstly for the cinematographer is performed again for the photographer.

Movements must be converted into stillness. The transfer is not always as straightforward as it might seem. Actors need to be posers too, but the essence of an unfolding scene may not be achievable in a single shot. The art of film acting is above all the art of movement, one might think. Stillness may deprive the actor of their métier.

In the case of my two examples the problem is even more complicated. The photographer on the set of A Matter of Life and Death had to quickly work out how best to present as a single image a form of stillness that really requires movement. Robert Bresson had a very different attitude to cinematic performance. He disliked the idea of actors and preferred non-professionals in his films. He avoided even the term actor and all its theatrical implications. He preferred the idea of the model, a term that recalls the still photograph or the painter’s studio. He had his models drain themselves of theatre, insisting they perform actions over and over in rehearsal. Finally they could perform before the camera without thought or self-consciousness. Bresson writes in his only book Notes on the Cinematographer (1975):

No actors. 

(no directing of actors)

No parts.

(no playing of parts)

No staging.

But the use of working models taken from life.

BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors)

Later he notes “Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and thought.” The result is a style of performance in which both everything and nothing looks controlled. The ‘models’ perform with an inner calm and apparent stillness, even when moving. They ‘go through the motions’, we might say. Unfairly described as austere, the restraint in Bresson’s films can seem unapproachable but absorbing too.

One task of the stills photographer is to condense and distil a filmic scenario into a readable image. Gestures are altered, body positions are re-organised, and facial expressions are held. Often the lighting is perfected, wayward hair and clothing are groomed so as not to distract and the camera focus is pin sharp. Caught between cinematic flow and photographic arrest, the classical film still has a unique pictorial character.

Even today individual film frames are of low quality. The film grain is coarse and the image may suffer from motion blur or loss of focus. The richness and precision of the moving image we see on screen is in part an illusion, conjured by the real time projection. Flashing up, twenty-four frames per second, our visual pleasure derives from a constant tease. Always shifting, always changing, it is forever out of reach. It can never be trapped and held. The stills photographer can suggest movement but cannot recreate it. The static photograph made on set requires something else. It must satisfy the desire for fixity. The still photo must hold the stilled gaze.

In the 1920s the silent movie was perfected. The 1930s then saw the introduction of sound. Styles of acting began to change. No longer did physical gestures need to carry everything. A line of spoken dialogue could be enough to energise a scene. The arrival of sound also changed the relation between cinema and the still image. Silent film had a secret affinity with the silence of photographs. Both were voiced by text  – the inter-title, the caption. The ‘talkies’ interrupted that. Just as the arrival of cinema’s movement made photographs look still, the coming of sound emphasised their muteness. Thinking about it now, what I like about these two photos is that they come from moments in their films that are nearly silent.

In this transition cinema became a truly popular form and a systematic industry. The finest technicians were under contract and the filmic image became a source of beauty, of desire, seduction and spectacle. Also, cinema became a popular art when mass media magazines were dominant. It was here that the film industry and the popular press began their co-dependence. Magazines carried publicity for the movies – advertisements, portraits, profiles, gossip, previews and reviews. They were also the home of photo-reportage. The crafted film still and reportage might at first strike us as total opposites. After all, cinema had already become an escapist world of fantasy while the subject of reportage was actuality, the real events of the world. But each in its own way had to solve the same two problems: visual clarity and narrative stillness. Film stills achieved it through staging and the use of large format cameras. Reportage took another route, a picture taking rather than making. It elevated quickness, lightness, mobility and economy of expression. The technical tools were minimal and immersion in the changing world was the key. Motion would be frozen in fleeting frames by solitary photographers working with the Leica camera. First introduced in 1925, it was small, neat and portable. It used the 35mm film that had become standard for the movie industry. Where cinema celebrated movement by recreating it, reportage celebrated by suspending it. Searching for beautiful and symbolic geometry, the photo-reporter would pounce when the world appeared to be organised momentarily as a picture: the ‘decisive moment’. And where the film still staged arrestedness, reportage used fast shutter speeds to freeze it. Both sought to trap fleeting detail and to halt time. And both pursued, as the artist-photographer Jeff Wall put it, ‘the blurred parts of pictures’. The image from A Matter of Life and Death corresponds with this classical idea of the film still, but Robert Bresson was after something else, something less polished and more direct. Stills from his films often have the look of seemingly casual photographs or reportage. Imperfect and spontaneous.

Today the close analysis of films is open to anyone with a DVD player, or access to the internet. A movie can be watched as a whole or as a set of bits and pieces – scenes, chapters, freeze frames, alternative edits. To some extent we are all film theorists now. To watch is to analyse. Meanwhile the DVD has given a new life to the film still in the form of ‘picture galleries’ that are frequently included as extras.

As a result our viewing habits and therefore the making of films has changed. Contemporary films expect to be seen in pieces.  And it seems to be those filmmakers from the past whose work stands up to this repetition and fragmentation that are valued today. Alfred Hitchcock is the obvious example but one could also include Powell & Pressburger. I can watch any part of A Matter of Life and Death and enjoy it. In many respects the film is an elaborate string of set-pieces, perhaps less than the sum of its sublime parts. Mouchette is quite the opposite. In parts it is nothing.

 

David Campany is a writer, curator and artist. His books include Art and Photography (Phaidon, 2003/2012); Photography and Cinema (Reaktion, 2008); Jeff Wall: Picture for Women (Afterall / MIT press, 2011) and Walker Evans: the Magazine Work (Steidl, forthcoming). He has published over 200 essays and writes for Frieze, Aperture, Source and Photoworks. In 2010 he co-curated Anonymes: unnamed America in Photography and Film, for Le Bal, Paris. His photographic work was shown recently at Kracow Photomonth.