BY Christy Lange in Opinion | 01 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 143

Between Frames

Photography and the restless still life

BY Christy Lange in Opinion | 01 NOV 11

Errol Morris’s new book on photography, Believing Is Seeing (2011), begins with an investigation into a controversy almost as old as photography itself: it concerns two near-identical photographs, both known as The Valley of the Shadow of Death, taken by the British photographer Roger Fenton in 1855 on a battlefield of the Crimean War. In one, cannonballs lie in a ditch beside a road, and, in the other, they litter the ditch and the road. Morris, who was a detective before becoming a documentary filmmaker, set out to refute the old assumption, famously advocated by Susan Sontag, that Fenton must have placed the cannonballs on the road deliberately, either for aesthetic reasons or to heighten the picture’s sense of imminent danger. For Morris, finding out which photograph Fenton took first would determine whether the cannonballs were ‘posed’ on the road – making the picture ‘staged’, in Sontag’s estimation – or whether they were rearranged for reasons other than Fenton’s artistic intent. Sixty-eight pages later, Morris is resigned to the fact that Sontag was right: the cannonballs-off-the-road photo was taken first. But he adds, ‘I would like to make the claim that the meaning of photography is contained in these two images.’

What struck me while I was reading this was not so much the issue of whether the pair of photographs constituted a ‘fake’ document of a historic event, but rather what it means for the maker of the images to have moved objects in or out of the camera’s view, composing, in essence, a still life on the battlefield. Fenton’s act of rolling or heaving those cannonballs out of the ditch and on to the road, or vice-versa, is fundamental to thinking about photography not just as a documentary act, but as an artistic one. What does it mean for the status of the pictures – and those cannonballs – if the artist deliberately arranged them for the camera’s view? What would it mean to think less about the photographs’ credibility as documents (because every photo documents something), and more about the movement, or artistic activity, that took place between the frames?

Concluding his essay on Fenton’s two sequential images, Morris, mentally animating them, calls them ‘the first motion picture’: the pair of still lifes, combined with the activity in between their exposure, is enough to begin to set them in motion.

This summer, in a former furniture warehouse in Los Angeles, I spent a few days watching my friend Thomas Demand making his ninth film, Pacific Sun (2011), using exactly this kind of animation. Pacific Sun is based on a 90-second clip of footage from a video camera mounted above the dining area on a cruise ship of the same name. When the boat was caught in high seas between New Zealand and Australia, the security camera captured the calamitous scene in which the dining room’s contents – chairs, tables, passengers and crew included – were shuttled with surprising force from one side of the restaurant to the other, gaining speed and losing control with each new wave, sliding in and out of the camera’s stationary, indifferent view.

It took Demand two months to rebuild, using paper and cardboard, every piece of furniture and detritus discernible in the fuzzy video footage (excluding the people, but including some new objects of his own – a mop trolley, a woman’s slipper). But it took another four months to animate the sculptures over the course of 2,400 sequential photographic frames. In between each digital image capture, a team of about ten animators, wearing socks and kneepads, moved into frame to shift each of the nearly 200 life-size objects – chairs, tables, vases, lamps, menus, cupboards, lemon slices, ketchup bottles – according to a choreography mapped out in pencil on the floor; essentially, arranging and rearranging a still life. After each picture was taken, they repeated the process, moving in and out of the set, not entirely coincidentally, in waves.

The final 100-second animation belies all the stillness of the 2,400 individual still lifes that it comprises. The objects are the film’s protagonists, but the artistic process that took place before and in between frames – a kind of incremental movement of cannonballs – is inscribed there too. Though the movement in the film starts with a slight stirring, with each wave (the film captures seven of them) the scene becomes quickly and unexpectedly more chaotic, until chairs and tables are sweeping across the floor upside-down and on their sides, with straws, menus and napkins scuttling behind them. Uncannily, the objects set in motion take on the distinctly human characteristics of the animators who moved them: a shelf makes a comically brief appearance from behind a door, while a chair skips and bounces almost joyfully. Between the precisely measured movements made from one image to the next, something else happened: life swept in and filled in the gaps.

This issue of frieze touches on some of the ways a photograph – for all its apparent or intrinsic stillness, two-dimensionality and documentary properties – can also give still things life through an artistic process that occurs before and in between the momentary click of the shutter. (A parallel issue of frieze d/e, also published this month, looks at the possible lives, or fates, of photographs and photography.) The work of Berlin-based artist Kathrin Sonntag, who contributes a special artist’s project to this issue and whose photograph from her series ‘ANNEX’ (2010) appears on the cover, uses photography as a language to describe and translate an artistic composition, to see what those objects look like photographed. Like many of the artists in this issue, Sonntag also examines how a still life might, conversely, appear restless or unsettled in its frame. In his conversation in this issue with curator Mark Godfrey, Elad Lassry describes his works as ‘objects that sneak up on you as images’. I love this idea – that something as supposedly static as a picture could dislodge itself from the wall to come creeping up behind you. What happens when a still life starts to move, or to move us?

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.