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Issue 123

On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters

Ed. Bruce Jenkins (MIT Press, Cambridge, 2009)

BY Melissa Gronlund in Culture Digest | 05 MAY 09

Hollis Frampton, Untitled, from the series ‘A Visitation of Insomnia’, 1970-73. Courtesy: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis © Estate of Hollis Frampton

Language was crucial to Hollis Frampton’s filmmaking practice, and it is no surprise to find the publication of his collected writings mimicking the swings between stentorian intellect and impish game-playing of his films of the 1960s and 70s. On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters brings together lectures, essays for October and Artforum, chiding letters to editors and notes on his own films, including (nostalgia) (1971) and the unfinished ‘Magellan’ cycle, begun in 1974. Frampton began his career as a photographer, and he attempts to sketch out a critical history of the medium, both by outlining histories of early photographers such as Paul Strand, Edward Weston and Eadweard Muybridge – but also in the wider sense of situating photography within a genealogy of art, philosophy and science. The range of Frampton’s erudition is remarkable: suggestive, of course, of the breadth of his ambition, but also of his affinity to Modernist aesthetics, which allowed him to identify, as T.S. Eliot did in 1922 with The Waste Land, his artistic moment as being both degraded from but nevertheless attached to a far longer history stretching from Homer onwards.

This long view allows Frampton to fully demonstrate the qualitative shift that the camera arts have instituted in daily life, and the suddenness of this change: from the world just 200 years ago without photographic representations to the world now replete with them. Frampton uses the old fashioned form of the parable, as did Jorge Luis Borges (another key influence on Frampton, along with Eliot and Ezra Pound), to capture the incongruity of our contemporary state. The essay ‘A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative’ (1972), which addresses the possibilities for narrative in film, begins with a story of an heiress whose life was filmed incessantly, and who, when she died, left her fortune with the stipulation that her heir spend his life watching hers. He grows pallid, obese, ‘no longer speaks, except to shout “FOCUS!”’, and dies quietly, in his sleep, after watching the last reel of her life.

Frampton was aware that film and photography were no longer new (as the oppressiveness and mortality of this story suggests), and that the time of the greatest experimentation and theorisation of the art – by Sergei Eisenstein, for example – had passed. Nevertheless in his films and in his writings he sought to show the uniqueness of the medium, and in particular the possibilities for independent cinema in the 1970s, following Stan Brakhage’s extraordinary technical and narrative advances. (Much of his writings were undertaken because of the lack of critical theory about independent filmmaking and photography at the time.) This book, edited and with a fine introduction by the film scholar Bruce Jenkins, succeeds Circles of Confusion, the 1983 collection of Frampton’s writings edited by Annette Michelson. Rather than comprising a portrait of the man – though Frampton’s ‘basso’ voice, as Jenkins puts it, booms throughout – the book is a collection of metahistories, an attempt not only to place film in the past but to prescribe its future from the specific moment of New York in the 1970s.

Melissa Gronlund is a writer based in Abu Dhabi, UAE.