Film and Photography
Catalogue Essay - Landscape, Film and Photography
At the end of ‘A Letter’, the third story in Isaac Babel’s 1926 collection Red Cavalry, the young soldier Vasily Kurdyukov hands the narrator a ‘broken photograph’ of his family:
It showed Timofey Kurdyukov, a broad-shouldered country constable in a uniform peaked-cap and a beard with a parting; immobile, high cheek-boned, with a glazed stare in his colorless, vacant eyes. Beside him, in a little bamboo easy chair glimmered a tiny peasant woman in a house-jacket that had been let out at the seams, with highly-coloured, consumptive and shy features. And against the wall, against that shabby provincial photographic background of flowers and doves, towered two lads—monstrously huge, slow-witted, broad-faced, goggle-eyed, frozen as if on drill parade, Kurdykov’s two brothers—Fyodor and Semyon.
The story, which is told principally in the form of a letter home to his mother (seated in the bamboo chair in the photograph) dictated by Vasily to the narrator, describes how the three brothers (Vasily and the ‘goggle-eyed’ Fyodor and Semyon), serving in the Communist Red Army, found themselves on the opposite side of the Russian Civil War from their father (the ‘broad-shouldered’ constable), the commander of a company in the tsarist White Army. We learn that one brother, Fyodor, fell into the hands of the opposing army where he was recognized by his father, who ‘slashed him until dark’ and left him unburied and that the other brother, Semyon, tracked down his father, who had by then dyed his beard and donned his civilian clothes, and killed him.
When, at the end of the story the narrator describes the photograph, the image is shocking—perhaps because we feel we are being shown the mysterious missing beginning of a story which has just ended violently; perhaps because, caught up in these final events, we have forgotten that the characters all emerged from under the same roof in the countryside of a now unreachable old world; or perhaps because we experience an uncanny sense of recognition of a group of people we have never met or even seen.
In Isaac Babel’s story one finds a sharp, implicit commentary on the nature of photographs: the counter-intuitive promotion of a trivial detail to command great, even unwieldy, significance; the eerie feeling of prophetic knowledge with regards to the subject’s fate intertwined with the sense of irretrievable loss which compelled Susan Sontag to call photography ‘an elegiac art, a twilight art’; the notion of the photograph as the most truthful record or proof of something’s past existence, whether it is a distant landscape or a human face.
At the same time, the end of the story is ironically a haunting vision of a scene which is impossible to see, a high-jacking of the effects of one medium (photography) by another (prose) and, although the narrator has assured us that he has recopied the letter ‘word-for-word, in agreement with truth,’ the final photograph is anything but documentary proof. It is possible that Isaac Babel met the young soldier while traveling with the Red Cavalry as a war correspondent; it is even possible that he saw such a photograph. Most likely, however, he saw the photograph in his mind, as vividly and terribly as one sees a memory or a dream. Just as the French critic Roland Barthes writes: ‘I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at,’ the images one knows best of all may be those which have flashed suddenly in one’s imagination and lodged in one’s mind.
It is this same sort of illumination that colours our experience of landscapes, films, and photographs, each of which may evoke concurrently a sense of memory and a sense of astonishment. Thus occasionally one comes unexpectedly upon certain landscapes, both natural and manmade, which appear to have been formed and lit according to one’s inaccessible, personal plan, waiting as if in anticipation of being discovered and, as with Kurdyukov’s photograph, recognized and acknowledged. One may seek out these sites deliberately: in an interview, the filmmaker Werner Herzog stated: ‘The starting point for many of my films is a landscape, whether it be a real place or an imaginary or hallucinatory one from a dream, and when I write a script I often describe landscapes that I have never seen. I know that somewhere they do exist and I have never failed to find them.’ Or, one may even alter them to fit one’s vision, as when Michelangelo Antonioni, directing Red Desert, his first colour film, ordered that the trees, grass, and factory pipes of his locations be painted over in accordance with his mental picture of the scenes.
An artist searches for images and their communicable realization with the urgent restlessness of an explorer or a geographer seeking a passage through two mountains or a meeting of several rivers. The removal of a table from a scene or the addition of a green feather may be a step into the jungle in the right direction. Thus the mystique exuded by the few remaining locations in the natural world felt to be unexplored—the middle of the Amazon, the very bottom of the ocean, outer space—and the possibility of finding there a sight from the most distant dream. And yet, foreign travel can at times seem oblique, an excursion off the track which distracts from the dream or even obscures it: as Sigmund Freud wrote in a letter: ‘In previous decades I often had travel dreams with sequences of the most wonderful landscapes. After I began traveling, they became rare.’ The crucial, imagined site, rather, may be right outside one’s window.
Driven by mental images, we arrive at exotic, even paradisiacal landscapes and exclaim, with the poet Elizabeth Bishop: ‘There are too many waterfalls here’; better, as we walk through them, to embrace the knowledge that as we traverse their paths, memory is painting the surrounding trees a slightly greener shade.
Given that landscape painting is a genre within art and film and photography both technologies, the question could suitably be asked as to what the common link among them is. Despite the static images, sometimes deceptively so, that the term landscape art can now inspire, and even although photographs and moving images seem like their dynamic, modern antithesis, it is landscape art more than any other type that is the closest relative and certainly precursor of what has been achieved with film and photography.
The attempt to make an imprint of reality is certainly one that the photochemical effect, where light darkens certain chemicals creating an “instant” image, lends itself naturally to – so much so, that the Lumiere Brothers' film L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat almost immediately created the urban legend that it had produced panic amongst the audience who believed the train would be coming out of the screen twoards them (unlikely, since its 1895 audience would not have been foreign to the new inventions in photography and its moving counterpart).
Reality, or better yet, a slice of it, since the frame and canvas impose their own restrictions as much as the stamina of the artist, was a concern and raison d'etre of the very first attempts at landscape art. A landscape is an attempt to capture one piece of the visual world in the same way as a photograph or a film would later be (the word derives from the Dutch "landschap", which had a much more prosaic meaning, a patch of cultivated land). The very first examples of the beginnings of landscape art are the Roman frescoes of Pompeii that depicted mostly agricultural scenes set against a background of changing seasons.
In both cases, first in landscape art and then with film and photography, there have been subtle, at times very overt, attempts to subvert this initial premise of a window into the world. If the artist starts with a shared assumption with the audience that this is life as it is, with no additions or changes, there is a very strong urge to use that to present a particular slice. Little by little, the choices become such that additions and changes are precisely what do occur and the slice of reality presented is the artist's own. So that even as late as 1917, the invention of photography by then almost a century old, the Cottingley photographs using crude handmade cutouts of fairies could still create a minor sensation and a legion of gullible commentators.
Of course, most introduction of the artificial and the fantastical into art has never been so deceitful, but many artists have found it useful to maintain the ambiguity between which was which, and landscape art was certainly no different. In Western art, the genre was initially used to portray mainly biblical landscapes, and later those of antiquity. Artists like Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain knew they could have it both ways, presenting natural landscapes taken throughout their travels in Italy, yet also sutbly rearranging details to create the Renaissance dream of the Arcadia that had been classical civilization. Such paintings were able to suggest both a reality and the ideal, with the message that if they fitted in the same landscape (or patch of ground) then the latter was most certainly attainable.
In the nineteenth century the possibilities of this mixed message were more fully explored, leading John Ruskin to call landscape art the pre-eminent art form of the era in his Modern Painters. For Caspar David Friedrich, landscape became allegorically daunting and imposing; for Turner, it would be a hellish metaphor.
Many of the ideas and contradictions of landscape art were tailor made for the images that film and photography could offer. Their main appeal at first seemed to be that slice of life quality, the same ability to capture the moment, but to do so at an even faster rate and more reliably. The first few motion pictures of the mundane had titles that could also easily serve as a synopsis: Thomas Edison's Fred Ott's Sneeze in 1894 or another Lumiere Brothers' offering The Sprinkler Sprinkled from 1895 serve as good examples.
But it didn't take long for the first cinematographers to realize that framing and capturing reality led to an interesting mix of both restrictions and freedoms (to screen means both to show and to conceal – what linguists call an autoantonym).
George Melies at the turn of the century began to experiment with artificially created vignettes, such as sending explorers to the moon (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) an image that wouldn't be taken in real reality until more than sixty years later. From that moment, the race was on, and film and photography began to omnivorously feed on images not just from landscape art, but from all art. Impressionism and pointilism, the fantastical landscapes of surrealism, have all influenced the need for film art to photograph images in new ways, at times more abstract, at times seemingly more immediate. From a train arriving at the station, to Kubrick's images of pure moving light in 2001:A Space Odyssey there has been a long journey of exploration.
Photography, perhaps because people feel it is more static, has remained more grounded in its documentary and reportage roots, and not enough attempts have been made to introduce the artificial and surreal in this form of art, although Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson, with their staged photographs might be on to something.
If the art genre can be lumped together with the technology, then, it is because historically it has had a similar development and developed the same collusion with their audience that what they are seeing is a bit of reality, an open the windows and copy what you see approach to art. From that basis, combined with the requisite restlessness of successive generations of artists, the possibilities (to use some tired phrasing) have been endless.