The Time of Images

Chris Fujiwara

The black and white photographic image, formerly the way the world was seen in the mode of documentation (news) and also of representation (artistic photography or cinema), is now mainly a signifier for the past, no longer a medium, but the sign of a medium.

The images we are shown these days in black and white (notably on TV or in films which are predominantly in color) don’t reach us from the real world, but from somewhere else, from the past as past. The provenance of these images in a remote past that can never be real for us is all the more heavily marked when digital scratches and dirt are added, in an inane shorthand that compounds the effect by which the past comes to us as past-ness.

If you find a roll of black-and-white 16mm film and project it, it comes to you as it is. Scratches and dirt may form an impediment to receiving the image, but nevertheless it comes to you from a living reality. The past was not aware of being past at the moment when it was filmed; it existed completely within its own moment. It is only past because we are seeing it later. Its being in black and white or in color signifies nothing: that is a question of the medium itself, not the message or, as in the digitally faked “past-ness” images of today, the medium made message.

The fact that an obsolete medium can become a signifier of the passage of time suggests an important and perhaps relatively little considered task for archives. Archiving is understood to involve the task of collecting and preserving documents and records and making them available to current and future researchers. But an equally pressing candidate for preservation is the way these documents and records were understood at the moment of their dissemination — i.e., how the past looked to people when it was not past. Without such a key to understanding, the archival record can exist only in a reduced and humiliated condition, the condemned prisoner of the present, still holding on to life only by our sufferance and for our pleasure.

It is necessary to have some historical knowledge of codes of communication in order to understand the range of time-sense that may be embedded within a document.

According to Hollywood director Budd Boetticher, his great 1960 gangster film The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was intentionally shot in a way that imitated or alluded to the visual style of films from the 1920s, the period when it was set. However, Boetticher’s attempt to use the medium in order to reactivate an obsolete code was misunderstood by studio executives, who complained that the film was poorly shot. Their reaction suggests that when a message comments on its own medium, the potential for uncertainty or error in reception is high. But more than this, the reaction of these studio executives suggests that the specific source of misunderstanding, the element in which errors may spread like bacteria growing in a Petri dish, is the time referentiality of a message.

The element of time in a work, as Boetticher’s comments make clear, is an object of play: the artist plays a game of “as if” with time. There is a creative, optional quality to the transmission of time through the narrative and the images of a film. The executives who misread The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond simply failed to enter into the spirit of the game: their sense of time was blocked by a too reductive, too linear notion of the chronology of styles. Going back up the ladder of time was not an option for them, any more than it is for those who prescribe and make use of the trope of “black and white = past-ness” that is prevalent today in digital representations.

But this is not quite true, because in fact, digital technology offers nothing but options — so many that everything else seems to have disappeared: no medium, no message, only options (filters and controls for manipulating image and sound).

With the flourishing of digital technology, we may be seeing an unprecedented democratization of the filmmaker’s freedom to play with time. But this will have extended to a full “optionalization” of the real and historical determinants of experience.

It could be argued that this optionalization extends a possibility inherent in the film medium. The most basic use of the movie camera — say, a Lumière shot of workers streaming out through the gates of a factory — is already an act of segmenting time, establishing the beginning and the end of a piece of duration, thereby making that duration available as part of a historical archive. The Lumière shot also multiplies time and opens up a potentially endless field of meanings in the countless individual movements that are contained within the single frame.

How is the Lumieres’ camera different from the surveillance camera of today? The surveillance camera is placed and used in a way that denies the specificity of time in order to detect and record an illegitimate movement. The temporal limits of the shot become meaningless, and the viewer’s role is reduced to a detached, abstracted scanning of space and time. On the other hand, the Lumière shot has significant limits — those of the duration of the shot in time and those imposed by the composition on space — beyond which the lives of the people in the shot become different. “Immediately after the workers hurry past the gate, they disperse to become individual persons,” Harun Farocki writes. The film documents a moment of transformation. But it also stages this transformation, giving it a space and a starting point.

The act of staging brings a theatrical dimension to the archival document, linking cinema to an established earlier artistic form. It also puts the viewer at the center of the apparatus of cinema, or rather, establishes the viewer as one of the indispensable elements of the apparatus, because all staging is a staging for someone and organizes the scene for a definite point of view  (which may be occupied by an indefinite number of persons and various points in time).

The surveillance camera denies this theatrical dimension and restricts itself to the status and function of document. It also denies the possibility of transformation. It is uninterested in the possibility that any experience whatever could happen either in front of the camera or at the place of the viewer. The lack of interest forecloses the possibility of experience, reducing human individuals to lawful or suspicious behaviors.

* The Korean translation of this essay is included in Magazine F (No.12) published on February 1 in 2014.