The Half Empty and Half Full Film Stills

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Written by Dustin Shum for Off-sets: Photographies of Hong Kong Cinema

Translated by Nicolette Wong



The film still is a peculiar form of image making. On the one hand, the production of film stills seems invariably linked to the film for which the images are created, where they are used as publicity materials to promote the film in various media. Further, the film stills spark a sense of anticipation in the audience. This was particularly true in the pre-social media era when film trailers were not widely available for viewing: the handful of film stills on display at the cinema foyer offered glimpses into the film, which intrigued the viewer’s imagination and enticed them to watch it at the cinema. On the other hand, a film still can sometimes transcend the film; for a viewer who does not know much about the film, a creative film still conjures up a boundless imaginary space, while it manifests itself as a new creative language.


On the relationship between a film still and the film with which it is associated, it can be extended to the intertwined dialectic between still image and moving image. The discussion inevitably touches on some recurrent arguments. In the film Le Petit Soldat directed by the late French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard in 1960, there is a line of dialogue that says, ‘Photography is truth. The cinema is truth 24 times per second.’ Regarded as a statement of the director’s philosophy, it is often misinterpreted or misquoted, or even used to affirm the superiority of the moving image. The ‘stillness’ in ‘film stills’ is often overlooked, yet it is an attribute that warrants discussion. Even before the invention of cinema, photography was linked to the concept of stillness, a quality that was not present in other types of visual media at the time. The invention of cinema changed the popular perception of ‘stillness’ in photography. From the vantage point of the era we are living in, film is a highly developed medium. In defining stillness in photography, it is hardly possible for us to turn away from film as a point of reference, or to restore what the concept of stillness might embody before the birth of cinema — ultimately, what it might reveal to us if we free ourselves from cinematic thinking about photography.


The influential film theorist André Bazin also contributed to this debate. While Bazin did not disregard still photography and he acknowledged the mechanical objectivity of photography, he believed that still photography will become incomplete without the existence of film. Still photography is often seen as a filmic ersatz, a compromise as a means to document reality in the absence of film. What photography captures is the temporal dimension of things that are still happening.


On the other hand, semiotician Roland Barthes proclaimed his resistance to the cinema. In his famous text Camera Lucida, Barthes notes that ‘pathos’ is inherent in photography: photography’s alchemy is the resurrection and return of the dead, and death is illuminated by ‘stillness’. While there is always a photographic referent in the cinema, he says ‘[it] does not cling to me; it is not a spectre.’ In Barthes’s understanding, the cinema is protensive and hence in no way melancholic, whereas photography is a form of melancholy preoccupied with the past. Barthes’s emphasis on the pathos of photography points to the relationship between photography and death. He posits the noeme of photography—the concept of ‘that-has-been’—as the photograph embodies two connected standpoints: truth and the past, which the viewer arrives at through experiencing and contemplating the stillness in a photo. Film is a time-based media that imposes itself on the audience’s experience of time, making it impossible for them to grasp any particular moment or image in time. As Barthes puts it, time is a punctum in photography.


Before the invention of cinema, gelatin silver print photography was still at an early stage of development, and the illumination of the moment was not yet defined as an attribute of photography. When photographers attempted to elevate photography as a means of mechanical reproduction to an artistic expression, they sought to instil deeper nuances in single-frame compositions. Fading Away (1858), a well-known work of Henry Peach Robinson, an English photographer and a pioneer of Pictorialism, is a case in point. A composite photo printed from five different negatives, it depicts a girl on her death bed surrounded by her grieving family. The image departs from the religious and moral messages of the tableaux; it carries a dramatic quality that is also characteristic of the film still, which hints at what is unsaid and prompts viewers to recreate the story in their mind.


This kind of implicit resonance has its echoes in a well-known essay by Roland Barthes that was published in the 1970s. In his notes on film stills from Ivan the Terrible (1944) by renowned Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, he posits ‘the third meaning’ of the image: the first meaning is informational or communicational, and the second meaning is symbolic. The first two meanings are to be understood within cultural structures; that is, they are obvious meanings. The third meaning is an extra, supplementary and evasive meaning that extends beyond culture and knowledge, and it perpetually skirts between presence and absence. The third meaning exceeds communication and signification, and it is the obtuse meaning. In Barthes’s conception, the ‘sign’ is a compound of ‘the signifier’ and ‘the signified’, and ‘the third meaning’ is a ‘signifier without a signified’. That is, a film still is filled with signs consisting of narrative elements, without offering obvious clues to deciphering them. For viewers who have not seen the film and have limited understanding of its content, they make a collage and guesswork [of these elements], which may lead them to discover unexpected details.


Strictly speaking, a 90-minute film comprises almost 130,000 still images, while film stills capture certain moments in the dramatic unfolding. The 1970s saw the collapse of the studio system in the US, where many film distributors and cinemas disposed of a colossal volume of film stills, particularly obscure B-grade films and their stills.


There were a number of artists who took random samples from these film stills and appropriated them in their own art making, creating new and interesting works.


At the time, there were many artists, such as John Baldessari and John Stezaker, who collected film stills and used them in their collages. Film stills of this kind — the content of which tends to be vague — do not possess any inherent capacity for the creation of meaning. In the hands of these artists, however, the images were decontextualised and recontextualised.


On the collages by acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle that are featured in this exhibition, the artist does not conceive his works as spin-offs of film productions that he participated in. Rather, he attempts to free the film crew and the cast from their relationships with the film and their characters, as a way to rethink the interaction between the photographer and the photographic subject, and to instil new worldviews in the images.


This intrinsic ambivalence of the film still, which obscures the logic or sequence of things, has left its mark on the work of many contemporary artists. In Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), Cindy Sherman appears as fictitious characters in a series of self-portraits that mimic the film still, posing a critique of the stereotypical and formulaic portrayals of women in films. The actions of the protagonists in these images do not convey any concrete information, yet they seem rather familiar. While Sherman did not reproduce any scenes from any particular films, the images bring to mind certain films for the viewer. That is because our worldviews are largely shaped by the mass media: viewers project their film viewing experiences, or their experiences with pop culture, onto these images in order to create meaning. In his works of staged photography, Jeff Wall has actors reenacting dramatic moments in everyday life. He describes his photography as ‘cinematographic’, meaning photographic works that are endowed with cinematic qualities. Apart from composition, his style of shooting and production is more akin to pre-production and post-production in film. When looking at a scene that lies between fiction and reality, or an ambivalence that skirts between drama and real life, some people choose to see it as ‘simulation of reality’, while there are more viewers who examine it as ‘simulation of cinema’. Other than the performative element in the images, his photos deny the existence and intervention of the camera, creating an invisible barrier that is the ‘fourth wall’ in modernist theatre.


Therefore, the film still is not only a slice of a film. It is also a tool for recording the image of a moment, and a means of preservation that allows the viewer to glimpse into that moment anytime. In this sense, it is a kind of documentation of the development of the film industry. As a kind of ‘post-image’, the film still can evoke in people their feelings about the film industry and their film-viewing experiences. When a film director hires a photographer to take up this task of documenting, they are not simply looking for skill. In the case of Hollywood director John Houston, he preferred working with ‘alternative’ photographers in shooting stills for his films. For The Misfits (1961), he collaborated with Magnum, the legendary co-operative of documentary photographers, which was newly founded at the time. Coincidentally, the production was hindered by various problems, which provided the perfect materials for documentary photographers. Inge Morath, one of the photographers on set, shot many remarkable images for the film. For Victory (1981), a film from the final years of his career, Houston worked with a team of photographers from Sygma, a French photographic press agency. It was primarily an attempt to utilise the agency’s distribution network to boost publicity for the film. It was also a move away from the typical style of film stills shot by in-house photographers of film companies, as these press photographers consciously adopted the perspective of an outsider and a documenter in observing the various happenings in film production. The film industry is structured around a high degree of division of labour, and it is built on the sweat and tears of film workers. In the 1980s, Lo Yuk Ying extensively photographed film crew and actors when they were away from the spotlight. Stripped of their glamourous personas and free from the grip of their PR personnel, we see flashes of the authentic selves of these film stars, who exude a more subdued and intelligent aura in the images. While these photos were taken during Lo’s feature interview assignments for Film Bi-Weekly (later renamed City Entertainment Magazine), they offer piercing glimpses into the subjects and the settings, without masking the chaos and crudeness that surrounds them. As a female photographer working in a male-dominated culture on the film set, Lo deglamourised the film industry in the popular imagination.


Amidst the Taiwanese New Wave that took off during the same period, there was a peculiar kind of interaction between cinema and photography. Some nascent directors, including Hou Hsaio-Hsien and Edward Yang, often invited photographic artists such as Chang Chao-Tang, Liu Chen-Hsiang, and Cheng Shang-Shi to shoot stills for their films. These unique interactions were not only shaped by the friendships between the directors and photographers, but they were conscious encounters in image making. In many instances, the black-and-white film stills by these photographers did not coincide with the directors’ aesthetics. The photographers were more interested in shooting what happened behind the scenes and observing the culture on film sets from the perspectives through which they saw the world. At the time, the creative atmosphere in the film industry was relatively down-to-earth. While these photographers were working within an institution that was starkly different to the creative environment they were accustomed to, they were able to preserve their personal styles in these diaristic images that were shot on film sets. As for Hong Kong film still photographer Justine Yeung, she would photograph the various sights and scenes around the set during her breaks at work. These seemingly random images are contrary to the typical behind-the-scenes footage and photos of film production that hint at a tense and hectic atmosphere. As seen through her lens, the film set looks surprisingly idle; it has an almost surrealist vibe of an amusement park, as if it was inviting the audience to enter into that space and experience the film shoot.


To sum up, the nature of the film still is reminiscent of the English proverb: Is it half empty or half full? The film still exists in an incompleteness, a half-emptiness and a half-fullness: it fragmentises memory, while it is also filled with meaning. Its ‘half-emptiness’ sparks the audience’s imagination, and it can transcend cinema to inspire artists working in other disciplines; its ‘half-fullness’ ripples in our minds, opening up new perspectives for us to engage with a film. Compared to film, the film still requires a greater degree of audience participation. The film still photographer may start out on a mission to serve the film, while their work ultimately enriches the film viewing experience of the audience.




Friday, Jonathan. “Stillness Becoming: Reflections on Bazin, Barthes and Photographic Stillness.” Stillness in Time: Photography and the Moving Image, edited by David Green and Joanna Lowry, University of Brighton, 2005. Barthes, Roland. “The Third Meaning: Notes on Some of Eisenstein’s Stills.” Artforum, vol. 11, no. 5, Jan. 1973, pp.46-50.


From 'Her Fatal Ways', 1990. Photo by Fong Ho Yuen. © 2010 Fortune Star Media Limited. All rights reserved.
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