Hope, Indifference or Fear?

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(nostalgia) by Hollis Frampton

1971’s (nostalgia) is an important work in the history of avant-garde film. The work is shot on 16mm monochrome stock, lasts thirty-eight minutes, and as is the case with much of Frampton’s oeuvre and structuralist film in general, is defiantly simplistic in its production values. The camera remains fixed for the course of the film, which consists visually of a series of still photographs being burned over an electric cooking hob. The narrator casually asks the camera operator if the film is rolling before announcing, “These are recollections of a dozen still photographs that I made several years ago…” [1] setting the tone for the rest of the piece: at once humorous and mournful, with each description offering some clue as to the narrator’s eventual decision to abandon photography, and turn to film-making. Most of the reminiscences begin with an ekphrastic description. Some of them expand to offer a technical explanation of how the work was made; others offer memories and speculations about the subjects of the pictures. There is an emphasis on Frampton’s relationships with them at the time (many of the artists had, by 1971, already become well known) and how these relationships subsequently developed.[2] Others still offer wry digressions about, for example, the vagaries of freelance life, with Frampton bemoaning underpayment from a creditor. It is clear from the first photograph shown that the accompanying commentary does not match the picture. In fact, each verbal description actually matches the next photograph shown in the sequence (which in turn is accompanied by another, non-matching account). Each photograph is visually complex and the verbal explanation often equally dense. There is thus a doubly difficult task for the viewer both to comprehend the images in themselves and to disentangle them from one another. The narrator stays solemnly silent if the length of time taken for the print to burn exceeds that required by its explanation. But just as the viewer begins to disentangle the one from the other, in this short opportunity to take in what is being described, the next print and the next description appears. So there is a quite deliberate overburdening placed by Frampton upon the viewer in terms of the information that s/he is required to comprehend and digest, which increases exponentially with each subsequent image-text disjunction. This is compounded yet further by the way in which the objects in a scene become entangled with the narrative that is spun from each one. This technique is perhaps laboured by the final, melodramatic description (for me the only section of the piece that does not quite ring true), which is accompanied by the one found photograph of the sequence, that of a Texas farmer. The narrator rues the fact that he exposes ‘fewer than fifty negatives a year now’[3] but was recently struck by the ‘vagrant urge’ to pick up his stills camera again. After hours of fruitless wandering, he does find a scene that he wishes to photograph, but the opportunity to do so is immediately ruined as a truck obscures it. The narrator takes the photograph anyway, and upon developing it and enlarging a detail, is appalled to find a piece of the scene that he had not noticed at the time. The reflection, in the rear view mirror of the truck, of an object from a factory window fills him ‘with such fear and dread that I fear I shall never take another photograph. Here it is. Look at it. Do you see what I see?’[4] By this point, the photograph of the farmer has burned and we are left to contemplate ashes and think both forward and backwards to the first photograph in the sequence (that should supposedly accompany this description): not the street scene described, but a darkroom.

To burn an object is to treat it as rubbish, but to destroy any trace of it might also be to acknowledge its importance. The aggression and finality of this recurrent operation in (nostalgia), although it is prints, not negatives that are being destroyed, is typical of what Heffernan notes that ekphrasis commonly reveals in its producer: ‘a profound ambivalence towards visual art, a fusion of iconophilia and iconophobia, of veneration and anxiety.’[5] In the case of this film, I will argue here that this very ambivalence is the motor of its narrative. If ekphrasis forms the skeleton of the film, then the meditations on temporality and memory that ensue from this ekphrasis form its flesh and blood. I would here like to introduce my own term, which will be instructive throughout the rest of this thesis: ‘post-ekphrastic’. This refers to a verbal passage that is not ekphrastic in itself, but which might only exist in its specific form because of an ekphrastic passage that preceded it in composition. The ekphrastic passage might, by the time of publication, actually have been removed by the author. Or to put it another way, the ‘post ekphrastic’ passage of writing is the child, and sometimes the orphan, of the passage of the ekphrasis from which it originated. For example, let us examine this passage in the narration:

This photograph of two toilets was made in February of 1964, with a new view camera I had just got at that time. As you can see, it is an imitation of a painted renaissance crucifixion. The outline of the Cross is quite clear. At its foot, the closed bowl on the right represents the Blessed Virgin. On the left is St. Mary Magdalene: a bowl with its lid raised. The roll of toilet paper stands for the skull of Adam, whose sin is conventionally washed away by the blood the crucified Saviour sheds. The stairs leading up to the two booths symbolize Calvary. I’m not completely certain of the iconographic significance of the light bulbs, but the haloes that surround them are more than suggestive.[6]

The objective description here is obviously ekphrastic, and the humorous allegorical extrapolations are post-ekphrastic. So the warp and weft of these two different forms of writing create, in many passages of the narration, a very particular textual fabric.

Returning to Simonides et al, let us equate the photographs in (nostalgia) with Lessing’s definition of painting (‘natural’ signs fixed in space) and the narrative and durational elements with poetry (‘conventional signs moving through time and space’). One of qualities of the piece that is so disturbing is that it uses both elements so neatly against one another, pulling the viewer in two directions at once. It also distinguishes (nostalgia) from the other works that I consider in this chapter, in that the total affect and effect of the work is a result of a process that is both additive and reductive at the same time. The ‘fixedness’ of the photographs is undermined in the act of their burning (the obverse, perhaps, of a print slowly revealing itself in a developing tray), and the viewer’s ‘reading’ of them is left ever more frustrated by the way in which their verbal counterparts do not match. This conceit in turn heightens an implicit suggestion of many of the individual commentaries: that these photographs, and perhaps all photographs, remain unknowable; that any attempt to truly grasp their essence is doomed to failure. It also pinpoints the blindness and irony inherent in the photographic act: the way in which photography promises plenitude and yet ultimately tells us nothing, remaining opaque.[7]

I would now like to return to the distinction Stephen Cheeke makes between an object-oriented and affect-oriented approach to aesthetics. Just as he contends that ekphrastic poetry confuses this distinction, I will claim here that Frampton’s film draws some of its force from the same confusion. What is the object of (nostalgia)? And what is its affect? The voiceover might at first lead us to believe that the photographs themselves and the recollections presented (‘these are recollections of a dozen still photographs….’) form the object of the film. But at a point that is extremely difficult to place, these same recollections become the affect of the work. As the film’s crescendo of doubt builds, certain descriptions deepen this object-affect confusion. For example, in the bathroom/crucifixion passage described above, there is an ironic gap between the sacred allegory that Frampton proposes in his word-picture and the profane materiality of human waste and its attendant technology that is depicted in the photograph we see thirty seconds later. This gap produces a sad, funny pathos. For this viewer at least, that sense of pathos, produced in part by the power of Frampton’s words in my memory, muddies any attempt I might now make at an empirical interpretation of the picture.

I have argued that ekphrastic ambivalence acts as a motor for the propulsion of (nostalgia)’s discourse and affect. In her book, Hollis Frampton: (nostalgia), Rachel Moore finds other dualities that lend the piece its power. She invokes Walter Benjamin’s concept of the ‘dialectical image’ in order to draw these characteristics out:

‘(…) the dialectical image is like lighting; the past must be held like an image flashing in the moment of recognition. A rescue thus -and only thus- achieved can be effected on that which, in the next moment, is already irretrievably lost.’[8]

Moore asserts that (nostalgia) contains such images: in the journey from photography to film that he describes, Frampton ‘galvanizes their immanent antagonistic dynamics along with competing temporal registers in the service of activating nostalgia. Not by accident but because of the requirements of his historical task, he created what Benjamin called dialectical images in the process.’[9] Whilst I find this argument persuasive, I would also like to propose here that the film creates dialectal images not just by its photography/film relationship, but also by Frampton’s use of photography in relation to text. By its nature, the dialectical image remains difficult for Benjamin to define and still more challenging for the reader to grasp. Here is another ‘Benjaminian fragment’, this time from his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ that helps me in my understanding of the idea: ‘Every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tiding which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may also be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)’[10] Benjamin also cites Theodor Adorno for clarity:

As things lose their use value, they are hollowed out in their alienation, and, as ciphers, draw meanings in… subjectivity then takes control of them, by loading them with intentions of wish and anxiety… because the dead things stand in as images of subjective intentions, these latter present themselves as original and eternal.[11]

So let us think of the photographs in (nostalgia) as, to use Sontag’s phrase, ‘melancholy objects.’[12] By being loaded with (and in their combustion, temporarily freed from) such intentions of wish and anxiety, these photographs, these ‘dead things’, do indeed stand in as ‘images of subjective intentions.’ The ekphrastic and post-ekphrastic ‘glossing’ of the photographs dramatizes and makes more literal the way that, having lost their original use value, they now falsely present themselves as ‘original and eternal’.

Before I move on to consider the melancholic aspects of the film, I would like to offer an illuminating addition to the notion of the dialectical image from contemporary philosophy. In The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière offers us his concept of the ‘pensive image’; that which holds a tension between different modes of representation, such as documentary and fiction, art and non-art, or movement and stillness.[13] (nostalgia) certainly holds such tensions. There is also a play with photography and text and many other tensions between seemingly opposing modes in the film. Perhaps this is one of the qualities that make it a work of art? Far from being mutually exhaustive, these dichotomies enrich and recharge one another.

Shira Segal’s essay, ‘From the Private to the Public: Photography, Film and the Transmission of Cultural Memory in Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia)’, makes a defense of nostalgia as ‘an authentic approach to perceptions about the self in the present and direction for actions and thought in the future.’[14] The article contains a number of points that are pertinent to my analysis of the film here. It argues for the vitality of structuralist film-making as a ‘counter cinema’ to dominant Hollywood ideologies and for (nostalgia) as an exemplar of this vitality. The section, ‘Photography, Film, Memory’ invokes a dialectic of presence (the new) and absence (the past) as being one of the prime tropes of the photographic medium. Segal cites Roland Barthes’ Plaisir du Texte (‘bliss may only come with the absolutely new, for only the new disturbs consciousness.’[15]) in relation to Frampton’s attention to the physicality of the studios, scenarios and encounters he describes. She then addresses the malleability of the photographic image and how this quality is also ultimately evocative of absence. She quotes Roberta Rubinstein’s definition of nostalgia as ‘an absence that continues to occupy a palpable emotional space’.[16] The act of burning the prints ascribes to them an importance and validity both as image and artefact that signifies for Segal the defining characteristic of nostalgia: ‘the absence of the longed-for object’.[17] But in Frampton’s film, it is not just the burning of these signifiers that undermines the photograph’s evidential force. (nostalgia) places a slightly greater emphasis on the narration than it does on the photographic images themselves. The voiceover is slow, clear, precise. There is no ‘destruction’ of the textual element other than the temporal destruction inherent in the impermanence of any speech act. The photographs on the other hand, are visible only for a few seconds before flames engulf them. In making such a hierarchy, Segal argues, Frampton asserts the narrative (as opposed to the anticipated image) as being the more authentic representation of memory. In the section, ‘Storytelling, structural film, cultural memory’, Segal compounds this point: the structure of the piece emphasizes the viewer’s longing for stories more than their desire for images. She concludes that yet another strength of the film is that it presents both the past and present as being constituted in narrative; always representation; always construction. Again, the dialectical image and perhaps also the pensive image, whilst obviously not mentioned by Segal (Rancière coined the latter term after Segal wrote the essay), are I think of relevance here. The final section of Segal’s text, ‘Closure’, pinpoints (nostalgia)’s construction as being exemplary of structuralist film. The fixed camera position, the flicker effect and loop printing are three such characteristics. It represents the problem of linear time through ‘the impossibility of fixing history, identity or memory.’[18]

Frampton’s film deploys a number of strategies that I have outlined earlier in this thesis as being typical of ekphrastic discourse. Both in terms of individual narrations of photographs, but also in the overall narrative arc of the piece, WJT Mitchell’s ‘hope/indifference/fear’ model is at play. We set out sharing Frampton’s enthusiasm and hope for the photographic medium and his excitability about photographing his environment. But his uncertainty over what he sees is infectious, and if we do not experience indifference here, there is at least a profound ambivalence that slowly arises both towards the scenes and the reliability of the narrator. In particular, there is a preoccupation with the difference between what the photographer thought he was doing at the time, and what his achievement appears to have been in retrospect. On photographing a shop window he notes, ‘I had thought my subject changeless, and my own sensibility pliable, but I was wrong about that.’[19] Finally, using his stills camera for the first time after a long hiatus, he is struck by a detail in his latest photograph that ‘fills me with such fear, such utter dread and loathing, that I fear I will never make another photograph again.’[20] We should remember Stephen Cheeke’s insistence here on the inevitable failure of the ekphrastic enterprise, and how this in turn lends it alterical power. Frampton’s self-realisations are paradoxically the results of a perpetual self-alienation that grows the more he considers the discrepancy between his younger and middle-aged self.

For Shira Segal, the narration of (nostalgia)’s voiceover takes precedence over the descriptive power of the photographs. As I have noted already, even traditional Hollywood filmmaking complicates Lessing’s distinction between the diegesis of the word and the mimesis of painting. The moving image, as opposed to the painting or photograph is not fixed in time and space, but also progresses through it, as language does. But, (nostalgia) offers another way of complicating this model. The images, whilst remaining static like all photographs, clearly exist as temporal objects (as witnessed by their burning) and are also half animated into the temporal realm by the narrative glossing: we can think here of Rancière’s ‘pensive image’, where an artwork effects a tension between two or more media. The narrator’s recollections about his first intentions and what he had thought changeless are repeatedly undermined by hindsight. Furthermore, the photograph’s force as sign is undermined by the fact that, should the viewer be able to recall the description he has just heard, she will realise that the photograph’s description does not always fully match, and invariably glosses, what we can see ourselves. Like hearing a married couple arguing over the details of an anecdote, to watch (nostalgia) is to be caught up in an internal dispute over what constitutes the past, which of course creates an ambience of uncertainty about the present. As well as the tactics I have described above, another means Frampton deploys for this effect echoes what Shira Segal noted in the precedence narration takes over photograph. Whether the narrator is giving us details of the colours of the spaghetti mould that we cannot discern in his monochrome photograph, or telling us that the picture frame in the Carl Andre portrait makes an appearance in a later photograph that we are not shown, the narration constantly outdoes the image, providing extra details and opinions that the mute photographs could never provide.

(nostalgia) echoes, in many different registers, the Kristevan notion of melancholia as discourse: between word and image, past and present, memory and evidence. But it does not respect any of these as truly binary oppositions. And by no means do the assertions the narrator can now make about the past mean he is able to make truly stable assertions about the present. His verbal attempts at reviving the past acknowledge their own inadequacies, and point, as with the objet petit a, only to more doomed attempts at representation and at fixing that which we wish to describe. Thus, even if these moments are rare, there are instances of Benjamin’s dialectical image at work in the film, as the past, ‘flashes like lightning’ in front of our eyes. This quality renders (nostalgia) affecting and akin to lived experience whilst simultaneously capturing the impossibility of adequately describing that experience.

 

[1] Frampton, Hollis, (nostalgia), 1971, 16mm black and white, 38:21

[2] It is interesting to note this apparently factual piece’s play with the truth. For example, the narrator, whom we might assume to be Frampton, as (nostalgia) is written in the first person, is actually his fellow filmmaker Michael Snow. Snow himself is depicted in one of the photographs, and regarding the fact that Snow dislikes the poster for which the photograph was used, Snow/Frampton remarks ironically, ‘I wish I could apologise to him.’

[3] Frampton, Hollis, (nostalgia), 1971, 16mm black and white, 38:21

[4] Ibid.

[5] Heffernan, JAW, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993) p1

[6] Frampton, Hollis, (nostalgia), 1971, 16mm black and white, 38:21

[7] For an eloquent account of this irony, see Sontag, Susan, ‘In Plato’s Cave’, from On Photography, (New York: Penguin, 1977) p 23: ‘Photography implies that we know the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.

[8] Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1999) p473

[9] Moore, p60

[10] Benjamin, Walter, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, from Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1992) p247

[11] Ibid., p466

[12] Sontag, p51

[13] Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott, (London: Verso, 2009) p108-132

[14] Segal, Shira, ‘From the Private to the Public: Photography, Film and the Transmission of Cultural Memory in Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia), Text, Practice Performance VI, 2005 p34

[15] Barthes, Roland, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975) p40

[16] Rubinstein, Roberta, Home Matters: Longing and Belonging, Nostalgia and Mourning in Women’s Fiction (New York: Palgrave, 2000) p5

[17] Segal, p44

[18] Ibid., p36

[19] Frampton, Hollis, (nostalgia), 1971, 16mm black and white, 38:21

[20] Ibid.