Peter Wollen’s Fire and Ice is a meditation on time and tense in photography and cinema. It deals with issues regarding what sorts of temporal experiences can be embodied within both forms and how the viewer’s means of engagement impacts upon this. The essay was first published in 1984 but later included in Liz Well’s 2003 book, The Photography Reader.
Photography is inextricably bound up with time. A photograph stops a moment and preserves it as a fragment of the past. The moment captured is of near-zero duration and located in an ever-receding ‘then’. By contrast, the spectator’s ‘now’ is of no fixed duration – the spectator can spend as long as he/she wishes, looking at the photograph. This contrasts sharply with cinema where the spectator’s experience is of fixed duration and often only available at set times.
Wollen applies these observations to Barthes, and claims that this temporal distinction between photography and film explains Barthes’s love of photography and antipathy towards film. Barthes privileges what the spectator brings to the work over the input of the author (as evidenced for example in Death Of The Author), and hence favours a medium like photography, where the spectator is in control over the time and circumstances of the viewing of the work, over film, where that control is ceded to the author. As Wollen puts it: ‘Time, for Barthes, should be the prerogative of the reader/spectator’. The implication of this is a bias against an author-imposed narrative structure and a preference for a freer, more interpretative approach controlled by the spectator.
However, Wollen argues that this dichotomy between how photographs and film embody time, is not as straightforward or as clear-cut as is often made out. In order to pursue this line of thought he dispenses with the notion of tense, which locates events simply in terms of their relation to the present moment of speech (i.e. it is happened in the past, it is happening now, or it will happen in the future), and instead talks about aspect, which deals with internal temporal structures. In a nutshell this means that we can categorise situations as being either states, events or processes. A state is a static situation, something that is unchanging. An event is something of fixed duration, with a start and a finish, and may take place in the past, the present or the future. A process is an ongoing situation involving continuous change.
So, do photographs signify states, events or processes? Wollen suggests, based on the sorts of captions commonly used, that news photographs signify events, art photographs and most documentary photographs signify states, and that some documentary photographs signify processes. He argues that a minimal narrative contains process, event and state, and that therefore individual still photographs should not be seen as narrative, but rather as elements of narrative, with different types of photographs playing different roles within this narrative. Film is like fire, in that it is constant incessant motion, whereas photography is like ice, a single frozen moment.
A photograph that signifies a state (i.e. an art photograph based on his above classification) is apt, because the photograph itself is in a stable state, and hence there is a fit between the signifier and the signified. On the other hand, a photograph that freezes an event seems paradoxical, and this would imply that film is a more apt medium for representing events and capturing their narrative flow. These considerations also shed some light on why photography is so linked to the ‘pose’. When someone is photographed they assume a pose for the camera, they freeze themselves and enter into a state, suitable for capture. Wollen then returns to Barthes and links this with Barthes’s famous idea of photographs of people signifying death, and wonders what Barthes would have made of James Van Der Zee‘s Harlem Book of the Dead, with its images of posed corpses in funeral parlours. However, as well as treating death as a state, the photograph can also treat death as an event. Robert Capa’s unknown soldier would be a classic example of this – a news photograph relating a death as an event.
The conclusion of Wollen’s essay revolves around a discussion of Chris Marker’s 1962 film, La Jetée. This is a 28 minute film whose visual content consists entirely (with one short exception) of a succession of still photographs. It is a sophisticated example of how a succession of still photographs can be used to carry a narrative (albeit with the aid of an audio soundtrack). The theme of the film is also directly relevant to Wollen’s concerns as it tells a story of time travel. The still photographs contained in the film are not fragments of the past in the Barthes sense – they are fictional creations sometimes referring to the future, sometimes to the present as a kind of past of the future from which the story is told.
While reading Wollen’s essay I was thinking about Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of photographs taken in theatres. Sugimoto would set up a large format camera at the back of the movie theatre and create an exposure the length of the feature film.
These photographs reflect many of the themes that Wollen discusses and throw up some interesting issues . While the photograph depicts a fragment of the past, it is not a near-zero duration fragment, but rather a fragment that lasts an hour or more. Normally photographs capture fleeting moments and allow the spectator to contemplate them at length – in a way he/she cannot do in reality because the moment passes too quickly. In the case of a Sugimoto photograph, he has captured an extended moment and compressed it visually into a single frozen one – allowing the spectator to contemplate it at length in way that she/she cannot normally do because the experience passes too slowly.
It’s not clear if the Sugimoto picture represents a state, as Wollen suggests art photographs normally do. It seems to be a capture of an event (a film screening) from the past. Does this make it documentary? If so, what exactly is it documenting – the film, or the film viewing experience? The fact that Sugimoto chooses a film screening as the scene for the extended exposure makes the questions that the pictures raise all the more intriguing.