The other day I was reading Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1961 essay on phenomenology, Eye And Mind (I’ve recently started doing an MA in Art In The Contemporary World at NCAD so you can probably expect more of this kind of thing in the future – those of you who just want to know who the band is are free to skip right to the end). There’s a section in it where he talks about the representation of time and movement within both painting and photography. He argues that artists such as Cezanne and Matisse provide more faithful renditions of our actual perceptual experience of being in the world than those provided by objective scientific accounts and the Cartesian perspective-based art inspired by them. At one point, he discusses photography, and argues that it also falls short of capturing our real experience of the world because it cannot capture movement in the way that a painter can, shackled as it is to capturing frozen, instantaneous snapshots. Painting, on the other hand ….
But an immobile canvas could suggest a change of place, just as a shooting star’s track on my retina suggests a transition, a motion not contained in it. The painting itself would then offer to my eyes almost the same thing offered them by real movements: a series of appropriately mixed, instantaneous glimpses along with, if a living thing is involved, attitudes unstably suspended between a before and an after – in short, the externals of a change of place which the spectator would read from the imprint it leaves
What Merleau-Ponty is saying is that we live in a world of movement and a painter can express this on a canvas by painting traces, glimpses, trails of the moving thing. He contrasts this with photographs, which are restricted to capturing “instantaneous glimpses” of movement and by doing so “petrify” it. He talks about photographs of running horses, frozen in unnatural positions, failing to convey the motion of the horse in the way that a master painter can. His view is echoed by Rodin’s famous remark: “It is the artist who is truthful, while the photograph lies; for, in reality, time never stops”.
The section on photography is quite short and it’s not really a central part of the essay (his main concern is with the nature of our perception of the world and how art can describe this in a way that science cannot) but nevertheless I found myself thinking about it and wondering if Merleau-Ponty (and Rodin) were taking a limited view of what photography can be. In particular this picture sprang to mind.
This photograph is from 1949 and is by Andreas Feininger. A print of it was recently on display at IMMA, as part of the excellent Out Of The Darkroom exhibition. It was made by setting the camera on a tripod and making a long exposure as the helicopter took off. Obviously there is a light on one (or both) ends of the blade and so the spiraling pattern is drawn in the air. Does this picture do what Merleau-Ponty claims photography cannot do? We could argue that, in this case, it does. The spectator can surely read the movement from the imprint the blade leaves. Or is this even more unnatural, even further from our embodied perception of things? Here is another photograph that is relevant here though.
This is by Petah Coyne – she has a whole series of these, and one of them was on display at that same IMMA exhibition. The reproduction on the web really doesn’t do this photograph justice. There is something about the surface of the actual print that suggests movement over and beyond what is suggested to us by the blurred figures that are represented in it. I found myself staring at it from a distance (it’s quite big), moving around and looking at it from different angles, and finding there is something almost like an optical illusion going on in the way that the monks seem to be scurrying about.
So, whatever about the helicopter shot, Petah Coyne’s photographs would surely have given Merleau-Ponty some pause for thought. The curious thing is though, that while Merleau-Ponty was writing in an era when the instantaneous snapshot was the dominant vernacular of photography, Rodin’s experience of photography would have been its early beginnings, when long exposures and blurred movements were the norm rather than the exception. It is somewhat surprising therefore that he would not have seen the potential of photographs to represent stretches of time as well as frozen moments.
The photograph at the top of this post is of And So I Watch You From Afar, playing in Whelans on the 26th of September at the Alliance fundraiser gig for East Africa. It is an exposure of 6 minutes and 30 seconds. I took it from the side balcony instead of the usual front-on shot.I was a worthwhile experiment but I don’t think it really works. Back to the centre for me then ….