· Cinema Essays

The Lust For Images

Why do people construct their world in images? Why does the world of images looks so desirable and beautiful?

The French film critic André Bazin has been quoted to say “cinema replaces our gaze with a world that conforms to our desires” (Bazin, Dudley, & Gray, 2004, p. 12). By now this observation is decades old, yet there are three reasons why this idea remains relevant to the contemporary discussion of images.

One – images create perceptions. There is a famous text-book example: the experiment conducted by the renowned montage theorist Lev Kuleshov in the 1920s. An actor was filmed with a neutral expression and suggestive images were inserted before and after the shot. Although at the time it was impossible to achieve aural consistency (films were silent), the images themselves were enough to deceive the audience. The emotions of the actor, whom the viewers congratulated for superb acting, were purely a product of the viewers’ imagination – determined by the suggestive images. Thus the gullible nature of the casual viewer of the time (one must remember, this was at a time when media was not as ubiquitous as it is today) was revealed.

This example alone begs the question of image-truth. There are those, who necessitate the existence of a limited object such as the original material photograph. For example the literary critic Walter Benjamin who considers that images lose their integrity (a certain aura) in reproduction, has argued that “truth reveals itself in the auratic appearance of the photographic object, but it is an historical instance” thus “to breathe the aura” means to experience perception in terms of a moment (Leslie, 2000, pp. 51-2) which would make Kuleshov’s cinematic experiment a valid auratic experience.

But increasingly there are those who disregard such philosophical considerations and embrace reproduction, for example Andy Warhol who already in the 1960s created works that relied only on reproduction (such as Ten Lizes) expressed in an interview the opinion that “all department stores will become museums” (Warhol, 2004) implicating reproduction of the images, with no apparent pity over such a development. Whatever side one takes, the profound consequence is the realization that even the original auratic images may be untruthful, and images in the supermarket don’t necessarily have to be untruthful – meaning there is no longer a universal qualifier.

Whether truthful or untruthful, the discoveries made in the twenties had a profound influence on how images are constructed. The two classic Russian films edited according to montage theories of the directors themselves Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein and Man with the Movie Camera by Vertov are direct descendents of Kuleshov’s discoveries. These films were not particularly concerned with hiding cuts between frames or creating smooth transitions (nor was it technically as easy), but they did manage – by using tricks of montage such as double exposure, playing the films backwards, and so forth – to create a perception that was true to the way the director experienced reality. Vertov’s work was particularly impressive considering the almost MTV-like style he created decades ahead of its time (admittedly with influence from Walter Ruttman). Even though the commercially produced films of contemporary Hollywood may look smoother, their ability to construct perceptions is merely an elaboration and refinement of the achievements of early Russian cinema. The substance of image-making has remained the same – images tell stories.

Two – understanding of how images work gives the image-maker power to create narratives. Whether these narrative are false, deceitful and untruthful or contrariwise, accurate and truthful, is up to the filmmaker. What is certain though, is that such control over the cinematic image became possible principally thanks to the analytical power unleashed a decade before Eisenstein and Vertov. The Russian Formalist movement inspired image-makers to analyze and deconstruct images so they might better understand their own work and thus improve upon it. The distinguishing feature of the movement was the aspiration to have a formal understanding of images without the disturbances of philosophical discourse, cultural values, or political manipulation.

Some authors have argued that Russian Formalism had “no need for a theory of interpretation separate from a theory of the sensation of things as they are perceived” (Simpson, Utterson, & Shepherdson, 2004, p. 344). If one considers this to be accurate, the artist and the historic context of the image, even to some extent the truth of image itself become incidental for the formalist. More precisely, they become a secondary interest. In the formalist consideration of the image the primary interest is with the elements within the work. By immersing oneself in the visual language, the researcher can focus on understanding the image without the pretexts and values of outside reference. The power structures that exist inherently within the image become that much clearer (but also that much value-free).

There is a common visual language independent of the interest or objective for which the images are created. The language of images is one of subtleties and suggestions. Images engage in flirtation with the eyes and the mind of the viewer, creating illusions which lead to needs and aspirations. The elements of an image have narrative interest in characterizing the object. What makes such constructed images so desirable is their “unity” (Dondis, 1973, p. 96) or simply put –the wholesome perfection of images that consider harmony, balance, consistency and symmetry in their composition. Each element in the image contributes to the overall feeling that the work produces in the audience.

It is perhaps most useful to analyze images using structures and categories thus dividing the work into discreet elements. To take a practical example, commercial software that is used for constructing 3D animations break images down into distinct parts each of which can be manipulated. Thus one can start from the superficial, and define a texture for every object in the scene. Textures have various properties such as color, reflectivity, roughness, smoothness, as well as many others. From a psychological standpoint, each of those decisions makes the audience connect with their own personal experience and thus revive certain memories and relationships inside the brain.

Another observation one can make about an image is that different categories of objects use the image space for creating patterns. Objects may have similar or dissimilar placement and their sizes may be different. Such patterns attract the eye and may also suggest meanings. One object can obscure the other – and imaginative objects that the viewer contrives inside the head can become as real as those unseen – however their meaning is not strictly determined. The French author Martine Joly argues that such plurality of meaning or to use her word – polysemy – exists in every complex work (Gamboni, 2002, p. 14). The composition or deliberate lack of composition (which is also a composition in its own right) creates a pattern (even if an anarchic one) of objects, forms and shapes – telling a story that can be interpreted in many ways.

Areas of bright color and bright tonalities portray a sense of lightness whereas the opposite can create a sense of weight. On the plane of an image shadows do not act as in reality, but appear as gradients that go from light to dark, subsiding slowly if the light source is large or close by, and cutting deeply if the light source is small or far away. If one considers preceding narratives in the history of image-making such as biblical heaven and hell, light and dark can convey values of good and evil.  Objects that are blurred appear to be moving fast and add to the dynamism of the scene. As does shallow depth of field (which is a common aesthetics of many Hollywood films). The opposite is deep focus which is more democratic in its demonstration of the scene as it reveals all and gives the audience the power to look past the subject. This was precisely what was as advocated by André Bazin who felt this was the aesthetics of an objective reality (Mitry & King, 1999, p. 195).

It may appear simplistic and foolish to enumerate such apparent insignificance but these are the subtle ways by which the image-creator (editor, photographer, and filmmaker) leads the viewer. By selecting and editing reality and creating the aesthetics appropriate for one or other situation, he forms the perception of the audience often without being explicitly identified or noticed.

What began as a Russian literary movement and was transformed by its interest in images has also a profound influence on scientific development. By analyzing the formal features of an image, researches are able to make quasi-scientific observations about its construction. Just as the words of a spoken language, these observations are revealing the ‘new words’ of the visual language. Such research, now undertaken by large networks of computers with specialized software, has implications for advertisers who aspire to tell the stories which engage the audience in predictable and measurable ways. They allow the image-maker employ statistical and data-centric knowledge in designing the most effective image, rather than relying solely on one’s artistic faculties.

Three – narratives have a profound influence on reality. While one single image can be looked upon in many different ways, series of images suggest a story. Certain psychological processes underlie how images are seen. For one, the spectator and the image occupy different spaces – one is looking at the other and the other is being looked upon. Proceeding from that idea, philosophers have described the male and female points of view. There is a term known as the gaze popularized by social theorists such as Foucault and Lacan that aspires to capture this notion. McGowan explains it thus: “when we buy into the illusion we have a sense of control over what we see on the screen” (McGowan, 2007, p. 4) The male gaze may be seen as sexualized whereas the academic discussion (and some controversy) over whether the female gaze exists (and what is its nature) is still ongoing. One can go beyond the imagination of professors and philosophers, and picture the capitalist and socialist gaze, the cultured gaze, and the uncultured one, the asexual point of view, and the child’s point of view, and so on and forth.

All the preceding notions about the gaze serve to explain that there is a diverse marketplace demanding images with a range of different stories. There are people whose desire is a certain perception of reality. Photographers who understand such psychological (and cultural) currents – with sensibilities towards that particular gaze or that particular point of view – can provoke emotions in those people by telling the right story in their image. Perhaps in newspapers the image of starving Sub-Saharan children would be taken from above as God;  or from an equal height as a companion; or from below as a servant. The relative sizes between objects as well as their perceived sizes in relation to the depth of image have narrative value, and the image-maker will frequently use these methods to tell a story. Whoever grasps the personal psychological idiosyncrasies of the individual can exert an influence on the whole audience.

In conclusion, the nature of images is the same today as it was when Bazin spoke of the cinematic gaze that conforms to our desires. However the scientific and non-scientific, emotional and effectual understanding of the power of images is increasingly widespread in the global village. The creation of images is still essentially selective, but there are many more people doing the selection in every area of life – starting with cinema and the media. So why do people construct their world in images? An observation made by Walter Benjamin is more relevant today than it has ever been – “the camera is now incapable of photographing a tenement or a rubbish- heap without transfiguring it […] It has succeeded in turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment“ (Sontag, 2001, p. 107)

Thus it is the image-maker who by his selection and composition of images creates perceptions in his own psychological image. Perceptions perpetuate narratives and narratives change reality. The narrative, even if one is unaware of its effects, has a certain subconscious level of influence on the viewer. While for the uninitiated viewer an image may be something simple, and the work of a photographer may go entirely unnoticed, one does point out – oh, this is so beautiful – I want to live like that, I want to be like that.

Works Cited

Bazin, A., Dudley, A., & Gray, H. (2004). What is Cinema? Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Dondis, D. A. (1973). A Primer of Visual Literacy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gamboni, D. (2002). Potential Images. Chicago: Reaktion Books.

Leslie, E. (2000). Walter Benjamin. London: Pluto Press.

McGowan, T. (2007). The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan. New York: SUNY Press.

Mitry, J., & King, C. (1999). The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Simpson, P., Utterson, A., & Shepherdson, K. J. (2004). Film Theory. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Sontag, S. (2001). On Photography. New York: Picador.

Warhol, A. (2004). Fashion. New York: Chronicle Books.

Written at Universidade Lusofona in 2009.

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