A Chrysalis in Celluloid.

The Origin of the Camera and its Distortion of Reality. 

In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers invented the moving picture camera. The day it was finished, the brothers went outside the factory in which it was invented, set the camera on the pavement and made the first moving image ever, about 50 seconds of footage of their workers leaving the factory to go home at the end of the day.

They then took the camera to the local train station, set it up on a station and filmed a train drawing in. When it was screened, this image had audiences screaming, running for the door and trying to hide under their seats. They believed that the encroaching train would perforate the cinema screen and trample them under its mechanical wheels as it powered through the auditorium.

Louis Lumiere famously said:

The cinema is an invention without a future.”  

The vast majority of scenes he shot were of people going about the mundane banalities of everyday life; playing cards with friends, smoking a pipe, drinking tea. He could not understand why one would be willing to pay to sit in a dark room and watch images that you could see just as easily by walking down the street.

This reveals how he perceived his invention. He saw the camera as a porthole into reality, a window through which one could peer into a time already elapsed, an event that by all rights should have been discarded into the ever-growing, undocumented past. He had created a time machine that could play a happening and then replay it again, indefinitely. A chrysalis in celluloid.

Within weeks, the Lumiere Brothers also created cinema’s first ‘special effect.’ The camera captures a wall as it is demolished. As the workmen push at their wall with their picks it teeters, sways and finally falls to the ground. The separate constituents of the wall crumble and dust billows into the air.

At screenings, the brothers would play this scene chronologically, take the film from the projector and reinsert it back to front. The audience would see the dust suck back in and rubble shift and move and join together as the wall rises from the ground and orders itself intricately in place again. This simple but wholly effective trick shaped the entire ontology of the camera. The Lumieres became both the founding fathers and the Typhoid Mary of realist cinema.

Since this shot was screened to audience, one can map the use of the camera as progressing in two diverging strands- realism as social amelioration and the ‘cinema of attractions.’ Broadly speaking, the latter has been employed to make narrative-based cinema. The former is used for news, documentation, history.

But, as the extraordinary debate that has taken place surrounding the photography of Robert Capa has encapsulated, the two strands are not wholly separate. They weave together inextricably.

From its very conception, the camera’s ability to tell reality is united with the intention of he who holds the camera. He who captures the image also the distorts the image, be it through art, entertainment, documentation, propaganda or coincidence.

Any discerning, active viewer of cinema, or indeed any form of photography, is now compelled to inquire about the veracity of what they are experiencing. We do it without thinking, a knee-jerk reaction. How real is this image? How much has it been conjured and considered and created for our consumption?

One cannot tell. Therefore, the only way to approach this is to accept that, as soon as the lens allows light to colour the film, the intentions of the taker of the image becomes dislocated from the image itself.  A perfect example is Lumiere’s shots of French colonialists in IndoChina.

When someone says the word juxtaposition, this is what I think of. The dress that the women wear as they toss the rice seems to burn with a white intensity, the darkness of the doorway within which they are framed looms behind them. The women are the locus of a geometric mise-en-scene, raised slightly above the swarming throng of children. Children treated, and duly acting, like pigeons.

It is beyond argument a powerful image, maybe even a defining image, of Western colonialism. It also begs the answer to a host of fundamental questions:

  • Is the image meant to be an indictment or comment on any level or merely an exercise in aesthetics? 
  • If so, does authorial intention have any relation or relevance to the image?
  • Am I applying a modern perspective to a time and place of which I have a very limited understanding, interpreting it in a way that I can understand and assimilate easily?

It is impossible to say definitively. The image exists in its own right and in absolute isolation, ceaselessly adaptable to any given context. It is what it is, neither a window nor a painting but somewhere in between. Any other discussion is entirely academic. All I can do is interpret the image using my own cultural codas.

This characterises the ambiguities of photography. It is, nevertheless the tool that most defines our media, our history, our collective memory. As the columnist Geoff Dyer writes:

“The Abu Ghraib photos were the latest manifestation of a practice that thrived in America up until the mid-1930s, of photographing lynchings and sending postcards to friends to advertise one’s enthusiastic involvement. The corollary of this is that, if no photographs exist, then nothing happened.”

If no photograph exists, then nothing happened. In Errol Morris’ ‘Standard Operating Procedure,’ the soldier who held the camera and took the pictures of the inside of Abu Ghraib is allowed to try and justify himself. He talks of how it was necessary to document the torture of foreign men so he could hold those responsible to account. He believed, as a result, that he was absolved from participation and from blame.

These photographs are full of unalloyed, unspeakable and unwritable horrors. Their very existence act as a barometer for the ethical maelstron within which they were taken.

For better or for worse, we now have them as part of our history. A chrysalis in celluloid, they provide an alternative meaning to the Latin phrase that Lumiere’s invention derived from. Camera Obscura; the Dark Chamber.


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