Thoughts On: The Ontology Of The Photographic Image - Realism


The Ontology Of The Photographic Image - Realism

Thoughts On: The Ontology Of The Photographic Image (1960)

A look at some foundational ideas of a key film theorist.

In the last post, we spoke about Jean Epstein - in my opinion, one of the most respectable theorists to have written about cinema. Today, we will look at another key critic whose impact on cinema, though indirect, may be more substantial that Epstein's. The man whose ideas we will explore today is André Bazin.

Bazin never made a film. Nonetheless, he was a hugely influential film critic in France during the 40s and 50s. He came to prominence in a post-war Europe, when French cinema began to undergo incredible change with major contribution from a shifting cinematic culture around film that would culminate in the French New Wave. Bazin is best know for founding Cahiers du Cinéma and nurturing young writers who would go on to physically build the French New Wave. When Bazin then started to write about film in 1943, Jean Luc-Godard would be 13 and François Truffaut 11. As he passed away in 1958, however, the two would be concluding their short-filmmaking periods and preparing to make their first features: The 400 Blows and Breathless respectively.

It is not likely that Bazin would like the New Wave films for his taste was bound unexplicitly to a realist cinema that strayed from montage and self-reflexivity. It would be ironic, then, that he would plant the seed of auteur theory in Truffaut and co. with his belief in film as a director's personal vision - even if that director was never to be known as his film played (something the New Wave directors--Godard in particular--show almost no appreciation for). Ultimately, a reference to the New Wave is no way to understand what Bazin thought. One would be much better off studying Italian Neorealism.

What I aim to do today is condense and briefly explore one of Bazin's most foundational essays: The Ontology of the Photographic Image. Our analysis starts with the title and the key word, 'ontology'. Ontology implies a study of being, so this will be a study of the nature of photographs. It starts with a question of mummification, however. Bazin diagnoses photography as such:

If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex.

Quickly we will begin to see why Bazin's writings are easy to transition to from Epstein's. Like Epstein, Bazin considers plastic art, photography and, in turn, cinema, to be dealing with life and death. Bazin focuses in on this idea not to discuss objectivity and subjectivity per se. In regards to cinema and photography, he is largely focused on objectivity via realism. He then moves on from his opening statement to draw a subtle allegory about mummification in Ancient Egypt and art; how painting took the place of biological sculpture:

Louis XIV did not have himself embalmed. He was content to survive in his portrait by Le Brun.

Whilst he sees art to be bound to realistic re-representation, Bazin is not entirely comfortable with the phenomena of art - painting - representing objective reality. He argues that 'by providing a defence against the passage of time it [mummification; art] satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time'. This--art preserving a person's image after they die--would be an objective function of art, a means of capturing reality as it is, that is not inherently virtuous.

In addition to this, Bazin suggests that art developed a further, more virtuous, function beyond psychological comforting, beyond saving man from death, and such concerned aesthetic, that which could express the subjective spirit. Art, painting, is then stabilised when the mimetic and symbolic functions described are held in balance, when paintings can both represent man, in doing so, abstract him from time, as well as express the reality of the human soul. Alas:

The need for illusion has not ceased to trouble the heart of painting since the sixteenth century. It is a purely mental need, of itself nonaesthetic, the origins of which must be sought in the proclivity of the mind towards magic.

Whilst painting was once in harmony in Bazin's view, it found itself in turmoil between the sixteenth and nineteenth century because it neglected aesthetic concerns, neglected attempting to evoke the spirit of things so it could simply re-represent reality, allowing painting to comfort man, allowing man's image to 'magically' be preserved beyond his death. I am no student of the history of art and painting, so I will not attempt to argue against an obvious generalisation of questionable veracity. Nonetheless, in face of this conundrum, Bazin makes three major points. Firstly, Picasso changed all, becoming an icon of modern art - the likes of which is aesthetically driven and often entirely disengaged with reality and realism. Second, photography subsumed painting's desire to conjure an illusion of reality. Thirdly, there is only one true kind of realism. Let us move into the meat of his thoughts with this:

The quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological; between true realism, the need[,] that is[,] to give significant expression to the world both concretely and its essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind); a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances.

It is rather difficult to understand Bazin here as, besides a short footnote about Communists and Eisenstein, he gives no examples. However, what he speaks of is a pretence, an illusion, conjuring realism for the sake of psychological comfort; seemingly, painters attempting to put people onto a canvas just as they are, without alteration, without expressing their soul, and without much reason for doing so beyond preserving their image. Where Epstein's theory of photogénie may be applicable to 17th century figure paintings, Bazin refutes all purpose and labels this kind of art pseudorealistic; obsessed with an illusion of reality and unable to capture truth in reality. Realism that captures the essence of reality - another kind of image which could be described as photogenic by Epstein - is true realism for Bazin. But, how does one distinguish one from the other? Bazin speaks about two approaches to creating realistic imagery, one that fails and one that doesn't fail to become photogenic, yet provides no ontology of the successfully realistic image.

Such would be a major weakness of Bazin's essay, a non-specificity, an inability to speak of a work's value quantitatively and qualitatively. Alas, we come to his final and most sophisticated point in the essay:

All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.

This is essential Bazinian film philosophy. Bazin loves realism. Like Malreaux, he sees 'cinema as the furthermost evolution to date of plastic realism'. It is because a filmmaker can essentially become invisible, can place a camera down on the ground, walk away and let it create art alone, that he revered the medium to the degree that he did. Bazin, on the edge of re-articulating Epstein's theory of photogénie, yearned for films to capture reality in such a way that something transcendent would emerge. He explains his views best here:

... photography ranks high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, an hallucination that is also fact.

Ultimately, Bazin doesn't say anything as complicated and insightful as Epstein, at least in my view, but he is a key figure in the world of film theory whose work is worth reading. I then leave things open to you as always. Have you read any of Bazin's work? What do you think of all we've covered today?

If you're interested in reading The Ontology of the Photographic Image, follow this link.

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Approaching Epstein - Photogénie & Lyrosophie

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A Limousine The Colour Of Midsummer Eve - Searching For Comedy

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