Cine-Tracts Issue Number 2

Cine-Tracts was one of the first Journals of Film and Cultural Studies published in Canada. The Journal was published from 1976-1983. In total, there were seventeen issues. No support was ever received for its publication except for the seventeenth issue. The journal survived on the energy of a few people and about 2,000 subscribers worldwide. Run your cursor over the image below to view the journal in full screen mode
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Robert Frank and American Photography

The current Robert Frank Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York is not only important because of the extraordinary work of the photographer. It is a beautiful example of ethnography and photography intermingling without the need to intellectualize or in Roland Barthes's terms, without the need to declare the message in an open and direct fashion. Drawing upon a set of experiences that saw Frank criss-cross America in the 1950's by car sometimes alone and sometimes with his family, the images bring the rich diversity of American life into a wonderful inventory of the banal, the unusual and the fantastic. The images were published as a book and much has been written about them and about the book itself. Frank set the book up as a sequence of images and if you take the time, a story begins to unfold. The core of the narrative to me is displacement. To varying degrees, Frank witnessed post-war America beginning to redefine itself. Many of the images link landscapes to faces and most of the faces seem to be searching for some sense of definition. A coffee shop becomes exotic not only because of its unusual signage but because the people in it gaze outwards searching to define their experiences. In fact, many of the images have people glancing backwards at the photographer as if to say, there is not much here, why are you interested? The desolation is best represented by an empty gas station where all you see is gas pumps set against a dry landscape.

The only book comparable to Robert Frank's was "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," published in 1941. Both books share a fascination with the human gaze, with that look that comes from not being able to see what the photographer is doing. The subject of the photographs can never take control and in knowing this they give a gift to the photographer of their most private feelings. Both Walker Evans and Robert Frank understood the irony of communicating something of the essence of a person or situation *because* of the power they held. In so doing they left a heritage of American life that is openly steeped in artifice but never the less profound for doing so.

Photographic Fictions (2)

The average digital camera owner has over 5,000 photos in various libraries, which in the digital age is a rather quaint name for data that cannot be cataloged using conventional means. Even a Flickr library is about editing time, that is organizing sequences, blocking out events and arranging photographs so that some sort of story can be told. But, this is a different activity from creating a photo album and is closer to a scrapbook.


All this material is grist and fodder for even more complex social networks that can be accessed through mobile means and at home. Links become a crucial part of all this, but where does aesthetics end up? That perhaps is the key question because networks are only partially visible to those who use them and data is only that, information. The raw nature of information means that "editing" is now an activity of time management — the time needed to organize material and content — the development of typologies and catalogs to organize content, not only when photos were taken but superimposed Google maps to show location even though geography may not be that significant to the photograph and its look.

Photos are defined more by connections than by their individual nature, more by their virtual location on Facebook than by their links to events in real time. Photos move along a continuum from events to their classification and from there to screen-based albums, folders and projects. They are rarely printed.

Photographic Fictions

There is an empty space between Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye (which invests every look with fantasy and converts every fantasy into a series of images) and the technological determinism of László Moholy-Nagy (a member of the Russian constructivist movement of the 1920’s): “Photography, then, imparts a heightened, or [in so far as our eyes are concerned] increased, power of sight in terms of time and space. A plain, matter-of-fact enumeration of the specific photographic elements — purely technical, not artistic, elements — will be enough to enable us to divine the power latent in them, and prognosticate to what they lead.” Richard Kostelanetz, ed., Moholy-Nagy (New York: Praeger, 1970) 52.

For Moholy-Nagy the activity of taking photographs and looking at them, encourages the human eye to evolve into a new state, with radically new goals. Moholy-Nagy proposes close parallels between the technological language of photography and such terms as, abstract seeing, exact seeing, rapid seeing, slow seeing, intensified seeing, penetrative seeing, simultaneous seeing and distorted seeing. To him these exemplify new configurations of human sight generated out of the relationship of technology and human activity. The camera so to speak is woven into the eye and it is Moholy-Nagy’s contention that the eye must as a result, change. A direct line is established between picture-taking, the image, vision (as response) and thought. This is in part why Moholy-Nagy privileges the scientific importance of photography and trivializes its artistic role. In contrast to Bataille, for whom the word and the image are located in the imaginary and for whom the imaginary is, so to speak, located in the eye, Moholy-Nagy seeks truth as the epistemological grounding for what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable as image. “the real photographer has a great social responsibility. He has to work with these given technical means which cannot be accomplished by any other method. This work is the exact reproduction of everyday facts, without distortion or adulteration. This means that he must work for sharpness and accuracy. The standard of value in photography must be measured, not merely by photographic esthetics, but the human-social intensity of the optical representation.” (Kostelanetz 56)

The quote above must be understood as one of the key assumptions in the description of photography as a medium, the melding of scientific and aesthetic concerns around ideas of representation, the attempted fusion of technology and the eye. Moholy-Nagy anticipated the pivotal role of photography in generating scopic regimes which would validate cultural presumptions of truth. He could not have anticipated the way photography would evolve as a distinctive marker for temporal shifts, as an integral and strategic respondant and creator of historical discourses. Yet, he would have been aware that he was in fact creating a context for the photographic image which locates its truth value in the power of its reproductive aesthetic and its instrumental role. And he would have known that he was following the Cartesian imperative to rid the world of its optical illusions, to find truth in the visible and to make the visible truthful. For Moholy-Nagy, the mental, the physical and the real gain their strength from the image. The image becomes that schematic point of reference which allows technology to transcend the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the human eye. His was as much a technical as a pedagogical imperative. The aim was to use the image to teach some basic truths about the human condition, to strip away those categories of seeing which the “eye” of everyday life imposes on human subjectivity. In positing such a direct link between knowing and seeing, Moholy-Nagy makes use of a model of mind which enframes knowledge as visual and which constructs the mind as a mirror of the world around it. That model continues to resonate with some power in present day discussions of images, particularly with respect to the role of images in the media. Joel Snyder dissects the ideology which underpins this conception of the image in “Picturing Vision,” The Language of Images ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) 219-246.



The beauty of this image is its simplicity. Shot in the 1930's in the midst of the worst depression in American history, this photo is part of a collection available through the US government. I would draw your attention to the signs which surround the men, to the discussion that they are having and to the many possible ways in which we could speculate about the image to imagine their words. What are they looking at? Are they waiting to be picked up or simply hanging out because they are unemployed?

In a photograph published some years ago by the New York Times we see a Bosnian soldier facing the camera and begging for his life. He is a young man. He has curly hair and a smooth face. His arms are outstretched. Behind him stands a Serbian soldier, rifle cocked and ready. As the caption suggests this man’s pleas were answered with his own death. He is staring at the camera as if it will provide him with refuge, as if the photographer will somehow intervene. The photograph cannot anticipate history but the caption can. The prisoner pushes against the camera — he is pleading for help. Yet, without the caption, his “story” and the interpretations which we could make of it, would be entirely circumstantial. In this case, the written word acts as an arbiter for the event and tries to intervene in our interpretation. But even as I say this, the photograph slips away. This anonymous man’s torment is as silent as the paper it was printed on. It would take an imaginative projection on my part to overcome the gaps created by his death as text and as image.

Let me suggest that photographic images neither illustrate thought, nor are thoughts illustrated by the pictorial. Photographic images are silent, blind, unseeing. They don’t listen to us nor do they change when viewed. They are not the source of a magical emanation from which the seeing eye draws inspiration. They rarely display the hand of the photographer who has created them and for the most part leave no traces of the chemistry which has produced them. This is not simply a matter of arbitrariness, of meanings lost and then gained, of part-whole relations which flounder in confusion. Photographs cannot rob the subjects they portray, since photographs never have subjects, men, women and children “imprinted” upon them. What is in play here is the very language which is used to describe and explain the “sight” of an image, the categories, words and labels which have been applied to the miniature worlds we peer into, anthropomorphize and recreate.


Calendar: Between the Borders of Cultural Identity, Atom Egoyan's Calendar

To look:
at everything which overflows the outline, the contour, the category, the name of what is.

All appearances are continually changing one another: visually everything is interdependent. Looking is submitting the sense of sight to the experience of that interdependence. To look for something (a pin that has dropped) is the opposite of this looking. Visibility is a quality of light. Colours are the faces of light.

(John Berger, “On Visibility,” in The Sense of Sight)

Calendar, in which Atom Egoyan plays the role of a photographer whose assignment is to take twelve pictures of historic sites in Armenia for a calendar. Arsinée Khanjian plays his wife, guide and interpreter. The film takes place in Armenia and Toronto.

I have come to realise that Atom Egoyan’s films must be understood as the continuing construction of an open ended oeuvre. All of his films are inter¬linked. Sometimes, it seems that he is writing an extended essay on the cinema and television (Family Viewing and Speaking Parts). Other times his films are like extracts from a series of diaries about images, loss and a postmodern context bereft of meaning (Next of Kin, The Adjustor and Calendar). His films search through the living ruins of modern cultural history in much the same manner as an archeologist digs for evidence of a culture’s past. The difference is that his tools are images and images are ‘light’ — a shift¬ing, groundless place where, “Clouds gather visibility and then disperse into invisibility. All appearances are of the nature of clouds.” (Berger: 219) Yet even as this ‘lightness’ recreates the premises of the visible (and how we are able to understand it), Egoyan continues to use the mediums of film and television to explore history and identity. The pursuit is a noble one, but as Calendar so deftly reveals, the result may be one long travelogue where the sensibility of the tourist dominates. There is a strange irony to Egoyan’s decision to use himself as one of the main characters in the film. He implicates himself in an auto-critique of the desires which have governed his relationship to photography and the cinema. He puts himself on the line in a kind of Brechtian play with divided loyalties which break apart and destroy the flimsy foundations of author¬ship.

I have recently discussed Egoyan’s use of images in an introductory essay on Speaking Parts. In the above quote John Berger captures some of the ironies with regard to any analysis of images. His use of a metaphor drawn from nature is not accidental, of course. Egoyan spends a great deal of time in Calendar exploring the act of taking a photograph of historical buildings in Armenia (his country of origin), churches and fortresses, for example, within picturesque natural environments. Although these places are beautiful with rich colour tones, wildflowers and sun-baked fields, they are “tourist” images for which some anecdotal history is provided, but where the depth seems to be mis¬sing. In fact, what becomes important as we look at the old buildings is not so much their connection to the past, but the role they play in triggering questions about the two characters whom the photographer is dependent on for guidance and information. One is a woman with whom the photographer (played by Egoyan) is in love and who is identified as his wife and the other is an Armenian driver who acts out the role of the local “informant”. The photographs are ostensibly being taken for a calendar but in essence we are witnesses over time to the breakdown of the photographer’s relationship to his wife and by extension to Armenia. Thus, all of the monuments which we see are themselves evidence of what cannot be seen. There are histories in the buildings but they only speak through the voice of the driver. In fact the pastoral setting of the images seems incongruent with the war raging in Armenia and with the breakdown of civil life and the economic devastation brought on by the overthrow of communism. How then can this place be spoken of as home? How are national borders defined when identity and place are fluid, moveable and ever changing? Are we the sum total of all of the different nations we now live beside? — all of the different languages we either speak or listen to? How does this hybridization change the spatial and temporal boundaries within which we normally operate?

“A life-testimony is not simply a testimony to a private life, but a point of conflation between text and life, a textual testimony which can penetrate us like an actual life .” Calendar is Egoyan’s testimony to his past, as much as it is a story of the efforts by the film’s characters to understand their own ethnic history. The film explores the many dimensions of identity, which in the late twent¬ieth century means far more than a simple relationship to the nation-state or the recovery of ancestral connections. The postcolonial and postimperial history we are now experiencing has scrambled the meanings of home and homeland. In Homi Bhabha’s terms another history is being written from within a crisis of the sign where language and meaning, discourse and identity have no firm anchors. Traditional notions of subjectivity have been transformed but this is not simply the movement from one stage to another, but a fundamental split in the operations of time and history. “…today, the rapidly expanding and quickening mobility of people combines with the refusal of cultural products and practices to “stay put” to give a profound sense of a loss of territorial roots, of an erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of places… Gupta and Ferguson go on to quote James Clifford: “What does it mean, at the end of the twentieth century, to speak…of a ‘native land’? What processes rather than essences are involved in present experiences of cultural identity?”

Hamid Naficy has commented upon the nostalgic desire to return to the homeland and thus to overcome the double loss of “…origin and of reality…” as a driving force inhabited by imaginary constructions which “…remains alluring only as long as it remains unrealised.” (Naficy: 286) This is of course the dilemma of the diaspora and exile, of cultures which have lost their roots as they have been overrun or destroyed only to be recreated elsewhere, simulated and I do not mean this pejoratively. In some respects, then, for Egoyan we have all become tourists and in the process we have had to develop new ways of dealing with each other which are more often than not mediated by complex technologies such as the camera and the telephone. Salman Rushdie has commented on this in a wonderful anecdote. “A few years ago I revisited Bombay, which is my lost city, after an absence of something like half my life. Shortly after arriving, acting on an impulse, I opened the telephone directory and looked for my father’s name. And, amazingly, there it was; his name, our old address, the unchanged telephone number, as if we had never gone away to the unmentionable country across the border. It was eerie discovery. I felt as if I were being claimed, or informed that the facts of my faraway life were illusions, and this continuity was the reality.”

Some years ago I found myself at a Cambodian ceremony in Melbourne, Australia. There were about eight hundred people in the gymnasium of an old school which had been taken over by the small but growing exile community of Cambodians in Australia. The gym was decorated with the symbols and colours of the homeland. Everyone was dressed up and the smell of incense was heavy in the air. I remember little of the specifics of the ceremony except for the feeling which I had that we were all in a time warp, transported back into a village, participating in the sounds and rhythms and music of a culture many thousands of years old. I understood then how crucial the nostalgia was, how curative and yet how contradictory. As a particular dance reached its peak the people around me began to cry, and as they comforted each other they seemed to me to be both weak and strong at the same time. This it seems to me is one aspect of exile — the ability to implicate oneself so strongly in the homeland and at the same time to go on, to carve out a new life, to break out of the boundaries of geography and time and yet to remain bound by a history which remains static even as things change both in one’s new home and abroad. This is of course the paradox of loss and the base upon which narratives are built. As Rushdie says an original moment cannot be reclaimed here with the result that fictions will be created, ‘imaginary homelands.’ (Rushdie:10) But this is precisely what Egoyan is exploring. How do those fictions sustain themselves? What are the markers we accept and what happens to the ones we reject? How do photographs operate as a fictional bridge?

I mention this in relation to Calendar because of my own background as an immigrant to Canada, as someone who was born elsewhere and for whom that “elsewhere” has never disappeared from the various ways in which I define myself. This very fluid sense of identity is made all the more acute by the situation in Quebec, by the personal signposts which I have for my own past and the efforts by official culture here to eradicate the importance of that history.

It is in the borders between official culture as promulgated by govern¬ment policy and the displacement (psychological, physical, intellectual) which grows from being both a witness and participant to the diasporas of twentieth century life, that a film like Calendar is situated. The film searches for strategies of talking about identity that will not fall prey to the categories of margin or centre. It longs for some coherence in the transnational space of exile and community. Through a series of often funny conversations the film tries to locate the way time and distance work to generate a mental geography within which the markers more often than not are unstable and unclear. At the same time one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the difficulty which the photographer has in under¬standing Armenian. Everything his driver says has to be translated. Often, we don’t get a translation and conversations take place which we don’t comprehend. This is duplicated in the Toronto flat of the photographer where he meets a number of different women in exactly the same setting (…a small dining room table, wine glasses, a bottle wine…). Each time they go off to the telephone and have a conversation with their lovers in their own maternal language. We hear everything from Hindi to German to Spanish to Swedish etc.., and depending on our own backgrounds we either under¬stand the conversations or not. In all instances the women stand near the calendar which had been produced from the Armenian scenes we witnessed the photographer shooting.

The border region inhabited by Egoyan in this film also pivots on temporal displacement. The time is now but somehow it isn’t. The characters seem disconnected from the present, always yearning for something else, for the future, for the past. Yet that is also the paradoxical situation of photo¬graphy both as an art form and as a means of documenting past and present. “In a photograph a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow.”

Kracauer distinguishes between the photograph of a person and the memory-image. The latter is what is left when the photograph is viewed outside of the time when it was taken. This distinction is a crucial one. It temporal¬izes the photograph and in so doing heightens the role of discourse, what is said and what isn’t said, about images. No photograph escapes the contra¬dictions and potential excitement of temporal dislocation. There are so many movements in space and time, so many moments within which history must be rewritten, that the conceit of truth must be understood not as an ontological basis for interpretation, but as a site where memory is reinvigorated, even when memories slip from fact into fiction and back. The pleasures of seeing in this instance are invested with desiring, to make the memory real, to generate truth, to manufacture a narrative. The truth becomes a metaphor just as quickly as the image disguises its sudden transformative power. The snow melts and there is a dissolution of memory although the photograph remains suggestively encouraging — as if no historical moment will ever again escape its simultaneous role as event and image, memory and potential arena for debate.

Each encounter Egoyan has with a different woman suffers the same fate. He is left alone to contemplate the love he has left behind in Armenia. In that sense he is locked into a history which is only real within a false kind of romanti¬cism. As in nearly all of his other films the telephone is a device of contact and breakdown, a metaphor for distance and connection. As a technology the telephone is perhaps the most important contributor to the creation of a public space within which the private fantasy of communica¬tion and interaction can be sustained and through which it is often denied. This, I think, is also the role which is played by photography. Distance can be overcome but the photographic print must be narrativized if links be¬tween past and present are to be established.

Calendar is a film in twelve movements, built around the photographs accompanying the months of the year. But the film is really about the memories of times past, when an image somehow connected to its referent and when notions of home and church and tradition could be addressed from within a set of foundations as solid as the buildings we see in the film. Ironically, as the Armenian driver becomes the historian and more fully represents all that is missing from the image, from the photograph, Arsinée falls in love with him. Egoyan is left to his devices in the dining room of his Toronto house or in the darkroom trying to reconstruct a world which, as his own images suggest, has long ago ceased to exist.

CineAction, No 32, 1993

Tenement in the 1940's or How Photography Makes History

The Library of Congress' photos on Flickr




The act of taking a photograph is a way of preserving memories, but is also the way in which history (both personal and public) is produced.

“One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realised then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” (Roland Barthes)

The eyes of the emperor’s brother once looked straight into a camera, in this case ‘manned’ by a photographer whose duty it was to take pictures of the rich and powerful. Jerome’s eyes had been privileged enough to look into Napoleon’s eyes. The photograph as described by Roland Barthes allowed him to establish a relay between Jerome (in the 1850’s) and the modern readers of CAMERA LUCIDA This juxtaposition of time and space is at the root of Barthes’s meditation on photography in CAMERA LUCIDA. Barthes provides us with the social and cultural matrix at the heart of his activi­ties as a viewer and as a cultural analyst. CAMERA LUCIDA is part analysis, part theory, a personal examination of the role of photography in Barthes’s life and an hommage to Jean-Paul Sartre’s book, THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMAGINATION. An extraordinary number of essays and articles have been written about CAMERA LUCIDA and Barthes’s work. My purpose here is to interrogate the photographic image in historical and cultural terms. Barthes is a focus, but this short piece is designed to raise a primary distinction between photographs and images. My premise is that this distinction will allow us to more clearly understand the role played by the viewer in the experience and interpretation of images.

One of the aims of the project of CAMERA LUCIDA is to discover whether there is an interpretive space betweeen image and photograph which will allow for if not encourages new ways of thinking and seeing. Barthes tests many strategies of interpretation with regard to photographic meaning, but much of the book is governed by an emphasis on death, the death of his mother, the death of photography as a form of cultural expression, the death of the interpreter. “If photography is to be discussed on a serious level, it must be described in relation to death. It’s true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more. Even if the person in the picture is still alive, it is a moment of this subject’s existence that was photographed, and this moment is gone. This is an enormous trauma for humanity, a trauma endlessly renewed. Each reading of a photo and there are billions worldwide in a day, each perception and reading of a photo is implicitly, in a repressed manner, a contract with what has ceased to exist, a contract with death.”

This theme has been researched and commented on by a number of writers but my sense is that Barthes is exploring the meaning of death at the symbolic and imaginary level. Death in this instance speaks to the frailty of memory, but most importantly, Barthes follows the writings of Bataille in recognizing the silence of the photograph in the face of all that is done to it. “Death is a disappearance. It’s a suppresion so perfect that at the pinnacle utter silence it its truth. Words can’t describe it. Here obviously I’m summoning a silence I can only approach from the outside or from a long way away.”

The distinction then between image and photograph is about the cacophony of voices which engulf the silent photograph. My position is somewhat different from Barthes. He is worried about loss and absence. My concern is with the rich discourse which arises from the human encounter with images and the creative use which is made of photographs as they are placed into different contexts.