Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In Pursuit of the Magic Lantern


An artist cannot succeed – cannot live, even – as an isolated entity unto oneself, without the fertile cross-pollination that comes from co-mingling in the creative juices of a larger cultural context. I am currently reading a biography of the assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, along with a parallel novel, ‘Celestial Navigation’, by Anne Tyler. Cornell, the true-to-life artist, and Jeremy Pauling, the fictional artist in ‘Celestial Navigation’, both live reclusive lives, their seeming only outlet being their peculiar field of art that has become a catharsis for some inner struggle. Though Cornell lived a secluded life, his life’s work spanned the temporal and stylistic influences of at least three art generations: Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. He was an influencer of, and influenced by, art and popular culture of his time.

This last weekend I attended a meeting of a local film and video arts organization, and had the opportunity to rub elbows with many people whose passion is the art and craft of storytelling through the moving image. Though I have dabbled in some low quality ‘experimental’ video work some years ago, my recent creative focus has been in the area of pinhole and silver gelatin photography. Conversations with individuals at this meeting have rekindled some long-forgotten passion I once felt toward a method of employing still photography as an image source for the purposes of experimental and documentary film.

Conceptually, what has interested me takes the form of a montage of still images that are ordered and sequenced in what we will refer to as a Magic Lantern or slide show, with a sound track accompaniment. There is nothing at all revolutionary about this technique; what seems to be its most striking attribute is the sense that the Magic Lantern – an ordered sequence of still images – can function as a mature storytelling medium, rather than being a mere transitional form or technological footnote on the long road from Greek Tragedy to Virtual Reality.

The Magic Lantern seems to function as a hybrid media, transgressing that middle ground between still imagery and motion picture; a staccato, slow-motion cinema of sequentially ordered decisive moments, each carefully extracted from the larger continuum of real events, and isolated with the introspective gaze of the camera’s four walls, the frame’s edge.

If photography can be said to take out of their original context the bits and pieces of the visual cortex that is the world of light, then the Magic Lantern is a restructuring of those elements, an amalgamation whose purpose is the creation of a wholly new and original context; a transformation.

The power of still imagery lies in its fundamental quality to not only arrest the flow of time but also stretch out and dissect those very elements that make up each moment. When we view an image by Garry Winogrand, for instance, we see the frozen remnants of a convulsive and dynamic street scene, dissected with the precision of a surgeon, enabling an astute viewer to sense the invisible lines of force that enliven the interrelationships between the various characters in the scene, as if we are witness to a line of street theatre by actors dressed in the nonchalant garb of the every man. We are left with the sense that had the very same scene been recorded in a medium of moving images – film or video – we would be entirely oblivious to the hidden drama unfolding between each frame of film, as if we were undertaking the elusive goal of capturing fairies, requiring each frame be carefully examined in exquisite detail for that elusive, telltale sign.

The process of montage presents to the artist an opportunity to construct a series of still images, frozen moments, such that they interrelate and thus present the sequential structure of a story, but without the frantic pace evident with the moving image. The Magic Lantern presents the dichotomy of the stationary image operating within the sequential flow of montage that resembles the storytelling quality of cinema, but without the distraction of motion. In the ordered sequence of still images we can grasp the flow of time and arc of story, yet we never actually see the motion of objects in space. The viewer is presented with the opportunity to decode both spatial and temporal clues presented by the filmmaker in ways that are entirely elusive in the realm of motion picture.

What excites me is the possibility to begin using the art of still photography as a source of imagery for the Magic Lantern, especially the vast archive of pinhole and alternative lens imagery that I have created in the last decade. Not only is the contemporary technology of the computer-edited movie to be employed in this project, but also I have alternative methods at my disposal, such as the ability to create and project filmstrips, using an Olympus Pen D half-frame camera and filmstrip projector. I look forward to being witness to the coming together of multitudes of individual still images for the purpose of creating an entirely new context in storytelling, completely outside of the boundaries of convention. I impatiently await the magic that is the Magic Lantern.

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~Joe

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