The History and Aesthetics of the Classical Film StillSteven Jacobs
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Dealing with the film still of classical Hollywood films, this article traces the historical development of this photographic genre through an investigation of statements made by stillmen in trade journals such as International Photographer throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In addition, the article discusses the aesthetics of the film still, which implies a specific kind of dealing with light, focus, narrative, time, temporality and the instantaneous. Finally, it investigates how these elements were taken up by some prominent contemporary art photographers and video artists.
Keywords: film still, publicity still, cinema, classical Hollywood, studio system, film frame, photogram, staged photography, theatricality, absorption, International Photographer
No picture could exist today without having a trace of the film still in it, at least no photograph, but that could also be true of drawings and paintings maybe. Jeff Wall ` Au moment ou limage cinematographique se confronte le plus troitement e avec la photo, elle sen distingue aussi le plus radicalement. Gilles Deleuze
1 See Andre Gaudreault, One and Many: Cinema as a Series of Series, History of Photography 31:1 (2007), 319; and Daniel Meadows, Set Pieces: Being About Film Stills Mostly, London: British Film Institute 1993, 12. ` 2 Roland Barthes, Le troisieme sens, Cahiers du cine ma 222 (July 1970), 1219. This text was published in English as The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills, Artforum IX:5 (January 1973), 4650. See also Dana B. Polan, Roland Barthes and the Moving Image, October 18 (Autumn 1981), 416; and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Barthes & Film, Sight and Sound 52:1 (Winter 1982/1983), 503.
There seems to be considerable confusion regarding the nature of film stills not only among the general public, but also among art critics and even film scholars. In several languages, the English term film still refers to images taken on the set with a still camera and to an extraction of one of the sixteen or twenty-four single frames that together make up a one-second piece of film. In film publications using a more accurate terminology, the reproduction of a film frame, which Roland Barthes called a photogramme, is usually labelled as a frame enlargement. These frame enlargements often show a somewhat coarse-grained quality because they are magnifications of a single frame from an often battered celluloid 35-mm film strip. In addition, frame enlargements are often blurred because the movie camera operates at a shutter speed that is not always fast enough to freeze movement. On the cinema screen, the picture does not appear blurred because twenty-four separate frames of it each one pushing along the action, each one with its own individual grain pattern pass through the projector every second. Hence film frames that work perfectly on screen are often unsatisfactory as still pictures.1 For Barthes, photogrammes had a particular appeal. When watching an individual frame, which is essentially invisible during a screening, our attention is drawn towards new details and ambivalences.2 Barthes provocatively illustrates his statements with frames of films by Sergei Eisenstein, a filmmaker who was convinced of the possibility of conveying a specific meaning through the montage of succeeding shots. Operating within a dialectical logic, Eisenstein saw meaning as somethingHistory of Photography, Volume 34, Number 4, November 2010 ISSN 0308-7298 # 2010 Taylor & Francis
fixed: shots of the quashing of a workers insurrection, for instance, acquired a new, symbolical meaning when they were combined with a shot of the slaughter of an ox. To Barthes, however, photogrammes demonstrate that still images also contain several layers of meaning. Apart from their informational and symbolic meaning, photogrammes have a third meaning or an obtuse meaning that arises almost accidentally. Reminiscent of his concept of the photographic punctum, this third meaning is already included in the single shot and even at the level of the single frame, which escapes the control of the filmmaker. Looking at single frames from films by Eisenstein, Barthes found new meanings, many of them non-specific and incomplete. Watching a film, however, we do not see this excess since the individual images are not there long enough for us to contemplate them. Precisely because this third meaning becomes visible only when the film was disconnected from movement, Barthes saw the photogramme as the essence of the film medium. Ironically, what was truly filmic about a film revealed itself only once the movie was deprived of movement an idea that has become enormously appealing to recent artists and photographers who have integrated some of the technical and aesthetic features of the film still into their staged photographs.Downloaded By: [Universiteit Antwerpen] At: 05:01 17 November 2010
Stills, Stillmen and the Studio System A similar but nonetheless different kind of ambivalence characterises the film stills, which are photographs still photographs taken by a still photographer, the socalled stillman, with a large-format (usually 8 x 10 inch) camera. The stillman was a typical product of the industrial organisation of the film studios during the classical era (ca. 19121960), which involved standardised production as well as a division and specialisation of labour. During the 1920s, in most major studios, a standardised practice developed, which meant that the responsibility for still photography would be divided between a portrait photographer, who would take the more prestigious and artistically posed portraits of the leading stars, and the unit stillman, who worked on the set.3 In 1928, a separate section of stillmen was even established as part of a union of still and motion picture photographers. This union was especially active throughout the 1930s, and its trade journal, The International Photographer, paid regularly attention to the technique and the aesthetics of the film still.4 Apart from numerous shots of sets and costumes from many different angles for continuity and reference purposes, stillmen took photographs that usually depict a specific scene of a film. These stills were taken on the set and they often (but not always) adopt the viewpoint and vanishing point of the film camera. Furthermore, the still photographer sometimes (and certainly not always, as the following paragraphs will show) rewardingly uses the sets, props, costumes, make-up and lighting utilised in the film. After a successful take, actors are often asked to do things once more for stills, thereby retaining the fictional illusion of the film by staying in character and respecting the so-called fourth wall of the narrative film by ignoring the camera and the fact that they are actually being photographed.5 However, the story of movie stills photography already started in the early 1910s, coinciding with the rise of the star system and the drastic expansion of movie audiences. As a result, newspapers, periodicals and the new breed of illustrated fan magazines and trade journals were in great demand for pictorial materials.6 Because the average person looks at the pictures with their captions before reading the printed text, the Still Department is one of the most important departments in a motion picture studio; it is really the right arm of the Publicity Department, Harry Cottrell concluded in a 1935 article.7 In addition, stills were also used as lobby cards decorating the glass showcases at the cinema entrances and they provided the basis for posters and billboard advertising. Last but not least, the financial success of a picture often depended on stills, stillman Don MacKenzie asserted in a 1934 article on his profession. 374
3 Joel W. Finler, Hollywood Movie Stills: Art and Technique in the Golden Age of the Studios, London: Reynolds & Hearn 2008, 20. 4 The International Photographer was subtitled A Journal of Motion Picture Arts and Crafts and presented as the monthly official publication of Local 659, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators of the United States and Canada. Its first issue was published in February 1929.
5 See Thomas Van Pays, A Typology of the Publicity Still: Film for Photograph, History of Photography 32:1 (Spring 2008), 87.
6 Finler, Hollywood Movie Stills, 11. See also Annemarie Hurlimann, Madame Bovarys Children: Hollywoods Fan Magazines, in Film Stills: Emotions Made in Hollywood, ed. Annemarie Hurlimann and Alois Martin Muller, Zurich: Museum fur Gestaltung 1993, 435. 7 Harry Cottrell, Stills and Captions, International Photographer (November 1935), 29.
History and Aesthetics of the Film StillThe salesman who sells the film carries a complete set of stills, which not only tells the story to the exhibitor, but also show him the cast, sets and costumes. In fact, the exhibitor is rarely interested in the film unless he is first impressed by the stills.8
8 Don MacKenzie, The Life of a Stillman, International Photographer (February 1934), 22. 9 George Barr Brown, The Still Camera in Motion Pictures, International Photographer (December 1929), 20.
10 Frederic Colburn Clarke, Stills Still Move the Movies, International Photographer (July 1929), 18. 11 James N. Doolittle, They Musnt Stand Still, International Photographer (March 1939), 18.Downloaded By: [Universiteit Antwerpen] At: 05:01 17 November 2010
12 Gib, Credit Due Stillman, International Photographer (November 1939), 8; and John LeRoy Johnston, Stillmen Musnt Stand Still, International Photographer (February 1939), 9.
13 Hold It for a Still: A Sane Approach to Problems of the Studios Forgotten Men, International Photographer (September 1937), 5.
Motion pictures, in short, were often sold with still pictures alone such is the importance of the stillman and his 8 x 10 camera in the cinema industry, George Barr Brown noted in 1929.9 The crucial role of uncredited stillmen in the success of a motion picture was emphasised in several articles in International Photographer published throughout the late 1920s and 1930s. As early as 1929, Frederic Colburn Clarke, who had been in charge of the stills departments of the Goldwyn and Metro studios, noted that the stillman is accorded a trifle more of respect than he used to be because the producers are realizing that on his efforts depend largely the advertising and publicity necessary to the exploiting of the moving picture film.10 According to James Doolittle, a good story, well directed, adequately cast and properly staged, will sell despite ordinary photography, but you cannot give away ordinary stills.11 Other writers stated that the task of studio still photographers was probably the greatest job of photographic salesmanship in history and that there could be no gag about the real commercial importance of the Hollywood still.12 This striking emphasis on the importance of stills for the commercial success of a film no doubt was inspired by the many difficulties and lack of respect and cooperation stillmen faced on the set issues addressed in almost all of the articles that International Photographer dedicated to the art of film still photography. Apart from receiving no credit for his work and being the forgotten feller of the industry, the stillman had to perform an almost impossible task.13 On the one hand, studio executives, producers, directors and stars demanded as much of stills as possible. On the other hand, however, stillmen were constantly thwarted on the set. In an essay entitled The Life of a Stillman, Don MacKenzie gives an impression of some of the difficulties still photographers had to cope with:The director and the actors have had a hard time shooting the scene. However, after eight or ten minutes the director is satisfied. It is now twelve-thirty and everyone is hungry. The stillman hollers: Hold it for a still! The director goes to lunch, the actors give the stillman disgusted looks. The gaffer, and in fact all the electricians, give him a dirty look and the assistant director glances uncertainly from stillman to actors and finally compromises by promising the stillman that he can have the desired shot right after lunch. After lunch the stillman discovers that the lighting line-up has been changed from an individual close-up and that it is impossible to shoot the original scene. He grumbles to the assistant director, who shrugs and thus another opportunity is lost.14
14 MacKenzie, The Life of a Stillman, 22.
15 John LeRoy Johnston, Stillman Forgets His Tools, International Photographer (September 1937), 6.
16 Grabbing the Stills, International Photographer (March 1930), 4.
17 Johnston, Stillmen Musnt Stand Still, 9.
Constantly being accused of holding up production, stillmen saw themselves as the most hated men on the set. In their writings, assistant directors in particular got the blame. John LeRoy Johnston, who had worked as a publicity director for several studios, wrote that it seems as if many assistant directors feel that their principal function is to keep the stillmen from making pictures.15 In a cartoonlike staged photograph published in the March 1930 issue of International Photographer, still photographer Bert Longworth holds an actor by the hair with one hand while he snaps the shot with the other. His method is somewhat drastic but very effective, the caption concludes.16 According to LeRoy Johnston, the stillmans task was so unrewarding because he was expected to accomplish in a few moments what the movie cameraman planned carefully, aided by a director, a script, an art director, electricians and the production department.17 The conflicting interests of the publicity department on the one hand, and the film crew on the other, resulted in a lot of frustrations among stillmen. Perhaps the still photographers job was more appreciated by producer-directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, Josef Von Sternberg or Alfred Hitchcock, who were also concerned for the post-production and publicity of their 375
Steven Jacobs films. In any case, the general quality of the stills of the films of these producerdirectors is quite high. Self-evidently, studios were interested in the development of alternatives for the laborious, time-consuming and expensive procedure of film stills. As early as 1928, in an article published in the trade journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, Fred Archer and Elmer Fryer mention that it was suggested that the stillman shoot his stills in action.18 The photographer had to put his camera as close to the motion picture camera as was possible and try to get the same angle of view. When a scene came close to the best story-telling stage, he could s...