Monday, September 15, 2008

Say Cheese

Antonioni's film Chung Kuo was shot in 1974, under special approval from the then Chinese government. It was subsequently banned for "negative portrait" of China, the ban was lifted after 30 years in 2004.

Those days in Antonionno's film are long gone. You can hardly identify the scenes in the film of today's Tian'anmen Square, or Shanghai, except maybe the ritual way people taking pictures - in wedding photography boutiques. Zhang YiMou would later make a name for himself in the west depicting the rural China - before he resurrected himself directing the Olympics Ceremonies, that is, those days are gone too. But the film remains particularly interesting, you can see the pace of life, the innocence on people's faces of that time.

I am interested in photography, as a way to capture reality, and present perceived reality. Susan Sontag's comments about the film in On Photography provided some interesting perspective beyond the film. Frankly, both "They are trying to bring us down" crowd and "You are either with us or against us" crowd will benefit reading it. As ESWN comments, this is hardly about this particular movie but extends to the rest of life. Of course, no one should take everything said in an art critique as literal truth, so no need to boil your blood over:

Nothing could be more instructive about the meaning of photography for us -- as, among other things, a method of hyping up the real -- than the attacks on Antonioni's film in the Chinese press in early 1974. They make a negative catalogue of all the devices of modern photography, still and film.

While for us photography is intimately connected with discontinuous ways of seeing (the point is precisely to see the whole by means of a part -- an arresting detail is a striking way of cropping), in China it is connected only with continuity. Not only are there proper subjects for the camera, those which are positive, inspirational (exemplary activities, smiling people, bright weather), and orderly, but there are proper ways of photographing, which derive from notions about the moral order of space that preclude the very idea of photographic seeing.

Thus Antonioni was reproached for photographing things that were old, or old-fashioned -- "he sought out and took dilapidated walls and blackboard newspapers discarded long ago"; paying "no attention to big and small tractors working in the fields, [he] chose only a donkey pulling a stone roller" -- and for showing un-decorous moments -- "he disgustingly filmed people blowing their noses and going to the latrine" -- and undisciplined movement -- "instead of taking shots of pupils in the classroom in our factory-run primary school, he filmed the children running out of the classroom after a class."

And he was accused of denigrating the right subjects by his way of photographing them: by using "dim and dreary colors" and hiding people in "dark shadows"; by treating the same subject with a variety of shots -- "there are sometimes long-shots, sometimes close-ups, sometimes from the front, and sometimes from behind" -- that is, for not showing things from the point of view of a single, ideally placed observer; by using high and low angles -- "The camera was intentionally turned on this magnificent modern bridge from very bad angles in order to make it appear crooked and tottering"; and by not taking enough full shots -- "He racked his brain to get such close-ups in an attempt to distort the people's image and uglify their spiritual outlook."

Besides the mass-produced photographic iconography of revered leaders, revolutionary kitsch, and cultural treasures, one often sees photographs of a private sort in China. Many people possess pictures of their loved ones, tacked to the wall or stuck under the glass on top of the dresser or office desk. A large number of these are the sort of snapshots taken here at family gatherings and on trips; but none is a candid photograph, not even the kind that the most unsophisticated camera user in this society finds normal -- a baby crawling on the floor, someone in mid-gesture. Sports photographs show the team as a group, or only the most stylized balletic movements of play: generally, what people do with the camera is assemble for it, then line up in a row or two. There is no interest in catching a subject in movement.

This is, one supposes, partly because of certain old conventions of decorum in conduct and imagery. And it is a characteristic visual taste of those at the first stage of camera culture, when the image is defined as something that can be stolen from its owner; thus Antonioni was reproached for "forcibly taking shots against people's wishes," like "a thief."

Possession of a camera does not license intrusion, as it does in this society whether people like it or not. (The good manners of a camera culture dictate that one is supposed to pretend not to notice when one is being photographed by a stranger in a public place as long as the photographer stays at a discreet distance -- that is, one is supposed neither to forbid the picture-taking nor to start posing.) Unlike here, where we pose where we can and yield when we must, in China taking pictures is always a ritual; it always involves posing and, necessarily, consent. Someone who "deliberately stalked people who were unaware of his intention to film them" was depriving people and things of their right to pose, in order to look their best.

Antonioni devoted nearly all of the sequence in Chung Kuo about Peking's Tien An Men Square, the country's foremost goal of political pilgrimage, to the pilgrims waiting to be photographed. The interest to Antonioni of showing Chinese performing that elementary rite, having a trip documented by the camera, is evident: the photograph and being photographed are favorite contemporary subjects for the camera. To his critics, the desire of visitors to Tien An Men Square for a photographic souvenir is a reflection of their deep revolutionary feelings. But with bad intentions, Antonioni, instead of showing this reality, took shots only of people's clothing, movement, and expressions: here, someone's ruffled hair; there, people peering, their eyes dazzled by the sun; one moment, their sleeves; another, their trousers. ...

The Chinese resist the photographic dismemberment of reality. Close-ups are not used. Even the postcards of antiquities and works of art sold in museums do not show part of something; the object is always photographed straight on, centered, evenly lit, and in its entirety.

We find the Chinese naïve for not perceiving the beauty of the cracked peeling door, the picturesqueness of disorder, the force of the odd angle and the significant detail, the poetry of the turned back. We have a modern notion of embellishment -- beauty is not inherent in anything; it is to be found, by another way of seeing -- as well as a wider notion of meaning, which photography's many uses illustrate and powerfully reinforce. The more numerous the variations of something, the richer its possibilities of meaning: thus, more is said with photographs in the West than in China today.

Apart from whatever is true about Chung Kuo as an item of ideological merchandise (and the Chinese are not wrong in finding the film condescending), Antonioni's images simply mean more than any images the Chinese release of themselves. The Chinese don't want photographs to mean very much or to be very interesting. They do not want to see the world from an unusual angle, to discover new subjects. Photographs are supposed to display what has already been described. Photography for us is a double-edged instrument for producing clichés (the French word that means both trite expression and photographic negative) and for serving up "fresh" views. For the Chinese authorities, there are only clichés -- which they consider not to be clichés but "correct" views.

In China today, only two realities are acknowledged. We see reality as hopelessly and interestingly plural. In China, what is defined as an issue for debate is one about which there are "two lines," a right one and a wrong one. Our society proposes a spectrum of discontinuous choices and perceptions. Theirs is a constructed around a single, ideal observer; and photographs contribute their bit to the Great Monologue. For us, there are dispersed, interchangeable "points of view"; photography is a polylogue.

The current Chinese ideology defines reality as a historical process structured by recurrent dualisms with clearly outlined, morally colored meanings; the past, for the most part, is simply judged as bad. For us, there are historical processes with awesomely complex and sometimes contradictory meanings; and arts which draw much of their value from our consciousness of time as history, like photography. (This is why the passing of time adds to the aesthetic value of photographs, and the scars of time make objects more rather than less enticing to photographers.)

With the idea of history, we certify our interest in knowing the greatest number of things. The only use the Chinese are allowed to make of their history is didactic: their interest in history is narrow, moralistic, deforming uncurious. Hence, photography in our sense has no place in their society.

The limits placed on photography in China only reflect the character of their society, a society unified by an ideology of stark, unremitting conflict. Our unlimited used of photographic images not only reflects but gives shapes to this society, one unified by the denial of conflict. Our very notion of the world -- the capitalist twentieth century's "one world" -- is like a photographic overview.

The world is "one" not because it is united but because a tour of its diverse contents does not reveal conflict but only an even more astounding diversity. This spurious unity of the world is affected by translating its contents into images. Images are always compatible, or can be made compatible, even when the realities they depict are not.

Photography does not simply reproduce the real, it recycles it -- a key procedure of a modern society. In the form of photographic images, things and events are put into new users, assigned new meanings, which go beyond the distinctions between the beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the useful and the useless, good taste and bad. Photography is one of the chief means for producing that quality ascribed to things and situations which erases these distinctions: "the interesting." What makes something interesting is that it can be seen to be like, or analogous to, something else. There is an art and there are fashions of seeing things in order to make them interesting; and to supply this art, these fashions, there is a steady recycling of the artifacts and tastes of the past. Clichés, recycled, become meta-clichés. The photographic recycling makes clichés out of unique objects, distinctive and vivid artifacts out of clichés. Images of real things are interlayered with images of images. The Chinese circumscribe the uses of photography so that thee are no layers or strata of images, and all images reinforce and reiterate each other. We make of photography a means by which, precisely, anything can be said, any purpose served. What in reality is discrete, images join. In the form of a photography, the explosion of an A-bomb can be used to advertise a safe.

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