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Is it photography, is it video?

I’m sure you will have correctly identified the above embedded media as a video; the control strip at the bottom of the frame provides an inequivocal clue. But I bet you will also have double checked that you clicked on ‘play’ because, when you do it, apparently nothing happens.
Keep watching though, and pay attention, because something happens. Something that makes of it a video. Or does it?
I’ve been wanting to write a post about this sort of media for quite some time. The first time I came across Mark Power’s new visual essays I was gobsmacked by their simplicity and yet how compelling they are. The photographer cleverly plays with our visual perception. His ‘still videos’, as I call them, are situated in a no-man’s land between the still and the moving image. They challenge our culturally-trained sense of sight because they show something we have  not been taught to expect from this type of media. In other words, they are a little subversive.
If your eyes are not hurting yet after watching the above media, have a look at this one, also by Mark Power:

As an experimental media producer the inventiveness and originality of Mark Power is hard to beat. The above videos are a radical sideways move from previous mixed-media work such as this collaboration with poet Daniel Cockrill. This installation of still images and voice over is part of a trend of multimedia presentations that has been gathering strength since the new millennium. For the last 10 years respected documentary photographers and photojournalists have jumped on the wagon of multimedia and found new expressive and communication possibilities in their work. Multimedia offers the photographer the opportunity to complement the narrative in the images with their own personal commentary about their experience of photographing a place, like in this presentation on Kashmir by Ami Vitale. And if you think that Vitale is an isolated case have a look at the visual material on The Photography Channel.
The above audiovisual narratives inevitably pose questions about whether the still image is to finally give in to the moving image. Photojournalists are now regularly shooting HD video with their HD-enabled DSLR’s. Online media is showing considerably bias towards the moving image; the BBC News website has recently experienced a considerable shake up in favour of embedded video. Some photographers, well aware of this issue, are even ‘defecting’ to the cinematic world, like Tim Hetherington with his latest film Restrepo, a collaboration with writer Sebastian Junger and produced by National Geographic.
I must admit that the idea of doing HD video with DSRL is very alluring. But at the same time I feel that the communicative qualities of a multimedia persentation with still images and overlaid audio narrative are pretty unique. John Berger said that the main difference between the moving and the still image is that the former is essentially anticipatory, while the latter is inherently retrospective. So what happens to still images linearly presented with voice over? Are they anticipatory or restrospective? I would argue that they are both, and that is exactly why they offer the photographer a tool whose potential for telling a story cannot be matched by either the moving or the traditional still image.

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Posted by author: Jose
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15 thoughts on “Is it photography, is it video?

  • I get an “oops” error when I try to watch, so I can only imagine what the video entails. However, the words around the video put me in mind of the fluxus video “Disappearing music for face” by Mieko Shiomi (1966). Basically an 8 second high speed video clip slowed down to take 11 minutes – there’s a copy on my blog at http://www.robtm.co.uk/RobTM/UVC/Entries/2010/11/25_Status_Report.html but I’ll warn you, not a lot happens in that 11 minutes (a smile fades).

  • A friend of mine has in the past made a series of ‘street’ videos where nothing happened for what seemed like very extended periods, for a time based medium.
    When even the slightest change eventually occurs, like a piece of litter blowing in to the frame, you feel satisfyingly rewarded for having stayed with it, having wondering what the point of a video that looked like a still photograph was, and there the videos ended.
    In retrospect it feels as if you were waiting in preparation for a random event which would represent the authenticity of the moment; like throwing I Ching coins.
    They were shown at the Prague Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2005 but they aren’t on-line any more so I can’t provide a link.

  • No it’s purely art house cinematography, similar to many of the films and clips created by notable artists such as Warhol in the 60’s.
    The French POM (Small/Petit Object Multimedia) movement is photography, graphics and music combined, sometimes with low level animation, to provide the base subject and narrative of the piece.
    The fact that still images are the major component makes it in my eyes a photographic piece. If the main component is focussed on a moving image it will always be cinematography.
    VOLUPTAS by Virginie Terrasse is a very good example of a POM.

    • Actually, that’s exactly what we see in the first video: paint dry. And I personally think that Mark Power did get a fulfilling life, which often sees him working on profitable photographic commissions – e.g. Airbus. The thing is that Mark Power has always had a quirky approach to photography, right from his first big success the Shipping Forecast. He has a reputation for seeing things differently, which is a quality much sought after by those who commission advertising images. In other words, his experimental style eventually paid off for him.
      We welcome all sort of personal views on what we post on We Are OCA. However, we would also like those contributing with a reply to substantiate their comments so that this site can be the learning tool we all want it to be.

  • On an issue that is apparently tangential to this post, but in fact is central to the presentation of art work in general; I think that scale is an important factor. Viewing this on a tiny window in my laptop, it is amusing but not much more, however if one was seeing it projected onto a screen in a video installation I think the effect would be totally absorbing. Size does matter as well as what you do with it!

  • I think that’s an excellent point Peter; even putting it on the web creates certain contextual expectations. On YouTube it could rate as a comedy clip.
    Projected large you have a cinematic context, framing it within a whole different set of connotations.

  • Anybody who hasn’t should read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing to explore the ways that context, size, usage etc affect our apprehension of an image

  • Very timely comment for me Peter: “Ways of seeing” is the next book in my reading list. I thought these were very interesting – and I can see how this kind of thinking could translate very well into advertising or other commercial work.
    One thing I found when watching/listening to the collaboration with Daniel Cockrill was that the disjoint between the words and the pictures made it difficult to really concentrate on either. My attention kept slipping from one to the other and back. I think I’d have to listen to it quite a few times before I saw and heard it all, or picked up half of the allusions and references. I can’t imagine that this is accidental. I haven’t quote worked out what it is about though. Thoughts, anyone?

    • I think you’re absolutely right in your observation about how dislocated the poetry is from what’s shown in the images. I don’t think this is accidental either. Experiencing the presentation, that is listening+watching at the same time, makes me feel disoriented. Perhaps that’s what it is all about: disorientation and the lack of sense of place that one feels when looking at the modern landscapes that Power photographed. Because most of the places that are shown in the presentation are more like no-places – transient, perfunctory, empty and devoid of personal histories.
      Poetry works well with it because to me – and I know nothing about poetry as such – poetry is all about its sounds and the non-literal thoughts that those sounds trigger in the listener. Because the sound of a word has a powerful effect of its own.
      The problem is that we are used to interpreting both images and text/oral narrative literally. We’re also used to narrative which supports images rather than narrative that expands the communicative potential of the photograph. And when we’re presented with something more open-ended like the collaboration between Power and Cockrill we don’t quite know what to make of it.
      Thinking about it, the effect of listening to Cockrill’s poetry while I visually experience Power’s images is mildly hallucinogenic.

    • I found myself being pulled 2 ways … the images took me in one direction, the words in another … did not find it easy to absorb the poetry though it is a medium I love sometimes. Maybe it can work better when the images and words come from the same person!? This is one dimension I think about but probably won’t happen in my work until necessary. As Jose says, I do not know much about poetry so would be wary of spoiling my images with words yet words can be important to a photograph.

  • Thank you for the ‘Ways of seeing’ link Amano. That looks really interesting.
    I think that there’s something in the idea of the work being in part a comment on disorientation Jose. As I look at it again I notice that the title of the piece is ‘Destroying the laboratory for the sake of the experiment’ which further suggests to me that the collaborators were aware that in this combination it is extremely hard to hear the words or see the pictures properly. Unlike a video, where you can see how many minutes are left and can pause, theer are no signposts in this work that let you know whether you’re near the end. I found that moderately unsettling as I’m the kind of person who likes to know where I am.
    I did notice that many of the pictures have their own odd juxtapositions, and that both works explore the theme of the ugliness of some urban spaces. There are some very conscious references back to a less urban and perhaps idealised past, and to earlier generations of writers and artists (“Come friendly bombs and drop on Slough…”).
    I wonder also if the fact that you can’t really get a sense of this work in a few glances, as we so often do, is not also part of the experiment? The only way to get a sense of both the words and pictures is to watch attentively a few times. I was thinking that it was very different from soundbite and Youtube culture to make a work that simply demands time and attention.

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