Stillness Becoming


Friday, Jonathan. ‘Stillness Becoming: Reflections on Bazin, Barthes and Photographic Stillness’ Stillness and Time: Photography and the Moving Image ed. by David Green and Joanna Lowry (Brighton: Photoforum; Photoworks, 2006) 39-54


Long before the invention of cinema, for example, photography was associated with stillness in a way that other pictorial media were not.

The stillness of these [pre-1890] photographs is conditioned by the need of their subjects to position themselves so as to remain motionless for anywhere between twenty seconds and two minutes, imbuing the image with subtle signs of self-imposed avoidance of natural motion, such as the stiffness of posture characteristic in many early photographic portraits.

Indeed, from our position in an age in which the cinema is a mature medium, it can be hard to shake off the conceptions of photographic stillness that define this property in relation to cinematic motion and to recover what stillness might have meant before the advent of cinema – and indeed what it might mean when freed of cinematic ways of thinking about photography.


If the notion of photographic stillness does not have its sense in contrast with cinematic motion, there must be some other dynamic dimension to underwrite its meaning.


A crude phenomenology suggests events flow toward us from the future, through a very brief present of immediate consciousness, into a past less distinct that the future, but not much so.

No one denies that photographs give us information about the past, but that does not distinguish photographs from a host of other records of events now past. But for many theorists, photogrpahs are a unique kind of historical record because they enable spectators to make perceptual contact with, or otherwise have made present to them, objects in the historical past.

The idea that a picture preserves a long past temporal now of objects and people that continue to persist in that now, but through the medium of photography also exist in our temporal now, suggests that photography is a very odd mode of representation.


[discusses Bazin’s comparison of still and moving images]

The photographic extraction of being from flow of events and the fixing of it into an image makes the temporal connection between the now of the photograph and all subsequent nows exceedingly complex.

If by contrast we do not conceive of the photograph as extracted, but rather as the limit or origin of a chain of events, the relationship of the photograph to time is far less complex, being connected simply to the time of its genesis.


There is a very real sense in which Bazin’s favouring of cinema over photography with regard to realism boils down to some perceived advantage of preserving a portion of being in the movement of its becoming.

[discussion of rivers in relation to an object that is in constant state of flux, hence always becoming, but is always identified as the same object, i.e. Thames]


Whatever it is that underwrites the Thames’ persistent identity through time is the being of the object, which is a fundamental ontological category introduced in contrast to, and defined in terms of the movement of, becoming.

The history of attempts to explain an immutable being that persists through mutable time displays a remarkable degree of inventiveness on the part of philosophers. With some degree of simplification, we can divide the accounts into two sorts.

First there are those that posit an objective or real existence of some entity, substance or essence that persists and is divisible because outside the ordinary conditions of time and space.

Second, there are those that explain being psychologically, in terms of powers, operations, or structures of human mental and linguistic capacities.

We have seen enough of Bazin’s account of photographic stillness to see that he conceives of this quality as contributing to the photograph’s place within the order of being rather than becoming. The photograph enables the phenomenological being of its subject to persist through time without being subject to the mutability of becoming.


[…] this is psychologised by Bazin, in the senses that, first, it is the conclusion of a phenomenology that seeks to identify what a photograph is by careful examination of how it presents itself in the experience of human beings. Secondly, what a photograph is in experience is in large part the product of a deep unconscious need in mankind to erect defences against the passage of time, the decay and death that is its effect, and very conditions of existence  within relentless becoming.

Where photography often gains in intimacy as a result of its stillness, duration and movement in cinema are prone to smoother [sic] its subject matter with expectation.


Everything that exists does so in time including those things that our psychological constitution and imagination render to understanding and experience as existing in stillness outside time.

To help us overcome the primitive psychological need that Bazin posits, and thereby the manifestation of this need and its satisfaction in the imaginative association of the photograph and inaminate being preseved through time, we need only remember that photographs are pictorial representations that – like every other material object – travel through time and are therefore subject to inevitable change.

We might put the point here in the form of Heraclites’ well-known aphorism: you can never encounter the same subject matter of a photograph on two separate occasions. Photographs may change over time at a rate of nearly glacial slowness, but they like everything else are in the flow of becoming.

The passage of a photograph through time and the physical changes that it undergoes constitute a very different kind of ‘movement’  than that associated with the perception of motion in the cinematic image.

The ‘movement’ of the photograph consists of changes to the photograph as a material object that stands in a certain kind of pictorial relationship with a once real object situated in historical time.


These effects of time on the actual photograph may have so far proved negligible for photographs stored in ideal conditions, but pigments fade and materials decay such that time will always have a slow but inexorable effect upon them. Transforming material photographs into digital image files offers a further dematerialised existence, but of course all photographs are fated to slip into non-existence and be forgotten at some time in the near or distant future.


More importantly, what the photograph is a picture of changes over time, though this is not to deny the referential nature of indexical photographic representation. The referential or denotative aspect of the pictorial relationship is fixed, but the sense, or connotative aspect of the photograph changes as the meaning and significance of the real objects the photograph represents change in meaning and significance over time.

We can only understand and react to photographs from our position in the her and now, and this too changes over time, both individually and collectively.


[Discusses Barthes’s references to cinema and photograph]


Time can have its effect over what human beings believe a photograph depicts, and over the connotative meaning of the subject matter, but the indexicality of photographic representation forever links the image with a particular cause and this remains impervious to time as long as the sign survives.


The unchanging photographic reference to its original cause, [that-has-been] to the temporal limit of the photograph’s existence, the starting point of its becoming, provides us with a conception of photographic stillness very different to that formulated in contrast to cinematic motion.

Photographic stillness fills the image and displays itself as unchanging pictorial reference to its originating cause, and thus photographic stillness is not, as Bazin would have us believe, the enfeebled lack of something cinema possesses.

Stillness, so understood, can and does enter into our experience of the photograph. To be struck by this stillness is to be struck by the unchanging persistence of the photograph’s pictorial pointing to its own cause.


[more on Barthes from CL]


Astonishment and horror are two of the classic characterisations of the experience of the sublime, and […] it is worth observing that there is a very great deal in Barthes that is suggestive of the experience of photography having the quality of the sublime – a quality, which, of course, is notoriously difficult to put into words.

What happens at the death of the last person who can identify, and through that identification care about, the human subject of a photograph? This too is a kind of decay, but more powerful than the erosion of the material photograph, and typically more rapid. If there is something of a resurrection in photography it is both precarious and ultimately doomed.

While the photograph hangs on, remains with us still, pointing unceasingly to its origin at the temporal limit of its existence, it displays its stillness becoming. It displays, that is, its paradox and its pleasure, its astonishment and its horror. Its stillness makes us giddy; it is a stillness that is sublime.

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