Roger Hallas, 3:00 p.m. Oct. 30, Indiana University Cinema
A Medium Seen Otherwise | Photography and Documentary Film
As part of our inaugural lecture series, Roger Hallas, Associate Professor of English at Syracuse University, examined the relationship between photography and documentary film. He called for a critical engagement with documentary photography in nonfiction film and argued that documentary films about photography are an overlooked and undertheorized genre.
Hallas opened his lecture by contrasting the use of real-life photographs in fiction and nonfiction film. These images, he explained, contain references to the historical world that are frozen in time “like flies in amber.” In fictional films, he noted, they tend to disrupt the narrative by making the viewer question the film’s overall representation, or fictional treatment of, historical events. In nonfiction films, however, he argued that the use of documentary photography often goes unnoticed or unproblematized since it is seen as just another form of evidence.
The reason why people do not question the use of documentary photographs in nonfiction film, Hallas explained, is because these films are rhetorical in nature. Thus, they are able to move seamlessly between different types of evidence as long as the evidence supports the film’s internal logic. From this perspective, archival film, observational footage, talking-head interviews, sound recordings, maps, photographs, and other historical documents are seen as just another form of “proof, illustration, or interrogation” depending on the rhetorical position a filmmaker takes toward his or her subject.
In order to see photography otherwise, Hallas called for more critical examinations of documentaries that take photography as their principal subject. Unfortunately, he outlined how these documentaries have been “overlooked” by mainstream theorists “in favor of documentaries that have been framed more explicitly in social and political terms.” The reason, he noted, is that documentaries that focus on the arts have been dismissed as little more than filmic praises of “the great artist” or “the genius of the medium.”
One such film is The Photographer (1948), which is Willard Van Dyke’s portrait of his mentor, Edward Weston. Hallas explained that the film could be dismissed as an ode to Weston since so much of it focuses on the photographer “at work” as he looks for images, takes them, processes them, and exhibits them. However, Hallas argued that the film illustrates a fundamental challenge that even contemporary documentaries about photography continue to face: How does one represent “the photographic capture of an instant—or a series of instants—that paradoxically remain invisible to the viewer of the film?”
Historically, Hallas continued, documentarians have addressed this challenge through two strategies. “The first,” he explained, “involves inserting a finished photograph at the end of a shooting scene, which reaffirms both the creative eye of the photographer and the genius of photography in its ability to snatch an instant from the flow of time.” The second, which can be seen in Van Dyke’s film, involves a cinematic mimicry of the photographer’s own visual style.
Hallas acknowledged that contemporary documentaries on photography utilize the same strategies. However, he asserted that the use of innovative cinematic techniques in camera design, movement, editing, and sound design allow them to go beyond mere mimicry. Two such films include Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes (2006), featuring the work of Canadian landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky, and Christian Frei’s War Photographer (2001), about the work of American photojournalist James Natchwey.
Although both films function on the surface as celebrating the documentary portrait of the subjects and their work, Hallas claims that the cinematic techniques used by the filmmakers “also open for their viewers a space of critical engagement with their work and with the medium of photography itself.” As a result, Hallas argued that documentaries about photography allow viewers to consider the ethical and political dynamics of what Ariella Azoulay calls the event of photography, or “the complex encounter amongst photographer, camera, subject, and viewer in which no one party holds sovereignty.”
In closing, Hallas emphasized that the event of photography cannot be reduced to the photograph produced in it, and he encouraged viewers to recognize and analyze how the events depicted in and beyond a photograph’s frame constitute a civil space of diverse and often competing looks. Only when we are able to do so, he stressed, will we be able to critically interrogate the use of photography in nonfiction film—both as a source of evidence and as a form of being with others.
This lecture was sponsored by the Center for Documentary Research and Practice, the Media School, the Department of History, Cinema & Media Studies, and the Indiana University Cinema.
 Peter Wollen,”Fire and lce”, in Photographies, no.4 (Paris, April 1984) 118-20.