Andre Bazin is undoubtedly a famous figure in film criticism and film theory. Bazin was a co-founder of the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, a mentor and friend of Francois Truffaut and firm supporter of realism. A large collection of Bazin’s writings were complied and published posthumously and entitled What Is Cinema?. In a series of articles I will explore Bazin’s essays. The first article will be:
The Ontology of the Photographic Image
If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex. The religion of ancient Egypt, aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. Thus, by providing a defence against the passage of time it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time. To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life. It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bone.
What Bazin is arguing here is that at the heart of the plastic arts – painting and sculpture – is a need to make immortal the mortal; to turn the image of our flesh into clay, steel and paint is to transform ourselves and preserve our being beyond its physical existence. Bazin is not, as some critics have argued, asserting that all art is solely defined by an attempt at immortalising the mortal. But that one of the defining characteristics, or innate motivations, in the production of art and artefacts, be it the mummification of Pharaohs, portraits of Kings and Emperors, is the ‘preservation of life by a representation of life’.Bazin’s position is that the plastic arts, and I would also assert Bazin’s personal opinion in what makes art attractive, attempts to ‘have the last word in the argument with death by means of the form that endures’.
It should be noted that Bazin died at the age of forty and death stalked him continuously throughout his life. Bazin’s attraction to realism, and an idea of art as a production of the eternal, seems inherently linked to his psychological and physiological state. The attempt to cheat or outlast death through the preservation of one’s image and world seems very close to Bazin. As Bazin explains ‘the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death’.Just like F. Kafka’s fiction, which is infused with fears of and struggles with consumption, Bazin’s conception of the psychology of the plastic arts seems to be his own. That said the foundation of much art is linked to attempts at ensuring an ever-lasting legacy. From statues, palaces, portraits to tombs influential men have commissioned and produced art to represent themselves and the world they live in.
Bazin explains that painting, attempting the production of realism, encountered a problem in combining both the representation of the ‘spiritual’ real or emotionally real and the representation of the physical real.Bazin notes that painting can successfully represent the emotionally real but that the reproduction of the physical real will always lean towards ‘illusion’.This ‘illusion’, I believe, to Bazin meant the inability, of painting, to truly represent the outward appearances of things; a painting of a cart doesn’t really refer to a cart but rather refers to the painters painting of a cart. The cart refers back to the painter and his paint. And to Bazin not only was this a flaw of painting, in its attempt at reproducing reality, but also the main reason photography and film is so successful in the reproduction of reality. Bazin explains ‘Photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism. No matter how skilful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image’ is unavoidable. Film, in contrast allowed, for the first time, allowed the image of the world to be:
formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind. Although the final result may reflect something of his personality, this does not play the same role as is played by that of his painter. All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence. Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.
The painter is unable, due to his medium, to escape the appearance of his touch. Photography, according to Bazin, evaporates the human touch: photography removes the artist’s fingerprint evident in the medium of painting and sculpture. Bazin also believes that, because of the technical and scientific method of photography, the aesthetic experience derived is much more in-line with personal perception. Photography and cinema replicates the physically real without the barrier that one encounters when admiring a painting or sculpture. It should be noted however that Bazin invests far too much faith in the technical process of developing film as an objective and not subjective process. The production of film is open to that very same human touch Bazin felt paintings contained. With the birth of photography came the birth of photo modification and editing and films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari show this trend with certain scenes being coloured differently. And with digital film it is hard to really locate an image that hasn’t been altered somewhat for aesthetic reasons. I think Bazin, even if he accepted that film is often modified, would argue that the best cinema would attempt to capture reality as it is. However this position will be further explored in Bazin’s other essays and other articles concerning them.
Bazin may have argued, however, that the counter-position – that photography is not objective – incorrectly translates his proper position. Bazin uses the French word objectif, which means the lens of a camera, and overtly, in the French text, plays on this meaning. Bazin may therefore be arguing that by the objective nature of photography he means that the physical appearance of brush marks, the fingerprint of the human touch, are not apparent in film and therefore photography, unlike painting or sculpture, reproduces “reality” without direct reference to an artist or photographer. Bazin therefore may not mean objective as not-subjective but rather “through an object”. Photography removes the appearance of the touch of humanity rather than the touch of humanity.
To Bazin the process of photography ‘confers on [an object] a quality of credibility’.Bazin explains that we ‘accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space’.Bazin is arguing that photography and cinema communicates an items existence to us and we believe it. A point is often made here that Bazin seems to believe in the naïve position that “the camera never lies”. However I believe that this point is too harsh. Bazin uses the word ‘confers’ which indicates Bazin’s position to be that the sense of real is attached or attributed to the image – this is not the same as saying “the camera never lies”. Bazin is arguing that the reproduction of reality, through the camera, is imbued with an advantage because, unlike a painting or sculpture, a photograph is not an ‘ersatz’.Painting, or sculpture, is a replacement for an object, a photograph the reproduction. And Bazin believes that this reproduction is treated, commonly, as if it is the object.
There does seem to be some truth to Bazin’s position. People often accept cinematic worlds without question and often photos modified, or “photo-shopped”, are accepted as true and real until people are promoted to believe otherwise – Piers Morgan losing his job over now discredited Iraq photos is a distinct instance of this. This common, or regular, acceptance of photography and films’ realism is often targeted by “viral” marketing campaigns and I am reminded of a film – whose name I currently can’t remember – which circulated a simulated, but realistic looking, office fight in order to gain surprise and attract people unknowingly towards the film’s website. It is not that “the camera never lies” but rather that we often accept photographs and films’ visual representation to be unadulterated and true (even though we known it isn’t – a psychological state known as ambivalence).
Bazin goes on to argue that ‘the aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare… realities.Bazin comes to the conclusion that:
Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love.
To Bazin photography makes us see the world anew. Realism strips bare those preconceptions which, to Bazin, we accumulate through the passage of time like dust settling on furniture. Therefore to Bazin photography and Cinema, in the realist style, is a gust of wind which blows away the dust that settles on our way of seeing. A problem with Bazin’s conclusion, that realism blows away our preconceptions, is that it moves from explanation to conclusion without exploration of the logical sequence which would indicate how realism would blow away our preconception. Bazin imbues the realist style, and photography, with magical qualities like the ones he noted in the Egyptian cultures motivation for mummification. However Bazin fails to establish the reason why and how the realist style blows away the dust of preconceptions and it seems rather, contradictory to Bazin’s intended position, that realism relies on preconceptions. Realism is not so much presenting ‘virginal purity’ but rather relying on regular conceptions and perceptions of reality – this reliance is in fact why one would argue realism is imbued with the power of truth. Realism encounters a problem as it seems to rely on “common-sense” perceptions – and those “common-sense” perceptions tend to be a naturalised ideological position.In ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ Bazin cannot support the conclusion he comes to however he does provide a groundwork for arguing that the film is a powerful medium with a technical process of production which allows it to represent an object rather than replace it – which painting and sculpture does – therefore ensuring a sense of verisimilitude to attached to the medium of film. Bazin does go on to argue for realism in further essays and I will cover these in the attempt to uncover his motivation for his assertion that realism is the optimum style of film.