‘ … should we ever find and utter a name for what these images mean to us, we would so profane them that they might vanish like Eurydice, or fall to dust.’
… The film itself is simple enough. It is monochrome, made of thirteen 100-foot 16mm rolls that clearly display their image at normal speed (just short of 3 minutes) and runs for approximately 36 minutes in all. In twelve of the thirteen segments a photograph appears on the screen in silence for about twenty seconds, which is just enough time to begin to make sense of it.
[line break added] The photograph is on an electric burner, the sort you might find in an artist’s studio or a scientist’s laboratory. A half-interested male voice begins to account for the photograph in the first person, telling us the facts about when and where it was taken. As the narration begins to elaborate on the possible significance of the photograph, the heat from the coil penetrates the image and it begins to burn. Shoots of flame and puffs of smoke accompany the narration on screen while the voice-over continues.
[line break added] The narration is a little confusing because the things described in the photographs do not seem to be there. It is difficult to tell though, because little is left of the photograph at this point. The anecdote winds to a close, the burning ends, and the carbon flutters weakly over the hot coil in silence. This silence, accompanied by the spent image, lasts quite a while, almost as long as the storytelling itself.
[line break added] The next photograph you see bears a resemblance to the description you’ve just heard, but you are hearing yet another story, so you forget all about the story that came before. It gradually becomes clear that the photographs are narrated not by their own story, but by the story of the photograph yet to come. This simple procedure repeats until the film’s end, yet, as it plods merrily along, it confronts us with everything that we know and feel about the cinema.
… The question is put to us, time and again whether any manner of representation can answer the demands of history; how can the weight of the past signify productively in the present? Key to this question is the part words, on the one hand, and images, on the other, play in our conjuring, reconfiguring, re-burying or re-enlivening of the past. Nostalgia is much maligned as a mode of experiencing the past in the present, yet, like it or not, it abides as the pre-eminent way in which we think about history. (nostalgia) is not only a microscopic investigation of the endless horrors and pleasures contained by an instant in time, but also an enlargement of nostalgia to its full power.
… The film’s first and last sequences conjure a darkroom. In the film’s final voice-over the narrator describes wandering about with his camera in 1966 when ‘the receding perspective of an alley caught my eye … a dark tunnel with the cross-street beyond, brightly lit.’ Because of an obstruction the composition was spoiled, reports the narrator, ‘but I felt a perverse impulse to make the exposure anyway.’
[line break added] Then, after blowing up a ‘tiny detail’ of this photograph, that was itself a reflection of a reflection, over and over again, the narrator was faced with an image that, he says, ‘fills me with such fear, such utter dread and loathing, that I think I shall never dare to make another photograph again.’ He pauses, and turning the film over to the spectator, he says, ‘Look at it. Do you see what I see?’ the final image is a complete exposure of black that fills the entire screen. In one sense, the film is the story of a photographic career from beginning to end.
[ … ]
… [Frampton’s] discussions about photography … continually refer to its freedom from language (for better and for worse). Frampton voices his ‘irrational suspicion’ of language in reference to Diane Arbus’s photographs: ‘Freaks, nudists, transvestites, masked imbeciles, twins and triplets inhabit an encyclopedia of ambiguities buried so far beneath language that we feel a familiar vague terror at the very suggestion of being asked to speak of them … an irrational suspicion that, should we ever find and utter a name for what these images mean to us, we would so profane them that they might vanish like Eurydice, or fall to dust.’