Unreal Nature

October 12, 2016

Never Seen

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… seizing and parsing out motion into still images, then accumulating these individual images at such a rate of speed that they seem once more to move. There is something obsessive about this circular fascination …

This is from the essay ‘Never Seen This Picture Before: Muybridge in Multiplicity’ by Tom Gunning found in Time Stands Still; Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement by Phillip Prodger (2003):

… It was Muybridge, more than any other figure, who introduced what Walter Benjamin, decades later, termed “the optical unconscious,” revealing that much of everyday life takes place beneath the threshold of our conscious awareness:

Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is a familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.

Muybridge’s work as both artist and scientist addresses peculiarly modern issues of visibility. From the scientific point of view, he offered his photographs as visible evidence. But photography here intersects with an issue that had haunted scientific representation ever since the microscope and telescope. If the human serves as the model of the visual, how does this term apply to images that the human eye cannot see without mediation?

[line break added] The claim (always disputed, even if widely accepted) that photography offered a record of human vision reaches one of several crises with Muybridge’s work and with instantaneous photography generally. What sort of image was a photograph that showed something the eye could never verify?

muybridge_boys_playing_leapfrog

… as the harbinger of the optical unconscious, Muybridge simultaneously analyzed motion into its components, like a good scientist, and then reendowed it mechanically with motion, which fools our eyes. His art employs almost contradictory energies, seizing and parsing out motion into still images, then accumulating these individual images at such a rate of speed that they seem once more to move.

[line break added] There is something obsessive about this circular fascination, something that almost recalls Penelope weaving and unweaving her tapestry. This final antinomy, the exploration of the zone between stillness and motion, may supply us with a key to Muybridge’s fascination for the contemporary viewer. For surely he is what we make of him, and what has been made of him varies from generation to generation and context to context.

[line break added] I believe that for recent generations of American artists Muybridge served as a model of a way to move beyond art as self-expression toward an art that, flirting again with science, seeks to demonstrate its essential conditions. If this seems to arc back to an image of Muybridge as scientist, however, that may be an illusion. It may be what the photograph does not show, what cannot be seen, that truly constitutes the optical unconscious.

[ … ]

… In contrast to the total abstraction evident in [Étienne-Jules] Marey’s charts produced by the purely graphic method, however, the chronophotograph does present us with a visual image, not just traces to be graphed. Marey recognized that there were things within his photographic work that had to be seen, not simply marked. Here lies part of the “wobble” between “what one sees and what really exists,” which [Joel] Snyder discusses in his essay. These pictures do show us something we cannot otherwise see, but we do see them, in a sense we even recognize them, and they do affect the way we see things afterward.

[ … ]

… I will not attempt to discuss Muybridge’s enormous effect on contemporary American art here, but I will sketch something of the context that welcomed his rediscovery, especially in the realm of experimental film.

Far from seeming like a resurrection of archaic material, Muybridge’s use of mechanical reproduction; his objectified approach to the human figure; his abstracted, gridded space; and his distanced, unemotional portrayal of human gesture (as opposed to Bacon’s expressionistic appropriation of awkward poses) — all appeared extraordinarily contemporary in the 1970s and early 1980s.

… Its [Muybridge’s work’s] position in history lodges among differing and even contradictory discourses: the technological development and evolving practices of a new medium; the discourse of adopting this new medium as a form or artistic representation; the often quite opposite discourses wishing to adapt this medium as a means and even a model for scientific objectivity; the excitement of a sudden magical transformation into motion, whether as scientific demonstration, pure spectacle, or both simultaneously;

[line break added] and, perhaps most enduringly, the possibility of using this medium to portray the rhythms of life, the order and harmony that suffuse the human and animal body, providing either a material demonstration or a symbol of an encounter that might be termed spiritual. Muybridge’s work shouldered the nineteenth century’s burden of making things visible in all its contradiction. His reception in the twentieth century recognized not only this visibility but also all the things it refers to that were never seen (before), never seen (again).

-Julie

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