Photo: A History From Behind the Lens is a 12-part, six-hour television series produced for French television, which aims to discuss some of the hidden technical and aesthetic aspects of what is arguably the defining art form of the past hundred years. In terms of sheer access, photography is something that many, many people have participated in, whether as a producer of images, a subject of them, or a consumer – or in many cases, all three. Especially in the industrialized west, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has no or even very little experience with all these aspects of the form.
It’s reasonable to expect, then, that an in-depth look at the history and development of photography would hold great interest for many viewers. Alas, although this is the case, this series fails to deliver on much of its promise. There is a good deal of information here, to be sure, but the series suffers from a scattershot approach that undermines a more measured approach, one that perhaps seeks to avoid staleness and predictability but swaps that for an unpleasant randomness. Moreover, in a world in which the static image has lost some of its glamour, the producers spend much time with annoying, Terry Gilliam-style animations of the photos themselves, which more often than not are annoyingly distracting.
The first of the criticisms is the more significant. For a series that proposes to illuminate the history of photography, it’s bewildering that the first episode should focus on the Surrealist movement of the ‘20s and ’30s. Surrealism, after all, was an art movement that sought to undermine the outward appearance of things, which is what photography excelled at capturing; much of their output was a reaction against what had come before. Given that this is the first episode in the series, nothing has come before, from the viewer’s point of view, making it a disorienting starting point.
Not until episode two does the viewer journey to the starting point, with “The Primitives of Photography, 1850-1860”. One of the best installments in the series, this provides an illuminating and interesting look at the very earliest images ever recorded. It also reveals, surprisingly enough, that “trick” photography and the overt manipulation of the image had its roots in the very earliest days of the art form. Photographers would often take multiple exposures of a scene in order to cobble together the various bits into a single, acceptable image. What we think of as Photoshopping existed many decades before Photoshop.
Frustratingly, this early overview is followed in the very next episode by “The New German Objectivity”, a discussion of a specific movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s that aimed to capture the static, unadorned realness of things – mainly factories and industrial buildings in the European countryside. If this sounds duller than dirt, it’s because it is. No doubt this is an important development in the history of photography, but again, its inclusion in the sequence here, immediately following the very beginnings of the art form, is baffling beyond words.
And so it goes. Any number of episodes are engaging enough – the one covering photojournalism is particularly enlightening, as is that focusing upon amateur photography – but taken as a whole, the series loses much more than it gains through its contrived attempts at avoiding linearity.
Perhaps less problematic overall yet still annoying at times is the overused technique of animating the photos under discussion. Instead of merely showing the images, or perhaps panning slowly across them, the producers will isolate a particular element: a human figure, say. Then that figure will be joined by another: perhaps an oddly hunched figure; then a bicycle will rise up from below the frame to provide a perch for the hunchback, and then a background will drop in from above. Voila! We have a complete photograph at last: a woman walking along a tree-lined street while a man on a bicycle rides past. This is a made-up example, but you get the idea: the producers, apparently afraid that an unmoving image will bore 21st-century viewers, have elected to turn the photograph into a little mini-movie. Maybe the kids will like it. I sure didn’t.
This is a slickly-produced package, as are all such from distributors Athena, and it includes an interesting 12-page booklet to complement the episodes. Ultimately, though, despite containing any number of intriguing moments, A History From Behind the Lens fails to provide a coherent overview of the art form. Maybe that’s inevitable, given the enormously far-flung and complex history of the medium. Still, it would have been nice to see the producers try.