Reviews

What We Think of as Photoshopping Existed Decades Before Photoshop

Despite containing any number of intriguing moments, A History From Behind the Lens fails to provide a coherent overview of the art form.


Photo: A History From Behind the Lens

Distributor: Acorn
Cast: Mathieu Demy
Network: RLJ Entertainment
Release date: 2013-11-26
Website
Amazon

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.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

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9

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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