André Bazin 2.0

This post may be a bit of a rumble rather than a coherent line of thought. But I want to jot down a couple of thoughts that struck me while reading Bazin’s What Is Cinema? If you look through writing on Slow Cinema, Bazin and Deleuze seem to be the people to quote. Again, I suggest that this has something to do with frameworks and the belief that if you haven’t dug through and used those classic pieces, then you haven’t done your job properly. I’m fully aware of their contribution to film studies, yet I wonder just how applicable they are to today’s cinema and whether we should really still make heavy use of this literature.

It feels as though bits and pieces of Bazin’s work are used without looking at the whole work and how this applies to modern cinema. Just in the first five pages of The Ontology of the Photographic Image I find questionable arguments, and I know that this is one of the founding texts Film Studies uses when teaching students. The idea of ‘true realism’ through photography and cinema, i.e. through a mechanical eye, is at the heart of Bazin’s work and his arguments were possibly true at his time. But they are no longer applicable and should be considered as such when used in academic work.

Take this example: the essential factor of photography “lie[s] in a psychological fact, to wit, in completely satisfying our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part.” (p12)

Even at Bazin’s time, man did play a part in photography. He mentions it in passing, in fact. But even though you have a mechanical recording machine, which makes us believe that the subsequent final product is objective, it is subjective and someone had his/her hand in the production of it. Now that we’re talking a lot about manipulation, which is as old as photography (and which I believe Bazin completely overlooked in his idealisation), we should re-evaluate Bazin’s argument here.

A second example: “For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind.” (p13)

Again, Bazin glorifies the objectivity of photography without realising that he contradicts himself and notes precisely the point that makes photography subjective. First, he argues that man has no hand in the making of mechanical reproduction. Then, on the next page, he says that a photographer does “enter into the proceedings”. He writes that he does so “only” to select the object. Selection is already an interference and is the first step of subjectivity. What do you take a photo of? What do you not show? What angle do you choose? Bazin mentions a photographers “purpose” he has in mind while selecting the object of his photograph.

This defies objectivity. Every selection is a personal choice, which renders whatever we see in cinema or photography subjective. Bazin considers painting subjective because the painter had his hand in the production of the painting. I agree, painting is subjective. Yet, it is the result of only one hand, one painter. If we take cinema, the cameraman isn’t the only one who chooses what should be shown and how. There’s also the director, the producer, the editor etc etc

I always had problems to read Bazin. It’s my third attempt now and if it wasn’t for final touches on my thesis, I would give up again. It’s contradicting, and certainly not applicable to today’s times. I wonder what he would say about the World Press Photographs, those which have been manipulated. I’m not only speaking of digital manipulation. Photographs and films, just like paintings, are, especially in the arthouse section, often an expression of the artist’s inner feelings. How can this be objective?

As soon as you put a lens between you and the real world, you have a mediation. No mechanical recording mechanism can and will ever record reality. Reality can only be lived and seen with our own eyes. Things may feel real, but they’re not, and this is the main fault in Bazin’s work, because he doesn’t seem to acknowledge this.

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One thought on “André Bazin 2.0

  1. Ah, but there is no contradiction! I think your puzzle is solved by reading the first quote in tandem with the preceding sentences. Also, a better translation helps:

    [first quote but from the caboose 2009 edition]
    ‘It is, rather, psychological: photography completely satisfies our appetite for illusion by means of a process of mechanical reproduction in which there is no human agency involved.’

    Gray’s translation makes it seem as if Bazin is talking about the final reproduction (photograph) and claiming that man has no part in it. Bazin, however, is talking about the actual mechanical process: the impression of light on the negative compared to the impression of paint on the canvas, for example. That process, he says, is free of the photographer’s agency and is completely mechanical. In painting, the process of reproduction is a human process; in photography, the process is mechanical. Beyond that, of course, comes subjectivity in terms of what to choose to shoot, how and so on. But the process of reproduction must be distinguished from the process of reproducing, so to speak – and that is exactly what Bazin does here.

    So the two quotes are not contradictory. There are two levels of objectivity/subjectivity: painting is subjective on both; photography – only on one.

    Bazin is a slow author, if I may say so – meaning, one must take their time in pausing, dwelling on points, thinking over and back and forth, his words are seldom immediate, from my experience.

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