Category Archives: Visual Studies

Seven Decades of TV Noir: A Short Introduction

Originally published in the Noircon 2012 Proceedings
Edited and Produced by Lou Boxer, Deen Kogan, and Jeff Wong
November 2012
Philadelphia, PA 

Introduction

It might be a bit surprising to note that the legacy of TV noir stretches back almost seven decades. That is nearly as long a history as its more celebrated competitor and inspiration, film noir. While the first films noir were shot between 1941-1945, as Ray Starman notes in his book TV Noir, the first noir TV series made their debuts in 1949 with Martin Kane, PI and Man Against Crime. Of course, there is a major and indisputable reason why TV noir came after film noir. While Hollywood was reaching the apex of its studio era in the 1940s, there were really no TV networks until 1947.

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But since 1949, noir has been a constant staple of television programming, generating hundreds of series and thousands of hours of viewing pleasure. Given its plentiful output, cultural impact, and historical legacy, it is likely that more people have encountered noir stories watching TV shows in their living rooms than by sitting in movie theaters. Yet in terms of scholarly and fan-based activities, there have been more books and festivals dedicated to film noir than TV noir. TV noir is often dismissed as “inferior” to film noir, and many fans of noir will tell you they don’t “watch television.”

These are my working notes to accompany the 2012 Noircon panel, “Crime in Primetime: TV’s Most Innovative Noir Series.” Both here and during the panel, I will make a case for reassessing TV’s contributions and innovations to the noir style and storytelling. Towards these ends, I will briefly lay out some of the major ways in which TV noir differs from its cinematic counterpart in terms of its forms, authors, and constraints, and some of the reasons why you should be watching some truly exceptional television series right now if you are a fan of noir.

1. The Forms

Noir and film noir appear on television in a myriad of ways from the replaying of classic movies to throwback skits on variety shows to “special episodes” of non-noir TV series. In this last instance, the noir style is mostly an excuse to shoot an episode in black and white, smoke cigarettes, and wear fedoras. In fact, the grisly crime stories that open many local nightly news broadcasts might be the most noir productions on TV. The pre-eminent form of TV noir is the one-hour prime-time drama. The one-hour drama is not actually a full hour. If you take into account the commercial interruptions and the station identifications, most hour-long shows are approximately 42 minutes long.  Each episode of a noir TV series is considerably shorter than the typical length of a classical film noir, which typically run between 90 and 120 minutes.

Another major difference from the movies is TV noir’s serial format. TV noir is ultimately about the series—depending on the era and the network that means anywhere between 13 to 26 episodes per season. Therefore while Hollywood movies clearly were an influential source for early TV, the bigger influence in the beginning was commercial radio. Television appropriated one of radio’s main programming strategies: the regular and predictable rhythm of a prime time schedule.

TV noir’s profuse output makes it harder to discuss these series in the same depth with which we can analyze films noir. It’s a matter of scope and scale. Consider Law and Order. Over its twenty year run, the original Law and Order series produced 456 episodes. That is an astounding narrative archive that would take almost two months to view in its entirety if you watched eight episodes a day (as seen in the chart that tracks the major characters over 2o seasons, from Wikipedia, below).  Such a large number of episodes also raises the difficulty of being a TV noir completist, i.e. the likelihood that you have seen every episode of a series. And multiply that problem by hundreds of series, and you can see the analytical difficulty of writing about and discussing TV noir.

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In terms of serial structure, each episode of a series can be a self-contained story, which can sometimes feel like a slimmed down (or for some, a watered down) version of a film plot with a rushed and frequently predictable resolution. Or shows can employ the concept of continuing storylines or story arcs to extend narrative events over multiple episodes. Story arcs can tell a more complex story that unfolds over dozens of hours of viewing. Some of TV noir’s most innovative shows have opted for this latter approach. Shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad use intricate story structures to achieve an almost novelistic storytelling depth that is simply impossible to attempt in a ninety-minute film noir. Long-running series have their benefits.

Having to generate a new noir story every week also meant that TV noir returned to its serial roots in pulp fiction and mystery magazines. There can be a thrilling vicariousness in watching a well-made TV noir because you establish a powerful connection with characters that can extend and deepen for years. But the ongoing run of a TV series can lead to challenges for writers who have to make sure the show’s major cast members survive the impending doom of the fateful noir universe, robbing many TV noir series of the narrative uncertainty that has certainly animated some of our best films noir.

2. The Authors

Film has always tended to be identified as a director’s medium. First raised by the concept of auteur theory, directors are assumed to be the main creative driver behind a film. It is just not the same on television. An episodic TV show requires a unified look and similar directing style over multiple episodes, so it is important for directors to “stick to the script.” Even if a director wanted to get more visually adventurous, there is not enough time in pre-production to execute such ideas, and it’s the producers (not the director) who hire the creative personnel on the set. Even with such limitations, some well-known directors have been drawn to the small screen including David Lynch (Twin Peaks), Alfred Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire), Quentin Tarantino (episodes of CSI:), and Rian Johnson (an episode of Breaking Bad).

But ultimately, television is a producer’s medium. For example, name a director of a recent TV episode you watched. Did you draw a blank? Don’t feel bad. Most people don’t recall who directs a TV episode, because we conventionally attribute authorship of a TV series to a producer or show creator. Now name a TV producer. Who created Hill Streets Blues? The Streets of San Francisco? Law and Order? Breaking Bad? For most who have watched these shows numerous times, the names Steven Bochco, Quinn Martin, Dick Wolf, and Vince Gilligan would likely come to mind.

But Bochco, Martin, Wolf, and Gilligan (even when they also write entire episodes for their own series) tend to more in control of a team of writers who operate under the constraints of the show’s template. This point returns me to my essay about networked authorship for Noircon 2010, where I examined the role of multiple writers on a film noir script. My argument was that there was much cross-pollination among creative personnel in classical Hollywood and the writing behind many films noir might be best understood as the hybridization of shared interests in hard-boiled stories and creative exchanges rather than the work of single auteur. I used Strangers on a Train, and the roles of Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, and Alfred Hitchcock as my example.

If we turn our attention to TV writing, the idea of networked authorship is its basic creative model—even more so than film. TV series must employ teams of writers and directors to meet the stringent production demands of producing between 13 and 26 episodes in a short time frame. This means that the show’s creator tends to be the creative hand that guides the overall evolution of the series, but separate writers are credited with individual episodes. Increasingly, some of our best noir TV shows have raised networked authorship to a new level. HBO’s The Wire might be one of the best examples. That show’s creator, David Simon, hired some of the best literary noir writers in the business to pen episodes, including George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane. As a result, the quality of The Wire’s writing shines in that series. (Image from Time Magazine, by David Johnson, picturing Ed Burns, David Simon, and George Pelecanos in Baltimore, where The Wire is set)

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Moreover, like the Hollywood studio system that preceded it, TV noir can build new series on pre-existing literary properties. TV noir over its seven decades has been dominated by topical series that seem to be tireless retreads of “ripped from the headlines” stories, but TV noir can and has benefited from adapting hard-boiled literature. While one of the more prominent examples might be a show like the 1980s’ Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, consider a couple shows like Justified and Wallander. The first show, a hit on F/X, is based on a character created by Elmore Leonard, and the latter show, a series from the BBC, is based on Swedish novelist Henning Mankell’s internationally known police inspector, Kurt Wallander. While source material alone is no guarantee of quality when adapting for a new medium, Justified‘s writing has clearly benefited from a rule shared among the writing staff: when in doubt, WWLD? (What would Leonard Do?) (Image from NJ.com, Elmore Leonard with Timothy Olyphant of Justified)

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3. The Constraints

As we begin to consider the most innovative noir series in TV history, I believe we will find that the constraints of TV have fueled those shows in powerful ways. As Shannon Clute and I discuss in our book, The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism (Dartmouth University Press, 2011) there are very good reasons to look at films noir as “constrained texts.” Moreover, some of our most creative noir films have consciously embraced constraints to reveal noir’s potential.

From its earliest days, the TV industry has been subjected to more constraints than the film industry. Part of this is due to the fact that TV was projected directly into our living rooms. Therefore, long after film noir shook off the most restrictive forms of censorship, TV’s versions of noir tales had to meet prime-time viewing standards on broadcast networks and depictions of sex, violence, and use of language were heavily censored well into the 1990s. In 1993 NYPD Blue could still use censorship constraints in its pursuit of quality storytelling. Blue (as the show was frequently referred to) intentionally stirred controversy with partial nudity and adult language that now seems tame compared to pay-cable outlet shows like The Sopranos, as in this clip of NYPD actress Charlotte Ross. But pushing against the constraints of broadcast standards did much to usher in today’s more complex noir series.

TV budgets were also historically lower than for films, so TV shows tended to be restricted to a few sets that got reused in almost every episode. Many TV noir sets can have the feel of a locked room mystery. Location shooting was typically too expensive, so TV began to reuse old movie studio sets in ways reminiscent of Poverty Row studio practices. But this constraint also became one of TV’s biggest contributions to noir. TV noir tended to seek a distinctive “locale” for exterior shots that would give the show a geographic identity and to differentiate series from one another. This moved TV noir stories beyond the urban environs of LA, New York, and San Francisco (though plenty of noir shows are still set in these cities). On television we get more noir than expected from sun-drenched locales such as Hawaii (a favorite destination of crime shows, such as Magnum, PI) or Miami (Miami Vice or CSI: Miami). We also get noir in some of the smaller regions of the US, as in Justified (with its great use of Harlan County, Kentucky) or Breaking Bad (and the emergence of New Mexico as a noir border crossing region)

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TV had a much more restricted image size. Compared to the “big screen,” early television sets were extremely small. The quality of the TV image could never compare to a film print (until extremely recently in the digital age, and still a digital print can’t match a well-struck 70mm Technicolor print). It was not even a fair comparison. TV in the 1950s was a blurry, pixelated, and electronically refreshed mess compared to the luxurious richness and dense visual field of projected film. And the technological indignities continued over the decades: TV developed color long after film, new sound technologies were slow to be adopted. Sometimes, with the rise of HDTV, we forget all that.

Visual personnel working on TV series have had much greater limitations in visual design and cinematography. This meant that until fairly recently TV was not focused on visual storytelling as much as narrative design and the growth or goals of recurring characters. A show like The Fugitive in the 1960s is a great example. Dr. Kimble’s four season pursuit of a one-armed man was used as a continuing story arc to find a creative benefit from episodic storytelling. Since TV, like film, constantly recycle narrative strategies, The Mentalist pursues a similar narrative structure with a serial killer named Red John.

Perhaps one of the best TV shows of all time is Breaking Bad (this is the TV series I will discuss on the panel, “Crime in Primetime”). The show’s creator Vince Gilligan is on record as being a fan of constraints, and mentioning that he has embraced constraints in the writing and design of Breaking Bad. Gilligan’s embrace of constraints can be seen in the final product. The show has a fairly small number of cast members for a show going into its fifth and final season. The show has played out over a restrictive time frame, roughly a year of action over the first four seasons. The show elegantly uses the “cold open” (a modern variant of in media res) to introduce visual metaphors and plot elements that engage the viewer into the complex world of Breaking Bad, as in the recurring and ultimately deeply meaningful motif of the pink bear in Season Two.

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And the show uses the character of Walt White—a high school teacher turned meth cook—to examine with an uncanny depth and human perspective the global reach of today’s decaying noir universe. And Gilligan does all this under the censorship constraints of AMC, a basic cable station.

Conclusion

What are the most innovative TV noir shows? I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of crime, mystery and noir drama on the small screen. For seven decades, TV has supplied memorable (and some not-so-memorable) noir programming that has advanced noir storytelling. But with shows like The Shield, Justified, and Breaking Bad, TV noir is in a period of renascence. Noir stories are becoming more complex and intricate. New technologies and higher budgets have allowed TV noir to expand its visual design. And long-form stories are becoming ever more elaborate in shows such as 2007’s Forbrydelsen (a brilliant Danish police procedural recently remade by AMC as The Killing–the image below is of the character of Sarah Lund from Forbrydelsen).

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Noir’s seventh decade is off to a great start.

Let the debates begin.

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Uneasy Arrangements: Looking at Guy Debord’s Memoires

This paper started its life back in 2000 in a course taught by USC Art History professors Richard Meyer and Nancy Troy. The course was on the topic of the writing the history of Art, and it was a marvelous experience. This summer course met at the Getty Research Institute, part of the Getty Museum campus in Los Angeles. You couldn’t ask for a better place to gather to think about or discuss art. At the time I had already begun writing my dissertation New Media Activism: Alternative Media Collectives and New Technologies from Video to the Internet. I also was actively researching Guy Debord’s works as models and inspirations for media activists. I was particularly drawn to Debord’s pre-Society of the Spectacle artworks and his collaboration with Danish artist Asger Jorn. But the book, Mémoires, like Paul Strand’s “House and Billboard,” drew my attention the most.

I am reprinting a revised version of that paper here for a couple of reasons. First, I find Debord’s work completely irresistible and utterly challenging, but also not as prominent as I would expect it to be in new media or digital media studies. Part of that problem, which I address in this paper, is that Debord’s work tends to get coded (and worse, dismissed) as “Situationist” and political (which it is), leading towards the neglect of its artistic legacy and its creative potential. Critic Greil Marcus has done a great job of showing Debord’s “lipstick traces” on the punk movement, but I would like to see more about Debord’s influence on the digital age, especially as one of the key figures impacting digital remix culture. In terms of progenitors of remix culture, I believe Debord’s art practices (he was an early multimedia artist) should be considered alongside the “cut-up” technique of William Burrough and artist Brion Gysin.

Second, this paper lays out my preference for a certain approach to analyzing complex artworks, whether a photograph, a book, a painting, or a film noir. I favor an analytical frame that focuses on a close reading of the work at hand and which minimizes one’s reliance on historical, biographical or theoretical frameworks. However, that is not the same as saying I am dismissing those other important frameworks. Rather I have found it useful in my own scholarship to rely on my own close reading of a work, for reasons that hopefully become clear in the essay below. A similar analytical approach is on display in my recent Paul Strand talk and perhaps more so in my long-running podcast series with Shannon Clute, where we perform close readings on films in the noir tradition.

Third, I want to expand discussions around Mémoires. It is a very complex and polyvalent work, but many people are only familiar with the book’s famous cover “gag.” The original book cover was made of sandpaper. Of course, a sandpaper cover has the effect of making the book literally “abrasive” when shelving it next to other books, and it can “scratch” a nice table. But I am more interested in what Debord and Jorn are up to under the cover.

Uneasy Arrangements: Looking at Guy Debord’s Mémoires

1.

let no one claim I have nothing new to say: the arrangement of materials is new

—From Mémoires[1]

One is never at ease before the works of Debord

—Asger Jorn[2]

Image found online at http://www.interencheres.com

 

You get the idea. You locate a copy of the book you want to analyze. You find it at the Getty Library, and you will write your description of the book based on your first hand experience, since until now you have seen only pieces of it: here and there a fragment appearing as an illustration in an article or an occasional color frame in a museum catalogue. And even though it will be hard to do, you will try to put aside what you know about the book from your readings. You want to write an extended description of the book based on your insights and your observations. Moreover, you will try not to think about having to view it in the Special Collections room at the Getty Library, since something seems wrong about looking at it in such a space—a betrayal of the book’s original intentions or perhaps something more banal: that this book had better be “special” after all the hoops (appointments and handwashing, to name just two) you have to go through to look at it. On the other hand, you are anxiously waiting for the book in all its archival glory and rarity. You are hoping for a glimpse at the original Pormild and Rosengreen edition, published in Copenhagen in 1959. You know that there are only about one thousand copies of this edition in existence, maybe less. You want to run your fingers over its cover made of sandpaper,[3] see the potency of its use of color, and hold it in your hands to gauge its original size of 27.5 by 21.5 cm. And you are disappointed when you are given a 1977 reproduction of the book, the Phosphore edition.[4] While you are glad to be able to see the book in its entirety, many aspects of the original edition are missing. The Phosphore edition contains a soft cardboard cover with a curious drawing,[5] the reproductions are often badly executed (resulting in unintentionally missing words or images) and finally, the whole edition is reproduced in faded blacks and whites. Now you worry that in attempting to describe this book, you will have to somehow imagine the book in front of you through your memory of full color reproductions or determine the meaning of some barely legible image from the readings you have done. Far from being able to put aside what you know about this book, you seem relieved to know something about it beforehand. You find some comfort in being able to mentally fill in some of the gaps in the Phosphore edition. You let your memory serve as a kind of map as you peruse the book. You sometimes find the book’s play of words and graphics conforming to the Lettrist International notions of dérive and détournement.[6] Other times, the book seems a willfully obscurantic text and not at all what you were expecting. You are on a slippery slope and feeling uncomfortable. This book poses multiple problems of description: original versus reproduction, black and white versus color, theory versus practice, as well as complicated issues relating to art, history, language, commodity culture, politics, etc. Somehow as you reach the end, the last words of the book come alive, revive themselves as challenge, threat and limit on your ability to describe this work: “je voulais parler la belle langue de mon siécle. (I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my times.)”[7] You get the idea.

2.

…turning a page is like waking from a dream, or falling into one.

—Greil Marcus discussing Mémoires

Image found online at wikipedia.org

Mémoires, by Guy Debord with Asger Jorn, is a difficult visual object to describe. Besides the issue of two different published editions,[8] the book itself is a long work of approximately fifty pages.[9] Each of its fifty pages is different. As the book proceeds (literally in the sense of moving from the front cover to the back cover), different visual and textual approaches are undertaken. The book’s breadth of artistic and literary invention seemingly confounds any attempt to reduce the work to a single page or even cluster of pages. Moreover, Mémoires is intentionally perplexing and vexing with wordplay and graphic touches that complicate linear thinking and fight against totalizing meanings. Finally, history itself poses difficulties for the description of this work. One of the few things most everyone agrees on about the book is that it is clearly divided into three different sections: June 1952, December 1952 and September 1953. These three dates coincide with the initial years of Debord’s involvement in the Lettrist International (LI). As such, in many critical accounts of this work, Mémoires is seen through a biographical, or at least a historical, lens that helps situate this work in a cherished position as both an archive of early Situationist thought and as a privileged instantiation of Lettrist and Situationist theory.

 

Before I analyze what problems of description other critics have encountered with this work, I want to discuss my own difficulties in describing it. I try to minimize theoretical or historical models in attempting to describe the page. I do not want to dismiss the necessity of seeing this page and/or book within other discourses such as the history of the Situationist International or the careers of Debord and Jorn. Rather I want to return to an object that is often “lost” when analyzed solely through these discourses. It is possible to get a skewed view of the book if you only know it through written sources or a few illustrations. The sheer polysemy of Mémoires gives it a certain feeling of being both about everything and nothing. The problem is that any particular page of this work can lead toward the impression of a Rorschach test: the beholder (or reader) may see (or read) what he or she wants.[10] This leads to methodological problems surrounding the book often given short shrift in the critical literature about Debord, Jorn and Mémoires. What is the relationship of text and image? Can you discuss the meaning of a particular piece of text outside its relationship to the page and the book as a whole? What precisely is the nature of this object—should it be understood as a book? A collage? A painting? A lithographic reproduction? Is this book art or an instance of social activism? Is the meaning of Mémoires to be found through formal art-historical techniques, for example the precise description of image/text relations and the book’s use of color, shape, line, etc that I focused on? Or is the meaning of the book located in a strategy of reading (a dérive of reading) and a reaction to Debord and Jorn’s collages (a détournement of viewing)? Or some combination of all of these approaches?

To begin to answer these questions, I need to discuss some of the difficulties I have in describing Mémoires. There are four important issues I wish to foreground that both constrain and construct my description of this work: the collage aesthetic, the transformative context of the book, the use of repetition and variation, and the problems surrounding the book’s use of language.

No single page can make a claim as being representative of the overall project. Each page is a complex collage of prefabricated elements. But the difference between each individual page needs to be understood in relation to the overall text and the organizing formal logic of each page, as well as the book itself, is a collage aesthetic. When looked at serially throughout the course of the book, the accumulation of the various collage pages creates a type of visual rhythm.[11] The rhythm, similar to the editing of a movie, is concocted through matching (and indeed, mismatching) elements of color, shape, texture, and size, as if pages in Mémoires could exist as frames in a motion picture. Independent of the words on any given page, the artistic construction of each page frequently recalls the brush strokes and use of paint in the Abstract Expressionist movement, such as the work of Jackson Pollock. The collage aesthetic also helps structure the book’s use of language. For example, some of the phrases that occupy any particular page may be understood as a type of fragmentary sound collage one would hear standing for a time on a Parisian street or sitting in a lecture hall.

Second, Mémoires is a book whose meanings on any particular page change as it is read over and over.  This makes sense since the overall context for any single page is the total framework of the book. For example, when I first read the book, it appeared as if there was possibly a progression from simpler forms to more complex forms. But upon a second reading, I recognized that this was not so. What I read as “complexity” was the insertion of different graphic elements (cartoons and photographs, e.g.) which made the earlier paint-and-text-only combinations seem simple. But that dismisses the complexity of the word/image relations of the earliest pages of the book. Another context is the role of maps and mapping functions in the book. Early in the book, one might not read the painted lines as lines in a map. But after finishing the book, it is almost impossible not to. Towards the end of the book, actual maps of cities become inserted and due to their graphic similarity to Jorn’s painted lines, force us to recognize that a mapping function is part of the book’s graphic design.[12]

Comparison of two pages in Memoires (right side is the original; left side is reprint) From http://www.virose.pt/vector/b_13/nolle.html

Third, an analysis of a single page of Mémoires cannot account for the importance of repetition and variation. For example, in the first section (June 1952), the name “Barbara” crops up on many pages. The appearance of the name reminds one of its previous presence, and helps connect various pages together. Diagrams of a prison floor plan surface throughout the second section (December 1952). There are multiple city maps used in the third section. Another good example of repetition and variation is Asger Jorn’s painted lines that flow throughout the work. Early in the book, the lines tend to connect words together. In later sections, the paint can cut across images or even imprison an image. On one page in the third section, there are illustrations of villages and towns.

However, the paint crisscrosses the image, creating a sense of prison bars and confinement. This type of variation in the paint strokes links up with the repetition of prison images in the second section. Like notes in a symphony, these repetitions and variations help give the book a lyricism that unites particular themes and ideas. The repetitions and variations help unify the work formally without demanding a singular meaning or theme be attached to any one instance of repetition or variation. In this sense, the repetitions and variations create a tone or mood for the overall book more than generate a determinate meaning or theme.

Finally, the status of the words and text blocks that appear on each page is problematic. How should we discuss the use of words in this book? For one thing, in places the words themselves become images, as when Debord crumples them up into graphic objects. For another, as meanings in their own right, do we accept the words as “literal” and attempt to account for them in the overall meaning of the book—as parts of an overarching discourse? Or are the words an instance of “detournement” and perhaps we should only remark upon their randomness, their new context and possibly their ephemeral quality. It is impossible to ascertain the answer definitively, since the answer lies somewhere between the two positions. But most critics have seemed comfortable taking the words out their original context and quoting them.[13] One way to contain the unruliness of this book’s language is (paradoxically) to read it through the increasingly structured discourse of contemporary Situationist theory and practice. And perhaps this is inevitable in a work that at some level is a Situationist project. The problem is that it becomes increasingly difficult to separate our own historical and theoretical understanding of the Situationist movement with an object that has a particular materiality and unique conditions of production.

My preferred method was to look at each single page, as standalone works, to determine if there was something that I was missing by already approaching the work for a particular theoretical or historical construct. Surprisingly, after I finished my analysis, I felt that I truly had looked at the object versus looking for an object. In the precision of a page-by-page analysis, I uncovered elements of its formal composition I had previously missed, especially the significance of how items were placed and how that created particular viewing effects that I describe metaphorically (floating, rays of light, etc.) Second, it recovered something else that was essential: a pleasure in looking. Why has this object attracted so much attention over the years? After wiping away the sedimentation of theory, the object itself has a beauty and an artistic intelligence that is riveting. Moreover, the politics of the Situationist International may be in part wrapped up in this type of pleasure—perhaps fetishizing this object in a politics of pleasure.

3.

has everything been said?

—From Mémoires [14]

The problem of description for Mémoires also needs to address published accounts as well. The subsequent reputation of Guy Debord has complicated descriptions of Mémoires. Debord became the renowned author of Society of the Spectacle. His stature grew after the events in Paris of May ’68, and he is also known for his work as a filmmaker. However, part of it has also do to with the Debord’s status within the Situationist International. He became that group’s best known member and Mémoires, in Greil Marcus’ words, is a “Situationist primer.”[15] Importantly, we can examine two descriptions of Mémoires and attempt to assess how these descriptions have constructed (and constrained) the object.

One of the earliest descriptions of the work was in fact by Asger Jorn. In his preface to Debord’s book Contre le Cinema (1964), Jorn describes Mémoires in glowing terms (Jorn collaborated on Mémoires as well, so we should take his words with some circumspection)[16]:

Thus the moment was ripe for our hero [Debord] to write his Mémoires, which was done with the grating effect of broken glass – a book of love bound in sandpaper, which destroys your pocket as well as entire shelves in your library, a nice reminder of the time past that refuses to end and distresses everyone with its obstinate presence.[17]

Importantly here, two ideas are summoned by Jorn that have more or less appeared as parts of other critical accounts: Debord as “hero”[18] and the lack of a formal analysis of the work itself. Jorn’s assessment of the book is fairly typical: the book as an artistic “success.” In other words, part of the problem of writing about Mémoires is the consideration that the book might fail to live up to these expectations. Alternatively, perhaps too much is read into this book in light of Debord and Jorn’s subsequent successful careers. Indeed, the book is readily deployed in many essays as if it may be a “perfect text.” The sandpaper cover is a good example of this phenomenon. While the sandpaper cover forces you to recognize that this book might literally have a “grating” quality, it is unlikely that it would destroy “entire shelves in your library.” But it is precisely that type of desire and utopian optimism that imbues descriptions of this book.

Greil Marcus’ description is probably among one of the most widely known. His description appeared in the museum catalogue for the 1989 exhibition of Situationist art works: “On the Passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972.”[19] Marcus’ descriptions of Mémoires are very celebratory. A brief sampling of comments from his essay include:

Mémoires affirms that everything needed to say whatever one might want to say is already present, accessible to everyone; the book defines a project, and tells a story. (page 126)

…the book feels like a drunken sprawl through the encyclopedia of common knowledge. (page 127)

Mémoires is about the sense that along with the struggle to change the world, to make or find a new civilization, comes the conviction that one will fail those hopes, that the true struggle will be to remember what, once, one meant to do. (page 128)

A recurring idea throughout Marcus’ analysis is that Mémoires tells a story. This has to do partially with the common idea that Mémoires, on one level, is a history of the Lettrist and Situationist movement. But I am not sure what story is being told (at least not in a standard narratological sense). Second, I feel that Marcus reads the book through the lens of Situationist theory and practice. As such, I am not sure if Mémoires supports the theory or the theory supports the book. Moreover, there are no critiques of the book offered by Marcus and most of his writing about Mémoires does not contain close formal analysis. When he does discuss particular pages, it is usually in general terms and then in conjunction with biographical or historical information. Finally, there seems to be no attempt on Marcus’ part to analyze how the book as a whole has been constructed as a visual (art) object. Again, this is not necessarily his goal, but Marcus’ essay does demonstrate the difficulty of describing this text and how intertwined interpretations of this text have become with Situationist theory and practice.

4.

fin

In terms of my broader project regarding the role of new technologies and alternative media, I have always seen Mémoires as a prefigurative model for a particular type of communication. If we remove the accumulated layers of Situationist theory, the description of Mémoires that I forward in this essay can be aligned with issues that influenced Web 1.0 (hypertext) and the remix aesthetics and social media of Web 2.0. Mémoires, in this sense, explores issues of how communication, political economy and desire will become increasingly interconnected through networks. It also warns about the danger of the commercialization of information, and the transformation of personal information into mere data. The network becomes the mode of communication and connection central to Mémoires. Debord’s notions of the derive and detournement, first explored on the city streets of Paris, can now find new and unexpected uses in the digital pathways of the remix and the mashup.


[1] Translation from Marcus, p. 125.

[2] Jorn, Asger. “Guy Debord and the Problem of the Accursed” Preface to Debord’s Contre le Cinema (1964). Translated by Roxanne Lapidus. Reprinted at http://www.panix.com/~notbored/cursed.html. 6/23/00.

[3] Greil Marcus comments about its sandpaper cover: “…bound in heavy sandpaper, Mémoires pretended that, when placed in a bookshelf, it would destroy other books…” See Marcus, Greil. “Guy Debord’s Mémoires: A Situationist Primer,” in On the Passage of a few people in a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972. Ed. by Sussman, Elisabeth. (The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1989), p. 130.

[4] See Debord, Guy. Memoirs: structures portantes d’asger jorn. Editions du Phosphore, Paris, France, 1977.

[5] For no discernable reason, the Phosphore edition has a large pencil sketch of a male figure on the right hand side of the cover.  This inclusion of the male figure becomes all the more puzzling in light of the original cover of the Pormild and Rosengreen edition, which simply gives the name of the two authors, the title of the work in simple block letters, and a line in French translated as “composed entirely of prefabricated elements.”

[6] Greil Marcus’ definitions of derive and detournement are among the best and most succinct I have seen: “Detournement (literally ‘diversion,’ with connotations of criminality and delinquency) meant the theft of aesthetic artifacts from the Old World and their revitalization in contexts of one’s own devising…The derive (literally, ‘drift’ in the nautical sense) was a matter of opening one’s consciousness to the (so to speak) unconsciousness of urban space; the derive meant a solo or collective passage down city streets, a surrender to and then pursuits of alleys of attraction, boulevards of repulsion, until the city itself became a field of what the LI called “psychogeography,” where every building, route, and decoration expanded with meaning or disappeared for the lack of it…” (p. 127).

[7] The last line of Mémoires is translated in Greil Marcus’s article as “I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time.” Marcus, p. 125

[8] Please note that this does not preclude the possibility of even more published editions of Mémoires. My research indicates that there is a third edition (by a different publisher) of Mémoires in the 1990s, but I was unable to locate a copy of this edition to verify what changes or differences it may have.

[9] The problem of page length and the problem of identifying specific pages in this book are complicated by the lack of pagination in the work. In most published accounts, there has not been an attempt to give the book a definitive length. Most critics appear to favor to describe its length with a certain indeterminacy. For example, Claire Gilman refers to the work as “approximately fifty pages long.” Gilman, Claire. “Asger Jorn’s Avant-Garde Archives,” October 79, Winter 1997, p. 43.

[10] As an aside, the allusion to a Rorschach test might apply to my experience of the 1977 Phosphore edition. On several pages instead of the vibrant colors intended in the Rosmild and Rosengreen edition, the Phosphore edition renders the graphic elements as blotches of black ink. I saw a distinct parallel in the abstractions of Debord and Jorn to the purpose of a Rorschach test, that is made more concrete with the desaturated and faded black and white hues of the Phosphore reproduction.

[11] While Greil Marcus uses the word “rhythm” in his essay to describe the work, I feel I am using the word in a slightly more formal way than Marcus is. For example, Marcus states: “The rhythm of Mémoires becomes one of isolation to contact, contact to community, community to broken contacts, broken contacts to isolation.” See Marcus, page 131. This footnote also highlights my sensitivity to published accounts of the work that are continually playing in my head as I write this account.

[12] In light of Svetlana Alper’s analysis of the mapping impulse in Dutch art it seems interesting to me that two of Debord’s books, Fin de Copenhague and Mémoires were published in Copenhagen. Moreover, Craig Sadler in his book, The Situationist City, makes explicit connections between maps and Situationist theory in Debord’s art, which is not surprising given the Situationist’s interest in the dérive and psychogeography.

[13] See Marcus, p. 125. Greil Marcus lists several phrases that he lifts from different places in the book with no apparent concern for their contextualization (or decontextualization). There is no attempt, as far I can discern, to initiate a project similar to Marcel Duchamps’ Green Box, whereby a  typotranslation (in some sense a guide to a text that is difficult to obtain) is attempting to abide with certain types of word/image relations found in the original object.

[14] Translation from Marcus, p. 125.

[15] Marcus, page 124.

[16] Also, we have to take its publication context into account since he was writing a preface to a book for Debord. However, the important point is not Jorn’s positive assessment of the book, as much as how that positive assessment seems axiomatic for this work and how later critics accept Jorn’s views. For example, Greil Marcus quotes Jorn as support for his own arguments.

[17] Jorn, “Preface to Guy Debord’s Contre le Cinema,” no page number.

[18] For example, see the following quote from Marcus: “…the book has its own voice: the voice of romantic, heroic, questing, dissipated, reflective, melodramatic, even schoolboy adventure.” (p. 126)

[19] The exhibition was shown, on a rotating basis, at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, MA.

Noircon, Part 1: A Criss-Cross Theory of Noir Adaptation

This essay was originally written for Noircon 2010. If you don’t know about Noircon, it is an amazing conference dedicated to all things noir. It is held every two years in Philadelphia, and was originally known as Goodiscon back in its inaugural year of 2006. You can visit the Noircon site by clicking here.

Noircon 2010 produced a great conference booklet with contributions by such writers as Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Ken Bruen, Otto Penzler, Charles Willeford, among many others. I was honored to have my article included in this collection. Moreover, the Noircon conference booklet was cleverly printed and packaged as a throwback pulp paperback as seen in this photo of the book’s cover art (done by artist Jeff Wong, based on the cover art for Goodis’ Black Friday):

Finally, I am interested in revising this article for publication in a film journal. So, I welcome any and all comments on this piece. Thanks again to Lou Boxer, Deen Kogan, and all who make Noircon a truly remarkable one-of-kind event. Looking forward to 2012.

 

 

A Criss-Cross Theory of Noir Adaptation by Richard L. Edwards

“I do your murder. You do mine. Criss cross!”

Bruno Anthony, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train (1950). Still from http://thisdistractedglobe.com/

Given that many of the greatest films noir have been based on short stories and novels, you would expect more attention paid to the issue of noir adaptations. In fact, adapting a previously published work into a screenplay is a challenging artistic task, and this type of writing is given public acknowledgement with its own award every year at the Oscars. However, studies of noir screenwriting and noir adaptations are still too few, and the roles of screenwriters in the production of films noir tend to be footnotes. Even knowledgeable film noir fans may think writers’ greatest contribution to the noir style involves their crafting of hard-boiled dialogue. But screenwriting is a complex process, frequently done collaboratively in the Hollywood system. And the process of writing a screen adaptation is more than merely transcribing or rearranging a novel or short story into a screenplay format. Writers matter, and bring with them to the writing process a constellation of ideas and practices that impact what ends up in the final screen version. The development of film noir benefited from the criss-crossing of writing talent. Each time different writers and directors criss-crossed, the potential of film noir increased, creating new stories and new possibilities.

Screenwriters tend to get short shrift due to the predominance of auteur theory in film circles. First articulated by French cineastes in the 1950s such as François Truffault, auteur theory claims that the author of a film is its director. This reinvention of film authorship does much for the stature of film directors, but tends to minimize the importance of screenwriters. Even from the outset, as Robert Carringer points out, auteur theory diminishes the truly collaborative nature of film authorship. Carringer argues that what is needed is an approach to film authorship that entails “the temporary suspension of single-author primacy” and that has “the primary author…reinscribed within what is now established as an institutional context of authorship.” (377) Interestingly enough, Carringer uses the film Strangers on a Train to explore his thesis. I will also use Strangers on a Train as my main example, but investigate this question from a different point of view. I am interested in how noir adaptations often entail a “complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing.” (Wittgenstein §66).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “criss-cross” as “a network of intersecting lines.” This is a useful way of thinking about the process behind noir adaptations, of thinking about screenwriters as part of a “network.” Screenwriting (like many forms of creative writing) can be a solitary activity with minimal interactions with other creative personnel. While there is some truth in the “lone writer” model, a criss-cross theory of noir adaptation explores areas of collaboration and commonality in the screenwriting process. In this regard, a criss-cross theory has connections to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of defining things by way of their “resemblance” to other things. In other words, noir writers working on an adaptation have similarities to each other, just like members of a family resemble each other while also being distinct and separate personalities. Such authorial networks can be quite complicated, but teasing out the resemblances—a kind of “family tree” of noir—between different writers yields new insights into noir adaptations. In many ways, the writer of a noir adaption is engaged in Bruno Anthony’s notion of “criss cross.” The hired screenwriter is literally “doing” someone else’s murder (albeit in a fictional writerly sense!). Furthermore, screenwriters do not tend to coalesce randomly around certain types of films. Rather, writers are drawn to film noir by a shared interest in similar kinds of characters, themes and stories associated with hard-boiled or mystery writing.

First edition cover of Highsmith's Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train brought together a killer ménage-a-noir in Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, and Alfred Hitchcock. Strangers on a Train was Highsmith’s first novel. Even though she was paid a mere $7,500 dollars for the screen rights, the money paled to the prestige and visibility her novel received by being made into a major motion picture. Hitchcock, on the other hand, was in mid-career and in a bit of a crisis. His latest films had been flops (Under Capricorn and Stage Fright), and the great director was in need of a comeback. Strangers would fit that bill superbly and kick off Hitchcock’s greatest decade of filmmaking. Finally, the screenwriter chosen by Hitchcock to adapt Highsmith’s novel was at the end of his celebrated career. For the Strangers screenplay, Hitchcock and Warner Bros. hired one the most accomplished noir writers of the 20th century, an author synonymous with hard-boiled detective fiction. While the film would be a boon to Highsmith’s nascent career, it was Raymond Chandler’s fallow finale to Hollywood screenwriting. Chandler ended up having to fight for screen credit on Strangers, and he co-received an onscreen credit swith the little known Czenzi Ormonde, an assistant of Ben Hecht’s who worked on the script after Hitchcock largely threw out Chandler’s draft. Therefore, Chandler’s writing efforts are largely absent from the final film.

For sake of simplicity, I will focus on the three highest profile authors, and avoid discussing other writers who worked on aspects of the screenplay, such as Whitfield Cook’s work on the treatment or Czenzi Ormonde’s final script revisions. Furthermore, I want to say only a few words about the larger-than-life personalities of Highsmith, Chandler and Hitchcock, as these are topics taken up elsewhere at length. Published accounts often highlight the antagonistic aspects of this collaboration and recount the interpersonal battles between Hitchcock and Chandler.

Hitchcock picture from Tom Sutpen's blog, http://tsutpen.blogspot.com/

While Chandler took the job because he thought he might like “Hitch,” it didn’t turn out that way. There is the oft-recited story that Chandler called Hitchcock “a fat bastard” as the director was getting out of his car during a story visit to Chandler’s home in La Jolla, California. Hitchcock apparently repaid the insult by ignoring Chandler completely during the screenwriting phase and Hitchcock supposedly threw Chandler’s delivered script into his trashcan. Highsmith, for her part, wrote almost twenty-five years later that her book “gave Chandler fits during his Hollywood script writing period…” (5) Nowadays, most scholars tend to point the finger at Hitchcock for giving Chandler “fits” rather than Highsmith’s novel. As his unpublished script testifies, Chandler had some very strong ideas for turning Highsmith’s scenarios into a successful film adaptation. But Hitchcock, in his story conferences with Chandler, offered up a very different treatment than the one in Highsmith’s book. It is not hard to imagine that Hitch’s ending on the merry-go-round and Guy’s final exoneration resulted in the Chandleresque lament that working on this screenplay at times was “damn foolishness.”

While there were incompatibilities and antagonisms between Hitchcock and Chandler in their adaptation of a Highsmith novel, I am more interested in their points of commonality and their networked intersections. What does the criss-crossing of these three authors contribute to the development of film noir? Clearly, all three were drawn to the source material. Hitchcock has said that he found in Highsmith’s novel “the right kind of material for me to work with.” (Truffault, 193). The transference of guilt from one character to another (the core idea in Highsmith’s novel) was already a staple of Hitchcock’s films. For his part, Chandler was probably drawn in by the thematic similarity to his own screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, where a man’s life crumbles due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his wife’s murder. And while Patricia Highsmith wanted nothing to do with the writing of the screenplay, some of the film’s most memorable moments are already found in her novel. Highsmith even included the music cues for “And the Band Played On,” utilized so memorably by Hitchcock in the film version.

Seldom mentioned about the criss-cross of Highsmith, Chandler, and Hitchcock is that taken as a network of writers, the screenplay of Strangers can lay claim to three different, but major, traditions that contributed to the noir style. Highsmith was not only an exceptional novelist, but she began her career writing for comic books.

Two Covers of Comics by Patricia Highsmith, shown by biographer Joan Schenkar at Noircon 2010

As Highsmith biographer Joan Schenkar points out, Strangers owes much “to the crude Alter Ego psychologies which glazed the plots of her comic book scenarios…” (259) Chandler, as is well known, began writing for pulps such as Black Mask, and was a pre-eminent hard-boiled novelist. Hitchcock’s mastery of filmmaking can be traced back to silent era classics such as Blackmail, as well as through his growing embrace of the noir style in films such as Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and Rope. These authors, then, brought to the screen version of Strangers an amalgam of ideas from popular story forms—the comics, the pulps, and film noir—and in doing so, break new ground and generate an exciting new story.

The criss-crossing of these authors resulted in significant changes from Highsmith’s novel. As primary author, Hitchcock was responsible for the largest changes, including changing Guy’s (Farley Granger) character from an architect into a tennis player, moving the majority of the film’s action to Washington D.C. and creating a brand new ending for the story. In fact, after the halfway point of the film, the novel and film bear little resemblance to each other. Why did the film depart so strongly from Highsmith’s novel? As Chandler writes in his letters from that time, the problem was an issue with character motivation. A film audience would have trouble believing Guy (played by Farley Granger) would murder Bruno’s father, which is what happens in the book. As Chandler writes: “The premise is that if you shake hands with a maniac, you may have sold your soul to the devil.” (206) And Chandler literally begged Hitchcock to consider the “motivation” problem. In a letter he writes to Hitchcock, Chandler says: “Sacrifice a camera shot if necessary. There’s always another camera shot just as good. There is never another motivation just as good.” (142) But Hitchcock was not overly concerned about plot problems or character motivations in this film. As a film director, Hitchcock was perhaps more interested in the formal means by which he tells his stories. Strangers has some brilliant and exciting set pieces including Miriam’s murder reflected in an eyeglass, an unforgettable tennis match, and a thrilling finale on an out-of-control merry-go-round.

Graham Petrie argues that Hitchcock might have gotten the ending of the film from a classic English mystery novel, Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop. Petrie argues that Hitchcock would have been aware of the novel, and the similarities are too similar to be accidental. Crispin’s novel ends with a climatic scene on a merry-go-round (or roundabout) which goes out of control when its

Merry-go-round ending from Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1950)

operator is shot during an escape attempt. While Petrie’s claim might still be speculation more than proven fact, the filmed ending of Strangers on a Train moves away from the noirish and fateful ending of the Highsmith novel. In the novel, Bruno drowns in a drunken stupor, and Guy ends up being caught by a private investigator and sent to jail for the murder of Bruno’s father. Of more interest to criss-cross theory is that Hitchcock’s change of the ending probably did give Chandler “fits.” Chandler liked the idea of having Guy punished by the end of the story. Regardless of where Hitchcock came up with the new ending, the director exchanged a noirish ending for an ending that would be appropriate for an English mystery cozy (a genre Chandler detested). But the choices made about the film’s ending demonstrate how many different noir and mystery traditions were being evoked out of the authorial networks behind this particular adaptation. And amazingly, when one watches the final film, the adaptation does not come across as a bunch of independent ideas nor as spare and disparate parts thrown together, but a fully realized film noir under the primary authorship of Alfred Hitchcock.

Finally, a criss-cross theory of noir adaptation might help us account for how the noir style matured and deepened long after different groupings of writers collaborated. In this vein, it might be useful to ask what happened to Chandler’s discarded screenplay? Did it really just end up, forgotten, at the bottom of Hitch’s wastebasket? Or did Hitchcock’s fortuitous criss-cross with Highsmith and Chandler affect him and his filmmaking in ways not immediately apparent in 1951? Might there be a film in Hitchcock’s body of work that benefited from Chandler’s critique of Strangers on a Train? Did Hitchcock ever subsequently direct a film where he foregrounds character motivation and risks a downbeat ending centered around a person haunted by an earlier murder in an obsessive compulsive way? Hitchcock probably knew that if he pursued Chandler’s ideas to their fullest in Strangers on a Train, the result was likely to be box office poison. While Chandler’s adaptation tried harder than Hitchcock’s to be faithful to Highsmith’s novel, his ideas for the film, like his own The Blue Dahlia, would be a tougher sell to audiences. In 1951, Hitchcock was desperate for a hit, partially accounting for why the final script for Strangers might not have had “enough” Chandler, and departed so strongly from Highsmith’s novel. But in the creative potential activated by the criss-cross of screenwriting talents, another Hitchcock film might playfully be considered as the filmic realization of Chandler’s unused script ideas and is now a critically acclaimed masterpiece of film noir. And yet even almost ten years after Strangers on a Train, the audience still wasn’t quite ready for that kind of story. So that latter film did end up being a commercial flop that Hitchcock himself removed from circulation for over 20 years: Vertigo


References:

Highsmith, Patricia. “Introduction,” The World of Raymond Chandler. (New York: A & W Publishers, Inc., 1977).

Hiney, Tom and Frank MacShane, eds. The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000).

Petrie, Graham. “Transfer of Guilt: Hitchcock and Chandler on Strangers on a Train,” Sight and Sound, July 2009, 46-49.

Phillips, Gene D. Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir. (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2000).

Schenkar, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009).

Truffault, Francois. Hitchcock. Revised Edition. (Touchstone Book: New York, 1983).

An Inexhaustible World: Looking at Paul Strand’s “House and Billboard”

House and Billboard, Paul Strand, 1916

“What exists outside the artist is much more important than his imagination. The world outside is inexhaustible.”

–Paul Strand

On November 10, 2010, I gave a noonday talk at the IU Art Museum about a single Paul Strand photograph as part of their ongoing Invited Speakers series. The IU Art Museum has extensive holdings on photography. As I was going through their binders listing the photographs in their collection, I was excited to see that they had photographs from the early period of Paul Strand’s career, and several photographs from around 1916. Paul Strand (1890-1976) was a figure I first came to study and admire during the writing of my documentary-influenced dissertation, New Media Activism from Video to the Internet. His pioneering documentary work exerted a great influence on numerous politically engaged media producers in the 20th century. Moreover, much of my current scholarship engages and explores media experiments born in moments of early technological adoption. This particular photograph provided me an opportunity to probe into the development of art photography as it entered its modernist phase in the 20th century, and help me further understand a formative moment in the long and stellar career of Paul Strand.

For the purposes of my talk, I ended up selecting “House and Billboard” (Strand, 1916) for both scholarly and personal reasons. What follows is a summary of what I covered in that 30 minute talk. As the photograph itself seems to invite, I had to approach from several different directions, each time appreciating another aspect of the photo. As a new media scholar, my investigations into a single 1916 photograph actually brought me right back to the present where similar photographic techniques have become ubiquitous in the 21st Century. We can still see Strand’s impact on representations of our digital worlds.

1. Introduction: Coming of Age

Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1916

I find it hard to pick just one photograph from this period in Paul Strand’s career. He was quite prolific around 1916, and this work is among the most important in his entire oeuvre. And while “Wall Street” is justifiably famous for its brilliant use of form and social commentary, or “White Fence” has an unforgettable formal dynamic, or “Blind” captures some ineffable singular essence of our humanity, I have always had a personal fondness for “House and Billboard.” This photograph captures Strand’s love of New York City and possesses a bedeviling, bedazzling formalism—and it doesn’t give up its stories easily. I like the layers of meaning in “House and Billboard.”

For me, this photograph captures intersecting moments that are “coming of age” at about the same time: Strand as a photographer; New York as the 20th century city; modernism as a major cultural logic; photography as an important art form.

2. The Billboard: Punctum and Prophecy

At the outset, I would be remiss if I didn’t address a very personal reason for selecting this photograph: three generations of my family have been in the billposting business. I was drawn to the image of the billboard in this photo. As Roland Barthes would say, that advertising sign was my “punctum,” the personal detail that created my special relationship with this image. I became interested in images at a very early age, and I know a big part of my fascination was watching my father put together images high on a billboard platform off the busy highways of Chicago. I think billboards tend to get very short shrift in visual studies because they are seen as rather banal roadside monstrosities. But they never felt that way to me since I could literally see how they were carefully stitched together to render messages to drivers who might literally glance at them for a brief moment on their way to somewhere else. I also think that their ubiquity is the essence of their invisibility in visual culture studies. I rather enjoy that one of Paul Strand’s modernist masterpieces includes, quite deliberately and quite radically, a billboard.

So what of that billboard? In the bottom corner of the image, it anchors the entire composition, but it is only partially seen. From our current vantage point, we can’t even really make out what the billboard is actually advertising. Luckily, Strand himself, in one of his later interviews, remembered this particular billboard and the full names we only partially see: Charles Frohman and Julia Sanderman. With that bit of data, we can deduce that we are looking at an advertisement for a play that just opened in New York that year (1916). It was the play, Sybil, and it ran for 169 performances on Broadway [As a brief side note, Sybil is also the name of my wife, and it was a bit startling to learn that her name appeared on the billboard that so caught my attention—talk about your structuring absences as punctums] Anyhow, to return to the billboard: Sybil the play was adapted from Victor Jacobi’s operetta Szibill. It was produced by Charles Frohman and starred Julia Sanderman. The show itself was set in Russia and tells the story of a prima donna who assumes the identity of a Grand Duchess, and the Grand Duchess assumes her identity. It is a play of masquerades and role reversals. Even if Strand didn’t know the full content of the play, he would surely have been familiar with the classical concept of the sibyl—in other words, a sibyl is a prophetess. I think it is very clever of Strand in one of his most prophetic images—an image that literally inaugurates a modernist vision in photography—that he carefully elides a direct mention to prophesy, but leaves enough clues for the reader to discern that this photograph has a powerful connection to prophesy.

The billboard also serves as a false façade in the photograph, something Strand wants us to look above and beyond, but also it is an early indication that the urban landscape would soon be filled with advertising. I think this begins to show how modernity and advertising co-existed from the beginning, and the rapid changes of modern communication would be built upon a backbone of advertising.

3. The 125th Street Viaduct: Setting the “Waiting Trap”

125th St. Viaduct, New York City (Current Picture)

Where is Strand standing when he is taking this picture? It’s a good question, because it would appear that there isn’t a building tall enough in that neighborhood to give the 26 year photographer this vantage point. And indeed, this photograph was a literal impossibility a dozen years earlier because the structure upon which Strand is standing did not exist. This is New York as the “City of Ambition” because Strand is not standing on a rooftop, he is actually standing on the 125th St. Viaduct–the train platform built in 1904, still in use today for the 1 Train in New York City. Strand takes another famous photograph from this viaduct that emphasizes the modernist structure of the train platform.

125 St. Viaduct, Paul Strand, 1916

Of particular importance to the “House and Billboard” photograph, the viaduct afforded Strand something he was also seeking: invisibility. He was setting one of what Maria Hombourg calls his “waiting traps.” Strand was at a period in his photographic development where he wanted to photograph people unaware of his presence. The viaduct provided ample urban camouflage, so he could set up his camera and wait undetected for the unsuspecting subjects of his gaze to stage themselves naturally in front of his lens.

4. F/22: Depth of Focus

Another of the initial puzzling aspects of the photo is what time of day is it when Strand snaps his picture? Is it early morning? Is it late afternoon? Is it slowly creeping towards night time? In fact, it is likely that the photograph was taken near noontime on a very, very bright day. So what accounts for the relative “darkness” of the photograph? As Maria Hombourg notes in her book Paul Strand circa 1916, photography around the Photo-secessionists (a movement started by Alfred Steiglitz) emphasized the active intervention and manipulation of a photograph and soft focus lens to give photography a misty, dreamy quality in the early 20th century, a kind of impressionistic photographic palette. By 1916, Strand was experimenting with much sharper images and bold geometric shapes (esp. in his photographic still life work). And contra the Seccesionists, he didn’t want to manipulate the image, he wanted to capture reality in a much more objective fashion.

What I really like about Strand’s choice here is that he is using a technique more common in landscape photography at the time rather than urban photography. He is shooting at F/22.

Aperture Scale (note how closed down the aperture is in F22)

Every stop down cuts the light received by the camera in half, and F/22 is stopped way down. This aperture requires an amazing amount of light in order to capture the image (hence the idea that the photo has to be taken closer towards noon rather than later). F/22 creates a fairly detailed image that keeps both foreground and background in relative clarity. For example, you can read both the billboard and the garage sign in the far background. And while the photo still has vestiges of soft edges and shadows, the overall composition has a stark quality of definition to it. It has a wonderful depth of field—one that seems appropriate to capturing “an inexhaustible world.”

F/22 does another interesting thing: all of the even-toned areas of the photo turn to black when this setting is used. Thus, even though the photo is black and white, even-toned parts (such as the clothing on the people) are rendered more starkly as black.

But F/22 is a great choice for this photograph. It brings the urban landscape into an observable whole. Your eye can wander across the picture and see details that you might not even notice if you were standing on the 125th St. Viaduct. And importantly, it adds a degree of mystery to the people standing on the left side of the frame.

5. Freezing Time: Muybridge and the Photographic Gaze

Eadweard Muybridge, Race Horse Photograph

The scene in “House and Billboard” might seem to have little connection to the photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge. But as in Muybridge’s famous experiment to capture a horse will all four hooves off the ground, this photograph is literally “freezing time.” What is the point of “freezing time?” For Strand at this moment, I would argue it is about revealing what is hidden from casual views. Strand is pushing objective realism to its limits (both aesthetically and technically). The depth of field of F/22 and the “waiting trap” on the viaduct merge into an exquisite cross between the macro and the micro: the complex interrelationships of the urban environment and the stunning play of light and shadow that he explored so memorably in the close-up style of his still life photographs.


6. 291: Photography as Art and the European Avant-Garde

291 in 1906 (Kasebier and White Exhibition)

This photograph was first displayed publicly at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 art gallery. That is significant since 291 also displayed the photographic works of Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, and Stieglitz himself. Stieglitz also published the photograph in his influential journal, Camera Work. There is no doubt that Stieglitz understood the significance of this photograph (and other photos from around 1916 by Strand). This photograph is part of the body of work that started to gain recognition for photography as a major art form. And the 291 gallery was an important site where a young Strand saw avant-garde painting from Europe, and important works by Matisse, Rodin, Cezanne, Picasso and Duchamps. In fact, while some scholars might want to read cubist elements into “House and Billboard,” from my perspective, the lesson that Strand took from Cubism was compositional complexity and the visually dynamic relationships that can be built from geometric patterns in different visual planes, compositional strategies that are on full view in this photograph.

Moreover, through his contacts at 291, Strand would begin to see the connections between modern art and progressivism. They both involved new ways of seeing the world, of proposing new possibilities for culture. Strand is well known for his political activism, and the early seeds of his progressive vision and his urban sensibilities are on display in “House and Billboard.” It seems an early working out of ideas that he would express more fully in his 1920 film Manhatta.

7. Transience: Catching the Human Element

“Things become interesting as soon as the human element enters in.”

–Paul Strand

Part of what I find so captivating about this photograph are the people in the frame. This is a pro-filmic event. Strand is not staging this action, he is waiting patiently for it to happen. He is waiting for that perfect moment to take his picture. I think this would be a much different picture without the human element. The people help animate, give life to this mise-en-scene. It is not just a beautiful architectural still life, it is a portion of the metropolis teeming with life. I think what makes it so memorable is that it is capturing a moment of transience. What those people are discussing or meeting about is not important.

It is one of millions of meetings that occurred that day in New York City. But for Strand, they are choosing to stand there at that moment, they are not posing. They are carrying on the business of living in the city. The moment is fleeting, ephemeral. And yet, almost a hundred years later, we stare at it and try to comprehend its meaning. I think it lends the photograph an almost lyrical element. Things do become interesting once the human element comes in, and you can imagine Strand, high up on the viaduct in his “waiting trap” just preparing for this very moment, life caught unawares in all its transcience.

8. Pattern Recognition: The Formalism of Paul Strand

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the strong sense of composition and design in this photograph. It is very carefully arranged. Look at the edges of the frame. He clearly has a light pole framed on the left, the skylights in the top right hand corner, the letters in the billboard. It is hard to imagine how this picture would work a foot to the left or the right, a shift in the foreground objects, etc.

Top portion of "House and Billboard:" Notice its very careful geometric constuction and edge framing

But it also has a strong alternation of rectangles and right angles that play with a burgeoning sense of the solidity of the 20th century city. It has a great play of light and shadow to bring an element of impermanence into the tableau. It’s a formalism that finds itself in earlier experiments with still life photography.

Porch Shadows, Paul Strand, 1915

It’s an expression of the lived reality of the modern city. And rather than capturing the hurly burly flux of Wall St. Bankers against an imposing façade, here Strand the artist shows a much more human scale, which elicits a very different emotional response to me. This seems to be more about the day-to-day realities of the working class in the modern metropolis.

White Fence, Paul Strand, 1916

As in his wonderful photograph, “White Fence,” the lines in this photograph play with issues of recti-linearity. In fact, the main line that bifurcates the frame is not entirely straight, it is a slightly askew line. The line’s wiggly nature energizes the frame, like a bolt of energy running down the middle of the frame.

The left edge of the frame is a road. This is a picture that actively encourages the viewer to wander, to travel into the frame. But it is an inexhaustible world: one gets the idea that there are many more places to go. This is a nexus, a junction in the city.

There is also a very witty visual pun that plays with the issues of light and shadow in the photograph. The house in the middle ground has three windows and it appears that two of the three windows have “the lights on.” It creates a wonderful moment of asymmetry, reminiscient of “White Fence.” But it turns out that those are not lights, but rather white curtains/shades, and that only two of the three rooms have that window dressing.

9. Activating Rooftops: Revisiting Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid

Strand dedicates significant space in this photograph to rooftops. Rooftops are not necessarily the most interesting architectural piece of a building, and they are invisible to most viewers, especially at street level. They have little of the visual grandeur of a façade. But it seems that Strand is on to something with showing rooftops. I think a film like Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which came out four years after this photograph, shows the potential of rooftops for the urban psychogeography. They are spaces that can be activated both in reality and in the imagination. It is a space in the asphalt jungle that seems to connect to nature (especially the sky). It is a space of adventure, a place of danger, a mode of escape, a method of transit. I think that the way the photograph is framed (road on the one side, a set of rooftops on the other) suggests two modes of traveling. And when I think of Charlie Chaplin escaping from the police by running across the city’s rooftops, something akin to a similar impulse is present in Strand’s photograph. This photograph activates rooftops as a space of imaginative play.

10. Google’s Street Views: Urban Photography in the Digital Age

I wonder if someone just stumbles across “House and Billboard” today if the photo would excite the spectator the way this photo excited Strand’s mentor Alfred Steiglitz in 1916. I would say probably no. But for good reason. The type of visuality that Strand is creating here has become commonplace. His type of urban surveillance (his “waiting trap”) is literally how we are mapping urban space in the digital age. Strand’s surreptitious camera work finds its digital parallel in Google’s Street View technique that is quietly going around the world and photographing urban street views (like “House and Billboard”).

And like Strand’s photography, Street View becomes really interesting when “the human element enters in.” There are websites dedicated to showing people who have appeared in Street View. These are people caught unawares by Google’s camera people in their high-tech vans.

The Google Street View Van

I would argue that the kind of objective photography desired by Google as part of its digital mapping project finds its basic template in the photographic innovations of Paul Strand

References:

Hombourg, Maria Morris. Paul Strand circa 1916. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Distributed by Harry N. Abrams. [Exhibition Catalog], 1998.