Friday, March 23, 2012

The Magic of the Camera (?)

The Magic of the Camera (?)
Photographers are translational agents utilizing a technology to decode and convey the external and internal worlds via the camera lens—regardless, if it’s intentional or not—while the camera itself is a tool imbued with the demonstrative ability to disseminate and capture the essence of the living moment and time’s unforgiving progression from the past into the future. Photography has a potency to present the viewer with an endless array of potentialities and possibilities, and, on some level, the photograph speaks to that primal overmind inhabiting every human psyche—we see ourselves or our conceivable selves in every picture. Perhaps, then, this is both the blessing and the curse of the photograph:  our eyesight helplessly submits to its unavoidable voyeurism…we cannot evade its imagistic persuasion. Susan Sontag notes this apperceptive sorcery that a picture holds over the human conscious in her book On Photography and observes, “photographs express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical: they are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality” (p.16).
Sontag’s remark reminds me of Erik Davis’ book TechGnosis where the author discusses the concepts of arresting and creative/generative magics, and argues that an image in our culture contains the potential for either. Arresting magic is described as “the imposition of binding symbolic restraints on the many by the few” (p.210), while creative/generative magic is “a critical rebellion of the grassroots imagination against the symbolic and social frameworks of concensus reality” (p.213). In the context of photography, photojournalism would be a perfect example of arresting magic since its “strongest example…is the mass media” (p.210), and, as Mary Warner Marien observes in her book Photography: A Cultural History, “as mass-market illustrated journals proliferated, the word ‘photojournalism’ entered common usage” (p.235).
With all of this in mind, a photographer such as Weegee and his flashbulb snapshots of crime scenes veer more towards the shock and awe of arresting magic and a photographer like Harry Callahan and his work are typical of creative/generative magic. Weegee’s tabloid aesthetic to capture “sensational images of crime and violent death” (Marien, p.344) fits effortlessly into what critical theorist Guy Debord refers to as the “society of spectacle,” which he quite vitriolically attacked for being the arresting magic of “technological and industrial domination of our psychic, aesthetic, and imaginal lives” (Davis, p.210). At the other end of the ‘magical’ spectrum, Harry Callahan’s photographs of city streetlife—though “tense and inhospitable” (Marien, p.342)—were filled with “lyrical flashes of beauty in tufts of grass [and] elegant lines drawn by utility wires” (Marien, p.342). Owing much to Robert Frank’s book The Americans, Callahan’s photographic vision falls succinctly in line with creative/generative magic, which exploits “the rich ambiguities of words, images, identities, commodities, and social practices in order to…rupture business as usual, and to stir up new ways of seeing and being” (p.213).
And speaking of photographer Robert Frank, his work would be considered, if you will, creative/generative magic in arresting magic’s clothes.  Grainy, gritty, and blurred techniques aside, the subject matter that Frank chooses for his pictures embodies the same disturbing quality as Weegee’s photographs; however, his brand of shock and horror has an interesting twist. Whereas, photojournalism’s arresting-magical qualities are, as William Covino argues in his book Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy, to charm “its readers…into a world where life is dangerous and exciting” (p.130), Robert Frank’s photos utilize the same diegetic and semiotic language of the photojournalistic picture, but expose the danger and excitement for what they really are: falsehoods.
As Covino observes, arresting magic lulls its audience into a false sense of security that “there really is no place like home” (p.130); Frank’s intentions would appear to be entirely antithetical to this. His photographs are often viewed “as a protest against numbing mass culture, materialism, and social conformity” (Marien, p.340): the very things that arresting magic is built upon. Frank’s use of the camera conveyed and displayed a populace of psychologically displaced, disconnected, and damaged people incapable of basic human interaction and seemingly unable to find their way back to the false security of home sweet home. Regardless, of Frank’s intention, the viewer cannot help but feel overpowered by a sense of alienation and awkwardness when viewing his photos...certainly not the shocking-yet-safe hypnosis of arresting magic. Most importantly, Robert Frank’s photographs serve as a looking-glass, cracked and splintered for the viewer to observe him/herself or aspects of him/herself in.
Arresting and creative/generative magics aside, there’s little denying that Callahan’s, Weegee’s, and Frank’s photographs are subject to the same quantified spatiotemporal laws that govern the whole of humanity and the universe we live in; indeed, their works serve as a testament to it. The difference lies in their intentions and, though their reasons for snapping pictures might differ greatly, each man was still capturing the life experience on some level. Keeping this in mind, Susan Sontag suggests that all pictures “are equalized by the camera…which levels the meaning of all events” (p.11). That’s not to say that a horrific murder scene is somehow equivalent to an abstract photograph of the female body; I doubt any sane person would argue that.
However, as Sontag further observes, both capture “a thin slice of space as well as time” (p.22)…and this there is no denying. Every photograph shares a common bond in their reflection of the scene, seen, and sometimes unseen. The picture’s viewer bears witness to the world within the image, passively and instantaneously taking possession of the photographer for that fixed, frozen moment in space and time; we see what they saw or wanted us to see. Before our very eyes, the image absconds its subject matter altogether and casts a documentative spell of spatiotemporal information: a portal into the past…a moment that can never be lived again in a world that might never have truly existed.
From the camera’s measured focus of hyperbolizing the disturbing and /or obscure to the seemingly instantaneous snapshots of the racing inhabitants in an urbanized blur, both are expressive estuaries of the life experience and testaments to time’s rule over every atom. Though their stylizations and photographic techniques vary and differ greatly, photographers’ reflective documentation of life, living, and being are inherently the same; regardless, the subject matter. The photograph serves as a documentative vessel of human experiences and provides civilization an imaginal outlet to disseminate the abstruse as well as the obvious. No magic or motive is necessary for this to occur…and this is the real magic of the photograph.


Covino, William A.. Magic, rhetoric, and literacy an eccentric history of the composing imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Print.
Davis, Erik. TechGnosis: myth, magic + mysticism in the age of information. Updated ed. London: Serpent's Tail, 2004. Print.
Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: a cultural history. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.
Sontag, Susan. On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Print.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tragical Evolutions of the Legendary Faust
Like the ever-expanding ages amassed decade after decade and century after consecutive century upon each otherdisplaying the progressive impact of time over the course of recorded historyJohann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s Faust further expands upon playwright Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which, in turn, had evolved from and built upon the rather depthless origins from the chapbook, The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. Goethe quite elaborately advances the legend of Faust from its original 16th century text about a necromantic alchemist hell-bent on signing away his soul to eternal damnation as well as from Marlowe’s 17th century adaptation of a scholar so blinded by his desires of attaining apotheosis that he is willing to relinquish his mortal coil for it. Interweaving the two together, Goethe fashions a complex man at the mercy of externalized forces—namely, that of good and evil--and internalized battles between reason and discord, tradition and the unconventional, and, more basely, between monumental love and momentary lust.
To observe the Faust legend’s evolution, one needs to look no further than the main character himself. Here, Goethe appropriates the character of Faust from one whose original motivations colored him more as an unequivocal caricature than a multifaceted individual capable of feeling myriad emotions. Faust’s origins in The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus paint him as a man desirous of indulging in the arcane arts of black magic and unholy conjurations. Here, Faust can be seen as an oversimplified character with a penchant for “worldly pleasure [more so] than the joys to come” (p. 183) and with a nebulous yearning “to know the secrets of heaven and earth” (p.184). While in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe developed this rather guileless alchemist by activating and further elaborating upon Faust’s overarching motives. In his adaptation of the chapbook, Marlowe refashions Faust’s desire for worldly pleasures and otherworldly secrets into one that includes “a world of profit and delight, of power, of honor, of omnipotence” (1.1.53-54). Additionally, Marlowe hyperbolizes Faust’s motives a step even further to include the alchemist’s desire for deification: “A sound magician is a mighty god” (1.1.62).
Goethe, on the other hand, drops Marlowe’s interpretations of Faust down a notch, adds just a touch of humility, and has the character’s motives more closely aligned with those originally mentioned in the chapbook. In the high-vaulted vestiges of his laboratory, the reader is introduced to a Faust imbued with a complexity that does battle with previous literary interpretations of his character. Here, Goethe portrays Faust as a frustrated man seeking those same secrets of heaven and earth—as he had sought in previous literary incarnations—but, this time, to no avail: “How hard I’ve slaved away, with what result? Poor fool that I am, I’m no whit wiser than when I began! I’ve got a Master of Arts degree, On top of that a Ph.D.…to what conclusion? That nobody knows or ever can know, the tiniest crumb!” (1.366-370). Goethe displays Faust as a figure transfixed by and grappling with a despair that he may never know those secrets he so desires.
Furthermore, Goethe expounds upon the chapbook’s “worldly pleasures” with an interesting twist; Faust is portrayed as a truly human individual. Like every other human being that has ever traversed the face of this planet, Faust is torn between his own personal desires and those of a greater purpose: “Two souls live in me, alas, forever warring with each other. One amorous of the world, with all its might grapples it close, greedy of all its pleasures; the other fights to rise out of the dust up, up into the heaven of our great forebears” (1.1136-1140). Unlike his previous incarnations, Faust is a man endowed with all the fractious foibles of humanity. Goethe depicts the alchemist not as a parochial villain overcome with thoughts of enlisting in Hell’s legions of doom (as in Marlowe’s play and the German chapbook), but rather as a man longing for more knowledge than his mind can comprehend to eradicate his mistakes of the past.
Again, Goethe has masterfully augmented the character of Faust by overwhelming him with previous faults and misgivings of the past. Outside the city gate’s on Easter Sunday, Faust confesses to his servant, Wagner, that he made grave errors in his youth, “If you could only see into my heart, you’d understand how little worthy father and son were really” (1.1054-1057). The reader goes on to discover that Faust is considered a great hero in the village of Wittenberg but that, under the direction of and alongside his father, he had poisoned patients suffering from the plague with an alchemical concoction that his father had brewed: “The patients died; none stopped to inquire how many there were who had got better. So with our infernal electuary we killed our way across the country. I poisoned, myself, by prescription, thousands; they sickened and faded; yet I must live to see on every side the murderer’s fame emblazoned” (1.1075-1079).
Here, the reader observes that not only has Goethe embedded a horrible secret into Faust’s past but that he’s also created an incentive for the character’s urgency to gather as much knowledge as he possibly can in order to rectify his past misdeeds; this is a far cry from either Marlowe’s play or the chapbook. In the latter of the two, Faust is given the scholarly title of “Doctor of Divinity” who ambiguously performed “great cures, namely with herbs, roots, waters, drinks, receipts, and clysters” (Kastan, p.183). Marlowe further elaborated upon this: “Be a physician, Faustus; heap up gold, and be eternized for some wondrous cure…Are not thy bills hung up as monuments, whereby whole cities have escaped the plague and thousand desperate maladies been eased?” (pp.7-8). Again, Goethe has artfully added a twist to his incarnation of Faust; one that helps to better explain the doctor’s motives to acquire all the knowledge of both heaven and earth.
Elsewhere in the novel, Goethe additionally enhances his interpretation of Faust with the introduction of his (first) romantic interest, Margarete, who does not appear in either Marlowe’s play or the chapbook. While courting Margarete, Faust utters, “I’m more pleased by one word of yours, one look, than all the wisdom in the great world’s book” (1.3125-3126). Whether it’s due to the pangs of puppy love or romantic distraction (or a little of both), Margarete signifies and activates yet another side of Faust that was previously unseen in his other literary incarnations—another side of him that displays his complexity and his humanity—that of compassion and love. In Marlowe’s play as in the chapbook, this level of empathy and emotion is seemingly nonexistent in Faust. For example, Marlowe’s Faust would never utter, “I cherish you [Margarete] very dearly, for those I love I’d give my life up gladly” (1.3481-3482).
In The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, one is met with a Faust that cursorily longs only to quench his carnal lust: “I am wanton and lascivious, and cannot live without a wife” (2.1.137). Later in his play and almost as if in afterthought, Marlowe rather half-heartedly introduces Helen of Troy into the story. She is treated as nothing more than a mistress to and a diversion for Faust: “Let me crave of thee to glut the longing of my heart’s desire: that I may have unto my paramour that heavenly Helen…whose sweet embrace may extinguish clear those thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow” (5.1.84-89). Here, Helen is clearly objectified as nothing more than sexual chattel for Faust’s vulgar forays into distraction.
This portrayal of Helen of Troy strays little from the chapbook’s version of her where she fills “the lust of his [Faust’s] flesh” (Kastan, p.204), having “a great desire to lie with fair Helena of Greece” (p.204). Although, unlike Marlowe’s play, the chapbook does note that the character of Faust falls “in love with her and made her his common concubine and bedfellow” (p.204). Goethe would later expand upon this love that Faust has for the character of Helen of Troy: “Let me be at once your guardian, your admirer, and your slave” (2.3.9363-9364); furthermore, Goethe’s incarnation of Helen is equally fleshed out. During Act III of Faust: the Second Part of the Tragedy, Helen and Faust have the child, Euphorion, together. Though a name is not given to him, Helen does bear a child to Faust in the chapbook as well—an incident that is notably missing from Marlowe’s play. After a brief courtship, Helen speaks of her love for both Faust and Euphorion, which evolves her from a one-dimensional character in the Faust legend’s other incarnations: “When two hearts in love are plighted, mortals feel what bliss can be; but three hearts in love united know divine felicity” (2.3.9699-9702). Goethe has not only evolved both Faust and Helen as characters but he has also managed to infuse the Faust legend with yet another romance.
In both instances, the romances of Helen and Margarete are methods that Goethe has employed to elevate the character of Faust from his more lackluster, cursory origins and previous adaptations, portraying the scholarly alchemist as not simply a licentious sort on the hunt to satiate his corrupt lusts but as a man capable of love…and, in the process, the author has added depth to yet another figure associated with the legend (Helen of Troy), while introducing a new character altogether to the mythos of Faust (Margarete). Likewise, not only has Goethe expanded upon previous incarnations of characters appearing in the Faustian legend but he has hyper-intensified the tragedy and given it myriad meanings as well.
No longer is the tragedy of Faust one solely focused on the protagonist’s endangered soul as is the case with Marlowe’s play and the chapbook. With Goethe’s adaptation, the story receives two romances that both end in tragedy—the death of Margarete and the dematerialization of Helen—as well as the tragic loss of Faust’s progeny. Both Margarete and Helen give birth to Faust’s children, and in both cases, the children, like their mothers, meet their tragic fates (his child to Margarete is drowned to death and Euphorion, his child to Helen, falls to his death). Perhaps, the most real of tragedies in Goethe’s Faust that appears nowhere in any previous adaptation is that Faust’s original desire to know the worldly and otherworldly secrets—the microcosm and macrocosm—are seemingly abandoned for the alchemist’s chances at love and happiness.
 However, since both romances end tragically, Goethe’s Faust is forced back into his role as tormented scholar; although, this time around, the torment is derived from life experiences rather than from those elusive secrets he originally was after. It’s a role that no longer appears to suit him and seems ironically laughable for someone who has experienced such great losses in his life. Perhaps, this is the reason that, by the end of Faust: the Second Part of the Tragedy, Goethe has his incarnation of Faust desirous of only one thing: to stare off into the sunset and lose himself in its infinity. Life can never truly be the same when you have loved and then lost it to the ticking of time’s wayward clock. No omnipotent spell from a necronomicon gathering dust on some bookshelf in a recondite corner of the world can ever take its place. Regardless, from Faust’s tragic past to his tragic present, Goethe has quite masterfully captured the essence of such great losses that the hands of fate are notorious for dealing out; thereby, transforming the character from a nefarious alchemist in league with the devil into a complex human being who cannot help but find empathy within the reader.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, and Martin Greenberg. Faust, a tragedy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. Print.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, and John R. Williams. Faust: the first part of the tragedy ; with the unpublished scenarios for the Walpurgis night and the Urfaust. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1999. Print.
Marlowe, Christopher, and David Scott Kastan. Doctor Faustus: a two-text edition (A-text, 1604; B-text, 1616) contexts and sources criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Fearless Photographs
From its inception in 1839, photography has taken an often convoluted evolutionary course—a meandering path governed by the ebb and flow of faux pas, random chance, and blind luck. Mary Warner Marien expounds upon this seeming randomness by observing in her book, Photography: A Cultural History, “If the invention of photography had depended solely on the availability of materials, it could have taken place during the late Renaissance” (p.1); yet, it would take 200+ years before the camera would finally see photographic fruition. This delayed actualization, when combined with randomization and the fact that “from 1839 on, twenty-four persons claimed to have invented photography” (p. 15), only adds to its mystique and makes for one of its most significant aspects. As historian, Tertius Chandler, remarks in Duplicate Inventions?, “photography is one of the few genuine cases of simultaneous invention.” (p.496), and there is an abundance of documented proof that it was simultaneously invented by insular individuals scattered across the continents.
Chandler continues his sentiment, “It is really quite remarkable: Niepce and Daguerre were inspired by lithography…and their rival Talbot was set off by something quite different” (p.496); yet, both Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot were not the only ones laying claims to being the original creator of the photograph. With other inventors such as Hippolyte Bayard and Antoine Florence constructing similar inventions, “there was not one but several photographies. Some had failed or were destined to be forgotten. Some, like Daguerre’s process, produced single images; others, like Talbot’s, were potentially capable of making multiple prints” (p.23). As to why so many people were conceiving of photographic inventions at or around the same time, Marien offers the reader “the notion of simultaneous invention—that two or more people can develop the same concept at about the same time” (p.8); an idea that is still baffling but very relevant even into the early 21st century. Some contemporary scientists have further elaborated upon and placed an entirely new spin on simultaneous invention—scientists like Rupert Sheldrakewho have proposed the theory of ‘morphic resonance’ (or simply: ‘morphic theory’) to better understand such occurrences throughout the whole of human history.
Comprised of what he calls ‘morphic fields’, Sheldrake suggests in his book, Morphic Resonance, that behavior in humans is contained in a hierarchical schema of nested levels within levels and—once a certain level is attained through imitation and repetition—any human being that has reached that level will then be attuned to a specific mindset and an awareness that becomes instinctual to said mindset: “An individual is initiated into particular patterns of behavior by other members of society…the performance of a characteristic pattern of behavior brings the individual into morphic resonance with all those who have carried out this pattern in the past” (p.190).
In the context of simultaneous invention of the photograph, Sir Isaac Newton’s famous (and often misquoted) citation—“If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”[1]—comes to mind. Every device, from the European cathedrals with small holes carved out in their roofs to the pantograph to the camera obscura and lucida, had culturally accreted around, amassed before, and accelerated this batch of 19th-century inventors into a similar mindset… or as Sheldrake puts it, “learning is facilitated as the individual ‘tunes in’ to specific morphic fields…Thus, for example, it should have become progressively easier to learn to ride a bicycle, drive a car, ski, or play a video game, owing to the cumulative morphic resonance from the larger number of people who have already acquired these skills” (p.190). Again, in the context of Sheldrake’s morphic theory, the reason simultaneous invention of photography occurred when it did is because of the previous generations’ inventions stacked atop one another into a innovative spire of inspiration, which served as a beacon for individuals such as Talbot and Daguerre to reach an unknowable new perception and an unforeseen advancement constructed solely upon the acquired knowledge of the past.
Think of it this way: like a logical progression up a craggy slope, each invention that aided in optical accuracy before photography had been minor steps taken while scaling a somewhat daunting incline with an unanticipated photographic peak. Thus, the properties and components comprising photography were easily attainable to individuals like Daguerre, Bayard, and Fox Talbot because they were synchronized with a particular morphic resonance—or mindset. And like those adventurers desirous of reaching a mountain’s summit before their mountain-climbing competitors—photography too had its many adventurous inventors and innovators all blindly vying for the same mountaintop.
Additionally, Marien notes that “although it seems that the invention of photography should be related to the start of the Industrial Revolution, its connection to the technical, social, and political changes that accompanied the initial mechanization of production during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Europe is not easy to establish” (p. 2). However, when factoring morphic theory into the equation, photography’s inception during the drang and drone of industrialization makes complete sense; regardless of whether or not the Industrial Revolution itself had brought about daguerreotypes, calotypes, etc. As Marien observes, “the photographic process began to be linked and experimented with in an era when practical, commercially feasible applications of scientific experiments were encouraged” (p.3); yet another piece of the photographic jigsaw that fits perfectly with Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance.
As if that weren’t enough evidence, Marien further remarks that two of photography’s simultaneous inventors—Fox Talbot and Florence—suggested the process of simultaneous invention as an answer to the coincidental surge of photographic devices: “Simultaneous invention…was mentioned by Florence and by…William Henry Fox Talbot” (p.8). Thus, even photography’s inventors were attuned to similar explanations as to how it was possible that so many individuals were coming forth with their own version of the photograph. Further fuel to add to the ‘morphic’ fire.
Another fire that the invention of photography ignited was—and some would say has yet to entirely extinguish—is, as Marien mentions, the “debate about its worth as art” (p.79). The process of photography being no stranger to antithetical mixtures, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the innovative invention was forced to navigate between polar opposites: the Karybdis of art and the Scylla of science. This duality of extremes served as ammunition for those advocating photography’s invention and those admonishing it. Likewise, this dual characteristic also forced both photography’s proponents and critics to cogitate, question, devise, and debate what exactly were the concrete properties governing the lofty ideals of art and science. Thus, the photograph’s status as unifier of these two extreme enterprises into one singular, cohesive entity is yet another significant aspect in its evolutionary history, and, as Mary Warner Marien indicates, “Photography was flexible and experimental, neither a sharply delimited art form nor quite the product of science” (p.28).
During its fledgling years, photography was “regularly called an ‘art-science’” (p.26), and Marien further elaborates that this term “recognized that photographic images were not only generated by a mix of science and art, but also applied in both activities” (p.26). It would seem that, at least for the first 20 years after photography’s inception, a cohesive unity between the two disciplines emanated forth from photography. However, Marien also notes that “the ambiguous character of photography in its early years was fostered by the equally uncertain definitions of art and science” (p.26).
Even with luminary proponents of photography, such as Edgar Allen Poe, “reactions to early photography ranged from the exuberant to the cautious” (p.28). As the years progressed, a “belief in the objectivity of photography took hold” (p.76), as Marien points out and adds, “The medium was belittled as a potential art form” (p.76). And several of photography’s artistic protagonists—individuals such as British critic, John Ruskin, and, artist, Eugenie Delacroix—had changed their minds about the photograph into one of antagonism.
 As time progressed, photography began to be considered as “a science imposing its mode of dogged imitation on art” (p.77). The amicable cohesiveness between art and science had deteriorated into us-vs.-them mentality and abrasive contempt. To make matters worse, as Marien describes, “Talbot, Daguerre, and Niepce all shied away from explaining photography as an invention that makes images through human agency” (p.23); thereby exsanguinating it of its creative cruor. Marien further explains that each of these men “insisted that photography originated in nature and was disclosed by nature” (p.23), removing it of its artistry and into the lofty confines of scientific logic. What’s most surprising—and a true symbol of its historical significance in photography—is that the debate whether photography is an art or science has never been wholly resolved and continues to this day.
This furor over a concise definition indicating photography’s true allegiance to one or the other brings to mind a quote from 20th-century French anthropologist and ethnologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, and his concepts of ‘bricoleur’ and ‘bricolage’: “Art lies half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought. It is common knowledge that the artist is both something of a scientist and of a ‘bricoleur’” (p.22) ); an idea that fits perfectly with what one commentator for The New Yorker stated when describing the photograph “as ’more like some marvel of a fairy tale or delusion of necromancy than a practical reality’” (Marien, p.25).
Yet another significant aspect in the early history of photography revolves around the reversed tones of the negative image—or, more specifically, around Fox Talbot’s creation of the calotype process—which, as Marien observes, “Produced a negative, from which many prints could be made… [and] would become the basis for modern photographic reproduction” (p.19); an advantage that Daguerre’s daguerreotype did not have. Of course, one of the true ironies about the above statement—and a sign of things to come—is that, although Daguerre, a Frenchman, was the first vocal inventor of the photograph and had the backing of his country behind him and his daguerreotype, it was the British inventor, Fox Talbot, whose calotype process was chosen by France’s politically-motivated Historic Monuments Commission over Daguerre’s government-supported daguerreotype…regardless of “France’s political and economic rivalry with Britain” (p.57). As Marien notes, “The commission rejected the daguerreotype’s cold metallic tinge in favor of the…calotype” (p.57), and was also chosen for “its ability to produce negatives from which multiple copies could be made” (p.57). Even the French had enough sense and foresight to put aside petty national rivalries for the better (and foreign) photographic process of the two.
However, the negative did more than that; it would become the focus of whether or not the photograph could truly be considered a trusted source of informational authenticity. As a result of this, the public’s perception of the world around them was experiencing a paradigm shift in conscious approach to documentation and commemoration. Moreover, with the introduction of negative, photography—which was often seen as a reliable source of objectivity—was no longer an article of unyielding truth, but rather was the “photographers’ efforts to intensify the appearance of truth” (p.74). Initially, such revelations were greeted silently with a feigned ignorance by proponents and opponents of the art/science debate alike. As Marien asserts “In public discussions and literature, the capacity of the photograph to seem whole and complete, while omitting relevant truths, was rarely addressed directly” (p.74). However, such selective myopia would not last long…
The negative also opened up the possibility for photographic manipulation, which sent those individuals in the art world who felt confident in “the idea of photographic representation as acutely accurate” (p.85) (and, therefore, inartistic) into a paroxysmal panic. One proponent of this manipulative technique—now titled ‘combination printing’—was Oscar Rejlander, whose most famous photographic work, The Two Ways of Life, was a time-consuming composite of “more than thirty individual negatives…which required a great deal of hand-work” (p.91). Rejlander took his inspiration for the manipulated photograph “from a Renaissance source and…distanced the work from ordinary photography” (p.91), likening it to the process of painting. Unsurprisingly, this only fueled further debate about whether the photograph was an art, a science, or an art-science. Much like the The Two Ways of Life’s visual display of the antithetical and archetypal symbols of sainthood and sin—and the two youths represented in the combination print who are torn between these two divergent paths—so too were the opinions in support of and against combination printing—a technique that foredoomed those opinions insisting that photography “was not a medium open to imagination or subjective response” (p.87).
As famed German sociologist, philosopher, and literary critic, Walter Benjamin, keenly observed while discussing the artistic merits of the photograph in his book, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, “It [photography] can…place the copy of the original in situations beyond the reach of the original” (p.6). Benjamin astutely concluded that the reason photography has such divergent opinions amongst its supporters and critics alike stems from issues surrounding its ‘genuineness’ and that, ultimately, the photograph represents “an upheaval of tradition” (p.7).
With Benjamin’s words in mind, there’s little doubt that the introduction of photography marked an end to the way people perceived not only the world around them but themselves as well. Likewise, due to photography, presumed notions of what was considered art and what was considered science were brought into question and re-examined under an intense new scrutiny. But above and beyond all else, photography helped to blur the derisive line between reality and imagination and, like the scores of its simultaneous inventors, the photograph offered the world a multitude of realities and in multiple copies to be shared not solely by the select few but by the masses as well. A new, modern era with panoramic vistas and snapshot horizons was expanding and growing at an exponential rate upon the unsuspecting populaces of Earth as the 20th century slowly crept into existence—an era that the photograph had helped to reshape and reinvigorate…an era advancing the vision of the human race as a whole.


Benjamin, Walter, and J. A. Underwood. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Chandler, Tertius. "Duplicate Inventions?". Wiley Online Library. N.p., 28 Oct. 2009. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <>.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966. Print.
Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: a Cultural History. Upper River Saddle, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.
Sheldrake, Rupert. Morphic Resonance: the Nature of Formative Causation. 4th, rev. and expanded U.S. ed. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2009. Print.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

No Respect:
A Symbolic Interpretation of a ‘Halloween Knock-Off’
As I was watching Kill Bill, Vol. 1—specifically, the scene where Beatrix Kiddo lodges a hatchet in the skull of one of the Crazy 88—it occurred to me that I had seen this gruesome image the week before while watching Friday the 13th. There too, a hatchet is firmly embedded down the middle of, camp counselor, Marcie’s forehead. So then, was Kill Bill director, Quentin Tarentino, paying homage to Friday the 13th? If so, it would mean Tarentino’s tribute to the 1981 slasher film was part of an infinite regress in cinema semiotics considering that the aforementioned axe-murdering scene from Friday the 13th’s takes place in a Camp Crystal Lake shower stall; itself, an obvious homage to the shower-scene murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
This, of course, contradicts film scholar Vera Dika’s observation that “Friday the 13th has no artistic pretensions, no film school ‘allusions’ or ‘homages’” (Sleaze Artists, p.230). Dika’s examination of the slasher flick—which Matt Hills discusses in his essay “Para-Paracinema”—seems either wholly uninformed or peripheral at best. Whether it was consciously or subconsciously intentional, Friday the 13th’s creators and scriptwriters managed to allude to several primal, semiotic images within the film’s mis-en-scene; thus, making it manifest to dismiss Dika's exceedingly shortsighted remarks. It doesn’t take an academic scholar endless hours in the corner of some marble-hall’d library—his/her eyes permanently affixed to countless volumes of books that have acquired several layers of dust from disuse—to point out that there are several antediluvian, metaphoric constants in Friday the 13th. Just a quick skim through my copy of Dictionary of Symbols, requires little brain power, elbow grease, or burning of midnight oil, yet can turn up some surprising results.
So, let’s start with something in Friday the 13th that’s central to the film and important to its mis-en-scene: its spatiotemporal setting at Crystal Lake. Under its entry in Dictionary of Symbols, lakes are considered “an occult medium in mythology and legend, linked particularly…with feminine powers of enchantment, through the feminine symbolism of water, and more widely with…death” (p.118). Considering that both the protagonist and antagonist of the film are women—and that the two do battle and meet their fates on the shores of Crystal Lake—it deepens the significance of Alice’s and Pamela Vorhees’ final confrontation there. Thus, the use of the lake as a visual platform fortifies the film’s revelatory gender ambiguity/specificity duality as well as its cinematic centrality in Friday the 13th.
The same entry in Dictionary of Symbols also states that the lake is “in effect a two-way mirror symbol” (p.118). Again, whether intentional or not, there’s little doubt that the mirroring effect of Crystal Lake is utilized as a nexus point, paralleling the gender identification (or lack thereof) between the protagonist and antagonist as ambiguous females; furthermore, it parallels the camera’s voyeuristic projections—taking ocular possession of  both characters’ perspectives throughout the film and transmits them into that of the viewers. This diegetic interchangeability between hero and villain via gender revelation is intermixed with the Droste-effective transfer from Alice’s and Mrs. Vorhees’ perspectives to the camera to the viewer; ultimately,  systematizing this two-way mirror exchange and extending it further by taking moviegoing possession of the viewer's vision.
Additionally, in Greek myth, the lake was considered another entryway into the underworld.[1] When you combine these symbolic meanings for ‘lake’ in their totality and then adjoin it with Dictionary of Symbols’ entry for ‘crystal’, the choice of Camp Crystal Lake as  Friday the 13th’s predetermined location—where eleven characters meet their deaths—makes symbolic sense. Likewise, the metaphoric use of ‘crystal’ signifies “the notion of passing or looking beyond the material world” (p.59), and intimated “clairvoyance [and] supernatural knowledge” (p.59). Therefore, Crystal Lake can be interpreted as a crux between the physical world and the afterlife, which then fortifies the worldly/otherworldly duality of Pamela Vorhees’ drowned son, Jason, and his ability to transcend death as long as he remains in the lake’s depths; thus, it serves as both a watery grave and an aquatic refuge for the dead/alive deformed boy. Caveat: obviously, Jason crosses over from this in-betweener state and into the physical world in the Friday the 13th sequels where he attains his slaughterhouse apotheosis from ‘lad of the lake’—complete with his modernized variation of the sword, Excalibur—into the iconic hockey-masked monster of contemporary popcultural myth; however, for now, let's focus solely on the original film.
Moving away from the film’s location, the semiotic significance of Friday the 13th’s protagonist Alice Hardy—yet another of Camp Crystal Lake's counselors—is what Carol Clover identifies in her essay “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” as the 'Final Girl’ archetype common in slasher films. Clover observes, “The Final Girl is boyish, in a word…she is not fully feminine…Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls” (p.204), and continues by noting that the Final Girl’s “unfemininity is signaled clearly by her exercise of the ‘active investigating gaze’ normally reserved or males…the Final Girl looks for the killer” (p.210). This unfemininity and boyishness that the slasher film’s Final Girl embodies is indicative of her role as hero-androgyne, and, by logical extension, Friday the 13th’s Alice is every bit the gender-ambiguous champion.
Throughout the film, the viewer can observe Alice’s subtle, genderless mannerisms and proactive attentiveness, which Carol Clover emphasizes, are key components of the Final Girl paradigm. For example, Alice’s hairstyle is somewhere between that of figure skater, Dorothy Hamill, and Jedi Knight, Mark Hamill. Her clothing is muted in tone and sexually nondescript with little-to-no accentuation of anatomical correctness. She is seen repairing the gutter on one of Camp Crystal Lake’s cabins as well as spending time in the kitchen. In one scen, after taking a shower, Alice is garbed in a full-length robe concealing any hint of her sexuality and, when she shrieks from the phallic snake slithering about her room, the viewer is left wondering if her panic is due to the snake itself or to her involuntary penis removal. Later in the film, while playing a game of ‘Strip-Monopoly’ with fellow camp counselors Bill and Brenda, Alice is the only player who, quite miraculously, hasn’t removed one article of her clothing. No-one can be that lucky. No-one except for Alice, that is. And her providence at ‘Strip Monopoly’ perhaps foreshadows her being the only fortunate soul to survive the forthcoming Crystal Lake massacre.
Symbolically speaking, Alice’s androgynous state might be interpreted as a metaphor for “divine wholeness—[the androgyne is] an ancient symbolism derived from widespread worship of primal gods who were simultaneously male and female” (Dictionary of Symbols, p.12). Thus, Alice’s preservation of gender neutrality during her bildungsroman from the feminine archetype of passive witness of the killer’s carnage into that of the masculine archetype as heroic aggressor and “killer of the killer” (Clover, p208) is one which ultimately leads to a figurative transfiguration into what I will term as ‘exosexual’ restorer of contextual order and cinematic balance.
 By ‘exosexual’, I mean that Alice (and, to some extent, all slasher-film Final Girls) is outside of and an outsider to her own sexuality; she is neither wholly female nor wholly male and maintains this sexual ambiguity throughout Friday the 13th. Therefore, on a purely symbolic level, Alice’s sexual drive can be seen as neither focused on procreation nor on recreation, but rather on upholding filmic stabilization in contrast to the killer’s vengeful acts of devastation against the body and, by logical extension, the voyeuristic terror-reaction roused within moviegoers witnessing the killer’s on-screen massacre.
Likewise, the character of Pamela Vorhees toys with androgyny to a lesser extent. As Clover points out, the viewer—via the killer’s perspective in Friday the 13th—is led to believe that Mrs. Vorhees isn’t a ‘Mrs.’ at all. Instead, the viewer assumes that the killer is male throughout most of the film: “’we’ [the moviegoers] stalk and kill a number of teenagers over the course of an hour of screen time…we are invited, by conventional expectation and by glimpses of…a heavily booted foot, a roughly gloved hand—to suppose that ‘we’ are male, but ‘we’ are revealed, at film’s end, as a woman” (p.216). Clover considers this to be “the most dramatic case of pulling out the gender rug” (p.216), and so right she is.
However, unlike Alice’s androgyny that subverts the classic ‘heroic male’ paradigm, Pamela Vorhees’ androgyny is one based on trickery in the context of the film’s semiotic subtext. The viewer is misled into believing that the killer is an antagonistic male aggressor in opposition to the androgynous Alice when, in fact, this isn’t the case. It is only after the killer is ‘unmasked’ and revealed to be Mrs. Vorhees that the viewer then realizes that he/she has been duped into believing otherwise and the killer’s androgynous masquerade has been exposed; yet, Pamela’s figurative meaning is still transfiguring on other levels.
Mrs. Vorhees also serves a dual role as both vengeful mother and slaughterer of camp counselors and can be metaphorically understood as that of the archetypal ‘mother-devourer’ found in countless world myths and religions. In the Dictionary of Symbols, this mother-devourer duality is identified as “Kali, the ‘Dark Mother’ of Hindu mythology [who] is the most alarming image of creator-destroyer” (p.138). Keeping this in mind, Mrs. Vorhees is imbued with the aspects of mother-creator—having originally given birth to her drowned son, Jason—as well as those of mother-destroyer who blindly seeks retribution for her son’s death via executing anyone associated with Camp Crystal Lake, the site of Jason’s watery demise.  
Furthermore, Pamela is indicative of psychology’s ‘terrible mother’ who symbolizes “possessive love and the danger of an infantile fixation persisting and blocking development of the self” (Dictionary of Symbols, p.138). In the film, this ‘possessive love’ arises within Mrs. Vorhees due to motherly instinct to protect her child…even if the child is already dead and it means she must continually satiate her unquenchable, psychotic desire for vengeance by upsetting the balance between birth and death.
Matt Hills’ remark that—to film scholars and movie critics—Friday the 13th is considered “to lack originality and artfulness, to possess no nominated or recognized auteur, and to be grossly sensationalist in its focus on…special effects” (p.232),  but to simply dismiss it as assembly-line slasher-flick fodder is doing the film an injustice. In the context of horror film history, it is unique regardless of its pandering to box-office sales and partaking in the “time-honored 1950s and 1960s tradition of a major studio knocking off the genre success of an independent production”[2]. Although it might not be the first slasher flick to introduce the concept of ‘Final Girl’—that honor goes to John Carpenter’s Halloween—it does succeed where Carpenter’s film fails: that of fully transfiguring the Final Girl from stereotypical ‘damsel in distress’ who is saved in the nick of time by a heroic male figure—and thus, maintaining patriarchal order within the film’s 95-minute run—into one who needs no male hero to be saved by for she has appropriated those heroic qualities of self-reliance, independence, and assumed the role of ‘vanquisher of the enemy’.
With that said, Friday the 13th also stands apart in slasher-film history and originality with its subversion of the stereotypical enemy. Not only is the film’s killer the first female ‘slasher’, but she’s also a contemporary reinterpretation of the classic ‘mother-devourer’ paradigm. The fact that this film was exploring new boundaries with women’s roles in cinema and questioning otherwise implicit sexual stereotypes often relegated to female characters AND doing all of this in a commercially-successful motion picture, one would assume that film scholars and movie critics alike would be lauding Friday the 13th; yet that’s not the case.   For reasons that I as yet cannot fully fathom, this singular slasher film hasn’t received any further scholarly examination beyond that of peripheral criticism and/or myopic dismissal. Furthermore, virtually nothing has been written about its re-appropriation of mythic and religious symbolism and their re-interpretations onto late-20th century cinema screens—and interwoven with sexual politics, I might add. Friday the 13th proves that some slasher films just get no respect (…but plenty of sequels).

Clover, Carol J. "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film." Representations, No. 20, Special Issue: Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy (Autumn 1987): pp.187-228.
Friday the 13th: Uncut – Deluxe Edition. Dir. Sean S. Cunningham. Perf. Kevin Bacon, Adrienne King Betsy Palmer. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2009. DVD.
Hills, Matt. "Para-Paracinema." Sconce, Jeffrey. Sleaze Artists. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007. pp.219-239.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba, Vivica A. Fox Uma Thurman. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2004. DVD.
Tresidder, Jack. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.

[1] Tresidder, Jack. Dictionary of Symbols. London: Watkins, 2008. Print. p.117.
[2]  Hills, Matt. "Para-Paracinema." Sconce, Jeffrey. Sleaze Artists. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007. 219-239.