Mary Modeen

On Poohsticks and Rivers of Referents

Winnie the Pooh’s game of ‘Poohsticks’ offers a model of movement and time that returns the gift of sticks—and winning, ‘just as we thought it would do’—with fluid motions of a lazy river. The river gives back that which has been cast in.

Curiously, photographs might do the same. Specifically, photographs have been theorized alternatively as ‘frozen moments in time past’ or ‘indexical traces’ of the thing presented, or even ‘photonic impressions’. In each version, a theorist has posited a perspective on time, relations and representation, in words that range from indexicality to icon to photopic impression.

Taken on the surface, it seems a straightforward task to look at a photograph as a trace, as if it were the imprint or record of an event. The causal relationship is seemingly clear. However, such simplicity belies a much more complex relationship if we believe that time and space as traditionally understood are not two but one, and that subject and object—photographer, and the thing/event photographed, in this case—are also not two but one undifferentiated convergence of being and materiality. How do we come to terms with such a fluid notion?

Interpretive viewing can only be attributed to a specific hermeneutic once the first set of assumptions has been addressed. Susan Sontag, for example, concentrates on the ethics of viewing photographs precisely because her initial understanding of the process is that it is inextricably linked to the original event-in-time as documentation.  Ulrich Baer, by contrast, sees the movement between subject and object as the possibility of a space opened between the perspective of the photographer in the past and that of the viewer now. He contrasts photos from mental patients in Freudian applications of moments of trauma to ghetto photographs of Jewish victims in Nazi photographs; Baer suggests that the space that is opened is an opportunity to move between the past and present, between photographer and subject, allowing for a reprisal of the image.

This last example of the space that Baer opens in a metaphysical sense has a visual analogy here as well, in film (as an extension of photography) with the effects of a ‘dolly zoom’, for example. In this technique, the use of a moving camera and a simultaneous zoom creates the apparent opening of space between the foregrounded subject and the background. Quite literally, a new kind of space has been created, one that did not exist before this technique. This is but one example of how movement and particular effects of photography (and film) not only capture movement but create new visions of space and time, ones in which the insertion of the distance from the viewer disrupts ‘normal’ relations as they are usually perceived.

Through photographic examples and critical texts, the barriers between fixity and undifferentiation, between oppositional states of subject and object as traditionally conceived in photographs, are dissolved. In its place, the possibility of a fluid and moving state of perception–and its implications for movement—are considered.


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