The first commerical camera is thought to be the daguerreotype, which changed art forever starting in 1839. To generalise, the function of painting changed after that. Before the camera, artists functioned as photographers do today; the skill of authentic reproductionwas highly valued because there was no other way of recording something than to paint it in realistic, naturalistic fashion.
Stories themselves function as a type of lens. John Berger uses the lens metaphor when describing narration in his book What Time Is It?
Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless. If we storytellers are Death’s Secretaries, we are so because, in our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses.
“Negatives” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1994 in Esquire, later included in the Heart Songs collection. You can read it online, with limited unpaid access. “Negatives” is the most brutal of the stories in this collection. Content note for rape.
Reasons to read this story:
If you’re writing a short story and think it may benefit from a ‘separatised’ introduction which forewarns the reader basically how it’s going to unfold. I do wonder at what part of Annie Proulx’s writing process she wrote that introduction. Did she write the rest of the story then realise it needed a little something at the beginning? That’s be interesting to know.
In any case, the way Proulx unfolds the story, mentioning the bath scene in the men’s dialogue, then later showing us the scene where Albina asks to have the bath that first time, is an interesting, spirally way to tell a story, and structuring a plot like this leaves the reader with the feeling of a vast unfolding, and even a short story feels like it has many layers.
Pathetic fallacy written beautifully: ‘The mountain pressed into the room with an insinuation of augury. Flashing particles of ice dust stippled the air around the house. The wind shook the walls and liquid shuddered in the glass.
A character dehumanised, in this case by turning Albina into a dog, in Walter’s eyes. Annie Proulx achieves this partly by telling us about Walter’s fantasises, as relayed at dinner parties, but eventually by stripping her naked. Her physical description also aligns somewhat with that of a dog, as well as the smell she leaves behind in a car (as dogs are inclined to do). Her children have ‘sown the back seat of his car with nits’, and she spends a lot of time sleeping in there. Dogs also sleep a lot. She hangs around like a stray, asking for an increasing amount of scraps. Nor does she retaliate, biting her owner’s hand, when abused like a dog. Her hair is short, ‘like fur’. Everything about Albina is dog-like.
A story with no clear ‘main character’: The character who changes (is traumatised) the most is a head we’re not allowed into.
The way Proulx writes about the changing of a season, mirroring the change in character emotion, ending the paragraph by honing back in on the characters of this particular story:
THE DEEP AUTUMN CAME QUICKLY. Abandoned cats and dogs skulked along the roads. The flare of leaves died, the mountain molted into gray-brown like a dull bird. A mood of destruction erupted when a bull got loose at the cattle auction house and trampled an elderly farmer, when a car was forced off the road by pimpled troublemakers throwing pumpkins. Hunters came for the deer and blood trickled along their truck fenders. Walter took pictures of them leaning against their pickups. Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.
PHOTOGRAPHY SYMBOLISM IN “NEGATIVES”
As Karen Lane Rood writes:
[Negatives is} another story about outsiders’ misperceptions of the rural poor [and] speaks to another of Proulx’s ongoing interests: the various meanings of photographs and—by extension—of her own art.
Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
“Electric Arrows“, from the same collection, opens with a photograph. In that story, photographs function narratively as a base from which the storyteller skip backwards and forwards in time. The photography motif in “Negatives” is— as the title punnily suggests — far darker than that. This story is about how rich people see poor people—as snapshots rather than as rounded individuals with entire lives of their own. Rich see them as grotesques, which — in the days before mainstream digital photography — is exactly how I felt looking at anyone in a film reel — the teeth are black, the whites of the eyes are black. Film negatives make a grotesquerie of anyone.
Proulx’s treatment of Walter and his photographs shows her realization of the danger inherent in his art. Walter’s photographs are expressions of his vision, not representations of reality. They are ‘choked down and spare, out-of-focus, the horizons tilted, unrecognizable objects looming in the foreground, the heads of people quartered and halved.’ His best photograph, he thinks, is one of a small house with an arbor: “Guests sorting through the photographs kept coming back to this dull scene until gradually the image of the house showed its secret hostility, the arbor turned harsh and offensive, the heavy grass bent with rage. The strength of the photograph emerged through the viewer’s eye was itself a developing medium. It would have happened faster, said Buck, if Walter wrote out the caption: The House where Ernest and Lora cool were Bludgeoned by the Son, Buxton Cool.’ Buck is not interested in Walter’s explanation: “If you have to say what something’s about, […] it’s not about anything except you saying it’s about something”. Buck and his friends want Walter to take nature photographs, to create beautiful pictures that do not disturb their carefully created serenity. Barb Cigar wants Walter to photograph the “lovely perfect leaves” on her trees.
Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
CHARACTERS IN “NEGATIVES”
In “Negatives”, Proulx sketches characters who approach grotesque caricatures. Their names provide essential clues about their psyches. Buck B. has a name that is both tough sounding and cute. It is appropriate for someone who seems essentially asexual and comically naive in his desire to avoid anything disturbing in art or life; yet, as a wealthy man, he exerts power over others and harms them by his indifference. Bucks’ friend Barb Cigar is more dangerous, and more masculine, than Buck. Walter Welter’s name suggest his underlying sadism, while Albina Muth is the white moth drawn to Walter’s destructive flame for immolation.
Karen Lane Rood, Understanding Annie Proulx
Walter Welter — Proulx doesn’t shy away from poetic (borderline ridiculous) names. When I think ‘Welter’ I think of ‘welt’ — someone causing damage to skin with a strap. Walter is a photographer who moves in with a wealthy lover, Buck B. He has a fanciful, gossipy imagination and makes up stories about Albina Muth to entertain Buck’s dinner guests. Eventually Walter agrees to take a series of photos of Albina. As background he chooses an abandoned poorhouse and requires her to pose in increasingly degrading positions. Karen Lane Rood describes Walter’s feelings towards Albina as ‘eroticised hostility’ and I think this is a perfect term. This term has only become more and more useful — back in 1994 few had viewed pornography via the Internet. Now it’s common, as is the ‘eroticised, hostile’ feeling, I suspect.
Buck B — Another alliterative name, joining the two men symbolically together. Buck has been forced to retire from his job as the host of a children’s TV show. He’s come to northern New England for the scenery. In time for his arrival, he’s built a massive glass house on a mountainside. He takes up with the hobby of pottery, because isn’t that what rural, rustic people do?
Albina Muth — Albina is a poor, malnourished, unkempt woman whose age I revised downwards as I read. Buck dismissively calls her ‘The Local Downtrodden’. She lives with an abusive husband, and leaves him over the course of this story. With nowhere to go, she starts sleeping in Buck’s Mercedes, leaving behind a smell that Buck finds repulsive. This is the ultimate rich-poor juxtaposition. She begs Walter to take her picture, though we are never allowed inside Albina’s head, so we don’t know what’s motivating her. We can only guess. When someone takes your picture, for a moment at least, you feel important.
Barb Cigar — One of Buck’s new friends, whose aesthetic sensibility stands in direct opposition to Walter’s. She would like Walter to take a photo of her tree, which has sprouted pretty leaves, but Walter is caught up in the art movement of the 1980s and 1990s, in which there was a move away from ‘pretty’ photography into the aesthetics of the grim. Wabi sabi, with exaggerated emphasis on the sabi. Barb herself is a masculine figure compared to a dog due to the skin folds around her mouth.
Walter’s photographer friends — off the page, but we get snippets of dialogue on the phone. I read them as not just geographically but also emotionally distant types, who are all caught up in this idea that nothing means anything — nihilistic criticism — and there’s no point looking for meaning because art only means something to the person who took it or made it. (I wonder what Proulx’s own outlook is, regarding criticism and reviews of her work.)
STORYWORLD OF “NEGATIVES”
YEAR AFTER YEAR rich people moved into the mountains and built glass houses at high elevations; at sunset, when the valleys were smothered in leathery shadow, the heliodor mansions flashed like an armada signaling for the attack.
“Negatives” opening sentence
The opening of “Negatives” packs a whole lot of setting information into one sentence. Proulx is gifted in economy. (Some even call her ‘elliptical’ — as stories progress you have to fill in the gaps yer own self.)
The large house made mostly out of glass is freighted with symbolism in any work of fiction. I’ve yet to see a happy fictional family living inside a glass house. In the TV series Nashville, Juliette lives in a massive glass house but she’s pretty far from happy. A house is an outworking of the characters living inside it — more so in fiction than in real life. What is it about glass houses? Is it because they cost so much to heat, so we think of them as cold? Or is it because there’s no real barrier between the inhabitants and the difficulties of the outside world, so the house fails to provide protection? Anyone can see into a house made of glass.
Heliodor is a word I had to look up — it’s a yellow crystal. ‘Heliodor radiates the warmth and power of sunshine,’ apparently. So I guess Proulx is using it ironically. Is Proulx taking the mick out of crystal healers?
Heliodor has been used as a talisman to bring out honesty in others, and to regain what has been lost in terms of employment, prospects or money. It is an excellent crystal for the self-employed, or for those who struggle to balance care-giving and career.
In the workplace, Heliodor boosts drive and determination to succeed if others have worn away your enthusiasm. Carry or wear Heliodor to persuade others to back you financially or with resources.
The newest of these aeries belonged to Buck B., a forcibly retired television personality attracted to scenery.
“Negatives” second sentence
An aerie refers to the nest of a bird and includes the following associations: it is at high elevation, the bird is a bird of prey (e.g. an eagle) and it is secluded. Next, we’re told (comically) that a few weeks after Buck B arrives, Walter Welter is ‘disgorged’ into the town. This is a verb especially reminiscent of birds of prey: When bald eagles approach scavengers like dogs, gulls or vultures at carrion sites, they are known to aggressively attack them and try to force them to disgorge their food. (Annie Proulx is a master of verbs. I believe she has read a lot of non-fiction. Look at her publishing credits and she’s written a lot of rural-themed non-fiction too, before she found widespread publishing success with fiction in middle age.)
SIMILARITIES TO THE STORYWORLD OF “HEART SONGS”
Rural Vermont, suggests Proulx, is a dark force that affects most characters. In “Negatives,” for instance, the sadistic Walter Welter, recently relocated to Vermont, exploits the greasy, pitiful Albina Muth, photographing her nude in a series of increasingly humiliating poses that culminates in her falling through a rotting iron stove, where he gropes then rapes her. Even an “elderly curtain rod salesman” is “made such a satyr by rural retirement” that his live-in lover had to be “rushed twice to the emergency room.” The pathetic Snipe in “Heart Songs” is captivated by the “brushy, tangled land,” “and old pick up truck abandoned in a ditch” and a “secret wish to step off into some abyss of bad taste and moral sloth.” Snipe succeeds in his quest, seducing “fat Nell,” a local farmer’s wife whom Snipe mistakes for his daughter; he then writes a series of bad checks at a local mall.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism by Alex Hunt
The image of a dishevelled woman crawling into an oven is of course reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, the most enduring tale of its category, and the fairytale most symbolic of the forest. For writers, the forest can be anything at all: a cathedral, a utopian retreat, a place full of edible riches. For Annie Proulx — no surprise — the forest is a place of immorality and debauchery.
“NEGATIVES” AND SYMBOLISM OF THE FOREST
Something about the heavily forested New England landscape’s potential to encourage this sort of immortality and even debauchery was also felt by Puritans centuries ago. Puritans felt that the wild forest at the boundaries of their settlements was a place encouraging a form of moral deterioration that would lead to outright wickedness; they believed that “morality and social order seemed to stop at the edge of the clearing.”
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism by Alex Hunt
SIMILARITIES TO “YOUNG GOODMAN BROWN”
Indeed, the satyre-like behaviour exhibited by Walter Welter and the “elderly curtain rod salesman” hearkens back to Nathanial Hawthorn’s “Young goodman Brown,” when the protagonist leaves the village of Salem and ventures into the forest at night, only to hear rumors of sexual misconduct. In “Heart Songs”, as in Hawthorne’s tale, the remote forest context encourages if not determines characters’ behaviour. The curtain rod salesman is ‘made’ to do deviant acts, and Welter and Snipe experience an accelerated process of moral decay.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism by Alex Hunt
STORY STRUCTURE OF “NEGATIVES”
The time span of a story is symbolically important, whether it take place over the course of years, a year, a season, day or hour. Annie Proulx tells us right away that this story doesn’t last a year.
But it was all over before the first snow and no one had to do a thing.
The reader is therefore prepared for something bad to happen. But what, and to who? Not to these guys — the inverse of Blow-in Saviours — wreaking havoc wherever they go, then toddling off on their rich, merry ways. The opening therefore serves as a frame for the ‘main narrative’, which is the series of events between Walter and Buck moving in and leaving.
Buck: He lives with a guy who brings trouble into his house. He has a poor taste in partners. His shortcoming is he can’t see (admit) what’s going on under his nose, until he suddenly does. Buck’s lack of power (despite his financial power) is symbolised by his limp.
Walter: Attracted to the dark underbelly of life and treats human beings of this world the same as he treats his objects. He justifies his actions by invoking the cause of high art.
Albina: The most vulnerable of the three main characters. She’s trying to escape from an abusive husband, who must be stalking her. She can’t go home, she can’t go to the mall. These days, this pattern of behaviour is known as ‘coercive control’. But like Buck, Albina can’t see Walter’s terribly dark side until it’s too late for her. She has low expectations of life and men, and as long as someone’s paying her attention (via taking her photo, for instance) then she will put up with a lot.
Buck: No plans but to live his dinner party, pottery life, in a rural area full of derelict families. Despite his big glass house, he plans to keep those derelicts on the other side of his walls. He tells Walter not to let Albina into (first) his car and (next) his house.
Walter: To pretend he’s not developing some kind of obsession with Albina, then ‘reluctantly’ agree to take her picture. This will goad her into a sense of safety.
Albina: Mistaking Walter’s interest as benign, Albina plans to sit in his partner’s Mercedes to escape her abusive husband, then to persuade him to let her bath, and finally to take her picture.
The first part of the Battle takes place inside the poor house and inside the oven. This is between Walter and Albina. Walter gets what he wants, which makes Walter the winner.
The second part takes place between Walter and Buck, back at the house, after it is revealed Buck has seen the entire thing from his massive glass windows.
The Anagnorisis belongs to Buck, who has seen what we as reader just saw, but uncomfortably up close. This aligns Buck more closely to the reader than the other two characters.
Proulx does something interesting with the Anagnorisis part of this story, though, because people don’t tell the truth, not even to ourselves. Buck tells Walter to get out because it’s getting ‘too cold’. He doesn’t like the ‘stink’ in his car. He never lets on he saw what he saw. For all we know, he’ll pretend, even to himself, that he never saw that. He only acknowledges, for now, that he doesn’t want to be with Walter. Narratively, the Anagnorisis has happened, but perhaps only in part.
The reader, in contrast, knows exactly what Walter is like.
The reason Buck can suddenly see (literally, through binoculars) what Walter is like is because the land between his rich house and the poor house has been newly cleared. This is an example of delayed decoding, which Annie Proulx is famous for. Now we know why Proulx told us, as a part of all her beautiful scenery descriptions, why all those loggers had come into town. The following detail was planted for a plot purpose, not just to flesh out the scenery:
Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.
The invention of cameras was a boon for storytellers. Writers and film directors have this new narrative tool — in the shape of a camera — which allows them to play around with perspective, to use as a metaphor and as a way to explore death. (No kidding. Read on!)
THE CAMERA FIEND TROPE
Some characters use a camera. These characters love their camera. They’ll have the device with them everywhere they go and they’ll use it well, usually sticking it in the most unwelcome of places – they’ll take the most inane pictures they can, record everything they see or all of the above (maybe even at the risk of life or limb). Something embarrassing happens? They’ll snap a shot. Important plot event? They caught it on tape. You can always expect this character to wear their camera on their sleeve for any important or non-important moment that may arise, probably becoming uncomfortable without the object at near. It’s possible that they derive some kind of strange pleasure from watching people, though its best not to get into that.
Twelve-year-old Circa Monroe has a knack for restoring old photographs. It’s a skill she learned from her dad, who loves old pictures and putting fun digital twists on them. His altered “Shopt” photos look so real that they could fool nearly anybody, and Circa treasures the fun stories he makes up to explain each creation.
One day, her father receives a strange phone call requesting an urgent delivery, and he heads out into a storm. The unimaginable happens: a tornado, then a terrible accident. Just as Circa and her mom begin to pick up the pieces, a mysterious boy shows up on their doorstep, a boy called Miles who remembers nothing about his past. The only thing he has with him is the photograph that Circa’s dad intended to deliver on the day he died.
As Circa tries to help Miles recover his identity, she begins to notice something strange about the photos she and her father retouched-the digital flourishes added to the old photos seem to exist in real life. The mysteries of the Shopt photos and Miles’s past are intertwined, and in order to solve both, Circa will have to figure out what’s real and what’s an illusion.
Why have photography hobbyists become such a popular trope, especially in young adult novels?
Photography affords YA novelists an opportunity to explore the relationship between agency, death and discourse. […] Novels that employ photography create many opportunities for characters to explore metaphorically the relationship between subject and object, betwween acting and being acted upon.
Seelinger Trites works with the theory that death and narrative structure are linked.
[Many YA] novels employ photographing protagonists as metaphors for the relationship between power and agency. The metaphor of the camera bestowing upon the photographer a sense of empowerment based on the communicative abilities of photographs occurs often in literature.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
As examples, Seelinger Trites analyses the following:
A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry (1977)
Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (1991)
Spite Fences by Trudy Krisher (1994)
Now that cameras are ubiquitous, it’s no surprise photography has become increasingly common in stories for YA. More modern examples (created after Seelinger Trites wrote Disturbing The Universe):
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — the viewpoint character makes experimental short movies — Lowry’s A Summer To Die sounds like it might have been the mother of Jesse Andrews’ novel. Both are about teenagers standing nearby as another teenager dies.
The Secret History Of Us by Jess Kirby — the viewpoint character has lost her memory in an accident. Photographic evidence helps her to work out the mystery of what happened to her and provokes the return of certain memories.
The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw — a love story about a shy photographer and a girl who is slowly turning into glass.
Hold Still by Nina LaCour — photography is a means of expression for Caitlin, functioning kind of like a diary
Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan — When Blake snaps a picture of a street person for his photography homework, he never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom. The flash is especially metaphorical: “You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her.”
Seelinger Trites explains that photography has a specific function in YA, and the pattern is repeated. The camera is a ‘metaphorical representation for achieving agency’. When you’re on the snapping side of the camera you are no longer the object. You’re in control. You’re the one doing the observing, the judging. In a photography narrative, the main character becomes more and more aware of their own agency. That’s the character change.
Pictures are important not so much in and of themselves but for what they teach the adolescent, especially as they become repeated artifacts that allow the character to witness the same scene during several different points in her or his development.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
[The] need to recognize one’s own agency is a central pattern of adoleescent literature; we achieve adulthood more comfortably if we recognize that we have some control over the various subject positions we occupy than if we feel entirely like objects, pawns, in other people’s movements. But conversely, maturity also depends on our ability to maintain, when necessary, an object position, for we are all objects of the cultural forces that constantly shape us. Again, the relationship between subjecta nd object is a fluid one, but gaining an increased understanding of one’s power as an acting subject is inevitable during maturation.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
SUSAN SONTAG ON CAMERAS
In 1977, Susan Sontag produced a collection of essays On Photography. It’s pretty famous. Points especially relevant to YA:
In their ubiquity and passivity, photographs can become a source of aggression.
Cameras can create a sense of vicariousness that may also sanction the photographer’s nonintervention in painful issues.
For characters who take pictures instead of becoming involved, photography can become a source of complicity, a way to approve tacitly that which they may not otherwise be able to change.
Cameras serve to both empower and disempower adolescents’ agency.
CAMERAS IN MIDDLE GRADE FICTION
Until recently, regular kids didn’t have access to cameras. Now every adult carries a camera in their pocket and we give our older models to our kids. Kids take photos now. Perhaps this is part of the reason photography as a metaphor has come down into MG.
Though this novel wasn’t originally written for children, the camera plays a starring role in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, in which the town vagabond is entrusted with a camera which has been won — along with a lifetime’s supply of film — by the main character’s family. When I read this story I assumed the camera had been included for the sake of the plot, even though the setting is based on the author’s own grandparents’ farm, but as it turns out they really did win a lifetime’s supply of photos after the war, when film and development was very expensive. In Wolf Hollow Toby is a what TV Tropes refers to as a ‘camera fiend’.
The reason I assumed the camera was a plot device is because it’s a very good one. When a story is written using anything other than an omniscient viewpoint, a camera can offer insights and evidence concerning happenings outside the realm of the characters’ knowledge. In this MG novel, the camera isn’t really used as part of the main character’s change to someone with agency, but as part of the mystery plot. Mystery writers must come up with various ways their young characters can solve mysteries — talking to adults, keeping watch from the shadows and finding evidence such photos are common tricks.
CAMERA AS TRUTH-TELLER
It is generally assumed in story that the camera does not lie. While this has been true until recently, that’s changing. We’re yet to see many stories come through — at least for younger children — which make use of the fact that photos can be easily doctored by anyone with appropriate software. I predict ‘fake news’ as a huge theme in YA fiction in the coming years.
CAMERA AS SOURCE OF AGGRESSION
There are definitely camera as gun elements to Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, in which Toby is hunted as wolf while he in turn is only as dangerous as a camera, shooting nothing more than photos.
In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood also uses the camera as a stand-in for a gun. It’s handy that in English the word ‘shoot’ is used for both taking a photo and using a gun. Cameras are a recurring motif throughout Atwood’s work.
Note that when we say ‘camera as gun’ we are talking about the invasive nature of cameras. When you have a camera pushed into your face without your consent, and when the photos of you are seen by others without your consent, this is invasive.
It is a superstition of many Real Life religions and cultures that cameras and photography are harmful, with many believing that being photographed may steal their soul and taking great pains to avoid it (This is ostensibly the Soul Jar variant of the Phantom Zone Picture).
Absent from classic fairy tales: Cameras. Tales as collected by Grimm are not about self-reflection. Characters don’t grow. They exist as archetypes. Fairy tales are told by an unseen omniscient narrator, avoiding the more modern narrative tricks.
But there is a fairytale camera equivalent, I believe, and that is the mirror. When Snow White’s mother asks the mirror to educate her on the fairest in the land, she knows and we know that it is telling her the truth. (Mirrors aren’t known for their diplomacy, and nor are cameras.)
In Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman creates a fantasy world with a palimpsest of our real world — Oxford, Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin. Accordingly, he includes fantasy elements which are connected to real world technologies. Early in the story we see the Scholars — with Lyra hidden in the wardrobe — showing what Pullman calls ‘photograms‘ from an expedition to the North. These photograms are in black and white, in keeping with the olde worlde feel of Oxford and the patriarchal set up depicted. Some of the photos from the expedition have been developed using the normal emulsion, but some of them have been developed using ‘special emulsion’. This reveals a different landscape altogether — the Scholars and Lyra can now see a hidden city, existing in a world separate but connected from our own.
A photogram is not something entirely made up by Pullman. It is a picture produced with photographic materials, such as light-sensitive paper, but without a camera. How do you take a photo without a camera, you might ask? By placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light.
Later the word ‘photogram’ was used to refer to the earliest photographs. The word has now fallen out of use.
In fantasy, a variety of tools can be used for the purpose of seeing into a parallel, magical world. In The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Webb invents a ‘seeing stone’ which allows the main characters to see hobgoblins in the garden.
CAMERAS IN THE HORROR GENRE
The trope in which cameras reveal what the eye cannot see is used heavily in the horror genre. The camera which can see paranormal activity is a type of magical camera, reminiscent of the fairy tale magic mirror.
For instance, in the film Insidious, a medium and her crew come to a haunted house, and by putting different ‘magical’ filters on the camera they are able to see scary, ghostly creatures hovering behind the boy, getting closer and closer until finally they are right inside him, inhabiting his body.
In one shot we see a picture of the sympathetic father but through the lens of the camera we learn he has been possessed by this hideous creature:
Insidious is not a particularly original horror film but it does what it does very well, making an excellent job of evoking a nightmare. Once the father is in the other world — the world we’ve been shown glimpses of via the camera in the familiar world — there is no longer any need for the camera as such, but that doesn’t mean cameras are not of influence. As he wanders around the scary mansion he finds gothic and grotesque creatures who stand (almost perfectly) still, as if their photograph has been taken and now that’s all that’s left of them.
Here he examines a woman who stands completely still in the middle of ironing in a 1950s version of his living room, except when she blinks and scares the living daylights of both him and the audience.
CAMERA AS BOOKEND NARRATIVE
Though The Blair Witch Project is also a horror, it uses the camera differently. This film tells the story of characters who have been killed. We know at the beginning of the story that they are dead, which adds suspense and intrigue from the start. This lets us sit through the slightly unpleasant and somewhat boring experience of watching unedited footage as three film students pack for a hike in the woods, asking each other about film and equipment etc. The ‘unfound (and unedited) footage’ story provides the narrative reason why anyone knows what happened.
John Berger tells us that late 20th century audiences view classic paintings very differently from earlier people.
A large part of seeing depends on habit and convention. European paintings are made for European perspectives. Perspective depends on the eye of the beholder, like an inverse lighthouse. Instead of light beaming in, the image beams in.
These appearances are called ‘reality’. But the human eye can only be in one place at the one time. The invention of the camera (the ‘mechanical eye’) changed all that. Appearances could now travel across the world.
The invention of the camera changed not only what we see but how we see it. The camera even changed paintings long before it was invented. Like the human eye, a painting on the wall can only be in one place at one time. The camera reproduces it, making it available in any size, anywhere, for any purpose.
Now these reproductions are in your own environment, you’re seeing them within a familiar context. Originally, paintings were an integral part of the building for which they were designed, making up the building’s ‘memory’, part of its individuality. Everything around the image was part of its meaning, and its uniqueness as unique as the building housing it.
A religious icon used to be a part of the church, and you’d have to go on a pilgrimage to see it. Now you can own this iconography in your own home. Its meaning, or a large part of it, has become transmittable. It comes to you, like the news of an events, a type of information.
EPISODE ONE, PART TWO
Original paintings are still unique. They look different from the reproductions, which distort. When looking at an original we should be able to feel some sense of its originality.
In this way, art encourages certain expectations. Sometimes an image becomes mysterious because of its market value, which depends upon its being genuine, not necessarily because of what it depicts.
Sometimes we feel awe in front of a painting because it has survived, or because it has a certain value, a certain fame, and that is why we are feeling what we are feeling.
This cash value is a kind of religiosity, a substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible. The camera has multiplied a painting’s meanings while at the same time destroying its original meaning.
Have works of art gained anything by this? They have both lost and gained:
The most important aspects of paintings: they are both silent and still. Occasionally, this uninterrupted silence and stillness can be very striking. The experience of this has hardly anything to do with what teachers say about art.
Paintings lend themselves to easy manipulation with many different meanings. Movement and sound are the best way to manipulate meanings, for instance a camera zooms in to remove a detail of the painting from its whole. The meaning of a painting shown on film/TV can be presented even more differently. An entire picture is always quite different from a detail of it. On a screen it’s impossible to view an entire painting because details are lost.
[Big screen modern TVs do in fact make that possible but aren’t very often used in that way, except for Smart TVs, before you crank up the program you sat down to watch, and you’re watching classic paintings while you wait.]
EPISODE ONE, PART THREE
The pan and the zoom can work together to offer the story of a painting, but in a film sequence the details have to be rearranged in a way that represents unfolding time. Yet in the painting as a whole, all these elements are there simultaneously. In paintings there is no unfolding time.
[Time sequences can however be suggested, even in a static image. See my posts on narrative art, for example this one.]
Paintings are also changed by the sounds you hear when looking at them. Voice over changes your perception of a static image. Music is more subtle — we often don’t even notice it, yet it changes the emotions we experience while viewing.
Paintings can also changed in another way. They often appear alongside words, competing for attention. The meaning of a painting can be changed depending on what appears around it, what you saw right before it, what you’ll see right after.
Images can be used like words — we can talk with them. Reproduction makes it easy to connect our experience of art with other experiences. This isn’t sinister, so long as we know that’s what’s happening.
Art experts even write detailed art books which nevertheless distance the ‘ordinary’ viewer from the artwork. This is mystification. Children interpret images very directly, linking it to their own experience, until they are taught not to trust their own responses over that of ‘experts’.
Children recognise things in paintings that adults sometimes don’t. In Berger’s example, children point out a ‘sexual ambivalence’ which audiences [of the time] would avoid.
While some picturebooks are in black and white for economic reasons, serious picture-book artists who choose to aavoid color in a medium noted for its use of color often have similar special points to make.
The obvious example is the work of Chris Van Allsburg. The black-and-white pictures in both The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and Jumanji evoke the feeling of black-and-white still photographs that have been slightly over-developed to emphasize their contrasts. They are uncompromisingly objective and detached—unlike the world we see subjectively with our own eyes simply because they are so much like photographs. Paradoxically, we commonly associate black and white with uncompromising truth, utter absence of subjective coloring: documentary. Van Allsburg’s pictures have the quality of documentary, of detached observation that shows exactly what there is to see without the frivolous intrusion of color, and they are unsettling simply because what we see so uncompromisingly is often magic and impossible.
Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
2. BLACK AND WHITE MAKES THINGS LOOK OLD, AND THEREFORE CLASSIC
The technology of photography has influenced picturebooks — and art in general — in a number of different ways.
One standout convention is that greyscale images make the reader think of the days before colour film was invented. This works even if the artwork is an illustration, not a photo. It works if the illustration is not even close to photo-realistic. The effect is made very clear when looking at these old images which have been realistically colorised. The effect is really quite stunning: We’re used to looking at wartime photos in black and white, which lends a comfortable distance to horrific world events. Yet when the same photos are colorised, the events seem much more recent and therefore have more impact.
The inverse works too. I recently watched The Last Picture Show, which was filmed in 1971 and therefore could have been shot in full colour, but the black and whiteness of it makes the town seem older. The story is set in the 1950s.
What about recently produced films set in the past? Why are more not set in black and white? Possibly it’s because in the digital age of film, cinematographers have ready access to coloured filters. A yellow hue cast over the background can lend an old-style look (as seen in Delicatessen, 1991).
I mention these films for adults because I’m not so sure the bulk of consumers and critics feel that ‘black and white’ is of any artistic use at all, let alone ‘appropriate for children’. Do adult gatekeepers accept the convention of black and white pictures in the stories they choose to buy for children?
Case study: After creating The Fanastic Flying Books Of Morris Lessmore, Moonbot Studios produced an app called The Numberlys, which baffled some reviewers because it was in black and white.
The opening of the app is gripping and quite dark (which makes sense given the inspiration), so it is unlikely to really capture the attention of pre-schoolers (I say this because as you’ll read later I have a hunch they are partly considered a key audience). It is in a black and white, slightly sepia tone and harks back to the type of animation that is aiming to appeal to both adults and children – though here it probably will be of greater interest to children of elementary school age and older.
I sense the reviewer believes the youngest readers cannot be drawn in to a black and white/dark image. Is this something to do with physiology and the way humans have evolved to learn, or is it because two and three year olds have already learned from the culture that anything in bright colours is more likely to have been produced with them in mind? Perhaps this is what put the reviewer of Mac News World off the scent:
I must admit, I felt a bit duped by the description of the Numberlys app after I bought, downloaded and launched the app. I was expecting something bigger and longer that would appeal more to adults.
Was it the black and white look of the app which lead the reviewer to assume that The Numberlys was intended for an older audience?
The story is told through beautiful black and white animated graphics which are clearly inspired by the classic sci-fi film Metropolis, but with a modern touch.
…thereby picking up that the black and white is influenced by work that has come before — in this case, the work of Fritz Lang. Will children appreciate any of this? The example of The Numberlys shows that regardless of what children themselves think, reviewers (and I guess adult consumers) are likely to assume that media produced in black and white will appeal to adult sensibilities. A black and white story for children, therefore, better make sure it lives up to the huge challenge of appealing to a dual audience of children and adults alike.
3. A BLACK AND WHITE IMAGE TYPICALLY CONVEYS EMOTIONS BETTER THAN A COLOUR ONE
Filmmaker IQ has a post on the reasons why we might still choose to desaturate an image, and this is one of them.
In a portrait with strong lighting, a calm face can suddenly look menacing, or vice versa. In this case, the lack of colour means that colour can’t interfere with the tonal contrast. The best example of this is the entire art noir movement.
Perry Nodelman continues with his example of Chris Van Allsburg, and the contrast one can achieve via black and white:
Furthermore, the heavy contrasts of these pictures emphasize the patterns created by the various shapes and so do the black lines that outline each shape, so that the relationships o these shapes on the flat surface of the page are as significant as the relationships of the figures the shapes represent in the three-dimensional picture space. As a result, and as happens in photographs with high contrast, the often intense action the pictures depict is slowed down, held by the patterns; like still pictures of people caught in moments of fast action, the pictures depends to a great extent on these paradoxical relationships between what is depicted and the photographic techniques used to depict it—between our expectations of documentary truth and our perception of magic, between activity and stopped time.
MODERN ALTERNATIVES TO BLACK AND WHITE IN PICTUREBOOKS
There is nothing wrong with black and white as an artistic decision. But is there a ‘hybrid’ decision that can be made about colour, one which will satisfy the artistic goals of a limited palette as well as consumer expectation that children need colour?
In the digital era, illustrators can put a yellow tint on a picture and it immediately looks a bit old, but not too old (in which case black and white is good). I have no idea whether ‘yellow’ meant ‘aged’ before that crappy film did the rounds in the seventies, but there you have it. (See Delicatessen, above.)
It will be interesting to see how further developments in technology influence colour choice in art. With everyone sticking filters on things, the filters themselves are sure to come and go. Perhaps when we look back at the twenty-teens, we’ll see ‘iPhone filter’ stamped all over our family shots. So why do we do this? Perhaps photography got too good. Maybe we like the overexposed look, because one thing black and white early photography was very good at was adding a touch of glamour. And who needs every blemish magnified with a 50 megapixel camera?
If you want to create a retro-looking illustration, you can also limit your palette to the few colours that were available to printing houses way back when. Many older illustrations are red and black simply because the publishing houses couldn’t afford a wider range.
BLACK AND WHITE FOR TO ALLOW FOR SURPRISES OF ACCENT COLOUR