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Narratives and Narrative Forms

 

By François Cheval

 

1.


The image merges with the world, caring nothing for good and evil, or for good and bad photography. Ultimately, of all the discipline's massive output there remains only the relevance of stories and their persistence in our memory. Photographic narratives are there. Whether amateur or professional they are close reflections of life; commentaries that are usually conventional, but sometimes surprisingly rewarding as chronicles and as history. And even when, so often, the images mean nothing to us, they never stop emitting signals. Everything is worth keeping: after all, they are talking about us. The photographic narrative is irresistibly universal; who cares if it's so often trivial, it's always more than just a pointless repetition of something that happened.   


There are no salient facts and even fewer decisive moments in a photograph. The image communes with the world and has nothing to do with true or false, with truth or lies. The sententious shutter-clicker in search of precision or absolute accuracy will never know what people are about. All his striving to demonstrate the laws behind the functioning of things and societies, all his claims to be portraying the milieux that govern the individual and society, produce at best series of studies and classifications, rational propositions that have more to do with botany than plausibility. The photographic narrative owes just a little to observation, but is of no help in understanding events. From the cradle to the grave all photography does is remind us of the eternal return. Every individual repeats and relives the biographical experience for himself. The images of his predecessors and contemporaries are not a usable asset. 


The descriptive method, with the boredom it generates, omits something that a minimum of closeness to oneself can teach: a photographic narrative of whatever kind is the product of a different reality.
The sole truth of photography – of all photography – resides in its ability to disrupt our habits; for it renders us more beautiful, immortal, godlike and clairvoyant.


But do we really want to understand images? Their components scroll by leaving us incapable of discerning any underlying idea. The photographic image has no illusions about the world: it parodies totality and entertains itself with loss. Ideas emerge shattered by the endless narrative fractures that series create. Cartesian consistency is the notable absentee from photographic structuring. Meaning is not revealed at the end of the narrative: it infiltrates it, moves through it and sometimes gets lost in it. Yet the image's argument is not illogical, even if the action has vanished and the people seem elusive. That's the great thing about stories whose message takes on all sorts of contradictory forms.  

 

2.


Photographers who have opted for the artistic approach agree on one thing – the need to present methodically constructed narratives – in what could be called another application of the law of series. Champions of composition that yields readily to analysis, they are pretty much in the same situation as the saint confronted with impure temptation: the commercial image scares them and they do everything possible to stay clear of it. The contemporary photographic work stands as a saving principle for organised resistance and a rejection of corruption.
The modern narrative as established by photography is first and foremost a stance in relation to detail.

Photographers not driven by a concern with efficiency agree that contrary to the received wisdom, a picture that works can contain pointless elements, objects serving no specific function. Photographic style can be seen, then, as an anti-interference attitude and not simply as a functional matter. Images that succeed each other with no obvious connection activate stories without words. Unable to render continuity, photographic narrative shatters the combinations and breaks the ties that bind. What distinguishes it from all other forms of narrative is to be sought in its ability to orchestrate disappearances.


Photographers who have firmly opted for gradual revelation make allusion the mark of the successful narrative. This is why there are no tragic forms in photography, only the staging of dramas and commentaries on the calamitousness and vacuity of the world.


We are never forced to look. On the other hand we are impacted by images and we intermingle with them. No conflict here, but a coexistence between what we are subjected to – these images, these reminiscences – and the abandonment in which we recognise ourselves. 


Having freed us, in spite of themselves, from the age-old contingencies of narration, photographers have made it possible for us to seize reality, then withdraw from it into fixity and silence. The auteur – one of us, and neither better or worse than we are – is tending to disappear as the accepted master of the narrative; is withdrawing, albeit regretfully, into the supporting roles of editor, story-boarder, cameraman and set photographer. But however much and however sincerely he insists on his humility, he does not want to find himself deprived of his clever system, his skilful wiggling through channels and interstices. Ultimately he remains his own hero, the primary character in a self-addressed saga. 


A dedication to an auteur forced to deny his true self, the photographer's narrative often speaks only of him.

 

3.


All the narratives are haunted by nameless people in unknown landscapes. In the fine arts the heroes and the gods have failed. What photography in its early stages reserved for a select few has now become common, shared practice. The photographic narrative is the child of dissemination, a consequence of proliferation. There is nothing of the modern hero about the man photographing and being photographed: no more than a protagonist in a story of a life, he wanders through his images in a more or less novel way, expressing himself in a new language whose complexity he does not fully grasp, and has no qualms about laying himself bare. I, me and the others are the general subject of his pseudo-adventures, which lay no claim to being anything other than recountings of simple, not to say banal facts.  


In a monstrous contradiction, narcissistic anonymity rules in images intended as potent evidence of identity. The modernity of the narrative results, then, in illusion, platitude and sameness.
In the end there is only absence. In speaking of himself, the narrator is speaking of his dear departed ones. The photographic narrative is essentially about those we miss so much, those who cannot be mentioned. The error lies in believing that the "I" is always at the heart of the exercise. Photography loves ghosts. The dead drop in on the living. So the narrative has to be seen as a quest for recreation of family trees, with its grey areas and open wounds drawing up melancholy maps of psychic territories.  


Who is this nameless character? What fuels all his intersecting biographies? In them you may meet a few famous people, but these private lives are mainly about the fate of men without qualities who would like their lives not only not to be clichés, but maybe even myths in the making. This has more to do with stereotyping than with reality, but it makes no difference to the belief in illusion, in the transmissibility of events of no importance. The paterfamilias, the office worker and the chaste scion of a good family all fit seamlessly into the magazine news item. Their comments double up on the caption. They devour information – gulp it down, if you like, ingurgitation it, gluttons for trifling emotions. The lives we're offered are moments of pure fiction: abridged and rearranged as familiar yet iconic fables.  


All the narratives have shucked off their auratic envelopes and with it, unrepentantly, their culture-object prestige. When George Eastman came up with something that guaranteed a new, contingency-free way of taking photos, that fascinating plot called life exited the classical narrative schemas. Amateurs and professionals alike have shattered image transcription, traumatising traditional representation and desacralising language with stark visual representation. While doing things in seemingly opposite ways, they nonetheless share the culture of montage, address us in short, staccato "sentences", have fun with the distribution of signs within the image, on the page, on the double-page spread – approaching them all as autonomous visual units. Photography has assuaged our imaginary by becoming the medium for new mises en scène: and in the absence of any artistic intention whatsoever there appears a brand new assortment of more or less important objects, driven by the sharing of emotion in the common space of the image. 


In 1963 an insignificant object swept all before it. Delightfully simple, the Instamatic elevated photography to the rank of democratic mass-consumption. The family album and the shoebox would fill to overflowing with all kinds of pictures, unhampered by any concern with quality. Amateur style demolished the codes of good photographic taste. Out with black and white and the 30 x 40 format. Who cared about blur, lack of contrast, "bad" framing and scrappy composition when the results exuded happiness? The album seethed with real, powerful emotion, unimportant but not undignified. All the illusion and all the conformity of family wellbeing.


Totally inconsequential places make up the fixed horizon of this visual form. In a return to Nicéphore Niépce's Point de Vue du Gras, we stare mesmerised through the window at the spectacle of the world, at an out there parading its vices, its banality and its wonders. What we see, we photograph. But there's no longer any emergence of the awe-inspiring or the sublime. The pictorial landscape withdraws in defeat. Whatever comes under our eye, we leave our mark on. Our stain, rather: the return of black and white back in the image.


There was a time when photography appraised space, with the photographer bringing a mix of respect and domination to his surroundings. Now it speaks to us of the breaking of the link between man and nature, in an inglorious world. Last illusions of marvellous spaces.


Artefacts of no great importance, things of no interest: images are the hawkers of our new identity. Commodification sacralises the industrial object with which we set up an ambiguous relationship. Submerged, we nonetheless remain under the spell of the aesthetic that points to the disproportionate value we grant it. As the work of art declines, the object takes over at the heart of the photographic series, like a fetish or a new golden calf.  


All the narratives have a debt to pay to lesser forms: the postcard, photonovels, serials, airport fiction and travel diaries. Popular genres they usurp and adapt almost in their raw form. Everyday image-existence fuels these narratives and, even more so, renews them in a gigantic intermingling, a chaos of posters and magazines. The modern world surrounds the individual with mass images and abolishes the nobility of our relationship with art. 


The destiny we all share reached its visual culmination in the publications of the 1930s. VU, Détective, Voilà, Life, Picture Post freed the image from the domination of words. Without rotogravure and art directors the pictures would remain frozen amid the leaden slabs of text. Narrative became mise en scène and spectacle in a dialogue between the visual and writing transformed into image. Bubbles clung to lips or yielded hidden thoughts. The written word hooked up with representation. Collage, superposition, juxtaposition and overprinting signalled the end of imitation. The indices of life metamorphosed into signs.

 

4. 


Words, language and texts were subjected to this new order. They looked like typographical fragments swinging or wandering through the overall image layout. No more lines, no more paragraphs, no more pages. The photographs dialogued with a jumble of signs and meaning meshing into a whole.


This is where the power of photography lies. It scorned the fine arts and proudly stood out against words. Literature offered no resistance. Now each word seeks its place and slips into the narrative. The minimum has become the rule: just enough to understand the plot and no more. The word sneaks ingloriously into these adventures and skirts their precipices, but the image cannot manage without them and has to coexist with them.


Photographic narrative does not submit to this order. On the contrary, it is the culmination of the disorder of existence erroneously perceived as shot through with fault lines and fractures and bolstered here and there by collusion. Its structure is subject to the individual's biological and social rhythms and its language changes register as it moves away from realism. The private – that which is most deeply hidden in us – eludes the obsessive accuracy of description; it can only be brought to light through successive, fortuitous interconnections.


The merging of the mechanical, the optical and chemical pursue and pin down clues, but only reveal allusively.   
Narrative is always the upshot of the immediate. The photographic version does not submit to temporal order. The overall shift that takes place hinges on the principle of time interrupted. The visual is an exuberant mash-up of future, imperfect and present following each other in no seemingly logical fashion. The immediate jars, being the purest of lies, no more than the retrospective rewriting of miscellaneous, formally similar events. To the extent that it brackets together episodes, memories, thoughts and concepts, temporal order cannot be established in advance. The narrative's temporality is governed by a mysterious sequencing – staccato, fragmented, random – which belongs to the author himself. Although physical time no longer holds any secrets for us, we find historical perception of events of little importance. The only effective narrative time is built out of reminiscences, floating memories. Stripped of all illusions regarding the march of time, our images collide as if we were watching several screens at the same time, or a panorama. This spectacle can be grasped only as sequences forming an unstable looking-back – a capturing of impressions – that endlessly renews itself.       

 

5.


In the final analysis, the status of photographs shatters and regenerates by ridding life stories of their unequivocal character. More or less consciously it re-examines reality via successive elimination of descriptions and "illogical" occurrences. All this gives rise to enigmatic, disjointed discourses that are nonetheless enriched by its omissions and the gaps in its knowledge. Photography's original narrative system transforms the personal account of an experience of the world into a revisited, shared account based on common practice of the medium: a unverifiable narrative given consistency by a combination of contemporary equipment and authorial intent.


Final scenes. These scenarios are incapable of ending. They are too dependent on the struggle between chance and necessity, between a time-space separation that prevents any identification with reality.


Yet they also undergo the close scrutiny of a watcher become investigator and crime scene witness, the protagonist of a seminal yet déjà-vu situation whose meaning has nothing to do with the rational. His gaze pirouettes and pries along a path no longer dictated by the sequence of the images. Each narrative offers us the ultimate key to understanding: the impossibility of seeing clearly amid all these scattered, confused clues.