What is meant by still photography

Passage pictures - the film still as precarious photography

Film stills are in the service of the film. They are mainly produced as advertising material and can be found in cinema foyers and showcases and are intended to give an impression of the film, to show which actors, costumes and sets await us in the film. If the film is removed from the cinema’s program, the stills are usually thrown away, in rare cases in a cinema’s own archive. The film still is at home as an ephemeral genre on the fringes of the cinema. The showcase and foyer are the passage rooms of the cinema that the visitor has to go through before entering the hall and arriving at the actual cinematographic event.

The film still can be described as precarious not only because of its connection to the film and its topicality. As a rule, the film stills should not be confused with the actual frame images of the film strip. With their own camera and usually taken from a different position, the actors are asked again after the shoot to pose for the still photo. These deviations from the film frame result in a structural shift and it is not uncommon for the scene that was subsequently photographed to fall victim to the final cut of the film. The still photo represents a cinematic moment that does not necessarily have to be seen in the film. The status of the photographer himself is also highly controversial. While the demand for film and set photography was enormous, especially in the classic Hollywood era, the still photographers mostly only played a subordinate role in Hollywood's studio system. As a rule, her pictures were distributed without a signature and were only rarely mentioned in the credits of the film. The special quality of the film still is often neglected. In the 1930s and 1940s in particular, the set photographs achieved a visual sharpness and clarity that still make them attractive to collectors today.

The special theoretical tension of the film still is based primarily on the relationship between movement and standstill and its pithy aftermath. For Roland Barthes, a very skeptical movie-goer, that's actually how it will be Cinematic of the film only visible when it is stationary. Only when the steady flow of images in the cinema is stopped is the viewer able to reflect on the images. The so-called freeze frameThis does not mean, however, the actual stopping of the film, which is caused by the repeated repetition of the same film frame over and over again. The sudden standstill only triggers discomfort in the viewer, an irritation that does not encourage contemplation. The rigor mortis of the film's flow of images, which is felt to be alive (see, for example, the photographer scene on the beach in: Menschen am Sonntag, director: Siodmak / Ulmer, Germany, 1930).

The film still also has a meta-pictorial function. On the one hand, strictly referring to and representing the film, it is often the film's photographs that remain in the viewer's mind due to their rigidity. In the poses created afterwards, the plot's network of relationships condenses in an almost theatrical way. Due to the permanent reference to an extra-visual off, the film stills have an inherent void at all times, which can only be resolved by the actual film.

The reception of film stills requires the viewer to be more competent. The connection to the film must always be established. In the cinema as the location of the film, this reference is always given. But when we encounter film stills that we cannot clearly identify, we grope in the dark and are helplessly exposed to the images. It is precisely this moment that Cindy Sherman provokes in hers Untitled film stills (1977-1980). The photographs you pose awaken memories of films that never existed and leave us with the uneasiness of not being able to place them in any narrative context.

As threshold images, film stills articulate the media difference between film and photography. Shut down, recorded with a separate camera, the film still represents a fleeting cinematic event that it often outlasts itself through its fixation on paper. The investigations into cadre enlargements from silent films by Sergeij Eisenstein show Barthes the need for a theory of the photogram that includes this palimpsest relationship between film and photography.

For several years there has been a struggle to upgrade the film still as an autonomous photographic genre. The climax of this endeavor was in the exhibition in 2016 Movie stills. Photographs between advertising, art and cinema to be seen in the Albertina in Vienna. Film stills from all eras were shown here, illustrating the enormous artistic range of the set photographers. And yet it also becomes clear here: the film still has an intermediate function that always allows it to appear in relation to the original context. Detached from this, it would be free to be received as a photograph on the one hand, but then always with the need to fill the provoked blank space of the off. Whether the film still can be understood as an independent photographic genre depends above all on a differentiated reception. Exhibition practice is also required that does not understand photography solely in the service of film and thus subordinate to it, but appreciates its pictorial peculiarities and qualities and makes them comprehensible.

Florian Flömer

... is a doctoral candidate at the University of Bremen