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Still Light

Director: Aparna Sharma

Affiliation: University of California, Los Angeles
Title of Work: Still Light
Year: 2021

Length: 3 minutes and 7 seconds

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Still Light (2021) is an experimental film composed of still images shot and edited on a mobile phone. The film comes from my interest as a camera-person in the role light plays in  the making of images. In this work I examine how light may be composed within framed  space, rather than being principally used to illuminate elements within it, as is  cinematographic convention. In 2016, I started to use a mobile camera to compose images  of ambient light during long walks in outdoor spaces; urban and forested. The mobile  camera’s ease of access and operability lent the device to spontaneous and impulsive use,  turning mobile photography into a form of visual note-taking. In the images I made, light was seen by visualizing its sources or documenting how it renders space; the ambience it  vitalizes at a given moment. 

I used still images in this work to draw and hold viewer attention towards the film frame. Photography freezes and fixes elements within a frame. The photograph has been  understood as indexing and referencing an instant of time, fixed after being extracted from  the flow of time. In Andre Bazin’s terms the photograph embodies “time embalmed” (2005,  14). Light is an ephemeral element and like time, it flows. In a photograph, light at a  particular instant freezes and becomes available for view long after that instant has passed, become past. 

While digital images differ in constitution from analog ones —  the former recording data in numeric code, and the latter based on a chemical reaction of light on photosensitive materials —  on the whole still images in film interrupt the animated movement that characterizes cinema and distinguishes it from photography. The experience of viewing stills in a film is one of arrest, a kind of pause when images jump out for the lack of exactly what cinema is based on, i.e. movement. Laura  Mulvey has noted that still images and freeze frames can be understood as a series of  “identical frames repeated in order to create an illusion of stillness” that replaces cinema’s  “illusion of movement” (2009, 81). Other elements that register the passage of time for example, a film’s soundtrack or its editing, underscore the absence of movement when a still image is used in film. 

 

Building on the stillness of photographs, in Still Light, images are edited in varying durations.  Some sequences hold images for longer than others that are montages of rapidly alternating  sets of images. For editing, I applied principles of rhythmic montage first outlined by Sergei Eisenstein (1957, 73-74). In rhythmic montage, the content within the frame is a factor that  determines the sequencing and duration of shots and this in turn facilitates the provocation of ideas arising from the interrelation between images.  

The rough cut of Still Light revealed that my exploration of how light may be evoked within  the frame had fanned out into a series of ideas about how light shapes the perception of  spaces and, how those perceptions shape our memories. These ideas are raised in a Hindi language voiceover narration. Still Light proposes that the radiant ambience of spaces in the instant that we first encounter them forms the basis of our memories associated with those spaces. Those memories, the film adds, endure as a still photographic image; and, they do not change or flow as light or indeed, time. Proposing links between light, space and memory, the film contributes in situating mobile photography as a practice that is co extensive with memory-making and, though distinct from analog visual media, it shares and  advances those media’s relations with light, space and mind.  

PEER REVIEW 1

Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?

Still Light features a series of photographs showcasing light in a broad range of locations. It combines visual notetaking with a narrative on light and memory. This film serves as an example of utilising a mobile phone camera to capture various elements of ambient light during outdoor walks. The chosen photographs offer insight into a variety of settings that hold importance to the author. 

 

Does the submission live up to its potential?

 As indicated in the research statement, the editing of the film was completed on a mobile phone. Since the technological landscape of mobile photography and video production is very dynamic and marked by ongoing developments, it would be beneficial to see a reference to the type of mobile hardware and editing software used. Even a brief outline of these technologies could provide a useful guide to how they might have influenced the aesthetic qualities of the film.

 

In my view, the soundtrack is always an important element influencing the perception of the presented video material. Apart from the voice over, we can hear high noise floor and various ambient sounds. The audio editing does not always fit with the presented images, leading to mismatched sonics and visuals. The origin of location sounds is not explained in the author’s statement, which appears to be an omission worth correcting.

 

I think a challenge the viewer will encounter when analysing the film in relation to the author’s investigation into how perceptions of place might shape memories, is the personal nature of the memories associated with the presented spaces. The author has indicated that the notion of memory-making is an important aspect of their research, however, it is evident that without a deeper knowledge of the context of the presented photographs, the viewer is not able to fully understand the nature of memories held by the author in relation to the featured images. While this challenges our understanding of the author’s perception of place, it can also serve as an invitation for viewers to construct their own storylines and sequences of images that present light in spaces that are important to them.

 

How does the submission expose practice as research?

The foundational idea explored in the piece is well defined, however, the execution of the film could have been more refined. This work presents evidence of exploring the role played by light in the making of still images. The written description positions the work in the context of principles of rhythmic visual montage, which explains some of the editing choices made in the film. This results in insights and interpretations presented in the form of storytelling which supports the question of how light might shape our perceptions of space. 

PEER REVIEW 2

Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?

Still Light offers an evocative collection of photographs of the way light illuminates a variety of spaces, from vast open skies and cities to more closed in spaces like forests and built environments; all captured on a smartphone camera. The rhythm of the montage is affecting, though I found the more languid paced sequences worked better than the rapid-fire sections of montage to give this viewer time to contemplate the quality of light in each image and how it illuminated each space and the objects within it.

 

There is certainly a sense of spontaneity present in many of the images and I’m interested to know more about the artist’s ‘secret plan’ that led to the final sequence and rhythm of the piece.

 

I’m interested in the way the project evolved from questions around how light may be composed within framed space to how light shapes the perception of spaces and how those perceptions shape our memories.

 

I’m unsure as to whether the film convinces, that the radiant ambience of a space, in the first instant we encounter it, forms the basis of our memories associated with the space, and further that these memories, like photographs, do not change or flow as does light or time. I expect that isn’t the point. It certainly provokes a questioning stance with regard to the sheer amount of digital photographs that I, for one, take with my smartphone and how this relates to my memory of those spaces, places, people and things.

 

Does the submission live up to its potential?

The creative work is strong, with a delicately complimentary sound mix, including the voiceover. The subtitling could, however, be redone. Letters overlap at times compromising legibility. 

 

The research statement might more pointedly mark out the significance of the contribution of the piece. 

 

How does the submission expose practice as research?

The creative work is complex and obviously evolved through an extended process of examining the way light works in each of the stills that make up its duration, along with some deep thought about how light works to render memories, whether photographed or not. The research statement, however, doesn’t clearly mark out the specific areas of existing creative research being explored, developed or elaborated on.

 

Whilst the creative work does produce a certain affect for this viewer, the research statement does not provide strong evidence of new knowledge being produced. There may well be innovation in some form present within the work, but it is not marked out sufficiently in the accompanying research statement. 

 

Initially, the work is framed as an examination of how light can be composed within space, in opposition to the way light is usually used to illuminate elements within an image. However, this question is not clearly contextualised for this reader/viewer. Perhaps, this is because the project evolved into having different concerns. Photographs are established as extracted instants from the flow of time and Mulvey is used to assert how the still image works within the context of a moving image work, as an interruption or arrest. However, Still Light is comprised of still images only, so there is a question for this reviewer about the relevance of this in elucidating the contribution made by the creative work.

 

There is an effort in the statement to distinguish digital still images from analogue image making, however the relevance of this distinction needs clarification. I’m particularly interested in the way light has been rendered in low light situations by the digital smartphone camera in the creative work and thought this might bear mention in the research statement. How, for example, does this unfaithful rendering of what the eyes see work with regard to the way photography (especially digital photography) is equated with memory in the research statement?

 

There is an attempt to contextualise the work within a history of documentary filmmakers who have used still images in their moving image works, particularly in films dealing with the workings of memory. This could have been elaborated on given the proposition claimed within the work.

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

Still Light is a short experimental film composed of photographs shot and edited on a mobile phone. The film comes from my interest as a camera-person in the role that light plays in the making of images. The motivating question for this work was to examine how light may be composed within framed space, rather than being principally used to illuminate elements within it as is cinematographic convention. In 2016 I started to use a mobile phone camera (i-Phone S9) to compose photographs of ambient light during long walks in outdoor spaces: urban and forested. The mobile camera’s ease of access and operability lent the device to spontaneous and impulsive use, turning mobile photography into a form of visual note-taking. In the photographs, composed light was seen by visualizing its sources as well as documenting how it renders space; the ambience it vitalizes at a given moment.

 

Light is an ephemeral element and like time, it flows. In a photograph however, light at a particular instant gets frozen and becomes available for view long after that instant has passed. This is in keeping with the ontology of the photograph whereby it is understood as a form that freezes and fixes elements within the frame, indexing and referencing a single instant after it has been extracted from the flow of time. In Andre Bazin’s words: a photograph embodies “time embalmed” (2005, 14). My primary purpose for using still images in Still Light was to draw and hold viewer attention towards how light illuminates a given space at a particular instant.

 

My process for developing Still Light included an extensive review and selection of images from a vast personal archive of photographs shot on my phone. Once the film’s rough-cut — an assembly of selected photographs — had been developed, the cut revealed that my exploration of how light may be evoked within framed space had advanced into ideas about how light shapes our perceptions and memories of spaces. These ideas are emergent, developed through the editing process. I used the i-Movie software on my phone for editing and working in a small format instilled a spontaneity in the working process through which the project moved away from a neutral and removed exploration of ambient light’s relationship to space, towards a more pointed focus on light’s role in rendering spaces and the memories that may emerge from them. My ideas about light and memory are raised in the film’s Hindi-language voiceover narration. 

 

Though digital images differ in constitution from analog ones, on the whole still images in a film interrupt the animated movement that characterizes cinema and distinguishes it from photography. The experience of viewing photographs in a film is one of arrest, a kind of pause when images jump out for the lack of exactly what cinema is based on, i.e. movement. Laura Mulvey has noted that still images and freeze frames can be understood as a series of “identical frames” that “create an illusion of stillness” that replaces cinema’s  “illusion of movement” (2009, 81). The sense of arrest or pause that photographs provoke on the screen is heightened by a film’s other elements that register movement for example, a soundtrack or editing. When combined with photographs, these other elements can underscore the absence of movement in the visual field. The absence of movement, the stillness within the visual field against the suggestion of movement and flow suggested by the film’s editing and soundtrack in Still Light supports the film’s proposition: that our impressions and memories of spaces when we first encounter them persist through time (that passes and flows), quite like a photograph’s depiction of its referents. In other words, in Still Light the image references the impression from the instant of encounter with a space that persists through time while the film’s sound and editing imply the passage of time. 

 

The film’s soundtrack is composed of incongruous sounds sourced from outdoor locations and domestic machinery. After selected photographs had been put into sequences, the sound-mix guided the rhythm of cutting, determining how long an image is held on screen. Some sequences of the film hold images for longer than others that are montages of rapidly alternating sets of images. For editing I applied principles of rhythmic montage first outlined by Sergei Eisenstein (1957, 73-74). In rhythmic montage, the content within the frame is a factor that determines the sequencing and duration of shots and this facilitates the provocation of ideas arising from the interrelation between images. The rhythm of cutting in Still Light is shaped both by the images as well as the accompanying sounds.

 

Still Light proposes that the radiant ambience of spaces in the instant that we first encounter them forms the basis of our memories of those spaces. This proposition extends from the creative use of photographs to suggest memories in cinema as seen in the works of such filmmakers as Chris Marker, David MacDougall and Judith MacDougall. These filmmakers use still images in their films to reference memories and memory-making through photographs. Still Light adds that the memories we form can be likened to still photographs and they do not change or flow quite readily as say light or indeed, time. This proposition is offered as a flight in thought, a form of thinking with images, i.e. where the meanings or ideas a film offers are not external to, but formed through the content, sequencing, progression and interrelation of filmed elements, here images and sounds. I deliberately use the term “proposition” to reference the ideas presented in the film for they are offered not as objective or hard facts that are testified through the film’s visuals, but as meanings and thoughts for consideration that are open for viewer contemplation. As such the film’s propositions are open to debate, refinement and even contestation. In line with this, the film’s propositions should not be read as purely an expression of the filmmaker’s immediate experiences. 

 

Proposing links between light, space, and memory Still Light contributes in situating mobile photography as a practice that is co-extensive with memory-making and, though distinct from analog visual media, it shares and advances those media’s relations with light, space and mind. 

 

Please note that to comply with the journal format, some footnotes attached to the original research statement have been removed. 

 

REFERENCES

 

Barthes, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. 1986. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus.” In Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, edited by Phillip Rosen, 286-98. New York: Columbia University Press. 

 

Bazin, Andre. 2005. What is Cinema? Vol. I. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Eisenstein, Sergei. 1957. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Translated by Jay Leyda. New York: Meridian Books. 

MacDougall, David. dir. 2000-2004. The Doon School Quintet. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Media. 

 

MacDougall, David, and Judith MacDougall. dir. 1991. Photo Wallahs. United Kingdom: Royal Anthropological Institute.

 

Marker, Chris. dir. 1983. Sans Soleil. France: Argos Films.

Metz, Christian. 1985. “Photography and Fetish.” October, 34 (Autumn): 81-90. http://www.jstor.org/stable/778490.

 

Mulvey, Laura. 2009. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion Books. 

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