CINEMA ACROSS MEDIA: Photogénie

Last weekend's international symposium on silent cinema--Cinema Across Media: The 1920s--was clearly not oriented towards the average cinephile, nor was it--I think--ever intended to be, though some form of inclusivity in future editions would be welcome. Nevertheless, it provided a keen challenge to keep up with its diverse presentations, which had as much to do with styles of delivery as with complex thematic content. Even amidst the numbing opacity of language tortured beyond necessity, every now and then a term would rise from the podium like Gandalf's wand of light held aloft against the obfuscating legions. One such word was the conference's leitmotif of intermediality. Reams have been written on the subject but for me it arrived as a fresh perspective; such is the wonder of language that certain words reach certain people exactly when appropriate. Intended to suggest that the intermediality of silent cinema in the 1920s comports with contemporary trends in intermedial practice, I regretted that--at least in the presentations I heard--this theme failed to flesh out demonstratively.

Another word--wholly appropriate to any study of silent cinema in the 1920s--first reared its luminescent head in Tom Gunning's introductory lecture "From the Cinema of Attractions to the Montage of Attractions: The Art of Running Film History Backwards": that word being photogénie. It surfaced again and again in subsequent papers until I finally felt compelled to approach Gunning during one of the conference's stimulating coffee breaks to ask if he could please define the term for a layperson such as myself? He graciously complied.

* * *

Tom Gunning: The point of photogénie is entirely visual. It can't be reduced to words. In other words, what you can do is point at it, point it out, but you can't define it. However, to define it by circling around it, the quickest thing is to say that--when something's photographed--one view would be that you just copy it. It's exactly as it looks in real life. The other view would be: no, that's not true; it's transformed. And it's transformed in a way that is both creative and revelatory in the sense that it's not just distorting something but revealing elements to it, you know? That's the idea. It's the way that a photograph or a film transforms what it films or photographs, and transforms it in a way that reveals aspects of it--not just viewpoints of it--but a sense of texture, a sense of form, and so on, which you might not notice if you look at it in real life.

Michael Guillén: So you're saying the term photogénie was a photographic term in existence long before the advent of cinema?

Gunning: Well, it did literally but it didn't necessarily mean what it means for cinema. It basically meant "an image made with light." So it was in reference to photography and some work in printing. But before cinema, it didn't mean what I've just described.

Guillén: I've heard it referenced in several of the presentations I've heard so far. Is it a tapword in current academic research?

Gunning: No. It's a term from the 1920s. From the 19-teens, actually.

Guillén: I'm surprised I've never heard this word before.

Gunning: Well, you have. You've heard its reduced form, the adjective: photogenic. And what does that mean when someone says, "She's photogenic"? She looks good in a photograph. She actually looks better in a photograph than she does in real life. It's not so much the idea of "That's a lie" but it's more, "Oh, the photograph brings out her beauty." Photogenic is the common everyday term; but, it's very much the idea that then gets elaborated to: "Okay, let's not just think of that as 'Oh gee, she looks good in the photograph' but how it adds quality to photography and--if we're going to expand film--how we're going to think of it as an art form.

* * *

Next, having brunch with Thomas Elsaesser, I posed the same query and mentioned how marvelous it was to have a concept like photogénie hiding all these years in its commonplace usage of "photogenic."

Thomas Elsaesser: Photogénie has a special meaning because--like "realism" in the post-war years--it was the term in the 1920s that everybody, at least in France, related to.

Michael Guillén: Can you define it? Can it be defined?

Elsaesser: No. No. [And with considerable mirth in his eye] Go to Google. [Laughter.]

* * *

So accepting Elsaesser's mirthful recommendation that I Google the term, I've reinforced what I've long opined: that to Google is to remember. My research uncovered Paul Coughlin's helpful Senses of Cinema purview entitled "Sublime moments", wherein he examines the distinctive properties of the theories aligned with photogénie.

At her website, photographer Joanne Lee--who has entitled one of her pieces "Photogénie"--traces the term's usage to film-maker Jean Epstein who, in turn, borrowed some of its meaning from Louis Delluc in the 1920s. "He used this word to describe the almost magically transformative power of film/photography," she summarizes. "His photogenic wasn't pretty blonde girls or chocolate box cottages, but a kind of ephemeral intensity, which, once noticed, could only be sustained for a matter of seconds before it subsided. Epstein asserts, however, that this fleeting but concentrated moment can be captured by photography: 'A lens zeroes in on it [...] distilling photogénie between its focal planes'."

At this juncture I might mention Sarah Keller's fascinatingly accessible symposium presentation--"Jean Epstein and Intermedial Revelations in the 1920s"--wherein she provided a striking example of what might be considered photogénie in a film clip from Epstein's Finis Terrae (1929); a sequence that captured the hypnotic pulsing of the sun behind drifting smoke.

Wikipedia likewise offers its take on the term's protean meaning within the context of how the narrative avant-garde of the 1920s explored the perception of reality through two main destabilizing concepts: subjectivity and photogénie. Of the latter, they write: "Photogénie occurs at the meeting of the profilmic (what is in front of the camera) and the mechanical and the filmmaker. It is above all a defamiliarization of the spectator with what appears on screen. It is a property that cannot be found in 'reality' itself, a camera that is simply switched on does not record it, and a filmmaker cannot simply point it out. As [Ian] Aitken summarizes, '...fully realized photogénie could only be manifested when its latent power was employed to express the vision of the film-maker, so that the inherent poetry of the cinema could be harnessed, and developed in a revelatory manner by the auteur.' However, the narrative avant-garde lacked a theoretical and philosophical base upon which these notions rest and thus the concept of photogénie is always on the edge of an inexplicable mysticism that many critics cannot accept."

Finally, I recommend Sigrid Merx's application of the filmic concept of photogénie to the theatre [in PDF format].

Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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