What Remains of the Photographic beyond Photography | Sophie Berrebi | Friday, 01.03.2013

Platinum Blondes and a Bearded Lady

The grammar of cinema is a grammar uniquely its own.
Jean Epstein
I remember once being fascinated at the discovery that the silky, almost-white, blond hair of many Hollywood stars from the Golden Age was only an illusion, – a contraption developed for the silver screen. The ability of platinum blond to reflect light endowed actresses clad in shimmering gowns with a radiant halo, bestowing upon them an enticing inaccessibility. Peroxide blond, which came complete with a long-lasting nasty smell that was powerfully described by Joyce Carol Oates in her novel Blonde was, in other words, invented by the movies, and thrived in its productions, even if it was, off screen, adopted by many a hopeful starlet.
Stretching somewhat the definition given to the term by early French filmmaker-critics such as Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein, we might venture to call platinum blond “photogenic.” Appropriating the word from the field of photography (Talbot’s “photogenic drawings”), these critics used the word photogénie to explore the particular qualities of the cinematic image, underscoring its distance from, rather than its proximity to, the real. For Epstein, photogénie was “the purest expression of cinema” that differentiated art cinema from the film industry. He described it as the power of cinema to render inanimate things alive; its ability to lift objects or body fragments from their common appearance and meaning in the world and emphasize their spatial and temporal presence on the screen to give them a particular signification within film.
While peroxide blond was a feature of the film industry rather than of art cinema, it fits photogénie by virtue of its artificiality, as something that belonged at first to the realm of the screen rather than to that of the real world. So much so that Hollywood had to create its mythology, naming a 1931 film starring Jean Harlow, Platinum Blonde, after the remarkable bleached color of her hair. What is surprising, however, is that peroxide blond remained a feature of the cinema when technology changed and color replaced black and white. For despite the rather lurid effect of whitish-blond hair combined with pink skin and red lips, platinum blond firmly remained a moniker of Hollywood glamor, recast into such antagonistic genres as the sexy child-woman a la Marilyn Monroe and the icy Hitchcock blonde.
This survival and reinvention of platinum blonde beyond the silver screen begs the question of its equivalent in photography. What happens to photography when its technology changes? Or to put it another way: to what extent does technological change in photography – be it from black and white to color, from analogue to digital, and so on – not affect the way in which we think of photography, in which we think in photographs?
To remain an instant longer within the field of show business, consider the typical poses of actors on red carpet photo calls, and some of the contortionist postures adopted by stars to enhance the features they are best known for. The example I have in mind here is Jennifer Lopez when, in her early days of celebrity, she adopted a signature red carpet pose that involved turning her head and attempting to align chin with shoulder blade to enable photographers to capture within a single image both her face and her famed posterior. Such a pose, utterly unnatural and uncomfortable, belongs to the realm of photography. It is one of a repertory of attitudes that people unconsciously slip into when they are photographed, and one that endures, even when photography changes, when montage or several images replace the one, or when a video replaces the still image.
Beginning with this small example, this is what I would like to explore in the next few weeks: What remains when photography transforms itself? How does technological modification trigger ontological change – if at all – and how does this translate into the way we apprehend pictures as producers, sitters, and viewers? In short, what interests me is how photography has taught us to look and what remains of the photographic beyond photography. Perhaps the notion of photogénie re-appropriated from cinema might be suitable to think about this. If, as Epstein put it in 1926, in “The Photogenic Element,” “the grammar of cinema is a grammar uniquely its own,” what is the unique grammar of photography?
To explore these issues I would like, in my next posts, to focus on a number of images rather than on theoretical texts on photography: images that teach us to understand the grammar of photography. I will be looking at photographs – artworks that work for me as theoretical objects – in the sense given to the phrase by philosopher Hubert Damisch some years ago: objects that both oblige you to theorize and provide you with the means of doing so. I conclude, with one such image, which brings together Oates’ Blonde and the red carpet background: Pin Up # 1 (Jennifer Miller does Marilyn Monroe) by Zoe Leonard.
Reprising one of the poses of Marilyn Monroe in what is now known as the “Red Velvet session,” performer Jessica Miller lies on a red cloth, arching her back to reveal her curves, one arm folded behind her head to reveal a glorious smile and very hairy chin. Whereas Oates memorably evoked Monroe’s fear at letting the photographer expose the soles of her feet, Leonard and Miller together propose a revealing image that simultaneously repeats the codification of the mid-century pin-up photograph and unhinges it. In re-enacting the original image, they allow us to nearly experience ourselves the artifice of the pose and its uncomfortably arched back, while at the same time stretch the limits of our imagination, literally.