Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Picture editing and how images speak to each other

The Kuleshov Effect
Much has been written about the business of film production from scripting to editing and inbeween, looking at ways to present a story that will be understood by the audience and has the power to be both surprising and involving.

Screenwriter, playwright and director David Mamet's wonderful little book - On Directing Film - is a good example of an acknowledged expert talking about his craft. Mamet proposes that stories should be told not with words, but through the juxtaposition of uninflected images. The best films, Mamet argues, are composed of simple shots. He says that the great filmmaker understands that the burden of cinematic storytelling lies less in the individual shot than in the collective meaning that shots convey when they are edited together.

The Soviet film editor Lev Kuleshov in the 1920s developed a technique, known now as The Kuleshov Effect. Kuleshov put a film together, showing the expression of an actor, edited together with a plate of soup, a dead woman, and a woman on a recliner. Audiences praised the subtle acting, showing an almost imperceptible expression of hunger, grief, or lust in turn. The reality, of course, is that the same clip of the actor's face was re-used, and the effect is created entirely by its superimposition with other images.
The famous shower scene from Psycho is often used as an example of this trope. After watching it, everyone immediately understands that Janet Leigh's character has been stabbed to death, but if you slow it down, only three frames actually show a knife piercing flesh (this is fast enough to count as subliminal messaging). The audience's understanding of what has taken place comes entirely from the way the images and sound are arranged, not from the actual content.

In photobook terms it is clear to most that a series of photographs create a whole where the sum of the parts has the potential to be greater than the impact of individual images. As far as I know little has been written about photobook editing and sequencing. Many of the photobooks I've looked at present a picture sequence that seems purely arbitrary. For example if one accepts the need to provide "breathing space" in a sequence often the blank page occurs on the right with picture on the left. Seemingly treated in this manner purely on the basis of intuition. Alternatively a photographer like Daido Moriyama rarely, if ever, has white pages in any of his books. In the absence of accepted photobook theory, chance, taste and experiment become the benchmarks.

Perhaps it's time that still photographers look more closely at motion picture editing and montage in terms of what that artform might be able to bring to the photobook.

Hitchcock on The Kuleshov Effect
You can see Hitchcock's Kuleshov Effect comments on YouTube HERE.

No comments: