The expanded photographer
–Rocky McCorkle and his photographic project,
You and Me On A Sunny Day
By Pierre-François Galpin
“A younger generation of contemporary photographers cannot now resist the impulse to deal the concerns of other mediums into their practice, less utilizing photography to recode other practices than allowing the photographic to be recoded in turn.”
–George Baker, “Photography’s Expanded Field”
In his essay “Photography’s Expanded Field,” American art historian George Baker treats photography as a field of knowledge and a medium constantly disposed to a variety of evolutions and adaptations. From his point of view, photography practices developed over time as its technology advanced, and as other mediums appeared, such as cinema. As Baker questions the relations that photography (defined by the still-image) has had with cinema (defined by the moving-image), he outlines several categories of photography practices according to their relationship to cinema, either using or rejecting the former’s format, content, or language. The art historian admits that some photographers have combined the two practices for over fifty years, which led to expand the nature of photography’s field itself. And the proliferation of recent books about an “in-between cinema and photography” art seems to confirm this tendency.
Yet, some art critics, such as Baker, identify a new generation of photographers who purposely incorporate cinematic elements into their photographic creations, as an attempt to redefine the medium itself. Rocky McCorkle, a contemporary American photographer, belongs to this generation. To describe his photographic series project, McCorkle uses the phrase “Photofilm” and, by doing so, the artist playfully employs, and negates, a term usually chosen for movies, also called “motion pictures.” Indeed, his 135 photographic stills project, entitled You and Me On A Sunny Day, is specifically not a movie format, and yet McCorkle takes part in the expansion of photography by incorporating many concerns related to cinema. This essay will analyze how this artist questions the artistic practice of photography, the characteristics of the medium itself, and the perception of a photographic artwork as a part of a narrative series, to define a new expanded field of photography. Indeed, he uses cinema terminology to discuss his work and delivers cinematic content through the stills that together comprise a narrative, based on a script. Working with an analog camera and using a digital montage technique, McCorkle’s photographic practice also defies the common assumption that photography presents a dead or fixed image. Finally, to design the presentation of his photographs in an exhibition space, the artist borrows cinema’s notion of “movement,” and applies it to the way viewers would experience and perceive his project as a whole.
Before going into further details concerning McCorkle’s attempts to expand photography’s field, let us first consider photography and cinema as distinct and well-established art practices, mediums, and genres. One view of photography defines the medium “as a photochemical process that captures light and fixes it on a piece of paper, thereby rendering a visual impression of reality.” To a certain extent, we tend to consider the genre of photography as an extension of previous figurative artistic mediums, such as drawing and painting. Cinematography is the art of motion-picture photography; in other words, a film, or product of cinema, is an ensemble of photographic still-images that, put one after another, creates an illusion of movement when projected on a screen. To some degree, film appears to evolve from photography, and the purported lineage between the two mediums constitutes the subject of a timeless debate.
Karen Beckman and Jean Ma point to “the issue of medium specificity [as] a central concern for scholars in the field of cinema studies (in response to new media), and in the field of art history.” However, through their book Still Moving – Between Cinema and Photography, they closely examine both cinematographic and photographic works that are interdisciplinary, with one medium drawing from the other. From the (very) early Eadweard Muybridge’s Horse in Motion(1879), a series of photographs projected through his invention, the zoopraxiscope, to Chris Marker’s film La Jetée(1962), films and stills had the possibility of being combined. In his own distinct way, McCorkle goes a step further into this combination, placing his work in direct lineage with the previous attempts, but also allowing the photographic to be expanded towards the cinematographic, and vice versa.
The Expanded Practice
McCorkle’s practice could be seen as a fusion of the photographer, the filmmaker, and also the scriptwriter. Indeed, while visiting the photographer’s website, one has the possibility to read a “synopsis” of You and Me, understood as a brief summary of the project’s story; here, he chooses a term most commonly used in cinema. One would also come across “Millie’s Soliloquy,” which provides the viewer with what appear to be excerpts from an internal dialogue that the plot’s main character, Millie Holden, has with herself. You and Me, a monumental project that took the artist five years to complete, follows the fictional life of an eighty-four-year-old widow, Millie, in her everyday routine who is overcome with memories and flashbacks of her late husband. The narrative is built through 135 photographs, some being staged in her apartment, and others situated in places she and her husband visited in the past. The more one progresses through the photographs, the more the story becomes strange and claustrophobic while Millie gets overwhelmed by (immaterial) memories and emotions as well as (material) accumulated objects. For McCorkle, You and Me is a “psychological thriller about the malleability of memory and the impact that fictional media has on [Millie’s] way of life.”
The photographer then narrates a specific story through his photographs; in other words, he makes his pictures tell a narrative. Baker actually builds a diagram that attempts to define several types of photographer’s practices, based upon the classical division between “narrativity” in cinema and “stasis” in photography. The “talking pictures” category especially shares many common grounds with McCorkle’s practice. According to Baker, this category gathers pictures that are simultaneously narrative and static, and refers to photographers that carefully stage their pictures, use digital techniques, and embody a specific story. Likewise, McCorkle’s photographs have vivid colors, a density of elements, and are carefully staged within a specific set, almost like a cinema studio. For instance, photograph 49 portrays Millie sitting on her sofa, seemingly thinking, and surrounded by different objects or more precisely relics from the past memories: newspapers, photographs in frames, a pair of men’s shoes, etc. As one’s eyes go all over the scene, the photograph’s elements reveal themselves and one can fully realize how detailed the picture is. Moreover, the viewers are more likely to notice every visual element of the picture because of the photographs’ 40” x 80” massive format. For McCorkle, it is a way to give the viewers a full, detailed image, and to give them the possibility to look closely and examine it. His practice then allows great visual depth of the narrative. To a certain extent, the use of massive format prints suggests a connection with the scale of a cinema screen.
Similarly, McCorkle’s practice shares many other common characteristics with cinema, which do not happen by chance: the “Photofilm” nature of his work, and also the way he has realized the project—building and designing the entire set, directing his main actress, Gilda Todar, who plays the role of Millie. As Todar explained, “he wanted me to have a certain expression. So he would show me a picture and say, ‘this is what I want;’ so I would look at it, and try to be as close as I could to what he was wanting to.” But the main difference between a filmmaker’s practice and McCorkle’s is that he, as a photographer, possesses the artistic freedom to achieve his expected goal, whereas production logistics and economic conditions frequently control a filmmaker’s creativity. In doing so, McCorkle is a photographer as well as the director of a story he wrote.
The Expanded Medium
One may see McCorkle’s photographs as traditional, or at least influenced by other photographers who stage their works such as Jeff Wall (McCorkle in fact acknowledges this influence). But, to a certain extent, McCorkle diverged from his precursors, as he adds new features and new nuances to the photographic medium. In this sense, he meets the interdisciplinary necessity advocated by Beckman and Ma. For a large number of theorists, the emergence of cinema represents the moment when it became possible to make the image move. A photograph is believed to capture a very specific moment on a single and static piece of print paper, whereas in film, several different images move in front of a light source, creating visual movement. Jan-Christopher Horak adds that photography freezes the moment forever, almost “into eternity,” while film functions in time and has a definite length. Even more radically, French filmmaker Agnès Varda states that in “all photography there’s the suspension of movement, which in the end is the refusal of movement.” No doubt one of McCorkle’s photographs could be analyzed as the antithesis of movement. Let us consider the print 109. The posture of Millie’s body in the middle of the picture exactly recalls a frozen moment: the elderly woman, dressed in a blue jacket, stands in the middle of her messy apartment; she leans on the table behind her, as if she might faint. Moreover, every element of the photograph’s composition is frozen in time, from the inexpensive emptied green cups littering the floor to the mass piling up of objects, which, placed on the different tables, look as if everything was about to fall. But one can also perceive all these details only because the image seems frozen, stopped in time. Christian Metz confirmed that photography allows the viewer to stare, to take the time to look at the image; on the contrary, with film, the details move on quickly one after another, and the duration of the movie already dictates the time allotted to viewing. The multiple of still-images that McCorkle created builds up a cinematographic narrative, and yet allows the viewer a deeper exploration of each detail of each picture in the series.
Needless to say, McCorkle’s photographic practice goes beyond the click of the camera. Indeed, McCorkle’s way of working might be closer to that of an image-maker, or a pictures assembler. The technique he used to build each image is close to the photomontage process. The photographer uses a Cambo 8x10 camera (with a combination of chrome and negative film), with which he shoots several pictures for each final image of the project. First, McCorkle shoots all the focal points separately, then scans the stills, cuts them out, and finally collages them back together to form a fully in-focus photomontage. This technique gives him “the technical ability to make photographs that give all its (sic) visual components an equal place.” For example, one would see several focal points within photograph 109: the table on the left (foreground), the main character in the middle (background), and the table on the right (foreground). All these elements of the image are clear, ready to be looked at and examined.
In this way, McCorkle redefines the stillness of the photographic image. Usually, an analogic photograph contains only one focal point; only one part of the picture is clear while the rest (background for instance) is blurred, out of focus. The contrast and imbalance between the components in the image reinforces its stillness; the frozen moment looks then more visually apparent. While McCorkle’s work on the medium is on the contrary to make every element of the final picture clear, and precise, he seems to challenge the presupposed stillness of photographic images. By using both traditional photography and digital photomontage, the photographer makes dynamic, active images. At the same time, since the story developed in You and Meis to be understood through the superposition and the succession of the images, McCorkle’s project also seems relative to the sequencing of images in a cinematographic work.
The Expanded Project
Finally, McCorkle’s work attempts to reinvent the way one looks at a photographic artwork, by referring to a concern specific to cinema: movement. Indeed, the viewers are implicitly called to get involved while looking at the pictures, and to actively rebuild the narrative. Contrary to cinema, movement does not actually occur in his images, but it is implied through the viewers’ perception of the pictures. While the audience would go through the exhibition space, some would look at each image one at a time, in order to better understand what story they tell; or some would walk faster, only looking at the images they feel are more important; or, finally, some could instead look very closely at each artwork and look for a visual quality, or appreciate an aesthetic, rather than a narrative. This freedom of perception, this particular relationship between the viewers and the artworks, is crucial and necessary to McCorkle’s project.
Moreover, it is essential to consider the existing differences of perception while comparing cinema and photography. Metz asserts that the perception of a film, though not emancipatory, is more complex, because it is deeply sensorial, where time, space, and sound accompany visual perception. Even though McCorkle’s exhibition of 135 photographs would notably rely on visual perception, it also gives more freedom to the viewer than in cinema through its spatial dimension. That specific spatial element is inherent in the artist’s vision and intention: “I wanted to create a specific story that could be experienced within a space, where the viewer is actually free to take more time to look at any picture he/she prefers. Visitors can really take the time to get the story, while watching a movie they have less time to think.”
This statement pertains to the main advantage of photographic narration, where the viewer is free to move, go through the story with a very personal “timing,” and is not forced to watch images for two hours and understand the story in a specified way, as with film in a movie theater. As if McCorkle had found a solution to photography’s problematic stillness, a metaphor for death, in sequencing the story into several images. Moreover, the numbers attributed to each photograph define the work’s sequence, thus giving each of them a specific order for appearance. For example, from 20 to 41 the viewer goes through images of Millie in her kitchen, and other images representing her memories in New Zealand or pictures of her husband. In accordance with McCorkle’s intention, Blake Stimson speaks about “seriality,” that is to say creating serial artworks, and especially sequence photography as being different from film, “precisely because it does not place each subsequent image on top of that which comes before it, that each image in the series, each instant in the representation, is preserved rather than being displaced by its follower.” In this sense, Stimson also says that photography narration aims “to see what cannot be seen by the naked eye, to see what can be seen only when time is stopped.” By showing all the You and Mephotographs in one exhibition space, McCorkle allows the viewers to take as much time as they want to apprehend its project; likely, each photograph within the “storyline” could also be passed by. However, the goal that McCorkle had for his images is to convey a story that can be interpreted in a wide range of ways. Additionally, the photographs, when exhibited, would be presented without the texts from the story of You and Me, making possible the freedom of interpretation mentioned above because they would address the viewers visually only. As the viewers would walk through, or go back within the exhibition space, they literally move theirs eyes and bodies through You and Me, the expanded “Photofilm.”
Baker states that even though the “younger generation of photographers” finds ways to reinvent or rework their primary chosen medium, “something like a photographic effect still remains – survives, perhaps, in a new altered form.” Undoubtedly, McCorkle belongs to this generation; he expands his practice, his medium, and his entire project by using codes borrowed from cinema, and attempts to change the perception one would have of photography. Yet, his use of photomontage technique also reminds us of a very basic craft that he has developed: image-making.
But beyond the craft-making inherent to his photographer’s practice, McCorkle is also, and above all, a creator. To this extent, one may disagree with Baker’s statement about McCorkle’s generation of photographers: “we are dealing less with ‘authors’ than with a structural field of new formal and cultural possibilities, all of them ratified logically by the expansion of the medium of photography.” Contrary to what Baker underlines, McCorkle is more than only operating within photography’s field.
He is a creative writer and storyteller, as the author of an entire project that obviously involves photography and cinematography, but also writing as an art practice. Indeed, his project You and Meis simultaneously a visual creation and his own way of telling a story, and his own redefinition of how one should look at art photography. As McCorkle finally formulates it: “photographs are my own way to create the narrative, and I think the more appropriate way to tell it.” His practice is not only of a photograph maker, but truly the one of a cinematic fiction creator.