The Age of the Image (1) is a four-part BBC documentary series in which art historian Dr James Fox explores how the power of images have transformed the modern world. This blog post is not intended to be a deep dive into any particular part of the programme but simply intends to serve as a personal aide-memoir. Fox says that in these programmes he intends to ask four questions:
- Why do images give us such pleasure?
- How do we make sense of them?
- Where do they get their power?
- Can we trust them?
The Fourth Dimension
Fox begins the series by asking us to look carefully at this Cezanne still life.
The floor tilts upwards. Shadows are inconsistent. Apple in the background is too large and looks as though it’s about to fall. Fox feels that he is trying to represent time – the fourth dimension.
Time – the fourth dimension as enunciated by Albert Einstein in his Special Theory of Relativity. The notion of time is the dominant theme of episode one.
Detour: This is a 2002 photograph by Abelardo Morell called ‘Small Vase on the Edge of a Table’. It has always fascinated me because it seems the vase is moving. When I look at it I want to move to catch it. End of detour.
Fox gives more examples of the depiction of time in early 20th Century art:
Giacomo Balla. ‘Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash’ (1912)
Giacomo Balla. ‘Abstract Speed – The Car has Passed’ (1913)
Umberto Boccioni. ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’ (1913)
JF describes this piece as being four-dimensional and that it illustrates how time and space and matter collide with each other.
World War I image manipulation by Frank Hurley
And early example of image manipulation was done by the Australian war photographer Frank Hurley. During the World War I battle of Passchendaele, he took several photographs which presumably he didn’t feel showed the full extent of the conditions. He, therefore, put together a composite image which suited his purpose.
Photomontage by Hannah Höch (1889-1978)
Writing in the catalogue accompanying exhibitions in Minneapolis, New York, and Los Angeles Peter Boswell describes Höch’s epic photomontage as ‘standing as a visual summa of Berlin Dada’s exuberant condemnation of contemporaneous German society and its wholehearted immersion in the revolutionary chaos of post-Wilhelmine Germany’ (2).
The Continuity System
Audiences, used to the theatre, found the movie-style inter-cutting of scenes confusing so Hollywood directors developed the Continuity System. Let me demonstrate, this example is known as the 180 degree rule.
Put simply, if you are to properly contextualise two people talking (as above), then you would only shoot from the same side. The last pair of images although showing the exact same scene gives the appearance that the actors are facing in the same direction.
Fox argues that the early Hollywood directors devised a new visual language that has been followed in almost every film made thereafter. One film that famously broke the continuity rules, he tells us, is the Buster Keaton classic ‘Sherlock Jr‘.
The Persistence of Memory
Fox suggests that Dali’s seminal surrealist painting The Persistence of Memory could allude to Einstein’s concept that time could be bent by heavy gravitational forces. As Dali himself said:
The last development of nuclear physics proved the new conception of space-time is completely flexible. This proves this object of completely Surrealistic approach of soft watches is completely true and scientific.
Harold Edgerton (1903-1990), an MIT electrical engineering professor, used stroboscopes to study engines. He extended the use of strobes to freeze moving objects giving visual insights into moments not capable of seeing with the human eye. Dali was so captivated by his image of a milk drop falling onto a red surface that he adopted the Coronet as his informal signature.
Fox concludes Episode 1 by suggesting that artists such as Harold Edgerton, Paul Cezanne and Buster Keaton introduced new modes of image-making and in so doing helped create a new visual language that has been subsequently used to ‘influence, control, and even alter society’.
(1) Fox, J., 2020. The Age Of The Image. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000fzm9/age-of-the-image-series-1-1-a-new-reality> [Accessed 8 April 2020].
(2) Boswell, P., 1996. The Photomontages Of Hannah Höch. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, p.7.