- Thinking Photography in Film, or The Suspended Cinema of Agnès Varda and Jean Eustache
To my mind cinema and photography are like a brother and sister who are enemies . . . after incest.Agnès Varda1
For years prior to what historians refer to as the "boom" period of the 1970s, photography had yet to come into its own as a bona fide object of theoretical inquiry. Though critical responses to the medium first began to appear shortly after its inception in the 1830s, and continued to develop throughout the early part of the twentieth century with a number of keen reflections on photographic modernism, some of the most sophisticated and insightful writing about the greater implications of photographic meaning only truly began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s.2 A critical moment in the history of our understanding of the medium, this period was characterized not only by the academy's recognition of the history of photography as a legitimate scholarly discipline, but also by an ever more prominent wave of acceptance by museums.3 It was also during the 1980s that artists became once again comfortable exploring photography as an art form in and of itself, and not merely as a model for the painterly process (think Francis Bacon or Andy Warhol) or as a tool used to document more conceptual or site-specific practices (Robert Smithson, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci).4 As collectors—with institutional affiliations or otherwise—explored the potential for growth in this nascent sector of the market, a number of critics, sparked by these developments, turned their own attentions to the matter.5 On the heels of the 1977 publication of Susan Sontag's pioneering collection of essays, On [End Page 181] Photography, the editors of the journal October, in a special issue from 1978, responded to the changing status of the photograph both on the market and in the museum by advocating photography's newfound identity as a "theoretical object."6 In their introduction to that issue, the editors proposed that only now could critical thinking about the medium really begin to mature. Given the dramatic rise of the photographic image on the cultural stage, as the editors wrote over thirty years ago, finally could photography be rediscovered and redeemed from "the cultural limbo to which for a century and a half it ha[d] been consigned."7 Looking back on this period, one notes a sudden proliferation of writing that aims to do just that: from Roland Barthes' hauntingly personal reflection on photography and death in La chambre claire (1980) and Hervé Guibert's similarly autobiographical take on photography, memory, and desire in L'image fantôme (1981), to Victor Burgin's seminal compilation on the multiplicity of photographic codes (Thinking Photography, 1982), John Berger and Jay Mohr's self-reflexive photo-essay Another Way of Telling (also from 1982), and Philippe Dubois' consideration of the singularity of photography and the subjectivity of the photographic process in L'acte photographique (1983), just to a name a few.8
If we consider the ever increasing cultural prominence of photography and discourse on photography during those years, it is perhaps not so curious to remark that at around the same time in France—the veritable birthplace of the medium—several of some of the era's most innovative filmmakers were also engaging many of the same issues. Among them, both Agnès Varda and Jean Eustache stand out for having produced two thought-provoking short films that, while remaining true to each director's artistic vision, dialogue with and contribute to the new kind of photographic theory and criticism that was circulating on both sides of the Atlantic at around the same time. As art historian Linda Nochlin has written, "Nothing, perhaps, is harder to write intelligently about than photography."9 In what follows I would like to suggest how Varda's Ulysse (1982) and Eustache's Les photos d'Alix (1980) tap into the motion picture's own privileged potential as a vehicle for thinking—and also, to a certain extent, "writing"—about the medium from which it ultimately evolved.10 As they create a filmic language capable of...