Television’s Illustrated Talks by Jason Jacob

Printable version Thursday 22 November 2012 Last updated at 10:00

June 2009

Watching a still image presented on television is almost always interesting. Stills seem to temporarily halt the immediate forward motion of the medium: photographs, drawings and other illustrative matter invite reflection, study, comment and raise our awareness of motion in suspension. Pause, look, reflect.  A photograph on the screen creates a tension between the internal co-ordinates of its visual meaning and its function as evidence, illustration, or decoration. The friction between the forward momentum of televisual flow and the patient holding of our attention around one image is typically lubricated by words.  Verbal accompaniment can tell us directly what the image is about, speaking to its indexicality, or narrative content, perhaps offering commentary on its relevance to our eyes. Or the image can speak back to the words more obliquely, as illustration in support of mood, building resonance and association, hinting and suggesting. And as showing and telling continue, movement may happen while the image remains still, as part of an inspection by the camera moving above, across and toward the image.

Extracts from The Nazis: A Warning from History (BBC, 1997) provide several examples of the way in which still images work with sound, commentary and animated graphics in order to create a special sense of meaningful things being arranged for us. Early in the clip, photographs of Goebbels et al function as stand-ins and are moved around the screen in a graphical flourish which illustrates the commentary as it describes the shifting and mobile alliances of the senior Nazi crew. Later (at 3.55), photographs are used as a visual accompaniment to the radio broadcast that Hitler made after the unsuccessful bomb attack on his life. As he begins to speak the first image we see is a photograph of Hitler standing at a lectern that has three large microphones sprouting from it. The camera moves in to the region of the still in the far right hand corner that Hitler occupies, removing from sight the presence of the audience sitting on wooden chairs. This is a visual approximation of Hitler speaking on radio (we do not know for certain that this is the image that definitively coincides with the broadcast words we are hearing as we look at it). The photo is replaced by another of him surrounded by admirers and again part of it is selected, this time with a direct cut to a close up of Hitler’s face, one that crops the surrounding image and has the effect of bringing into greater prominence the person just behind him. These selections, enacted before our eyes like a pointing finger, guide our attention and bring further resonance to the words they accompany. We might talk of a pedagogical or instructional aesthetic at play, a way of showing and telling simultaneously that is mindful of our potentially wandering attention.

I think that our strong sense of the intentionality – the sense that this is being selected now for our attention, comes from the familiar technique of using a rostrum camera (or software that emulates one) in order to animate a still picture. The effect of this animation is, however, rather uncanny since it is not the photo or image that seems to move but rather the camera’s attention ‘over’ and ‘closer’ to it. The ‘Ken Burns Technique’ (aka the ‘Ken Burns Effect’) and its incorporation into many ordinary software applications such as ‘Photo Story for Windows’ has made this performance of intention and attention extremely familiar. (In the UK another Ken - Morse – is well known for his television work with the rostrum camera.) Burns’ use of photographs in this way is no doubt stimulated by his study with Jerome Liebling, and the viewing of earlier documentaries that deployed the technique such as City of Gold (1957): but I prefer Wikipedia’s slightly less convincing claim that the opening titles of Cheers were the inspiration, not least because it remains an exemplary instance of the technique’s most common affective impact, the revivification of a feeling for what is past.

Pastness, paintings and photographs of course fall together naturally, but calling attention to the past, using photographs in order to instruct and direct attention, as well as resurrect and stimulate memory and history is a particular kind of use that has achieved more prominence in recent years.  La jetée (1962) and Cross of Iron (1977) both use still photographs for very different aesthetic impacts, but neither could be called instructional or pedagogic in the way that, for example Shooting the Past (1999) seems to want us to know about the photography it uses as spectacle. That drama, about a photographic archive threatened with closure, offers a good example of the pedagogic spectacle played out as a drama. Early in the first episode there is a sequence that has attracted quite a lot of scholarly attention and approbation. This is where the chief archivist, Marilyn, in an attempt to convince the US businessman Anderson not to close it down, tells a story based on photographs discovered in the archive. The story is a fairly harrowing account of a Jewish girl living in Germany during the 1930s, and Marilyn reveals it in segments by passing Anderson a selection of photographs across a table. She is clearly in control of the selection and pace of information. As he looks at the photos, the ‘rostrum gaze’ seems to mimic or enact the shape and flow of his attention, while other effects (music, sound) convey a sense of the photograph’s diegesis overflowing into his consciousness.  I find the sequence to be flawed artistically, since it relies on us accepting the questionable ethics of Marilyn using a tragic, somewhat clichéd historical story for personal ends (not to mention the girl’s father who apparently photographs his daughter in considerable distress). Nonetheless, despite our awareness of the manipulation of our emotions, its affective impact is undeniable: it the way it uses photography to achieve this it dramatizes and embodies the intentionality we see in documentaries such as The Nazis. In this way I think the sequence works extremely well as a fictional version of a very good lecture that instructs us on the value of archival discovery. 

A related and more recent example is the ‘Carousel’ sequence from the final episode of the first series of Mad Men (2007). Again, this sequence has attracted a lot of critical approbation but I wonder if we are really impressed with the artistry or whether it is Don Draper’s skill as a tutor, instructor and (dare I say) lecturer that has us confused about the value of his pitch:

Again, we have one person in control of a selection of stills as well as the narration that accompanies them. The response we are expected to experience is internalised in the diegetic world by the employee so overcome with the power and force of Draper’s speech that he has to leave the room.  David Lavery has recently pointed out that since being parodied on Saturday Night Live the scene for him now seems harder to accept or experience as art. I think this may be because the seriousness and clarity with which all instruction and teaching takes place is naturally vulnerable to burlesque, parody and sarcasm in a way that would be far more difficult to do with, say, La jetée. In deploying these sequences in their drama the writers, Stephen Poliakoff and Matthew Weiner, both seem to be searching for a certain kind of authoritative power in relation to the experiences they strive to dramatise. That authority is manifested in the sheer indexical kick of photography and the powerful, upright, vocal performance of Lindsay Duncan as Marilyn and Jon Hamm as Draper. While it is not the direct recruitment of attention and political assent we see with, say, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, there is a similar desire to affectively entangle the viewer the better to teach them about the way things really are.  Perhaps we television scholars are drawn to these sequences because we see in them the kinds of lively engagement, compelling authority and effortless performance that one always aspires to in teaching.


Jason Jacobs is Reader in Cultural History at the University of Queensland, Australia. His research interests are television history and aesthetics.



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