In 1958 the most influential film critic of his day, André Bazin, wrote that the 19th century invention of photography had brought with it “a great spiritual and technical crisis” that profoundly affected other arts – in particular painting.
After the invention of the camera, the burden of what Bazin called “duplicating the world outside” was snatched away from painters and handed to photographers.
Here’s how Bazin describes what happened next: Photography “freed Western painting, once and for all, from its obsession with realism.”
In other words, André Bazin argued that modern painting – with its emphasis on abstraction - would not have existed without photography.
While some painters saw opportunity and pursued non- representational art in the late 1800s, many Old World painters were not happy. Similarly, these days many established professionals are not happy that their accustomed role in motion picture storytelling is being usurped by cellphone-wielding “amateurs.”
But (then as now) the Old Guard’s contempt has never stopped tech- savvy entrepreneurs from coming up with better ways to serve fundamental human needs (like storytelling)...
We’ll never know what André Bazin would have made of the spiritual and technical crisis that the internet has caused in the early years of the 21st century. André Bazin died in late 1958, when he was just 40 years old. But undeniably the 20th century’s dominant art forms - including filmmaking - are undergoing a significant disruption: A disruption that mirrors the changes that photography forced on traditional realistic painting 150 years ago.
In the early 1800s, before the invention of photography, painters were the acknowledged masters of accurate representation. For centuries, painters had served a special role in the culture. That role ended abruptly when the photograph and photographers arrived. As Bazin observed (writing 100 years after the fact), the change in the role that
painters served came with fundamental changes to the aesthetic goals of painting. For example, because photography in the 19th century lacked color, pioneering Impressionist painters emphasized the role of color in their art.
Cameras, utilizing “automatic means,” were the disruptive technology of 150 years ago. Today the internet and affordable digital tools are replacing the old systems for producing and distributing motion pictures. As everyone knows, the internet has already disrupted the business models and forced changes to the aesthetics of newspapers and music. And, just as photography created new revenue streams in the 19th century (e.g., photography shops sprang up to serve common people, who could never own a painted portrait), the new digital tools are in the process of creating new revenue streams for motion pictures. (With all the lamentation about motion picture revenue lost to “piracy” – has anyone tallied up how many billions will be spent worldwide in the next few years on devices and mobile plans for viewing online video?) Most importantly, when the human impulse toward a “likeness of the real” became readily available to a mass audience 150 years ago through photographs, the aesthetics of Old World painting changed. Does the advent of the internet hold a similar promise for a new aesthetics of motion pictures?
How will motion pictures change when motion picture narrative is freed from delivering content that the web does better? Are there elements of storytelling (e.g., exposition? back story?) that might be better delivered on a second screen or via hypertext? If traditional movies are not as immersive as some interactive web-experiences, or there are elements of popular storytelling that the web does better, how will traditional movies evolve? Will the hero’s pearl–handled pistols remain unexplained in a New World Hollywood film – with some fans seeking and finding the story of the pistols online? Will Hollywood motion pictures continue to emphasize big-budget spectacle (something that democratized online filmmaking doesn’t currently offer) or will other aesthetic goals emerge that reinvigorate Old World film production?
Traditional portrait painters didn’t give up without a fight and the transition to a new way of motion pictures won’t be easy either. Old World movies will survive; after all, it’s still possible to get a realistic
portrait painted today. But, as Bazin notes, photography narrowed the psychological and cultural reasons for having a portrait painted. The reasons for commissioning and sitting for a painter today (ostentatious show? self-indulgence? vanity?) are not entirely the same as they were before photography. Which begs the question: What kind of filmmakers will continue to make films in the Old World Hollywood model, once democratized filmmaking is the dominant form?
Just as some painters advanced their art after photography, the redefinition of filmmaking in a digitally networked world comes with opportunity. Some pioneering painters seized the moment in the 19th century: Who are the young filmmakers today who will be remembered tomorrow for their innovative contributions to the aesthetics of modern filmmaking?
150 years after photography changed painting forever, we are living through another democratization of representational art. To paraphrase André Bazin, the aesthetics of Hollywood films and TV shows must change as the internet replaces some of their function. The question all filmmakers should be asking: How will the internet free motion pictures from their obsession with the old ways of telling stories?
Randy Finch has produced movies (e.g., OUTSIDE PROVIDENCE and THE SUBSTANCE OF FIRE) and plays (e.g., work at Lincoln Center in NY and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC). Mr. Finch has also contributed to online storytelling experiences (e.g.,plantcitystories.com and miraclemileparadox.com). Mr. Finch’s first film, MILES FROM HOME, premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Mr. Finch currently teaches New World filmmaking at the University of Central Florida.