A difference that’s often posited between still and moving images is that still images have the taint of death about them, while moving images are more vital and alive. The point is partly about the fact that photos are still and movies move, and partly about how much a still photograph is of the past, conveying a “this-has-been”. Roland Barthes, who uses this phrase in Camera Lucida, argues that because a photograph conveys this sense of the past, it suggests that the subject is “already dead”. In fact he calls photographers “agents of Death”. Photography scholar David Green agrees with Barthes on this point, but goes on to disagree with the longstanding contrast with films (and their association with life), Green says that whenever we see old movies we can in fact be reminded of long-gone film stars; he suggests that the evocation of death is equivalent in both movies and photographs. But I wonder if this particular demarcation between the two forms might in some cases be valid. When we see Marilyn Monroe in movies it is hard not to remember her troubled life and early death. How many of us can name her character in The Misfits rather than thinking of her as just Marilyn? (It’s Roslyn Taber, and yes, I had to look it up.) But if we’re in the story, we mainly see, I think, the characters. Here’s a clip from The Misfits on YouTube. Looking at publicity stills we think of Marilyn and her death, but watching the movie I think we’re more caught up in Roslyn’s story on its own. We might eventually feel sad for her plight, but it would be a feeling for Roslyn and not Marilyn.
The Misfits 1961 United Artists Corporation
Now look at this photograph below taken by Eve Arnold. Arnold is well-known for giving us some iconic images of the set and activities around The Misfits, and you might know one of Monroe standing in the desert, movie equipment around her, looking pensive. She could be learning some lines. But she also looks like she could be sad, so I prefer the one here, where Monroe and her husband Arthur Miller are dancing. Going purely by what we see in the photo, the couple look happy and vibrant.
Image: Eve Arnold/Magnum, © 1960
But we know that Monroe and Miller divorced in 1962, the year after the photograph, that The Misfits was her last completed film, and that Monroe herself died in 1962. This all adds a real sadness to Arnold’s documentary pictures, despite the apparent joy that they depict. Barthes says that photography brings the “return of the dead” , and it’s not hard to imagine this picture doing just that. I said before that this feeling is not present to the same degree in the movie itself, so it seems there’s this difference between the still and moving image. But what if the moving image we saw was documentary footage? Wouldn’t that same melancholy infuse that too? Perhaps the footage as it slips by wouldn’t allow as much time for reverie, though I think it could carry as much sadness. Here’s another YouTube clip, this time an interview with Monroe:
I think what I’m trying to do here is to take a bit further the points made by Barthes (that death attends photography) and Green (that death attends photography and film). If we’re talking about death and melancholy, there’s no so much difference between still and moving images per se; the real difference that arises is between fiction and documentary.