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View of Towards Ephemeral Narrative


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Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 56 Towards Ephemeral Narrative

Gavin Parry & Jacqueline Butler


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 57 Abstract (E):

The intrinsic gaps and ruptures between still elements allow the photo-sequence to be allusive and tangential. Indeed telling a straightforward story with a sequence of stills is notoriously difficult . . . static photographs show far more than they tell, so the photo essay relies as much on ellipsis and

association as coherent argument or story. (Campany, “The Cinematic” 13) Campany outlines the difficult relationship the photograph has with narrative. The idea of photographs ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ urges us to value the primacy of response rather than reading. The ‘ruptures’ between a series of photographic stills can open-up a non-temporal space for thought and ideas, engaging the viewer with the possibility of ephemeral narratives, encouraging a more sensual and intuitive engagement with the photographs themselves.

This essay begins with the tentative assertion that a photographic narrative is an oxymoron, and that the inherent qualities of the still image have a paradoxical relationship with the temporal and structural thrust of the narrative form. Our intention is to encourage a ‘looking into’ the photograph, to encourage a response to visual stimulation, rather than a reading outside of and around the photograph; to loosen the narrative hooks that the reader would normally anticipate.

Referring to our editorial collaboration on the artists’ book not just another story (see fig. 1, published in 2007) we will examine our original intentions to elicit a response to, rather than a reading of, the overall publication. We will reflect on our efforts to dislocate the viewer and to stimulate diversions away from the reading of narrative in still photographic sequences. We intend to explore ways through which our practice (as both photographers and editors) confronts ideas around narrative, prompting the viewer to re-engage with alternative


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 58


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 59 ways of experiencing sequential still images. We will consider the value of shifting the emphasis from familiar modes of reading through linear or non-linear structures, towards a more visceral, ephemeral narrative.

Abstract (F):

The intrinsic gaps and ruptures between still elements allow the photo-sequence to be allusive and tangential. Indeed telling a straightforward story with a sequence of stills is notoriously difficult . . . static photographs show far more than they tell, so the photo essay relies as much on ellipsis and association as coherent argument or story. (Campany, “The Cinematic” 13)

La citation de Campany souligne les rapports complexes et difficiles de la photographie et du récit. Que la photo "montre" plutôt que de "raconter" nous pousse à analyser plutôt les réponses à l'image que les lectures proprement dites. Les "ruptures" entre les images d'une série d'instantanés ouvre un espace non-temporel aux pensées et aux idées, permettant au spectateur de créer ce qu'on pourrait rappeler des récits éphémères et d'établir ainsi un lien plus sensuel et plus intuitif avec les photographies.

Le présent article explore d'abord l'idée que le récit photographique est un oxymoron et que les qualités inhérentes à l'image fixe ont un rapport paradoxal avec le pouvoir temporel et structurel de la forme narrative. Les auteurs nous encouragent à mieux regarder les images, à répondre aux stimuli visuels, au lieu de fuir l'image à la recherche d'une explication, bref à se soustraire un peu aux récits préformés sur lesquels on anticipe trop souvent.

A partir de leur publication commune, not just another story, Butler et Parry analysent leur objectif initial, qui étaient de susciter une réponse, et non pas une lecture, du spectateur. Ils réfléchissent sur leurs efforts continus de mettre en question les attentes du lecteur et de provoquer une approche différente de la lecture du récit dans l'image fixe. Ils explorent la manière dont leur pratique conteste les idées toutes faites sur le récit et oblige le lecteur à essayer de nouvelles façons de vivre l'image fixe. Ils s'interrogent enfin sur l'intérêt du changement de perspective qui les conduits


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 60 à remplacer la lecture habituelle d'œuvres linéaires ou non-linéaires par une expérience plus viscérale, plus directe, plus éphémère du récit.

Keywords: Emotion, not just another story, photography, sequence, still

This essay is a collaboration, but spoken with two voices, in separate chapters. It is an invitation for the reader to be open to a tangential, fragmented delivery of thoughts and ideas, with some reversals, repetitions, slippages, both within and between, the reading and the viewing. As photographers we try to take a playful and liberal approach to making work. We ponder and pontificate, we meander and get distracted, we try to allow ourselves the room to make mistakes (and, we hope, to learn from them). In order to produce not just another story we took on the role of co-editors and contributors, working with two writers and two other photographers. The resulting publication responds to ideas around storytelling and photography.

The photographs accompanying the text for this essay are from work we produced as contributors to not just another story. Jacqueline Butler’s work, Glass and Paper Landscapes, is a series developed from the Lewis Carroll Collection held at the National Media Museum, Bradford, UK (figs.: 3, 4 and 6). Gavin Parry’s photographic series, 45 Swimming Pool Cubicles, records Manchester’s historic Victoria Baths, UK (figs.: 2, 5 and 7). Whilst not just another story acts as a motivation for writing this essay, the intention is not for our writing to explain the meaning of the photographs featured in the book, or the context in which they should be viewed. Nor are the photographs presented here to function as illustrations to this text. The interrelationship between this text and the images featured here is for the reader to establish in their overall reading of this essay.


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 61 Chapter 1

not just another story was an exercise in identifying and exploring some of the dynamics of engaging with the photograph and its siting, in this case, within the conventional book form. The book was approached as space with no set parameters beyond the fundamentals of it being a book: decisions about its shape, size, structure, length and inter-play between work was subservient to the book itself (within some obvious financial and practical parameters). The ideas and work submitted and developed by the contributors directly affected decisions about format, book length, design and layout. This allowed the photography to dictate the terms; to breathe and to stretch itself, and, in doing so, allow something about the medium’s particular qualities to be celebrated, to share the contributors’ sense of wonder and delight about photography and to elicit responses that have, perhaps, been dulled by our image-saturated, highly mediated world.

The limitations of the conventional book form, and the ambitious, conflicting demands of the work commissioned, created inevitable tensions that were an invaluable part of the process of making. The residue of this process has a presence within the book. We wanted the book to quietly fizz and bubble with other tensions. For instance the tension between the text and the image (apocryphally a photograph may be ‘worth a 1000 words’ yet one word can completely alter and reshape its meaning); the narrative drive and the activity of looking; the viewers’ visual experience and their urge to understand. Further considerations focussed on the sequence of images and the photographic moment, the horizontal thrust of the book and the vertical pull of the image, and the surface of the image and the space underneath and behind it. We deliberated on the manner in which the image was contained within the page and also existed beyond the frame of the page. We reflected on the ‘internal time’ of a photograph, and the ‘reading time’ of the viewer, and on the collaborative process and the distinctive voices of the contributors.


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 62 The book does not seek to directly address any of these issues head on and it is, in part, only through the making of the book that some of these tensions can be articulated. There is a purpose implicit within the title not just another story as it is suggestive of our intentions to question the hegemony of predictive narrative form. It also harbours the seeds of the inevitability of its ‘failure’. It was always going to be ‘just another story’ of some kind; narrative was always going to be present in some form.

The book aimed to set up a relationship between the images and text that were overlapping but separate: it was important that the images did not illustrate the text, and that the text did not give explanation of the images. The function of the text was to be a response to the title, not just another story, and to gently prompt the viewer towards an alternative way of engaging with the photographs, the book, and with narrative. The text was not to anchor meaning, nor to operate as a crutch to alleviate or truncate the challenge of looking. As Berger proposes:

We are far from wanting to mystify. Yet it is impossible for us to give a verbal key or story line to this sequence of photographs . . . the ambiguities

encountered are not an obstacle to ‘understanding’ this work, but a condition for following it . . . (Berger 113)

The recognized conventional forms for narrative address are not overtly present within the book. There is no narrator as authoritative guide. Aside from the title on the cover (fig. 1), there is no clear foreword, introduction or overview to frame or contextualise the work. There is structure and order and there is text between images, but the rules are unclear and unfamiliar; a conventional narrative framework is lacking, paradoxically drawing attention to itself through its unwillingness to act as a familiar guide. Here, at best, there are tangential clues and suggestions offered up as to how the book may be approached, but there is no tightly held hand offered to understanding the work. There is no clear plot to follow.


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 63 In light of the challenges we identify here we raise a series of questions. Where is the sense to be made and where can the narrative be found? Is it in the photographs, the moment

Fig. 3: from the series Glass and Paper Landscapes, Jacqueline Butler, from not just another story (2007)

of time depicted? Or in the object, the subject of the photograph? In the process and materials evident in the making? Is it in the gaps between the images, or in the relationship between them? Is it hidden within the text or in the design and layout? Is it the editing and sequencing of the book? Or is it within the viewer’s memory, psychology, prejudices and experiences?

It is inevitable that any act of viewing or reading will provoke responses from a curious viewer or reader – signification and meaning is not intended to be unnecessarily difficult or elusive. Berger’s “condition of ambiguity” (113) offers up a way to view a sequence of images whose order does not conform to any conventional or recognisable narrative framework. Uncomfortable as it can be for the viewer, when the familiarity of the narrative is removed, it can also be seen as a freedom from the tyranny of the predictable


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 64 narrative framework. In not just another story the viewer is invited to experience the photographs for what they are; not triggers to drive any plot, nor directions towards any specific reading or closure of understanding. To deny the viewer the comfort of a clear narration is to provoke them into investigating the work, to seek the unseen and the unspoken. Narratives that may be present are there to be uncovered, found tangentially and obliquely.

Another way to try and identify where the narrative may be found is to seek the narrator. In Image-Music-Text, (Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives) Barthes identifies three different forms of narrative address:

1. The ‘I’ (the person telling the story is also the character in the story)

2. The omniscient (voice with complete overview and knowledge of every aspect of the story)

3. The narrator limits the narration to what the characters can observe and know…the story proceeds as if each of the characters were the sender of their own narrative. (109-14)

The first two modes of narrative address are not applicable to the book: there is no ‘I’, no character or protagonist within the book to act as a narrative agent. Nor is there a text that offers up an omniscient or prescribed narration to the work. However, it is possible and very much in keeping with intentions of the book, to apply Barthes third mode where the narrator limits the narration to what the characters can observe and know. The story proceeds as if the characters were the senders of their own narrative. If ‘characters’ is substituted for photographs, then stories proceed as if each of the photographs were the “sender[s] of their own narratives” (109-14). The surface of the images is where the ‘telling’ occurs: in not just another story the stories exist in (or at the very least, start from) the traces left on Lewis Carroll’s glass negatives, and from the patina on the pool cubicles, created by years of use.


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 65 In the essay Fire and Ice, Peter Wollen talks about the photograph’s ‘then’ and the spectator’s ‘now’ (the ‘then’ being the moment depicted within the photograph, the ‘now’ being the spectators moment of looking at an image which has no fixed duration) (“The Photography Reader” 76-82). The photographs from not just another story are not of moments that capture any fleeting instant or dynamic action; they depict states more than events. The internal time within the photographs could be seen as elongated moments that are imbued with the idea that, if you blink, you would not miss anything. There is a sense that the photographers could re-visit or re-shoot any of these scenes and all the details would remain the same, or at least be very similar. There is no decisive moment (they are decisive, un-dynamic). There is no spectacular climax of event or activity. However, like all things exposed to time, the moments photographed here are transitory but the changes occur over days, years or even, decades.

In some ways these photographs invite the viewers ‘now’ to try and outrun the ‘then’ of the image’s internal time. It is a further invitation to the viewer to slow down, observe and look. We are aware that this invitation is also a challenge to the viewer, to confront the discomfort, anxiety and frustration at having to look at an image beyond a certain familiar duration, and to adopt a way of looking that challenges the narrative impulse, so that the viewer may see what is often missed.

Chapter 2

In this section of the essay we will consider photography and the notion of wonder; the flow of narrative and space; and examine the photograph and its relationship to space, time and memory.

Photography is becoming so very useful that it is a question whether it will not in time be forgotten that it was originally intended as a means of representing


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 66 the beautiful, and become known only as being the humble helper in everybody’s business except its own, from that of the astronomer, who uses it

Fig. 4: from the series Glass and Paper Landscapes, Jacqueline Butler, from not just another story (2007)

to discover unsuspected worlds, down to that of the ‘brewer and baker and candlestick maker’. (Peach Robinson 9)

The photographer Henry Peach Robinson in the preface to The Elements of a Pictorial Photograph wrote the above over 100 years ago. His concerns over photography “becoming so very useful” (9) and losing something fundamental in the process, particularly “representing the beautiful” (9), could as easily reflect contemporary discussions and debates that currently surround photography. This is one of the main drives behind the collaborative publication not just another story.


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 67 mobile phone camera and digital interfaces such as Flickr, it seems apparent now more than ever that the medium is owned by all. It is generally understood that everyone can ‘do’ photography and we can therefore conclude that the medium services the “brewer, the baker and the candlestick maker” (Peach Robinson 9). The process of digital photography encourages the production of photographs at a remarkable rate with little thought or reflection on the images that are created; they become illustrations of, and for, social networking. As co-editors of the publication one of our key aims has been to prise photography from the position of facilitator. We set out to create space for the medium to ‘speak’ for and about itself, to begin to consider the narratives of, in, and surrounding, the photographic medium. Indeed we sought to give permission for the photographs (and to the photographers involved) to tell their own stories, not in a literal or linear way, but to draw on a more resonant, ephemeral quality. In doing so, we presented to the viewer/reader, as Geoffrey Batchen so aptly states in the introduction to his book Each Wild Idea, “Photography’s wonderful strangeness ” (ix).

Contributors were encouraged to explore the tradition of telling tales, gathering ‘bits and bobs’, considering fact and fiction, and the magical in relation to the mundane. As the project developed, emphasis began to focus on an examination of storytelling and the difference between viewing and reading, in the sense that ‘reading’ sits most comfortably with text and the book, and ‘viewing’ with the image and the gallery space. As a response to this, whilst acknowledging that all books are things to be read, we approached the book as a space in which work could be curated. This approach underpinned the publication’s philosophy to challenge an audience to ‘view’ rather than to ‘read’ the book, making the page a space for work to inhabit.

In considering the work as curation rather than editing our ambitions began to work against the traditional linear structure usually associated with the book format. We wanted to


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 68 encourage the viewer to move back and forth, shift in, out and around the series of images in order to discover meaning. We did not want to use the text to explain, but rather for it to act more playfully and suggest ideas around the book and the photograph, to allow the potential


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 69


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 70 for stories to unfold. In his book Photography and Cinema David Campany, when discussing the photo story, writes: “The photo sequence is at its most potent when it accepts that flow is not really its forte and embraces each static image as one poetically charged fragment among others” (84). On reading this, rather than accepting defeat in the idea of photographic narrative, it seems to suggest that in our role as editors of not just another story we needed to undertake a shift in our expectation of the way we approached and engaged with the photographic sequence. Campany goes on to say, “the stillness and the gaps are as important as the pace and the connections and it is the tension between the two that permits complexity” (Photography and Cinema 84). By taking this editorial position when tackling the book, accepting that it is not something that is an ‘easy read’, one would anticipate that what is left for the viewer, as the key to understanding, are the photographs themselves. If we trust that the medium has something to offer, something to communicate visually, there is then a stronger desire to invest time and thought into looking. In endnotes, a written contribution to not just another story, Sonya Robinson states:

Order is clearly here but it is fragmentary, one of seeming displacement and disjuncture. But this is not disorder; rather the book is the space in which narratives and meta-narratives unfold. It is in the space between image, thought and memory that the story is told. Perhaps the art book is one of the few places where these images can co-exist. (47)

To focus on the space between images and the static, mute place that is the photograph, thoughts shift from a direct discussion of the book not just another story to reflections on the relationship the photograph has with space, time and memory. When reflecting on the Seascapes of the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto in her online article Time Extended, Mirjam Wittmann remarks “Although a photograph captures a single moment of time and fixes it on paper Sugimoto reinforces time in duration and makes you feel as if time


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 71

Fig. 6: from the series Glass and Paper Landscapes, Jacqueline Butler, from not just another story (2007)

stands still and moves on . . . ”. Historically, photography has been celebrated for technological advancements that enabled faster image capture to arrest the smallest fragments of time. The medium was recognised for its ability to encapsulate and reflect the speed and instantaneity of the modern age. The continuing demand to rapidly record a given moment without delay has been dramatically accelerated by the advance of digital photography. As a result the limitations of analogue photographic technology have been exposed and the medium dislodged from its former position.

It seems appropriate now that what can be recognised is the ability of analogue to encourage and enhance a slowing of both thought and action. Over recent years there has been a developing re-appraisal of the analogue as a medium distinct from the digital. Wittman in her text questions the role photography now has in evidencing the measurement of time. The work of Sugimoto runs counter to recognised contemporary perceptions of


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 72 photography as a mechanism well suited to represent the immediate. Through the limitations of the analogue process photography seems to be turning in on itself. What perhaps is being unveiled is a representation of experiential time. Wittman continues:

Time is always a “before” and “after”, but also a “not yet” and “not any-more”. It is the sudden vanishing of the present tense, shifting into contradiction of being simultaneously too late and too early, that is properly unbearable.

Let us allow ourselves to linger and ponder on the slippages revealed in the silver nitrate emulsion of the photograph. Perhaps our thoughts now shift to contemplations on the impermanence of place and space. An unsettling rhythm develops that skips a stringent marking of time. What begins to materialise is a corresponding fast forward and rewind; the photograph begins to disclose the flexibility and expansion of time. The unpicking and reassessment that traditional analogue photography has undergone over recent years gives photography in all of its technological guises the opportunity to visualise more effectively how we experience time. The difficulties that photography has encountered in harnessing the instant, and the compromises made through the limitations of its technology (shallow focus due to limited depth of field, blurred subject caused by movement during long exposure) can be reinterpreted. The technological flaws become visual translations of our own fragility in relation to time, thought and memory. The technical inadequacies of the ‘bad’ photograph become valued as visual representations of a train of thought, an experience: things half remembered.

I was half asleep when I had a very clear vision . . . The horizon was exactly in the centre of the image. That vision was probably something dating back to my childhood. I remember my first encounter with the ocean. (Sugimoto 91)


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 73


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 74 This quote, taken from an interview in 1994, reveals Sugimoto’s initial thoughts on the formation of his Seascapes. Sugimoto presents “autobiographical statements of poetic beauty, which are like extended haiku and speak of a contemplative experience of the world” (Belting 78-79). This approach to contextualising the work permits the viewer, through each horizon captured in the photographs (so similar and yet distinctly different), permission to experience and contemplate memories, both personal and of those not known. Hans Belting comments in his essay Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time’s Mirror:

Photography usually stores a moment from the past. But the situation is different in the Seascapes. Their cycle represents the repeatable rhythm of nature. In his own words, Sugimoto wanted to capture the time that was already there “when humans began to name things and remember”. (100) This interweaving of personal experience, of half-remembered thoughts, releases the photograph from being a tool that documents the subject in front of the camera, to that of a reflector of experience and memory: “it is not about the time at which the photographs are exposed but about exposing time or placing it in the light” (Belting 93). Allowing personal memory to entwine with universal understanding gives the viewer confidence to take hold of the narrative through personal engagement with each photograph, each “poetically charged fragment” (Campany, “Photography and Cinema” 84).


Throughout this essay we have reflected on our endeavour, as editors, to tell ‘not just another story’. In producing the book we set out to unsettle and challenge the reader’s expectations of the book format and its narrative construction. We speculated on the potential that photographs may possess as an independent medium to tell tales. This involved


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 75 evaluating the relationship that image has to text, and the nuances created through design, layout and sequencing when considering the book as a place for work to inhabit. What has

Fig. 8: photograph taken with mobile phone (undated)

become evident is the importance of space in the book and, more specifically, the space in between text and photograph. By thinking about the effect that the ‘in between’ has on the distillation of the story, the viewer is presented with an opportunity to engage more freely, to form a more open-ended narrative. Through further contemplation on photography and its association with time and memory we identify an unfolding towards ephemeral narrative.

To end this essay with the philosophy and ethos we held when we first conceived not just another story we must return to our ambition to seek the magic and wonder of the photograph and celebrate its imperfections. Our aspiration was to present to the reader/ viewer a break from the constraints of a conventional approach to the narrative of the book;


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 76 to encourage a more sensual and intuitive experience of the visual. Hold your gaze on this image (fig. 8), taken with a mobile phone on a Sunday afternoon, and contemplate the words of Henry Peach Robinson “It is only in paradise that roses grow without thorns . . . On earth we would not give up the perfume of the rose because of the prickles”. (Peach Robinson 163).


not just another story is co-edited by Jacqueline Butler & Gavin Parry and published by Righton Press (2007), ISBN: 1-9007-5636-6. For further information on this publication please contact the editors: j.a.butler@mmu.ac.uk or g.parry@mmu.ac.uk.

Jacqueline Butler is an artist and filmmaker, and programme leader of BA (Hons) Photography and MA Photography at Manchester Metropolitan University. An advocate of the relationships between slowness and experience, quickness and forgetting, Butler’s work seeks out the unobserved, the hidden and the untold. She works like a detective’s assistant; quietly lurking in the shadows and edges, illuminating the overlooked, the previously unseen and uncovering parallel histories of things, people and experiences.


Gavin Parry is a photographer and Senior Lecturer on BA (Hons) Photography at Manchester Metropolitan University. His practice has evolved from a photo documentary tradition which has always had to deal with photography’s uneasy relationship with the real: whilst a photograph is now rarely assumed to be a clear ‘window on the world’, it nevertheless has a particular relationship with its subject. Parry’s work exploits this, and often positions itself at the edges of the documentary genre.


Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 4 (2011) 77 Work Cited

Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana, 1977. Print.

Belting, Hans. Looking through Duchamp’s door; Art and Perspective in the work of Duchamp, Sugimoto and Jeff Wall. Koln, New York: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig, 2009. Print.

Berger, John and Mohr, Jean. Another Way of Telling. London: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1982. Print.

Campany, David. The Cinematic (Documents of Contemporary Art). London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2007. Print.

---. Photography and Cinema (Exposures). London: Reaktion Books, 2008. Print. Robinson, Henry Peach. The Elements of a Pictorial Photograph. New York: Arno Press, 1973. Print.

Robinson, Sonya. “Endnotes.” not just another story. Eds. Jacqueline Butler and Gavin Parry. Manchester: Righton Press, 2007. Print.

Sugimoto, Hiroshi, et al (Eds.). Hiroshi Sugimoto; Time Expanded. London: Thames & Hudson, 1995. Print.

Wittmann, Mirjam. “Time, extended: Hiroshi Sugimoto with Gilles Deleuze.” Image [&] Narrative X.1 (2009): n. pag. Web. 25 Jun 2011.

Wollen, Peter. “Fire and Ice.” The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London & New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.


Fig. 2: from the series 45 Swimming Pool Cubicles, Gavin Parry, from not just another story (2007)
Fig. 3: from the series Glass and Paper Landscapes, Jacqueline Butler, from not just another story (2007)
Fig. 4: from the series Glass and Paper Landscapes, Jacqueline Butler, from not just another story (2007)
Fig. 5: from the series 45 Swimming Pool Cubicles, Gavin Parry, from not just another story (2007)


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