Esther Johnson

Since graduating from the Royal College of Art, Esther has been working as a filmmaker, photographer and writer. Her work has appeared in film festivals, art galleries and publications in the UK and internationally, with selected works distributed via vtape in Toronto. Current projects include commissions for the Site Gallery, Sheffield as well as new film works in London and Buffalo, NY. She has also recently organised the 4th Hull
International Short Film Festival

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"It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it"
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing p7

Whilst sifting and cataloguing the colossal number of images in the Study Collection, I was struck by how differently artists have represented their work in still images... 'A picture is worth a thousand words'; but how best to illustrate a moving image work with something fixed? Should one choose the most striking frame, or perhaps the one which summarises the themes and content of a work, or the clearer production still taken during the shoot, but which does not appear in the actual work itself? Different stills suit different purposes; a publicity poster or a postcard or an image supporting a critical piece of writing. There is a substantial difference between a still photograph, a description in words (ideas and abstractions) and the ability of the film in question to communicate precise information about an unfolding action in space and time. A sequence of moving images can denote meaning in a number of compelling ways which the extracted still presented on its own cannot. Nevertheless the strength of the still lies in its ability to encapsulate a moment with a powerful sense of the overall, and to single out and abstract a particular theme and present it in a new light.

For this exhibition, I decided that instead of following a theme, I would show the diversity of material in the Study Collection. The images chosen were those I instinctively found interesting and striking. They include artists' drawings and collages, animation sequences, photographs of the mechanics of film-making, production stills, images containing historical, nostalgic and political subject matter (documentary and gritty realism particularly pertaining to Industrial Britain), publicity material such as posters, contact sheets, artists' interventions on the actual paper image, imagery containing strong text elements, and finally, portraits of the filmmakers themselves.

Many images in the collection are both arresting and intriguing - the stills make one want to see the film itself. Mineo Aayamaguchi's Inner Colour (1984, col) is a video piece which also became an installation, performance and photographic work. Jez Welsh noted in an ICA booklet accompanying the exhibition of Aayamaguchi's Kaleidoscope (1988) that the director "is video art's equivalent of an impressionist; the central concerns of his work are light, colour and form…" In the still from Inner Colour one instantly gets a sense of Aayamaguchi's celebration of the aesthetic qualities of video. Using a hand-held lightweight camera, he has chosen simply to film himself, resulting in a self-portrait; the familiar being focused on in an unfamiliar, even extraordinary manner. The artist has stated that in Inner Colour he was "exploring the use of primary colours and colour construction with the video monitor using the human body to create coloured shadows and to create a mask from the human face." The still presented here, like many other images in the Study Collection, is in black and white whereas the tape is in colour. The collection of black and white images were originally largely used in printed matter such as screening pamphlets, preceding today's cheaper and more widespread use of colour.
Some of the images I came across emanated a haunting mystery, such as Sarah Pucill's Cast (1999, b/w) which focuses on a carefully choreographed composition of the body, with the legs of what appears to be a slumbering ballerina. In an application to the Arts Council for funding for this film, Pucill wrote that she was interested in "trying to strike a balance with where there is a person [in the film space], so it is not just a camera looking…[but] a person in a place: being situated." The image belongs to the realm of fantasy, both sexual and fairytale.
In Martine Thoquenne's First Communion (1986, b/w), youth and religion are intertwined to create a curious, hazy still of ritual and passage.
A still from John Blake's Bridge (1974-75, b/w) employs the blur so that an image that could have been an ordinary picture postcard, becomes something new. In a book of notes on his work, Blake wrote that "To view the (documentary) subject, the viewer was forced to 'stare through' the material (film) base, to 'recover the object' so to speak" (this quote comes from notes made by the film maker, which are held in the Study Collection). A film that takes the viewer on a gentle drift down the river is here struck still.
Through the use of blur, Lis Rhodes' in Just About Now (1993, col) reproduced on an Arts Council publicity postcard abstracts the video image in a painterly fashion. Video as a palette of shape, form and colour is powerfully translated into such stills.
Comparisons to Vermeer's paintings of interiors can be seen in Margaret Warwick's Still Lives (a drama in three acts). (1981, col). The grainy video image evokes a distant memory or stasis of the present. Warwick's synopsis of the tape states, "A woman who works as a librarian, completely out of character; decides to enter a competition - 1st prize, a trip to Egypt. On winning the prize she cannot bring herself to make a trip for fear of the tangible reality destroying the fragile imaginings inside her head." This still life of an interior also elicits the narrative of a larger story at work.
In addition to photographic blow-ups of single film frames, photographs taken from the television screen and video grabs, moving image works can be represented via a blow-up of the successive frames of the film strip, exactly as they would pass through the projector. The sequence of stills from Jeff Keen's Marvo Movie (1967, col), also includes the audio track on the edge of the strip. Keen's work shows the cinema of condensed imagery comprising of graphic 'lowbrow' B-movies and pulp fiction, which are recontextualised into a new kind of pop cinema.
Hints of narrative are clear in the four stills selected from the film negative (but not relative and subsequent to one another) of Alia Syed's Fatima's Letter (1994, b/w). The film, shot entirely in Whitechapel Underground station, tells in Urdu (with deliberately out-of-sync English subtitles) a story that takes place in Pakistan. The images shown in this sequence reflect the restless hand-held, grainy black-and-white nature of the film. We catch glimpses of commuters, silhouettes, shadows and reflections which populate the story being told, appearing as if in a memory or imagining of a story. In an interview with Bruce Haines at inIVA, Alia Syed explains that Fatima's Letter is also a romantic as well as a political film. It is about travelling in London and feelings of isolation, but also about how you watch people and fabricate stories about them, trying to make connections. In public spaces, there will be some people who look familiar - they remind you of home… It is to do with occupying more than one space at a time."
Animations can be characterised by one of the many drawings or collages created for the film.. Vera Neubauer’s The Mummy’s Curse 1987, b/w is an image of an endearing and playful childish drawing.. This still is taken from a publicity postcard; a drawing on a notepad being a witty method of representing her ideas. Here the drawing is not necessarily an actual still from her film, unlike the sequence of stills from Anthony Gross and Hector Hoppin’s animation Joie de Vivre (1932-33, b/w).
Joie de Vivre “was an experiment in arabesque created by the moving line” (Gross, The Listener, 1960). Gross’ drawings are clear fluid lines which represent a short fantasy concerning the pursuit of two factory girls by a workman through a variety of settings. This is clearly seen in the specific stills that show the progression of the narrative..
Similarly the still from Vicky Smith’s Fixation (2002, col) is directly from the film, in which she animated sequences using her ‘solarstain’ technique. Smith explains in a note, “Fixation is a series of animated camera-less shadow-grams.. The solarstain is a collage of objects, whose 'breath of light' is cast onto photographic paper by exposure to solar energy...The stained paper is then fixed, forming a landscape of self and the boundaries of the body, where brown suggests blood, white evokes bones.”
Sunset Strip (1996, col) by Kayla Parker is made up of colourful collages directly stuck to celluloid, which is double-exposed with animated footage of the progression of the sun tracking the sky.
In Judith Goddard’s Luminous Portrait, (1990, col) for the Arts Council/BBC2 ‘One Minute TV’ scheme a collage of imagery is used with a fragmented figure set in an illusory setting.
From collage composites and illustrations for animated films, filmmakers have also represented their work through preparatory plans and sketches. Chris Welsby’s series of drawings for Estuary (1980, col), the still is also a greetings card are precise and carefully planned illustrations of panels for an exhibition. The artist’s working methodology with drawings detailing weather patterns and landscape is as carefully thought out as the construction of his films.
Janus Szczerek shows a plan for his eight-screen installation Roll Around the Monument (1986), initially filmed by eight cameras. The piece documents the initiation of a group of actors working together on a play of Kafka’s The Castle.
The drawings from Bruce McLean’s Urban Turban (1995, col) are from 35mm slides that constitute the basis of a published book and also show the artist’s compositional method for the film. In the book Bruce McLean states that “The film is a collection and synthesis of some of the concerns I have been involved with… social positioning, posturing, non-verbal communication, the gesture, architecture, it is a glass work not class work…It is didactic, informative, explanatory, using real language borrowed, commentary stolen, real people, real places…probably the first architectural movie.”
The actual components of a performance at the Serpentine Gallery (the raw material for the film version) are exhibited in the still from Rose Finn-Kelsey’s Glory (1983, col) The paper maquettes clustered on a large white table are representations of politicians, heroes, film stars and the toys of war. These were used as pawns in a performance and ritualistic wargame, re-enacting past historical moments with Finn-Kelcey as the puppet-master wearing striking red gloves.
Documentation of installation work is also represented in the Collection with stills of Susan Collins’ Vitrine (1996) and Lulu Quinn’s What are you looking at? (1981).
Here representation of the space in which the project is viewed by audience/spectator is integral to understanding the work itself.
The mechanics of filmmaking are seen in the filmstrip from Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo (1937, col) where characteristically the artist has painted and stenciled his abstract imagery directly onto shots taken from found documentary footage.
In Annabel Nicolson’s Slides (1971, col) the edges of scattered film frames are seen collaged within the frame of a finished filmstrip. The normally off-screen sections of film have become subject matter to re-film and optically print.
Jill Eatherley’s Hand Grenade (1971, col) experiments with moving light drawings created by a small torch in a darkened room. Eatherley explains in an interview by David Curtis for Illuminations TV that, with the help of Malcolm Le Grice they “...ran the film through the printer, ran the negative, offsetting the negatives on top of the other, superimposition …turning it upside down, playing with it and having a good time; and that was how Hand Grenade was made, purely that.”
Steve Farrer's Ten Drawings (1976, b/w). For each ‘drawing’, fifty equal lengths of clear film were laid out to make a rectangle, onto which a pattern was drawn, after which the strips were joined together, top to tail. Ten of these drawings constitute the work. This image is one of the rayograms Farrer made from the drawings before splicing the strips together to make the film, which he sometimes exhibited beside the projected work. The image has a directness and simplicity of mark-making resulting in a film of linear geometric abstraction and predictability. Farrer has stated that the surface marks can manifest themselves in three ways: as a drawing of a film, a film of a drawing and a sound of a drawing.
Production stills can be a compelling way to sum up the world and ideas of an entire film. These stills may not appear in the film but are created with publicity in mind. A still from the press pack for Derek Jarman’s The Last of England (1987, col) encapsulates many of the ideas of social change and despair which Jarman worked with. There is also a strong reference to fine art, seen by way of composition and light which is echoed through the film being named after Ford Maddox Brown’s painting. The image is indicative of dramatic cruelty, poverty and decay. As the accompanying press release says, “Here is a man who sees to the heart of the malaise which afflicts us and who has something of vital importance to say.”
Social commentary is also represented in a provocative still from Pictorial Heroes’s Hebburn Skins aka World of Skinhead (1995, col). The choice of angle in showing the backs of skinheads, a union flag wrapped around their shoulders, is a variation to the usual confrontational front-on image.
Politics and the ubiquity of video in the 1980s are embodied in the first work of Gorilla Tapes (Gavin Hodge, Tim Morrison, John Dovey and Jean McClements), Death Valley Days (1984, col). Here the political use of imagery in ‘scratch video’ is created through the manipulation of information from the mass of television news and entertainment. Accepted material is deconstructed and re-worked/structured to music. The image of Margaret Thatcher is taken from one of the four sections of Death Valley Days, titled Commander-in-Chief, relating to tabloids and the news, appositely chosen as major concerns of the time.
An overview of Britain is pertinent in Patrick Keiller’s Valtos or the Veil (1987, b/w) the country symbolized by a power station in the North of England. Many of these stills are relevant to a particular time and place and evoke the documentary. Keiller’s film uses narrative and location to create associations through image and voice (story), attaching layers of meaning to imagery collected on a journey through England.
William Raban’s Thames Film (1984-86, col) also shows a particular image of England as seen through a camera scanning the Kent and Essex shores from a boat on the Thames.. The modern scene is interwoven with archive material from a time when the river was the busiest waterway in the world. The film is “about perceptions of time - time regulated by effects of tide, daylight and seasonal change. Traces of present compared to records of the past” (‘Lifting Traces’ Filmwaves, Spring 1998).
Image and subject-matter in some films, as with Jeff Keen's Marvo Movie (1967, col), are concerned with a nostalgic referencing and framing of film history.
Cordelia Swan’s Rita’s Dream 2000 references the familiar and iconic cinematic history of actress Rita Hayworth,
whilst George Snow’s Muybridge Revisited (1987, col) is a colourfully textured homage and new interpretation of Eadwaerd Muybridge’s seminal pre-motion picture sequences.
Sometimes the publicity tools such as posters and postcards contain imagery that is completely extraneous to the actual work. Denzil Everett uses an Edwardian image on a postcard promoting his tour with How to Confuse Bavarians date unknown; mid 80s
Whilst Stephen Littman creates a handmade poster for his exhibition Smile (1984, b/w).
The Study Collection also contains contact sheets of images from particular works such as 3am (1991, col) for the Arts Council/BBC2 ‘One Minute TV’ scheme by the feminist punk filmmaker Vivienne Dick. Here the contact sheet is comprised of a number of photographs taken of a television screen.
On the other hand an artist’s intervention onto prints of photographic stills is seen in Judith Higginbottoms Red Sea (1983, b/w) dramatic marks denoting direction of action.
The conflation of text and image in particular films can result in a playful use of a still. Text frequently emphsises the narrative implications in the still, as with Jean Matthee’s Neon Queen (1986, col). Here the combination is of nostalgic ‘femme fatale’ film imagery with romanticised text.
Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance (1988, b/w) juxtaposes written Arabic with a shadowy figure, connoting fear, imprisonment and unrest, resulting in a layered dialogue between artist and viewer.
In his two-screen film and slide work, Orphan Shots (1983, b/w) David Parsons juxtaposes imagery with a narrative explanatory text, creating a complex and mischievous relationship between word and image.
Humour is also seen in Steve Hawley’s Love Under Mercury (2001, col) a film about transformation and science. The apparent dimensions of a car are disturbed by the intervention of a hand holding a model, playing with scale and indicating that what you see isn’t always as it appears.
Tien (1991 col) for the Arts Council/BBC2 ‘One Minute TV’ scheme by Rosa Fong and Mei-Ling Jin, illustrates a letter ‘F’ through a picture from a children’s alphabet. The bold still uses the figure to address the spectator face-on through interpreting image and reading text.
Likewise John Smith’s Associations (1975, col) is a clever film which plays with literal transpositions of the image. The film, in which image and word work against and with each other, is represented by four pictures: an ass, a sewing machine, the sea and a group of Asian women, creating the title As-so-ci-ations when strung together.
Link (1970, b/w) by Derek Boshier also creates a visually dynamic relationship between images, this time of similar sculptural shapes: the dome, the square and the triangle are described through various forms in these shapes such as a mosque or pyramid.
As well as imagery’s relationship to text and form, we see that in David Cunningham’s This Moment (1991, col) for the Arts Council/BBC2 ‘One Minute TV’ scheme the striking simplicity in language and image connection results in a film deconstruction of the constituent phonetic parts of the spoken phrase ‘This moment’. Here the image is endowed with meaning as much as the sound of a word.
Finally, the use of stills by an artist is at its purest when representing the alter-ego of a filmmaker and the practice of filmmaking. David Leister’s Lacing Film (1993, b/w) is about fascination and obsession with celluloid and harks back to an era of home-movie making, connecting the filmmaker with an established style.
Further self-portraits by artists at work are the still of Tim Cawkwell, his hands working on pictograms scratched into black film leader for The Fish Variations (1982, col), and, lastly, a portrait of the legendary animator Norman McLaren.

There are many ways in which artists can illustrate their work as well as multiple usages for these images, from publicity in the form of postcards, posters or press packs, to images functioning as accompaniment to published essays or funding applications, and preparatory material for a future work. The still can be wholly representative of a film in tone, theme and content, or it can be abstract and show few visual similarities to the finished work, instead offering a metaphoric connection. Those exhibited here illustrate the breadth of representations of a moving image work through a defining still moment.

© Esther Johnson 2005