Steppin’ Out: A Statement of Purpose

(Disclaimer: Much of the following is inspired by Michel Frizot’s essay “The New Truths of the Snapshot” featured in Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, ed. Elizabeth W Easton.)

(Second disclaimer: I love puns.)

Bear with me here.

Until we developed the technology of photography to capture light faster than we could internalize and understand – to segment time into smaller increments than we could otherwise observe – we did not understand how we walked.

It was not until about 1880 that the physiology of a human gait was understood by regular people.   The timing is not coincidental.  Dry plate technology for photography was developed around 1880, able to take exposures of roughly 1/100th of a second.  (For reference, an exposure of a still, well-lit figure took an exposure time of as long as 1/2 a second.)  We hadn’t beat the speed of light, but we were finally beginning to beat the speed of sight.  Realities that were plainly in front of us had remained invisible until we could start breaking apart time.  We caught speeding trains without a trace of blur.  We proved scientifically that there is a moment when a horse runs that all four hooves are off the ground.  And we discovered in our own walking that, in physiologist Josef Maria Eder’s words, “contrary to all accepted ideas, it is the heel that first touches the ground; at the same time the end of the foot is raised firmly in the air.  Would a painter dare to draw these figures?”

Credit Brian Auer

Like so.

This next bit is one of my favorite parts of this little story, one that answers Eder’s question pretty definitively.  Some 30 years prior, one intrepid photographer’s ambition outstrode (heh, sorry) current technological capabilities,  and he presented as candid, split-second photographs a series of three young chimney sweeps, seemingly caught mid-stride.  Charles Nègre claimed his ability to surpass all other photographic technology in short exposure time was due to a particular lens he developed (and no doubt sold at a premium).

The Chimney-Sweeps Walking, 1851

The Chimney-Sweeps Walking, 1851

The problem is that Nègre’s chimney sweeps’s feet are flat on the ground, proving – albeit three decades later – that the tableau was staged, the boys posed and holding still for the camera.

So where did we get the idea that we walk with flat feet?

All images that people saw prior to photography were of paintings and drawings, a medium with an exposure rate of at least a few hours if not days, weeks, months.  Painters depended on models to sustain poses for long enough to draw, paint, or sculpt them.  Models depended on holding a pose they could sustain for hours at a time.  A front foot with the heel down and toe up and a back foot with the toe down and heel up while holding yourself still is not a sustainable pose.   Try it.  I’ll wait.

Once you notice it, most figures in historic paintings aren’t really walking – there’s a lot of standing, or proto-yogic poses with the front knee bent and front foot flat on the ground, the back heel slightly raised or back foot lifted.  Let’s look at some feet.

lotsa feet here

Eugene Delacroix, The Fanatics of Tangier, 1838

quite sure we will have something to say about this painting later

The Abduction of the Sabine Women, Nicolas Poussin, 1634ish

what is even up with these feet where is gravity

“The Birth of Venus,” Santo Botticelli, 1483

So Nègre wasn’t messing around idly.  When it came to faking realistic photographs, he assumed that the paintings he had seen accurately reflected reality, because he had not seen otherwise.  And so did everyone else who looked at his photographs for the next 30 years.

And the truth was there in every single step each person took.

The discovery of how we walk presenting an image that was more awkward and precarious than aesthetic shook up the art world.  The sculptor Auguste Rodin couldn’t deny that his sculpture Saint Jean Baptiste, just finished up in 1877, failed to reflect the new facts of movement and physiology that were coming into public awareness.  His argument is priceless:

It is the artist who is true and photography that lies; for in reality time does not stop.

Which does get into an interesting and squishy area of art and storytelling’s responsibility to portray fact vs phenomenology, the experience of a thing rather than a diagram, the truth vs the truthiness.  Which is an argument that’s still happening, and still squishy, and about which I’m still somewhat ambivalent.

At this point, the complicated metaphor that I’m constructing (bear with me, again) starts to fall apart a little bit, because we no longer live in a culture in which photographs are accepted as purely factual.  Nevertheless, what we see – either literally, in images in film, or figuratively in narrative – influences what we imagine.  A number of studies have shown that well-faked photographs reliably distort (or create from scratch) a person’s memory of an event, because not all of what we see is true.  As such, it’s worth examining what exactly we’re seeing, what narratives we’re ingesting, and putting the pieces together of how what we encounter shapes what we think can be true.

All of us starting this blog are bound by our love of art and storytelling.  The media varies – 19th century English literature, graphic novels, long-form television, short-form television, contemporary young adult novels, filmic space opera, webcomics – but the devotion is the same.  With this love, however, we are required to examine exactly what stories we are being told and how they manifest in ourselves, our friends, strangers, technology, marketplaces, legislation, bedrooms…

There are fellow lovers of storytelling who will take a page from Rodin and argue that scrutinizing the veracity of cultural narratives perpetuated through these stories misses the point of art, ruins it, cheapens it, detracts from the sublime or enjoyable or escapist.  That once you start nitpicking, you can’t stop.  I’ll admit some truth to that – I always spotcheck feet in old paintings now (catching them flat-footed hur hur okay shutting up).  And I’ll admit to running the Bechdel test in my head for every movie I see now and being bummed every time by what movies I enjoy that don’t make the cut.   Examination isn’t  a road to greater immediate happiness, either for me or for whoever has to listen to me immediately afterwards.  There’s also the reality that no work of art, whether a masterpiece or an incoherent little blog post, can be everything to everyone, applying to all situations and minorities and unique viewpoints forever amen.  Someone somewhere is going to be disappointed.

But I can think that the availability of firearms has more to do with the prevalence of gun violence in America than the content of video games and still think it’s a good idea to question what’s necessary to the medium and consider what audiences it can exclude.   I can enjoy a Disney movie and love that the heroine is strong-minded and independent and still mourn that she is the only named woman in the movie.  I can enjoy Say Anything as emotional porn and still know that I would slap that motherfucker’s sense of entitlement silly with a restraining order.  This examination isn’t about censorship or political correctness, but it does maintain that we internalize what we see, and what we see most frequently takes precedence in our worldview, actions, and the narratives we choose to create, regardless of reality.

So what do we plan to do about that?

(Kameron Hurley has some amazing words to say about this, by the way – better than I can.  Check that shit out.)

We owe it to ourselves and to each other to ensure that we know that it’s heel down first and toe up – and to show it as such!  Art in all forms has an amazing track record (ok, that one wasn’t intentional) in pushing the boundaries of our perspectives… just as it has a long, long history of reinforcing these same boundaries.

The choice is ours in what truth we demand from our art.

– Lucinda likes her metaphors like she likes her drinks: mixed.


6 thoughts on “Steppin’ Out: A Statement of Purpose

  1. Joss Whedon’s stuff has become harder for me to enjoy since I started thinking about this stuff. I was listening to the Dr. Horrible soundtrack the other day and realized hard it fails the Bechdel test (even though I still loves me some Nathan Fillion and NPH, and really, how well developed are *their* characters?).

    • Right, I think that’s a good point – it’s pretty aggravating when art that we like ends up actually being problematic on closer inspection. I haven’t seen a lot of Whedon’s work outside of Firefly, but even that is starting to fall apart for me a little bit as I dig deeper. I’ll admit that the accolades he’s received for his speech on writing strong female characters (which he set up using a straw man argument) have made me more skeptical of him than I have been before.

      I think especially in science fiction and fantasy, we are reaching the point when more and more creators are realizing that they need to have at least superficially tough, conscientiously non-stereotypical female characters. More and more women are consuming geek culture, and the market speaks loudly. Which is a good first step, but it’s not like the fight is over when something as simple as the Bechdel test fails, or when your action heroines who break jaws with a single punch usually weigh less than 110 lbs. I don’t think that Whedon is a misogynist or anti-feminist, but there are times when he seems to resort to lazy storytelling tactics with his female characters, and that deserves scrutiny.

      • Ditto on the “when your action heroines who break jaws with a single punch usually weigh less than 110 lbs” point. Revolution is the first show I’ve seen in a while that has tough women who still have realistic levels of strength in relation to their weight and physique. It sort of shocked me when I thought about how rare that is still…

  2. What–No credit to Colbert for “truthiness”? (Teasing; it’s become so much a part of speech now that I think it goes without saying/citing. Also it’s an awesome way of expressing something that was cumbersome to express before.)

    I have a difficult relationship with the Bechdel Test–which I imagine we’ll be referencing a lot on this blog–for the same reason you do: it’s difficult to stop checking every movie to see if it “passes.” But I also get frustrated with the way in which some women use it to determine whether a movie is sexist or not. Some stories we tell just don’t have a place for a scene that would make them pass the test. Some stories are just about men, or are about men with women on the periphery, and I think that’s okay. Or they have one strong woman. Are we going to argue that _The Empire Strikes Back_ is anti-feminist, for example? It frustrates me because it tries to simplify a characteristic of art that is so incredibly complex. (I think you pretty much make the same point in your post anyway but yeah.)

    Also I love your status/name/whatever line at the end 🙂

    • I should do a Colbert credit!

      As you said, I’m sure we’ll be doing a lot of talking about the Bechdel test. A huge part of why it has caught on so much is its simplicity – in 3 easy steps, you can entirely reframe a movie – and at the same time, stopping there can be reductionist and misleading.

      I will say that I am starting to give a side-eye to any works that have only one woman in them, even/ especially if the woman is badass. A woman being tough and strong shouldn’t be made admirable and fascinating and important simply because there are no other women in the work at all. Even Leia’s role in Star Wars as the one woman who’s important in a world of men is inherently problematic to me, even if she’s a strong female character.

      • Maybe I give Star Wars too much leeway because it’s structured based on archetypes and it would’ve seemed weird to throw another woman in? I dunno. It also gets more leeway because of when it was made. Or I’m just biased because I love it.

        But I agree; I’m very leery of the idea that a badass woman should stand out because she’s a woman. (Again, this is where Revolution wins.) It’s just so tough, because I don’t want to get critical of every piece of art/fiction/etc that doesn’t showcase more than one woman in a strong role. And it’s so strange to me that, for example, something with only one female character would always fail the Bechdel Test, even if she were the main character or part of a duo or something. Where does Elementary fit in, for example?

        So much to unpack here!

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