(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?”
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 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.
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.