Resilience

is the title of an exhibition of digital photographs at the National Film and Sound Archive. The images are derived from David MacDougall’s latest film Gandhi’s Children – the Canberra premiere of which will be held at 2.00pm this Sunday at Arc Cinema. Gandhi’s Children was filmed in late 2005 at the Prayas Children’s Home for Boys, in Jahangirpuri, New Delhi.

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What do we think of when we talk of “stills”, and how we might think of the framed prints on the wall, extracted from the imagery on screen? There’s still a photography gallery in Sydney called “Stills”. Seems to me it’s almost an outdated concept. “Still photography” still invokes the mystique of “the decisive moment” – being in the right place at the right time – remembering to have your camera with you – alert to the circumstances, finger on the button. But recently, this has become a less auratic concept, now that Robert Capa’s famous image of the death of a young Republican militiaman in the Spanish civil war has been proven – seventy years later – to be a work of fiction.

That will never be the case with these images. Here we are experiencing the distinctively 21st century condition of photography, where digital technology enables an editor to distinguish between images at the rate of 25 frames per second. Despite the capacities of Photoshop to distort the truth of an image, in this instance the authenticity of the original will never be in question. The original is no longer just “in the can” but on half a dozen servers.

What David has done in this exhibition is to reverse the mad contemporary proliferation of images, in a world where Flickr expands exponentially, in a world where most of us are carrying a video camera in our pocket. As of last night there are two billion images on Flickr, all of which have been recorded (or uploaded, made accessible) since it started less than five years ago.

Sometimes, for an artist, the trick is to learn how to surf the wave. However art also happens when you swim against the tide. So how has someone like MacDougall reversed the direction of this digital tsunami, slowed down the flow of data, in order to produce images we can comprehend, that we can reflect on? In a form that enables reflection, rather than just momentary exposure?

Analogue film, 35mm film, had it built in. You could separate the frames with a pair of scissors. Video is much more slippery. There is still the editing process, by which you agonize over the formal conjunction of transitional frames, in that subtle and almost invisible formalist play of transitions. But these images are not edit points in that sense at all – they are rather images which are chosen to evoke the before and after, the continuity of the moment, confirmation for us of the sequence, the flow from which they have been selected, the continuity of both the author’s and the subject’s common experience.

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Recognition of the flow has a quite different aesthetic consequence to that of the decisive moment. The image taken from the flow connotes Realism in its original art-historical sense – imagery which says, this is how it was, not just how it looked. It is through these images that David’s subjects tell us about more than the look, rather they convey the context, the existence of each individual subject, the moment, and all it connotes – fragility, survival, yet also hope and a future, and a certain post-traumatic dignity.

The ethic at work in David’s films, and now in these photographs, is one which is moving, compelling and convincing.  Somehow David has extracted from the mass of his video data a series of individual frames which has slowed down experience to the point where we might take heart from the resilience of these children, and children anywhere.

P.S. for the curious, the print size is about 285 x 505, printed on A2 Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper at the ANU School of Art. They are video stills from HDV (high definition video) recordings, exported via Quicktime to Photoshop and de-interlaced, colour-corrected, level-adjusted, etc. before printing.  None are cropped — they are all the original full frames.

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