Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Last Wednesday, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute hosted the kickoff event to the Strange Truth film series with the screening “Harun Farocki: Films on Photography and Power.” Organized by Haverford College faculty Vicky Funari, Joshua Moses, and John Muse, the series explores the diverse intentions of documentary filmmaking with screenings and conversations between filmmakers and critics.
The screening began with An Image (1983), a 23-minute documentary depicting a German Playboy shoot. With little dialogue or narration, Farocki puts on display the sheer absurdity of the shoot and the immense power photographers have in crafting their images.
The film begins with workers constructing a minimalist, all-white set for the model. Eventually, the nude model enters the set and is immediately surrounded by assistants primping every part of her body, highlighted by a shot of a woman hairspraying the model’s nipple for “shine.” The photographer carefully places the model into each pose, often commanding her to “look more comfortable” in an absurdly uncomfortable position. At the end of the shoot, the photographer is shown being unsatisfied with the model’s performance and decides every shot must be retouched.
Here, the power dynamic in the construction of a simple Playboy spread is demystified. While simplistic in nature (there is no narrative guiding audiences), Farocki’s shots effectively convey the objectification of women. Often capturing the model from an angle in which her face is obscured behind lighting equipment, the woman takes on the feel of an object being poked, prodded, and molded into a perfect specimen for the photographer’s vision.
From the gilded world of Playboy, Farocki also worked with heavier subjects and themes from the earlier half of the century, as was the case in Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988). This film, like An Image, ponders the power of images in constructing and conveying meaning by focusing on aerial images taken of the Auschwitz death camp during WWII, but unidentified until the 1970s. Farocki focuses on the fact that analysts at the time were never instructed to look for these camps, so they overlooked it completely. Here, and throughout the film, he drives forward the point that images take on different meaning across time and space—as these photos are now important historical documents, but filed away years ago.
Farocki also examines the SS’s use of photography at Auschwitz to document their crimes, focusing a significant amount of time on one image of a woman about to be processed into the camp (see below). Here, he argues that the woman’s act of gazing back at the camera is rebellious in itself. Defying the harsh and demeaning environment of the camp, she transports herself back to a world of sophisticated boulevards and city streets, casually looking back at passerby.
Throughout both films, Farocki explores themes of seeing, deception, and interpretation in photography and art — offering two distinct snapshots of the power of images in Germany in wildly different eras.
The next event in Strange Truths is a screening of Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon’s film This Ain’t No Mouse Music (2013) this Wednesday, February 25th at 7:00pm at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. More details about transportation and the remainder of the series can be found here.
Photo courtesy of Video Data Bank.