Photography vs. Cinematography

A common misconception about film making is that one can “graduate” from still photography to cinematography, effectively conflating the two. Think, for example, of the common habit of referring to the “photography” of a film when referring to its lighting and composition. Despite the processes shared by the two media, however, this misconception misses or ignores the obvious fact that movies move.

As a consequence, a cinematographer (i.e., a filmmaker) must think in terms of change and development over time, while a still photographer is concerned with single moments. He or she need not worry if the sun shifts two seconds after getting the perfect shot. At the moment it was taken, the photograph reveals the world in all its glory as captured by the photographer’s eye, freezing the transitory into permanence.

Filmmakers and photographers have fundamentally different relationships with their viewers as a result. The photographer creates the perfect image and gives it to viewers whole. It is up to them to decide how much attention to give it. Filmmakers only rarely achieve such perfection, but are able to control how long the viewer looks at the image. Whether the shot lasts a fraction of a second or several minutes, the viewer’s attention is the filmmaker’s to shape.

That advantage is usually exploited, however, by limiting movement to a narrow “naming function” in which the primary concern is to identify clearly. This need to name is shared with still photography, suggesting why the two are often considered synonymous. The decision on how long a shot should be on the screen is based on registering the content and its narrative purpose. Alternative interpretations are discouraged in a specious equivalence between movement and constant refreshment which requires that the viewer’s attention always be “directed” around the space.

Stories overcome the disruptions caused by editing and movement by exciting the “What happens next?” curiosity at the expense of the qualities of the image and their potential affects. To insist on this cinema of nouns and verbs is, however, to deny one of the film image’s great advantages and differences from still photography, the ability to excite viewers’ imaginations through immersion and duration, raising the equally powerful question “Why am I looking at this?”

Filmmakers who slow down the image to let it breathe (Antonioni being the most famous, but by no means only example) might seem to want to return the medium to still photography as the camera sits while “nothing” happens. Yet that “nothing” results from the filmmaker’s desire to include everything, to move beyond objects and actions. The viewer can take the time to enjoy the riches experience offers as independent, evanescent moments, with neither the certainty of the still nor the partial purpose of the narrative fragment. Thus, as motion both attracts and distracts, the cinematic image finds its fullest expression in rendering movement as time rather than space, a haunting reminder of mortality.

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