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The Limits of the Image

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Here’s an image by Michelle Lyles from the web, which she titled “God had some fun painting the clouds this morning,” which is stunningly beautiful. But it got me thinking about the limits of the image, and what it can and can’t express. As transcendent and Wordsworthian as this image is, it can’t convey the experience of witnessing this morning sky firsthand. Jean-Luc Godard’s oft-quoted maxim “it isn’t a just image; it’s just an image” is part of what I’m getting at here, but what really is at stake is the essence of the image, and what it really represents.

As film critics, theorists, and historians, we are obsessed with images, and continually deconstruct them as part of our daily work. Yet in the end, the image above is simply a series of pixels and color tones on a screen, possessing only a phantom existence, which it would have even if it were fixed on paper as an analogue photograph.

André Bazin commented that if one looked intently at an object with a  camera, one might be able to document the essence of that which was being photographed. But in reality, all one comes away with is a portion of the experience, an aide de memoire to remind one of the experience, but not contain it. I’m curiously suspicious of the power of the image to sway us emotionally, or to allow us to drift into sentiment; it asks the viewer to be transported to another space or time, and yet the experience of that moment remains beyond authentic recall.

Perhaps this is why I have so few photos of vacations, family members, and the like, and have only been photographed a few times; images always fail, always interpret, always deceive by their very nature. The nature of the cinema is illusion, and the nature of illusion is to make that which is not real seem actual. But it isn’t. It isn’t even “just an image.” It’s a deception — something designed to evoke a certain response, or randomly executed by chance. It’s only a talisman of the real, and possesses no reality of its own.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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