Photography changes the movies we choose to see

Preminda Jacob

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Preminda Jacob [ BIO ]

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Preminda Jacob

Preminda Jacob, associate professor of art history and theory at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), specializes in the social and political aspects of public visual culture. Her recent book, Celluloid Deities: The Visual Culture of Cinema and Politics in South India (Lexington Books, 2009), has an accompanying website, CelluloidDeities.com, that features over three hundred photos and three videos.

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Preminda Jacob, associate professor of art history and theory at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, looks at how monumental, hand-painted billboards in India represent a historic intersection of photography, painting, and the movies.

For nearly five decades, huge photo-realistic billboards of film stars towered over the streets of Chennai, a major hub of the vibrant and prolific Indian film industry. Expertly hand-painted on canvas banners and plywood cutouts, these eye-catching advertisements extracted dreamlike images of wealth, beauty, and revenge from films screened in darkened and air-conditioned theaters and displayed them in the sunlit glare of urban thoroughfares.

The selection of these photographic stills, plucked from films and enlarged to architectural proportions (one hundred feet in length for banners and forty feet in height for cutouts) was calculated to excite the public and nourish a “spectatorial consciousness,” what Roland Barthes—a French cultural critic who often wrote about photography—described as the experiential quality of still photographic images. Barthes recalled being transfixed by still images from movies, but then losing all memory of them while viewing the film they came from. Our perception of a moving cinematic image, he explained, is always determined by the frames that both precede and follow it. In contrast, a single and isolated film still that stands alone can be viewed indefinitely and more carefully.

While the artists who crafted Chennai’s cinematic billboards were probably unaware of Barthes’ theories, interviews I conducted with them reminded me how aware they were of distinctions between still and moving images. I recall one anecdote in particular. Mr. Vedachellam—a billboard artist and entrepreneur—explained to me that his film industry clientele routinely attempted to circumvent censorship by protesting to the authorities that the provocative still photographs featured on billboards were simply taken from film footage already cleared by the censors. The police commissioner’s canny rejoinder to the publicity agents’ appeals, Mr. Vedachellam recalled, was to remind them that these questionable stills appeared on the cinema screen for only a few seconds so viewers would soon forget them, or may not even have quite “seen” them at all. Freezing and enlarging such images, he argued, was a different matter altogether. And displaying them prominently on major thoroughfares would likely result in costly traffic jams and additional accidents. The police routinely censored these images by pasting pieces of white paper over offending portions of the billboards.

In his work, Barthes made another and a different point about distinctions between photographic and painted images. A photograph, he claimed, is indexical—it has a direct and detailed correspondence to the subject, whereas in a drawn or painted image, each mark or brushstroke potentially takes on more symbolic value. So, what happens when the conventions of three media coalesce? A photograph of Mr. Vedachellam at work records a complex nexus of photography, painting, and the cinema. Each medium mimics some of the characteristics of the two others. Vedachellam’s painting style is photorealistic; he copies a photograph that is, itself, a composite of film stills. And these film stills reflect the influence of the melodramatic look of 19th-century European tableaux painting on the sets, costumes, and lighting of the first full length feature films produced both in Hollywood and in India.

The hybridization of these media dates back to the work of India’s earliest photographers. From the 1850s to the present, local entrepreneurs operating photo studios have employed painters to enhance portrait photographs of their clients with drama and desirable accoutrements that were absent in the original photographs. The theatricality of Indian studio photographs, and the fantasies they fulfill, in turn, have influenced the idealized ways celebrities are represented in the hand-painted cinema advertisements. Like their counterparts in the world of studio photography, banner artists also painted directly onto a photograph in the process of creating studies for their spectacular enlargements. Using black-and-white poster paints, they first painstakingly outlined every detail in the photograph. Next, a photographic negative of the outlined image was projected onto the canvas or plywood surface and a tracing was made. At every stage in the process artists grasped a film still in one hand while wielding a paintbrush with the other hand.

This method of transferring photographic stills onto canvas encouraged artists to further manipulate and idealize images of their celebrity subjects. In their choice and application of colors, artists commonly disregarded the photograph they worked from. Recent research has established that the 19th-century American artist, Thomas Eakins, experimented with a similar method too, using photographs as a basis of his realist paintings. Because of the stigma then attached to ‘copying’ in fine art, Eakins kept the method secret.

In Chennai, distinctions between painted and photographed portraits of film celebrities became even more apparent at the turn of the twenty-first century when machine-made photographic prints on vinyl began to displace artists’ hand-painted canvas banners. Although the size and melodramatic imagery remain unchanged, a key ingredient in the visual power of these advertisements—the surprising trompe l’oeil illusions of the painted image—is missing. Nevertheless, both printed and painted portraits of film stars, lifted and transferred from the cinema to the street, fix them in viewers’ consciousness and fuel the fascination with celebrity that has become a pivotal aspect of modernity.

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Artist painting a film advertisement. Chennai, India, 1991 by Preminda Jacob
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Detail of a hand-painted advertisement for a Bollywood film, Ajooba. Chennai, India, 1991 by Preminda Jacob
  • Detail of a hand-painted advertisement for a Bollywood film, Ajooba. Chennai, India, 1991
  • Preminda Jacob
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Reverse view of the same advertisement. Chennai, India, 1991 by Preminda Jacob
Detail of a vinyl advertisement. Chennai, India, 2006 by Preminda Jacob
Detail of a vinyl advertisement. Chennai, India, 2004 by Preminda Jacob

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