PHOTODRAMAS – Both an exhibition of photographs and a telling of tales

Catalogue Essay for


Anne Zahalka, Ken Heyes, David James, Joy Stevens

Artspace, 16—23 March 1985



Firstly, the medium — the Cibachrome photograph. A beautiful, hard object, the sheer gloss of which often obliterates the image whilst dazzling the viewer. The viewer’s head must constantly move in an attempt to slip the gaze, almost surreptitiously, under the image’s emanation; whereupon flecks of silver can nearly be fancied embedded in the plasticized emulsion.

Truly a technology of restless desire — an object whose image tantalizes. Not an object of prolonged contemplation, where the viewer’s gaze can be comfortably absorbed into a palpable surface, or can come safely to rest on the tread of a brush-stroke. Rather an object from which the gaze skids — always nearly too quickly, always nearly out of control.

Cibachrome is a technology of loss, of almost but not quite. Like a film frame which is only projected momentarily we cannot focus on the image’s grain, cannot fully grasp its informational plenitude. All we seem to be allowed is the chance to prepare ourselves for the next, equally elusive, frame. These images are at once near and far. at stasis and in movement. They are Screen Gems, auratic and fugitive.



Secondly, the succession — the story. Not a series in the ‘Directorial Mode’ of the 1970s, not a relentless click-click-click leading to that inevitable punchline which invariably testifies to the directorial subjectivity of an artist. Nor a purposively muted ‘catalogue of events’. Rather, a procession of photographed tableaux with a diegetic reference, but not a narrative rationale. Images which are freed from the ruthless logic of temporal causality but which remain articulated within a metonymic succession.

Like film stills without a film they are nodes of dramatic over-determination left high and dry by a receding story line. These images take their cue from those other moments of film that are similarly marooned by cinematic narrative: those romantic moments on the ship’s deck against a back-projected moonlit sea; those dizzying car chases down Broadway where the back-projected pedestrians appear to sway drunkenly as they step from the kerb: those ‘significant’ close-ups on that vital clue; those attenuated ‘establishing shots’ before anything actually happens.

These Cibachromes are images which simultaneously ‘hold’ and ‘pull on’. They have metaphoric depth — they reach out to pull in the viewer’s powers of association — yet they also assume the viewer’s movement from one image to the next. They both burrow back into the gallery wall and point the way along it.

They are filmic without being cinematic. The standard cinematic suturing devices of ‘shot, reverse shot’, ‘point of view’, etc, are kept to a pragmatic minimum. The streamlined efficiency of the mechanics of traditional narrative is abandoned; each image is allowed, instead, the possibility of a ‘permutational unfolding’.

These successions are concatenations yet more still, since syntagmatic progressions are discounted each image is granted a multiplicity of paradigmatic levels on which to operate. These are not moments of connection between a before and an after, but moments of association within a configuration of befores, afters and nows.



Thirdly, the image — the tableau. Not simply a photograph, since each image in enunciated by a scenario. Nor simply a montage, since there is no hope of a purely formal resolution to the image’s internal dynamics. Neither is there any surreal contradiction, nor any ostranenie. These are not dream images, nor images of formulaic play. No feats of imagination are required from the viewer, nor any self-satisfied grunts of privileged recognition — only work, reverie recharged as reading.

Each image is a semantic confine of diegetic elements — a careful assemblage of people, places, props, and other photographs into a plot, though not a plot closure. The awesome, rational, renaissance space of the camera is not attacked, nor embraced — merely assumed for the sake of argument.

These images proclaim their artifice, but have no point to make about it They both show and show to show for the viewer’s benefit, not their own. The viewer is faced with a referential emptiness in which a new reading must be made. The artifice of these images is a function of their considered construction from a lexicon of cultural redolences. The viewer’s reading of these images must be just as considered.

These tableaux are attempts to work with the visual culture without being subject to it, to manipulate cultural signs without simply being quotational or ironic. The viewer is left with the pleasure of working from one image to the next without consuming them. As part of this work reading may slow down, pause, reverse, or even speed up; whilst never losing sight of the ‘diegetic horizon’, nor ever simply following the logic of a story.



Finally, ‘Photodramas’ does not attack photography or film. It is not avant-garde, nor revolutionary. Rather it seeks to both loosen and rupture traditional cinematic and photographic modes of reading. The viewer is invited to inhabit the fissures and travel the faultlines of these ruptures, to read the stories without being their subject, to view the photographs without being the camera’s eye. In fact, to be the worst possible audience — interested but obstreperous.

Martyn Jolly


Roland Barthes. “The Third Meaning”, from Image Music Text Fontana, 1977

Alain Robbe-Gnllett. “Order and Disorder in Film and Fiction”, from Alpha, Trans, Chung, by Peter D’Agostino. NFS Press 1978.

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