Every couple of years, I teach a course on “Minor Cinemas,” which takes the concept of “minor” literature from Deleuze and Guattari and explores whether/how the concept might be useful for thinking about a range of film practices. When I began teaching the course about six years ago, I included a week on “short cinema,” in which I taught a smattering of advertisements, music videos, and trailers.
In recent years (and months), however, the category of short cinema has transformed through social media and a variety of digital applications. I am interested, on the one hand, in how this new generation of short cinema returns us to the visual grammar and temporal expressions of early cinema; and, on the other, in how it combines with other visual genealogies, including (and in particular) photography.
Perhaps most well known among these new moving-image formations is Vine, a video-sharing service founded by Dom Hofmann, Rus Yusupov, and Colin Kroll in June 2012 and acquired by Twitter in October of that same year. Like Twitter—which limits users to 140 characters—Vine encourages users to work with an obstruction. Only six seconds of video can be recorded/uploaded per Vine. The camera only records when touching the screen, so users can stitch together six seconds out of multiple times/places. For a sample of content produced during the first year, see here.
The culture of Vine also distinguishes the service from other video communities. In a 2013 article for Wired, Mat Honan describes it as “distinctly younger, distinctly blacker, and distinctly, well, gayer than society in general.” He writes:
Vine started from scratch. It built a ground up culture that feels loose, informal, and — frankly — really fucking weird. Moreover, most of what you see there feels very of-the-moment. Sure, there’s plenty of artistry that goes into making six second loops, and there are volumes of videos with high production values. But far more common are Vines that serve as windows into what people are doing right now. Many of the most popular Vines appear to be completely off the cuff. They don’t have to be great or slick or well produced. In some ways, its better that they’re not, because it creates a lower threshold if you just want to, you know, share a video of your cat. They have something that trumps quality, which is authenticity.
Of course, Vine is not alone in courting amateur users to experiment with short cinema. Just a few months after the introduction of Vine, Instagram introduced its own video service (which limits users to fifteen seconds) and, more recently, the company launched Hyperlapse, an application that allows users to produce slick time-lapse videos.
In early 2011, photographers Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck began experimenting with a GIF format they called “cinemagraphs” for New York Fashion Week. These composite images isolate one element of the image and produce the effect of movement in an otherwise still photograph. Like all GIFs, the images are constructed by looping a small portion of video or a series of photographs; unlike most GIFs, however, only a small object or portion of the image moves. The movement embedded in one of Beck and Berg’s first cinemagraphs is, in fact, a film projector and the flicker of its light against a reclining model:
There is now an app that simplifies the process of producing cinemagraphs (or “cinemagrams,” as they are also called). Cinemagraphs have been used (as Burg and Beck designed them) in fashion and food advertisements across the web. But the images also appeal to a cinephilic way of seeing, a desire to isolate a subtle gesture from the sea of cinematic movement. Moreover, in debates about what separates the cinemagraph from its schlocky cousin the GIF, the technical differences are always joined by aesthetic claims: cinemagraphs must be beautiful.
There are other ways of defining and understanding what joins these images together. In a recent Webstock talk, Nicholas Felton discussed the complex interactions between data visualization and photography that are unfolding everywhere online, especially in these kinds of moving images. Fenton is a designer and data-whiz who developed the “timeline” feature for Facebook and produces the annual “Felton Report,” a detailed visualization of his own personal analytics. For Fenton, these new images—cinemagraphs, hyperlapses, etc.—are hybrid structures: part digital data, part photographic image. Felton refers to them as “photos with a little touch of motion” or “long form photographs.” Fenton sees these contemporary images as inheritors of turn-of-the-twentieth-century chronophotography (à la Marey, Muybridge, etc.) as well as early experiments with elongated exposure times. Both produced signs of movement out of photographic technology.
[A NYTimes feature essay by photographer Sally Mann, illustrated by still images that come to life.]
I think Felton is right to note the photographic inheritance of these images. However, cinema is strangely, decidedly absent from the discussion. And here, I mean not only the cinema or movement of contemporary video, but also the distinct film practices that defined the first decades of the twentieth century. From the many Hyperlapse videos that take us on tours of the world via trains, planes, and cars (indeed these are almost the only kinds of images that advertise the service in the company’s first video); to the gags and magic tricks that have become a mainstay of Vine; to the revelatory attraction of a photo brought to life; to the broad embrace of amateurism and experimentation; to the structure of the loop and the seemingly endless cycles of repetition that join all of these short cinemas together: traces of early cinema abound. Even the term “cinemagraph” recalls the camera (and films) produced by the Lumière brothers: the Cinématographe.
Still, I am not interested in claiming these images for any one visual tradition or historical moment. What I find so compelling about them is precisely that these anachronistic iterations of the photographic and the cinematic are so deeply, inextricably intertwined–and that what joins them together is digital data, social media, and contemporary compilation practices. These images are neither cinema nor photography, neither old nor new media, but seemingly both (or all) at once, in one image.