The Importance of “Looking Through”

Kevin T. Allen begins the second round of our small-gauge roundtable by insisting on a space for self-reflexivity in our work.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion, Small-Gauge Scholarship. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Thank you everyone for your thoughts! All this lovely and circuitous discussion about/around small-gauge scholarship inevitably led us toward discussing emerging digital forms. This is something filmmakers have been grappling with for decades. It is something I alluded to in my last post as ironically launching a renaissance in small-gauge analog making in the 1990s. Discussing the differences between digital and analog filmmaking can be binary and tedious, but I think it is a productive exercise that also greatly pertains to how we produce scholarship.

One of the courses I teach at The New School is Filmmaking Studio. Since the word “filmmaking” has evolved into a more abstract usage, my students are often very shocked on the first day of class when I pull out the ancient 16mm camera they will be using to shoot their projects with. My task on that very first day is to convince them of the merits of small-gauge filmmaking and, importantly, to convince them that it’s good that it is hard.

Most of my students enter the classroom having already shot a vast amount of video, if not with a camera then on their smartphone. In a very generic sense, one could argue that they are already small-gauge filmmakers, working with small, non-standard tools. But what is missing is the work, an investment in the time and labor of making. Their tools are too immediate, too easy, and too concrete to articulate what I believe to be the genuine ethos of small-gauge filmmaking. Yet, because it is hard and time-consuming, the 16mm cameras elicit a purposefulness and engagement in how they navigate the world.

When using a small-gauge film camera one is not looking at an image on a LCD screen, but looking at the world through the window of the lens. To put it more simply, one is not looking at but looking through. The image will come later, perhaps in days, perhaps in weeks, or perhaps (as in Jen’s precious roll of undeveloped film) never. In the meantime, the camera is an instrument for what filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky might call the “nowness” of experience. In this way, the small-gauge camera can be seen not only as a tool for purposeful image making, but also a tool for sensory attunement/estrangement.

I very much appreciate that Erica brought Michel de Certeau into the conversation as I often think of him in regards to using media tools to subvert built/designed environments. In our daily practice it is easy to lose sight of what falls between the cracks because we often cannot even see the cracks. The estranged presence of looking through the small-gauge camera shifts our disposition ever so gently, and positions us to be tourists at home, so to speak. It is here that we find the small, untold stories of our cities. But this is true of the rural as well as the urban, of both natural and built environments.

In conclusion, I very much wonder how digital tools or scholarship can emulate this small-gauge ethos of looking through. Can they nudge us away from the self-reflexivity of screen-space and place into an engagement with the environments that surround us? Can they make things hard? Can they put us to work?

Photo by Holly Lay

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