Frame and Fragment

Image: Joseph Millican / Daniel Tierney / Ben Wood | Text: Nuno Faleiro Rodrigues

Porto, 2018 From the series Mirror/Stage by Daniel Tierney.

It is hard to imagine the development of montage without the advent of cinema, which, from its inception, made the editing of bits of film, one after the other, a process inherently linked to its sequential nature. As frames follow each other, in what seems a continuum that registers “natural” movement and linear time, so are sections of film put one after the other in one single reel, creating plots, stories and narratives.  In cinema, ‘cultural’ time is created in the joints, where two different bits of film meet, creating spatio-temporal leaps, inflections, breaks and repetitions. Modern time is the time of montage.


As it collects in one space/stage, textures, movement, transportation, rhythms, signs and so on, it is equally difficult to conceive montage without the development of the modern city. If one stands still in the modern city, one has the inescapable feeling of being in the middle of a junction where different elements converge. These elements can be visual, for instance the way the patterns of a façade of a building contrast with the gracious movement, conducted by the soft breeze, on the leaves of a nearby tree or the competing sounds of cars, people talking and, overhead, planes crossing the sky; they can be semiotic, in so far as the leaves mean nature, lightness, and freedom in opposition to the regimented rigidity and gravity of the façade. They can also be scenes that indicate a situation or a story – a person walking, fast paced, with the facial expression of determination, business attired. Where is she going? And coming from? And what’s in that shopping bag? We might stop, but the city doesn’t, making it hard to delimitate and comprehend the multiplicity of images and scenes. To a certain extent, the city assemblage results from the changing and multi-layered nature of the landscape and the contrasting stable position of the standing viewer. But this assemblage is not yet a collage; it is too dispersed to be an image. The montage effect of the city comes to the surface when its dynamics are frozen and framed, even if for a split of a second.


Porto, 2018. Joseph Millican


The creation and expansion of the modern urban environment developed alongside the invention and development of photography. Consciously or not, the modern city is a constant backdrop and stage for much of the photographs that are taken, distributed and seen. Because so much photography takes place in the city, there are endless pictures of the city. The urban milieu remains often unnoticed, as is always there, ever so present. It is hard to conceive the fragmentary nature of montage without the expansion of the modern city, but it is equally difficult to perceive the city as montage without the advent of photography (and cinema). The city becomes montage through its cinematic and photographic re-presentation. If cinema re-constructs the temporal and sonorous dynamics of the city, photography, on the other hand, highlights the pictorial dimension of co-existing moments, objects and frames. Conversely, the cityscape shapes photography (and cinema) in ways that are not always perceived. The city is not just a “passive” setting for the act of photographing, it is a moving stage that gives form to the photographic form.  We can claim that, because of its technical capacity to capture and frame, photography transforms the urban landscape into a visual collage while the city places, from the outset, its photographic capture within the terrain of photomontage.


As an optical device, the photographic camera is particularly fitted to express the optical dimension of the urban environment. Through photography, the city presents itself as this very intricate optical apparatus that, with its variety of flat and curved surfaces, and opaque, transparent and reflective materials, fragments, veils, discloses, projects and reflects the various objects that exist in it. Concrete, asphalt, glass and metal: these are the prime materials of an optical apparatus that multiplies, distorts, overlays and fragments urban reality. Through an array of reflections, projections, opacities and transparencies, a multiplicity of viewpoints is represented and suggested by the point of view and frame of the photograph. In the city, we see beyond what our field of vision can spatially reach. We see the sky and the tall buildings reflected on the gleaming surface of a car; we see the façade of the building where we are reflected in the glass façade of the opposite building; we see our own image (and the cars passing behind) overlaid onto the display of the window shop. In this sense, city-photography amounts to a montage of viewpoints that multiply the given space, indicating a myriad of visual angles. But these perspectives are either fractional or fleeting, or both. They are, in a way, partial viewpoints that the camera has the power of indicating but cannot fully represent. Unlike figurative painting, which used mirrors and windows (and other architectural types of openings) in order to integrate additional visual angles within the main picture, inserting one complementary representation within the main picture, city-photography incorporates an array of views that, for lack of compositional wholeness, do not reach the full status of ‘picture’. Unlike the point of view of the camera that, as the geometric standpoint of the viewer and the centre of the frame, is represented and stabilised by the photograph itself, these additional perspectives indicate points of view of an other incomplete, if not altogether absent, viewer. They are pure optical perspectives, stripped from the fullness of the implicated viewer.


Porto, 2018. Ben Wood


City-photography captures the fragmentation and multiplication of views besides ‘our’ (the camera’s) visual position, but it would be rash to conclude that what is at play here is a kind of optical perspectivism in which a constellation of subjective positions is represented in a single shot. Although the centrality of the standpoint of the camera is partially destabilised by the indication of other viewpoints, we seem to be far from some sort of image of democracy in vision, where all perspectives are equally valid and what is visible and invisible is detached from the hierarchy of the position from which one looks. Rather than representing a constellation of views, city-photography seems much closer to the image of the fragmentation of experience in the modern city, that is, the fragmentation of the viewing subject, simultaneously partitioned into a multitude of ‘selves’, pushed and pulled into different directions at the same time. This fragmentation of subjectivity is inextricably linked to modern city life, irrespective of photography. But through the endless representation of that constant refraction of the self, photography constructs a solid visual intuition of that very experience, as if attesting its veracity by visual registration.


The optical dimension of the city is not just related to the optical properties of the surfaces of the objects that are captured by the photograph; it is also linked to the material volumes that shape urban space. A building might reflect and project viewpoints through glass, metal, light, but it also opens and obstructs perspectives through its sheer material presence. Most often, the opening and closure of views is orchestrated through architectural features that might physically and visually open and close space (some of these features, such as glass windows or doors can be physically closed, but visually open). Doors, arches, pillars, widows, ceilings and other architectural volumes, but also different types of cladding and panelling, help to construct a whole geometric arrangement, where rectangular shapes rule.  As city-photography continuously remind us, the geometric montage produced by the cityscape has its own series of formal duplications, repetitions and rhythms, constructing a symphony of grids and patterns. But for the camera, this musical interplay of geometric shapes represents a multiplicity of frames through which multiple visual angles emerge. In the city, there is hardly any reflective surface or opening that does not come with its own frame. Adding to the frames provided by the built environment, there is a vast array of panels and walls framing all kinds of signs, graffiti, tags, and outdoor advertising, each with a characteristic of lettering, visual symbols (perhaps conveyed through photography) and colour codes. As a ‘framing machine’ the camera expresses the framing qualities of the cityscape, reinforcing the idea that the city fragments, but also frames, and vice-versa.


Porto, 2018. From the series Mirror/Stage. Daniel Tierney


Photography, a mechanism of visual fragmentation and framing, draws a clear distinction between both. The boundary rendered by the frame transforms what is inside into a picture. This happens regardless of the intention of the photographer, adherence to compositional rules, subject-matter consistency, or chromatic harmony. What is inside the frame is composed, harmonious and consistent by the very fact of being inside the frame. The frame crops a certain image and, through cropping, suspends and elevates it to the status of something to behold. Of course, city-photography can remove the frames within the frame of the photograph by simply placing them outside the field of focus. The frame has to be sharp enough to draw a clear limit between the outside and the inside. Out of focus frames are ineffective or even non-existent frames. But, due to the profusion of frames within the cityscape, it is not always easy to eradicate them. In the vertigo of multiple scenes and angles that the city provides, frames function as visual stabilisers. They suspend the fragment, giving it an internal order from the margins, making that fleeting moment of capture a decisive instant just because it is partially detached from the surroundings.


The frame presents visual content to contemplate, even if fragmented, converting what were once incomplete viewpoints to the status of images within the image. Who looks remains absent from the perspectives indicated by the photograph. While from an optical perspective, there is only one point of view, that of the camera, that encompasses all the views permitted by its position. Who looks is only, and always, the camera, even if its viewpoint is refracted into several views. The photograph is the viewing subject, as it represents the point of assemblage of multiple optical spots. For the same reason, there is only one frame, that of the photograph, which is embodied by a subjective perspective. The frames which frame the Other is the subjective frame.