Early static films

What is a static film? Find out here.

But always keep in mind these words of warning


In the late 1990s and early 2000s I made my first static films. I didn’t call them that then. I thought of them as “video photographs”–photographs that moved or videos that were, in spirit, more like still photographs than traditional videos.

I was just doing what came naturally to me as a photographer. I wasn’t trying to build on the work of Andy Warhol or Michael Snow or any of that. I knew of their film work but I really wasn’t aware of a thing called static film. I wasn’t thinking about the historical context at all.

Back then videos were made on magnetic tape–this sounds so archaic even to me as I write it!–and there were many different formats. I used a Sony Handycam that made videos seven hundred and twenty pixels wide by four hundred and eighty pixels high. (By comparison todays video is about four thousand by two thousand.) These old videos looks small on today’s high-resolution computer screen but they were full DVD resolution and were quite good at the time. The color, slightly faded looking to us, wasn’t really the color you would see on the TV screen since the screens themselves would boost the color a bit and change the contrast.

So you’re not experiencing these videos quite the same way as I did way back then, in much the same way we look at art films from the 1960s on the Internet versus in a dimmed room with a luminous projection on the screen. Very different experience.

In 2003 I decided to do something very advanced and digitized my films. Unfortunately, much of this work was lost due to a hard drive failure a few years later. Of course I had no back-up of the drive but I did manage to get some of the files off of it.

Here are a few of those early “static films”:

Tree and Wind I
This was made at my house in Maryland. The tree is the big one in our front yard.

The old video cameras are not very sensitive to light and struggled in dim conditions. One solution was to use a longer shutter speed–I recall this being shot at one-eighth of a second–resulting in a jerky sort of motion, which in this case with the wind-blown tree, is very cool. The soundtrack remains as normal, with no jerkiness. I love the combination.

Lamp Post
11 minutes.
This lamp post is at the end of the driveway at the house of my wife’s parents, in Ohio. My wife grew up in this house. I was living near Washington, DC, at the time. The eerie, diamond-shaped glow around the light is caused by the aperture blades in the camcorder. Nowadays lens designers work hard to make apertures as circular as possible, using nine or more blades to achieve this. On that camcorder there are only four blades–that shape you see is the actual shape of the opening in the lens.

Moon and Clouds
10 minutes.
From my back yard in Maryland. The intense grain in this video gives it a nice look, reminding me for some reason of some of the “alternative” photographic processes that originated in the 1800s.

Walking In Driveway
8.5 minutes.
My driveway at my suburban home in Maryland. I seem to recall that I made several variants of this film but this is the only one to survive. It is photographed in the Sony Camcorder’s “Night Mode” which is in infrared, the infrared light being supplied by a hidden light source on the front of the camera (you can see the hot spot in the center of the frame from the light). Sony renders the image, just for atheistic reasons, in a sort of night-vision, military green.

Ceiling Light
The light is in the bedroom we would use at my wife’s parents’ house. I remember staring at it for a very long time, perhaps half ban hour, lost in thought. Then it suddenly hit me that it would make for a good video photograph–a photograph with a time element, my term at the time for these sorts of videos.

Streetlight, pulsing
22 minutes.
I don’t recall where I made this. I think it was in Maryland near my home. A simple shot of a streetlight, but look closely: It is slowly pulsing. And the sky is dimming behind the light. I’m not changing the camera settings at all in this video photograph.

The sky, with the sun already set, is naturally dimming.

So why does the light pulse? Because street lights (this kind at least) flicker rather than emit a constant stream of light. You don’t notice because your eye retains an image for a short time, overlapping one flicker with the next, giving the appearance of a constant light source. It’s the same effect when projecting a film movie where what’s really happening is a series of still images flashing by at a high speed with a brief moment of black in between. It all blends. However, in the case of my video camera, the light sensative chip is also doing something analogous when it is recording, and its doing it at a different rate than the light bulb. So many flickers per second, so many video frames per second. It’s that difference and the interaction of those different frequencies, that results in the appearance of the slow pulsing in the light.

This is a good example (there are several here) of a “pure” static film, or video photograph, or (to use Andy Warhol’s term) stillie. It’s a photograph, yet it moves. It’s hypnotic yet nothing really is happening.

Mowing My Lawn I & II
XX minutes & 15 minutes.
In Maryland it gets ungodly humid. If you haven’t lived there, or somewhere equally humid, you just cannot know. Back when I had a real job I wore a suit–hard to imagine now!–but it was so humid in the summer than I would walk out my door to my car and by the time I got there my undershirt would be soaked with sweat. I’m not kidding.

So you can imagine what fun it was to mow the lawn in those late summer months?

If you listen carefully to the soundtrack of this video, way in the background behind the engine buzzing and rattling, you might be able to hear me laughing. Every once in a while a fit would take hold of me and I’d have to struggle to keep the lawnmower moving.

At the time I was sending out my photographs and video to galleries all over the country–this was back before the Internet was the Internet of today. I mailed out envelopes with slides, CD-ROMs of my work. I got back a lot of form letters from committees. Mostly I never heard back at all. I’m on the outside you see, and in the art world there is very much an inside and an outside. It’s perhaps the most incestuous, insular, and self-absorbed of all the fields a person can go into. I am not one of them.

So I’m making this video for them, the denizens of the art worlds of New York, of Los Angeles, all those gatekeepers and gatekeepers to the gatekeepers and their adorable trust funds and their easy college degrees and fun little lives. And I’m thinking that maybe they’ve never had to mow a lawn in the heat, in the choking humidity. I can share with them! They can have the experience of something so basic and common to the common man plus they can do it in the cool of the air-conditioning while sipping a latte, flipping through the ads in Artforum! It’s a win-win. For some reason I found that so terribly funny.

But, as I said, it was killing hot and the air so thick it was half-drowning just to inhale.


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