Elephants on Ice
Over 300 years ago, the philosopher John Locke wrote about the distinction between the things that we know with certainty and those which simply appear to be reasonable and probable. Locke was a founder of empiricism, which is the doctrine that all of our knowledge (with the possible exception of logic and mathematics) is derived from experience. "The grounds of probability," he said, "are two: conformity with our own experience, or the testimony of other's experience." The King of Siam, he remarked, ceased to believe what Europeans told him when they mentioned ice. It seems that the Dutch ambassador told the King that during the winter in Holland it became so cold that water turned solid and that a man, or even an elephant if one existed there, could walk on it. That was all the King had to hear, he was having none of it, those crazy lying Europeans could take a walk. The credibility of testimony is limited by it's conformity with our direct experience and, given the Kings 17th century experiences of life in South East Asia, the very concept of ice appeared to be completely improbable. Had photography existed, a photograph of a man or an elephant walking on a frozen lake might have led the King to reconsider.
Set stills are photographs taken of motion picture sets to aid in the preservation of filmic continuity. Occasionally, for a variety of reasons, a scene will need to be reshot, or added to, and these pictures provide a record of where things were placed and how they were lit. In most of these scenes placards were included to specify the director, film name, and location. Some years ago I began to collect Hollywood set stills simply because I considered them fascinating and beautiful. These photographs are contact-prints from 8x10 inch negatives and are, in terms of craft alone, exceptional. They also intersect with my own work as an artist, which has involved photographing scenes specifically fabricated for the camera, and has often addressed issues of absence. Over the past several years I have exhibited these set photographs as clusters of original prints organized by subject. The images in this book are from four installations: "Hallways," "Evidence of Aggression," "Mirrors," and "Incidental Subjects."
Since these photographs were only intended for practical applications they were not attributed to individual photographers. Sets were constructed from the descriptions of authors and the contributions of designers, art directors, studio executives, directors, and ultimately filtered through the sensibilities of anonymous studio photographers. With my presentation of these photographs, I become one of many participants within an extended, complex, and problematic, matrix of authorship. Through publication the project takes on another unique form as my selections and installations are contextualized by the text of Ed Dimmendberg and the design of Lorraine Wild.
John Divola, 1997
*Locke, John, "A Essay Concerning Human Understanding," 1690