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.

A photograph is something other than testimony. One knows about a man, an elephant, or a landscape from a photograph in much the same manner that one might know something about a bear from seeing its paw prints in the snow. Paw prints and photographs have something in common, both are literally physical impressions and constitute forms of physical evidence. The paw of the bear leaves a physical imprint in the snow just as the light reflecting off a subject physically imprints the photographic surface. Knowledge derived from a photograph is based on direct experience of a physical imprint- -the photograph itself. It is this status as physical evidence which is the basis of photography's compelling authority. Unlike most bear tracks, however, the images from popular culture which surround us are generally mediated or artificial. In large part, our aggregate representational knowledge of the world is based on planted and fabricated evidence. To extend the metaphor, the paw prints in these woods have been cleverly planted by people wearing special shoes. Although its source is artificial, the imprint is authentic, and it is the resonance of this paradox that is at the core of my interest in the projects presented here.

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."

The set stills which comprise these installations were made primarily for Warner Brothers Studios between 1931 to 1934. This is shortly after the introduction of sound to films and is the era when cinema rapidly evolves into a ubiquitous fact of popular culture. Since film stock was relatively insensitive to light the movie sets needed to be very brightly lit. Sets were almost exclusively constructed on sound stages where the lighting could be controlled. Even the most mundane and generic rooms were previsualised, constructed, and completely artificial. I am interested in how these set stills collectively construct a fictive sense of the normal. For the viewer these locations are "known" as attributes of a passively received representational knowledge. Like so many of the images upon which we base our contemporary sense of reality, these images offer a representational ground that has a familiarity born of repeated viewing, and anchored by the implicit authority of the photographic. In the aggregate, the millions of such images seen in a lifetime form the internal visual index of what we accept to be real.

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.

***I wish to extend my deepest appreciation to Judy Fiskin, and Patricia Faure whose initial interest facilitated these installations. And, I wish to especially thank Tom Patchett and Susan Martin of Smart Art Press, and Theresa Luisotti of Ram Publications, whose collective support and belief in this project have made this book possible.

John Divola, 1997

*Locke, John, "A Essay Concerning Human Understanding," 1690