My first thought during the opening seconds of Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) was that the audio wasn’t synched correctly. On screen I was seeing a negative of a photographer’s darkroom, but the audio track was describing a different photograph all together, a portrait with a frame and a metronome. As I was preparing to get up and reload my web browser something was happening: the negative was melting, the emulsion was rippling; it was turning dark from the inside out. This drama of slow destruction had distracted me from the problem at hand. By the time the photo was a crinkled, chard mass on a hot plate, we were on to another photo: A frame and a metronome. The audio, however, was describing a different photo altogether.
Such is Frampton’s game, and it continues for another thirty minutes: a succession of photos out of synch with their narratives. In (nostalgia) we are neither living in the present or the past. The narrative disrupts our visual interpretations of the photo, just as much as the photo disrupts our memory of the narrative—on top of it all, the photos are resigned to oblivion, one hotplate session at a time. This was Frampton’s way of dealing with an archive he found somewhat unnecessary (and occasionally embarrassing) as he moved from photography to its sequential progeny of motion picture film.
I chose to watch the film somewhat arbitrarily, but it was oddly apropos. Earlier that day I was forced to reconcile with my own jumbled mockery of an archive. I had boxes of old work from my high school, college, and early adult years: a folio of sketches and oil pastel drawings, darkroom experiments, doodles, notebooks, and piles of short stories. Unlike Frampton, I didn't incinerate anything, even though the writing made me squirm—much like this essay will twenty years from now. Either way, I dumped everything back into a box, for later embarrassment. I’m not brave enough to burn my embarrassments.
Yet, Frampton’s act of destruction was always preservation. Frampton brought his old world (still photography) into his new world (motion picture film). And now, these legacy bits of his pre-film output are perhaps better preserved now than they were before as photos. And now that they are part of this film they’re part of the Criterion Collection. There’s even a sound clip of him further commemorating the film, and therefore the photos.
The word “nostalgia” conjures up feelings of warmth and sepia-toned remisences. But the root word for nostalgia comes from the Greek: nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain). In other words: homesickness. It was first recorded in 1920 to describe the experiences of soldiers in the First World War.
Frampton’s narrative, voiced not by him but by an artist friend, is neither sepia-toned nor in pain. There’s a sense of remove, his tongue is firmly planted in his cheek as he describes the photos yet to be seen and the situations that produced them. As a photographer though, there is a kind of pain in watching a damn good photo of James Rosenquist or Frank Stella—photos I would kill to have taken—disappear.
Such are the many dichotomies packed into Frampton’s 34-minute film: destruction/preservation, memory/forgetting, nostalgia/ridicule, endings/beginnings. As much as it's about the futility of holding on to the moment it is also about the absolute necessity of doing so—in some way, any way.