When London-based artist Jason Shulman decided to take a break from his usual sculpture work to photograph the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he went about it the most practical way he could think of. “Instead of going to Sochi I thought I would photograph it off the television, that would be much easier,” he says in a phone interview. “One way that I did it was to open the aperture, or open the camera, and record someone’s whole performance. So in the end I got a sort of blurred interpretation of their performance—skiing, skating, hockey matches, or what have you.”
The resulting photos boiled down all of the anticipation, action, and Olympic-level performances to a hazy blur of colors. Shulman liked the aesthetic of the images so much that he began to photograph entire films this way–setting up his camera in front of a high-resolution monitor and taking one very long-exposure photograph.
He started with Irwin Allen’s over-the-top 1970s disaster film, Towering Inferno, and spent the next two years photographing hundreds of movies, ranging from cult classics like The Wizard of Oz and 2001: A Space Odyssey to campy ’70s films like Digby: The Largest Dog in The World. A selection of these dreamy, Turner-esque photos will be on view starting this Thursday at The Cob Gallery in London.
When Shulman started experimenting with Photographs of Films, he didn’t know what to expect from the outcome–and to a degree, he still doesn’t. “Normally when I start to make a sculpture I have an idea of what it’s going to look like, but what’s interesting about this project is the images are predetermined by the film itself and I didn’t make the film itself,” he says. Examining the finished photos, however, can reveal a lot about the director’s cinematic style, the mood of the film and the colors used. Hitchcock’s films are typically character-based, and in Rear Window it’s easy to make out James Stuart sitting in his chair beneath the soft, watercolor hues of the image. Kubrick focuses a lot on composition; his careful sequencing in 2001: A Space Odyssey give Shuman’s translation an even gray and black blur across the image.
Some of the images reveal more clues about the films the longer you look at them. At first glance, The Shining is a blur of grays and blue, moody and psychological like the film. Look closer, however, and you’ll see clear outlines of the windows, objects scattered across Stuart Ullman’s desk, the sun filtering through the trees, all overlaid with a blurry image of a woman.
The variation between images also points to a change in cinema technology over the course of film’s 130 year history. “When they started making movies, the camera never moved—it didn’t pan like cameras today, it just stayed static and they would change the set,” Shulman says. As a result, his images of older films have a greater clarity to them. Georges Méliès’s 1902 sci fi film, Trip to the Moon, for example, is a “series of 12 or 13 tableaus that cuts from stage to stage. The images just look like they are laid one over another because the camera never moves.”
As for his own technical process, Shulman is hesitant to give too much away. He photographs with a “special camera and a very large, high resolution monitor,” in his home, he says. “If I were to photograph films in a cinema, you wouldn’t get these results because of the way light comes out from the back of a movie theater. Because of the way a light goes through a film, you would end up with a very bleached out area in the middle and a bit of shadow on the edge. The only reason that these images are possible is because of these new 5K, 6K monitors that have hardly any pixels. The only way to do it is to shoot them with a massive special camera and a massive special monitor.”