Cinematic photography and the lure of imagined histories

Each of us has, at some point in our personal histories, pulled from a battered, old cardboard box hidden behind the stowed Christmas tree and the crib that a child long ago outgrew, a photo that is, on its own, a cinematic experience.

It may be that your old cardboard box is an album on Facebook or an image on Instagram. Wherever this story in miniature is kept, it calls to you when you need a moment of comfort, a reminder of that perfect day building sandcastles on the California coast or of a childhood afternoon spent fishing with dad.

Of course, it rained after only an hour of playing in the surf. Naturally, no fish were biting in the lake that day. However, the photo tells a different story. A story of perfect holidays and the flawless summers of youth. One still image has the power to transport us into an imagined, ideal history.

Through carefully curated images, we experience the little myths that make up the lives of our friends and neighbors, of ancestors and of strangers. We read in a child’s body language the sheer exhilaration of Christmas morning. From the vintage charm of his attire, we perceive his imagined self – the one that has already transformed the cluttered living room into the Wild West, the faithful dog just out of sight into a noble steed, the parent behind the lens into a black-clad villain. From one still image, we participate vicariously in the boy’s perfect day.

Cinematic photograph of young boy at Christmas by Kenny Morrison.
Through carefully curated images, we experience the little myths that make up the lives of our friends and neighbors, of ancestors and of strangers. Image by Kenny Morrison.

So compelling is our need for stories to explain the world and all of its inhabitants that we have developed the capacity to create an entire film in our minds from one single frame. This is the intersection of humanity and cinema. Each of us is a director, composing epics from images.

Cinematic photography makes use of this unique gift that we humans possess. The cinematic photographer captures more than the contours of a profile or the parallel lines of a street scene. He captures the story of the dark circles beneath the blue eyes. The isolation of that one pedestrian, standing stockstill as the street’s crowd washes over him.

The scene comes first. Place provides more than a backdrop; it provides the parameters of possibility. It creates a cauldron for combining drama, tragedy, and whimsy. Scene provides a space within which history can unfold.

Next, characters emerge. They come with open-ended questions that the viewers must answer themselves. What does this character believe? What does she desire? Who is she dreaming of while contemplating the pearls held loosely in her hands?

Cinematic photograph of woman holding pearls by Kenny Morrison.
Who is she dreaming of while contemplating the pearls held loosely in her hands? Image by Kenny Morrison.

Cinematic photography is a peak behind the curtain of life, a way of expressing the subconscious experience of good cinematic setting. It tells time, favors emotion, and directs the eye like any good storyteller should, and its lure is irresistible.

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