Mothlight, a short “film” created by Stan Brakhage in 1963, consists of a series of dead insects and pieces of detritus taken from Brakhage’s surroundings, pressed between glass plates, and projected onto a screen in rapid succession. Despite being devoid of a single photograph or piece of film, I believe that this work takes what is perhaps the most psychologically forceful and interesting aspect of photography and carries it to its logical extreme, allowing it to simultaneously embrace and reject the photographic logic that is sometimes assumed to underlie cinema as a medium. In order to (hopefully) clearly articulate how and why I came to this conclusion, I will first take a detour in an attempt to provide a sketch of my understanding of the relationships between recollection, representation, light, photography, and the human being. Then, I will examine how Mothlight fits into this conceptual schema.
Every moment of every day, no matter where you might be (excluding the interior of a black hole -- don’t ask me what goes on in there), an unfathomably busy sea of mutually interfering waves is lapping up against you from every angle. Almost all of these ripples pass through you ghost-like, unnoticed, unchanged, unfolding silently outward from whatever disturbance initially wiggled the omnipresent electromagnetic field to produce them. But you are, at least partially, a physical object made of atoms and electrons and molecules, and that means that some subset of these mysterious, immaterial waves is capable of wiggling the physical constituents of your body, and your body is capable of wiggling those waves back.
Visible light is one portion of that subset of light with which a human being can interact unaided by technology, and it turns out that this kind of light also interacts in an incredibly rich and varied manner with much of the matter surrounding us. As apes living in deeply complex environments, we need large quantities of detailed information to safely leap from tree branch to tree branch or spot that especially tasty and nourishing plant in the underbrush, and the interference between visible light and the materials that constitute our surroundings creates three dimensional patterns of standing waves that neatly encode that data. The lenses of our eyes intercept tiny cross-sections of these ephemeral structures that bear the signature of their environs, at which point the information they carry is encoded as electrical signals, passed to the brain, categorized and interpreted and compressed, and finally encoded again in the relations between our neurons.
Data stored in this way are subject to distortion because of the necessity of interpretation and abstraction in the way that humans think and remember, often trading a specific case for a general concept or symbol and losing a great amount of nuance in the process. Any recollection of an image is subject to this flaw, and, worse still, the flawed representations that we mentally construct in the process of remembrance are then often taken by our brains and stored in place of the original memories! This implies that all images of the external world that humans can conjure internally will decay over time, moving further from their original form each time they are accessed.
The above considerations hint at a tension within human psychology: Our desire for the best possible information storage and retrieval conflicts with the physical constraints that limit our recollection. With the creation of photography, we moved closer than ever before to a resolution of that tension. The act of taking a photograph rescues some tiny fraction of the information about the environment that is carried in visible light from the “death by a thousand cuts” that it would inevitably suffer if it were scooped up by a human eye and forced to partake in that process of re-re-re-recollection. The camera lens captures a cross-section of these immaterial ripples and encodes their information into a solid object (the photograph) that afterward reflects or absorbs the visible light that falls upon it in such a way that it very nearly reproduces the cross-section of information that the camera initially captured. In taking a photograph, the causal chain that binds an object to its recollection or representation is greatly shortened.
This metaphorical reduction in the distance between the human and the objects of her memory might partially account for the undeniable power that photography -- and, by extension, film -- exercises over us. Equipped with this point of view, Mothlight can be understood as a work that carries this shortening process even further, reducing the length of the causal chain so drastically that it nearly disappears. If the work is viewed in its original form without any sort of reproduction or digitization, the light that reaches the eyes of the viewers after bouncing off of the screen in the front of the theater has directly interacted with the objects whose imprint it carries in its ripples. This is what differentiates Mothlight from a normal film or photograph, both of which convey information about objects using light that never touched those objects at all, and it seems to suggest a conceptual kinship between this unusual piece of art and the type of representation that is produced when an object is viewed via a reflection, since both require physical interaction between the object and the light that allows us to see it. In choosing not to remove the objects from their means of representation, Brakhage created something that flouts conventional boundaries between the two seemingly distinct concepts and in the process provides a sort of “exception that proves the rule” that highlights part of what makes photography and film such powerful tools for the human mind.