Past Present(s): A Digital Reproduction, Interpretation and Exhibition of Found Footage

 Dec 21, 2015   Digital Essays, Peer-reviewed   No Comments

Digital Essay by Marci Mazzarotto, University of Central Florida


The inspiration for this project came about three years ago while rummaging through various family belongings. This was not a matter of simply stumbling upon images of the unknown –  found footage of sorts; rather, it became an exploration of multiple levels of reality, the impossibility of knowing the images’ true history, the ways in which the footage could be interpreted, the use of current technology, as well as the creation of a multimedia art installation. Herein, we are dealing with facets of postmodern theory, surrealism, digital media, experimental film, and found footage. This article attempts to explore and explain the multi-layered aspects of the digital reproduction, interpretation and ultimately, the exhibition of found footage.

The Footage

In general, found footage is widely accepted as a reference to a specific subset of, or materials used in, experimental or avant-garde filmmaking, while footage is, of course, a reference to analog film measured by the foot. However, I also use the term “footage” in reference to a more inclusive notion of film – that of a film still, be it a photograph or projection slide, as well as motion picture footage, regardless of size, quality (e.g. HD, 8mm, etc) or whether it is in an analog or digital format. A series of film stills are nothing more than fragmented footage. I specifically chose to broaden the inclusivity of the term, as I am not directly concerned with the various features of a particular medium, but rather on the reproduction and transformation of these mediums into various artistic forms. Also, the visual materials used as part of this project were neither film footage nor photographs, but fall somewhere in between.

IMG_4029The footage used for this project was found amidst my family belongings several years ago, as I stumbled upon them while looking through a vast collection of images. These were not photographs, but a set of 35mm slide film dated throughout the late 1970s. My father was an avid photographer during that time and he collected a large number of slide photos, some of which were taken by him, while others were purchased in similar fashion to postcards (e.g. 35mm slides of tourist attractions such as Disneyland). I did not find the images on the street, in the garbage, in a library, online, or in peer-to-peer file sharing, but strangely enough, I technically own all of the images even though they do not belong to me.

My experience in finding a set of unknown images was identical to finding the set of images I was subsequently able to recognize. That is, I was unaware of the existence of much of the footage I came upon, the only difference was that several dozen of these images are still unknown to me – it remains an absolute mystery of who the individuals photographed are, and how these photos came to be part of my family’s collection. All of this footage pre-dates my existence, but I was still able to recognize people and places associated with my family history, thus my initial reaction to the unrecognizable footage was a mixture of shock and confusion.

Photography and film are mediums inherently voyeuristic to the spectator, and this phenomenon is likely heightened by the allure of the unknown. Therefore, found footage can have an incredible appeal to those who come upon it, perhaps even a type of voyeuristic pleasure. However, I cannot say voyeurism or pleasure, for that matter, was a part of my experience in discovering and analyzing the images. Finding them among my possessions immediately caused concern and a barrage of unanswered questions. The inherent curiosity was not of pleasure, but of pure investigative nature in attempts to unravel how these images could have possibly become part of my family’s personal belongings.

As I analyzed each photo, I did not derive pleasure from peering into the lives of those I have never met or known. Perhaps if the circumstances by which I had found these images were different (e.g. at a second-hand store), my sense of curiosity would align itself more strongly with voyeurism. That being said, part of this project was to create a sense of voyeuristic pleasure for those who come upon my interpretation and exhibition of such footage. Finding these images was an incredibly private and unresolved process, thus there is a level of personal inhibition from partaking in the pleasurable experience of it; however, I believe I can recreate these images in a way that allows others a level of enjoyment in leering at this collection of unknown found footage.

Digital Reproduction & Manipulation

An added layer of complexity to these found images can be found in their reproduction and manipulation. I created digital photographs of the projections of the 35mm slides and subsequently had them printed onto photographic paper. So in reality, I end up having a collection of found images, which I then reproduced as hard copy photographs. Again, I was not directly dealing with found footage, as I am the one who actually produced the end product. I did not find printed photos in a public place such the sidewalk outside my home, nor did I use left over or obscure film footage that I picked up at a local garage sale. From unknown footage contained within my personal image collection, I was able to create multiple copies of a single image, by making both a digital print and a hard copy print. My experience and subsequent artistic use of this particular footage is unique in comparison to the works of say, avant-garde filmmaker Joseph Cornell, who famously re-edited the 1931 Universal Studios feature, East of Borneo, into a surrealist film short, Rose Hobart (1936). Unlike Cornell, I used still images to create an original art installation, rather than simply reediting mainstream film footage.

Within my found footage collection of 35mm slides, there were a total of 90 images available, 40 of which I chose to reproduce digitally. Since I wanted to use photos that would be the most visually engaging to the audience, I chose to eliminate the additional 50 images based on their lack of visual appeal and overall poor quality, particularly in comparison to other images in the collection. I also felt that 90 images would be far too overwhelming for an installation piece, both in my efforts in curating each image, as well as possibly exhausting the efforts of the audience in attempting to understand such a large number of images in one sitting. I should note that all 90 images are related to one another in some fashion, as they appear to have been taken around the same time period in nearby locations, and feature the same set of individuals.

IMG_4040After creating a digital file of the 40 chosen images, I manipulated the size, exposure, contrast, and definition of each photo. Some photographers may argue this level of manipulation is acceptable, versus that of heavy manipulation allowed by software programs such as Adobe Photoshop. Nonetheless, the images were altered in a way that was never originally intended. At the time these photos were taken, digital photography and manipulation was years away from being commercially available to the average consumer. After creating what I thought was a more robust set of images, I had my local print shop render photographs from the digital files. In addition, these photos can be found in paper format as part of a hardcopy photo album, as well as a set of digital images uploaded to my online Flickr collection, which can be found via the following URL:

Slide photographs are the positive rendering of a photographic imprint; therefore the individuals featured in these images have forever misplaced these documented memories. I did not stumble upon photographs that may have been duplicates – I own the original print. In the case of this particular set of 35mm slides, unless the owners made copies (which is highly unlikely for the 1970s), there are no other reproductions in existence aside from the digital prints I created. As strange as it seems, it is very possible I own a piece of someone else’s life that they may have lost forever, perhaps even intentionally.

Through the various reproductions of these 35mm slides, we are ultimately dealing with multiple layers of a simulacrum; that is, a photo is nothing more than the representation of the real. By rendering a digital print from the photograph of a photograph, I created an image that is three times removed from its reality. Thus, I now possess the reproduction of the reproduction of the original reproduced image, as well as the original. In fact, the ability to reach any sort of level based in reality becomes nothing more than my own surrealist interpretation of these images – the unknown, the bizarre. I have absolutely no way of concretely knowing the truth behind any of this footage, aside from their geographical location, and I am left with nothing more than my own speculations.

Interpretation – Surrealist & Analytical

Throughout the initial stages of investigation and curiosity that came along with my stumbling upon these unknown images, I had already developed several personal assumptions of what the images might represent, where they were taken, as well as the possible relationship among the individuals depicted. However, I needed an additional tool in order to bring forth a deeper meaning in my analysis and interpretive process of the found footage. I felt that a “speculation-only” interpretation was rather dull; thus, I decided to follow Truman Capote’s lead in creating a sort of creative non-fiction that would allow me to not only develop a more robust storyline behind the footage, but also allow for experimentation in writing, curating and reproducing a unique set of visual images. While Capote took liberty in storytelling techniques by fusing fact with fiction in his innovative 1966 nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, it was the Surrealist method of automatic writing that would further enable me to experiment and expand this visual art project.

The Surrealist Manifesto was written in 1924 by André Breton, the movement’s founder and leading member. In the manifesto, Breton provides directions for creating a “written surrealist composition,” which follows a type of unedited, non-stop flow writing technique. Breton describes this innovative and fundamental Surrealist writing tool as follows:

“After you have settled yourself in a place as favorable as possible to the concentration of your mind upon itself, have writing materials brought to you. Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, and the talents of everyone else. Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything. Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you’re writing and be tempted to reread what you have written. The first sentence will come spontaneously, so compelling is the truth that with every passing second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard” (1924).

What Breton and other Surrealists sought in their creative experimentations, was the seeming ability to access the unconscious, which in turn allowed for the most honest and directly creative production/interpretation of any aspect of life. Automatic writing was but one of many games created by the Surrealist as a way of unlocking an individual’s creative potential and breaking down any sort of inhibition towards the artistic process. I felt this particular writing game to be a great tool in further developing my found footage project, both practically and theoretically.

Following the Surrealists, I experimented with different ways in which to automate my own thought analysis and writing process. Each of the 40 images was given a unique title, as well as a textual description, all of which followed a sort of neo-automation composition process. What came to mind is what was immediately written down, as I did not edit or go back and reread any text that I was in the midst of writing. When attempting this type of automatic writing, I took note of Breton’s suggestions, but made some minor adjustments that I found more challenging, such as writing with background noise. Any misspelling found within the titles is indicative of the non-edited nature of the photographs’ subtitles. Multiple puns can also be found throughout the texts online, as well as within the title of this project (i.e. Past Present(s)).

I started the writing process by first laying out the set of 40 images in way that made sense to me and then subsequently numbered each image in a specific order, both online and on paper. These images lacked a real story or sequence behind them, and my goal was to invent this information following my own compositional method inspired by surrealist writing methods.  My semi-automatic interpretations of these images was not only personal, but I naturally built each description upon one another. That is, I wrote each description based on the single photograph I was currently working with, but I did not ignore details that I had previously written. For example, the description I wrote for image 23 may have referenced an idea from image 11, but certainly not from image 37. I followed this process continuously until I completed all 40 descriptions.

I did minimal investigative work prior to creating the textual descriptions, as I wanted to limit the influence of any factual data into my creative writing experiment. The surrealist ideology was a major influence for the writing portion of each individual image; however, I chose a more analytic approach in my attempts to unravel the mystery behind the full set of images. Since location was something that I could narrow down, almost with precise accuracy, I wanted to discover some facts of where these photos were taken. I may never know intricate details of who these individuals are and what their relationship is to one another, hence my use of surrealist techniques to uncover the unknown. Thus, after completing the lengthy process of interpreting each individual image, I began my investigative research.

Fig 1

My initial assumptions lead me to believe these photos were taken in Acapulco, Mexico, primarily because of the cliff diving photos. The images indicate the recent marriage of an older couple, as well as a honeymoon trip to Mexico, possibly alongside another couple. I assume the marriage took place in Southern California, as my family was living there around the time these photos were taken and/or developed. The 35mm slides are all dated between 1976 and 1977. Perhaps these individuals were our neighbors at the time or co-workers of my father’s – either way, no one in my family seems to know or remember any information pertaining to this mysterious set of images. Nevertheless, going back to the subject of location – the most telling photograph is the “Silence” sign.

Fig 2Not only is the sign written in Spanish, it lists the name of a Chapel. Sure enough, the chapel is located on the Bahia de Santa Lucia in Acapulco, Mexico. I have little doubt that all of these images, perhaps with the exception of the wedding photos, were taken in and around Acapulco. Below is additional location information regarding my investigative efforts in uncovering the truth behind these images:

Capilla de la Paz:

Numerous photos were taken here, including the cross and hands. Also, there are some shots overlooking the bay that appear to be identical to those found in Google Images. Not only did the photographer take photos of the inside and outside of the chapel, he also took scenic shots that highlight both the chapel location (atop a hill), as well as the beautiful bayside beaches of Acapulco.

Fig 3

Playa Revolcadero:

I am almost certain that some of the beach images were taken at Revolcadero Beach. The tiki styled grass umbrellas found through the beach, activities such as parasailing, and the white hillside homes are all indications of images taken in and around Revolcadero. Also, this is the beach that sits in front of the hotel I believe these individuals were staying at. There is at least one other beach I suspect is featured in these images (Caleta Beach), but it is difficult to ascertain for sure.

Fig 4

Fairmont Acapulco Princess Hotel:

I have nearly utmost certainty that this is the main hotel (there appears to be one more), featured throughout most of the images. The main indicator was the pool. When sorting through current photographs of the hotel, as well as reading a bit of its history, there are some clear pointers that this might be the place:

  1. Hotel was built in 1971
  2. It is, or was, the flagship hotel of Acapulco
  3. It is known for its lush gardens and landscaping
  4. The pool features a shape identical to that in the photos, and it also contains a waterfall and rope bridge surrounded by beach chairs and palm trees
  5. The hotel building has unique style patios, most certainly inspired by French architect Le Corbusier.

I have taken into account possible hotel renovations and design changes since 1976, but there are too many similarities between the current hotel photos and the slide images to discount this hotel as a strong possibility.

Fig 5

It is worth mentioning that without the Internet and the ease of search engines such as Google, it would be nearly impossible to conduct an analytical interpretation of these images. If I had found these images 20 years ago, I would have had a dreadful time attempting to determine its location, unless I was already familiar with it. The way in which artists and academics work with found footage today is different than the days prior to the invention of such technologies as the personal computer, editing software, digital photography and the Internet. Nowadays there may be artistic merit in purposely ignoring digital means of working with found footage; however, I believe that experimenting with a new way of interpreting an old method of interpretation is far more meaningful from both an artistic and scholarly perspective.

Artistic Exhibition

I developed elements of this project with the intent of transforming it into an art installation, and I was luckily able to do so at the iDEAS Art Exhibition in Miami FL, which is part of the International Digital Media and Arts Association. When I first laid out the ideas for this project I was faced with many unanswered questions, and even upon its completion, much is still left unknown. In some ways, I believe the primary mystique of found footage is that there will always be an element that is simply left unknown and unanswered. Either way, experimentation is an important element in both artistic and academic endeavors, if it wasn’t, why would anybody have paid attention to the numerous avant-garde movements over the past hundred or so years?

I created several components of this project while keeping in mind aspects of how it would fit as part of an art installation and public exhibition. Throughout the planning stages, I asked myself numerous questions such as: How would people interact with the art piece? How would I display a multitude of images via its various formats? Would people understand the concept of found footage right away? I believe having an audience helped in discovering how others react to found footage, particularly within the confines of an art space. At the very least, this project made for some great conversation with other artists, academics and art enthusiasts. In addition, there was a sound component in the exhibition of this artwork, therefore adding yet another layer for the audience to interpret. Designing a soundscape, thus rendering these images as audiovisuals of sorts, created an ambience that hopefully helped guide visitors through the exhibit, and created an even greater allure to the photographs and its creative narrative.

For the installation, I created an online component displayed through the photo-sharing website Flickr, which was briefly mentioned earlier. I also framed each of the individual 40 5×7 photographs, which were then hung asymmetrically throughout a large white wall of the gallery. In the middle of the wall, between the framed photographs I purposely left a blank space that was used to project a video of the slide photos. While the original analog projector was not actually used, it was nonetheless part of the exhibition, as was the carousel containing the original slides. In order to preserve the 35mm slides, as well as my family’s 1970s Kodak projector, I created an HD video of the original slide show, which was then projected through my laptop and digital projector, the latter of which was ironically placed right alongside its analog counterpart. The opening night at the gallery was to be a long and fun affair, and I knew the original projector simply could not withstand a continuous slideshow loop, hence I created a digital version. By placing the analog and digital technologies side by side, I once again set out to ask questions, albeit through various puns, about the reality and mystique of found footage.

Realism and the Future

My main justification for attempting such a large project and creating and developing the multi-faceted experiments I discussed herein is mostly because I hoped to create a new way of working with old materials and established theories. When attempting to discover and interpret the unknown, there are a multitude of surrealist games and automatic processes available to further develop thinking and writing methods. However, creative and experimentation methods within art or academia are certainly not relegated solely to those discussed throughout this article, nor through the vast numerous of games and other methodologies provided by avant-garde movements like Surrealism. This particular project allowed me to not only experiment with my own ideas as a visual artist, it also allowed me to further develop some ideas related to my academic research, one of which is the notion of reality and realism.

Jean Baudrillard, the famous postmodern philosopher, often discussed the ideas behind the concepts of hyperreality and endless simulation, both of which were discussed in detail in his 1994 book Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard describes a simulacra as a copy without an original; a photographic image, particularly in cinema, would in many ways fit his description of such phenomena. My decision to manipulate and reproduce the footage in the ways I did certainly plays some part in postmodern theory, and it partly follows along with Baudrillard’s assertion that society is simply unable to reach reality as we are inundated with representation. However, why is this discourse important? I believe that society, as a whole, needs to become more aware of humanity’s inherit removal from reality, which applies to photos just as much as social media, and so many other facets of everyday life. I realize that I barely scratch the theoretical surface with this particular project, but I hope to have at least raised some important and relevant questions about photographic footage and its role in our postmodern world.

In the end, a photographic image is not real, especially with the inexpensive array of high-end technologies currently available to the average consumer. A photo is nothing more than a mechanic representation of one individuals’ moment of reality (i.e. the split second he/she completes a “point and shoot” action with the camera). Not only did I find footage that I have no historical connection to, I created multiple products with those same images. I did not simply re-edit segments of film, add a different soundtrack and then project it onto a movie screen, which represent actions more akin to the work of Joseph Cornell, the avant-garde filmmaker mentioned earlier. Instead, I had images physically printed onto photographic paper and uploaded the digital files online, which represent two separate mediums allowing for two separate spectator experiences. I do not believe I can go as far as saying that I invented a new method of working with found footage, but my experiments were certainly new to me as an artist and scholar.

The reproduction, interpretation, montage, editing, projection or any other artistic or even theoretical project involving found footage should be revisited, or at least updated, to reflect society’s current technological innovations. Revisiting the process of working with found footage is not, in any way, a dismissal of the importance of numerous experimental and avant-garde filmmakers who developed the process in the first place; rather, it is a call for the rejuvenation of established methods and theories by the newer generation of artists and scholars. We live in the digital age and the way in which we work with, and respond to, found footage should reflect a level of digital literacy and understanding of contemporary postmodernism, regardless if one believes we have moved past a postmodern state. Perhaps a completely new avant-garde movement is needed, but until such a movement is created, individual exploration should suffice.

I find that it is no longer acceptable to simply re-edit found footage and place it on display. What is the true sense in that? It has been done many times before. Again, this is in no way negative criticism of previous avant-garde filmmakers, as they did set the way for a project like this one to take place. Nevertheless, today we can certainly develop more appropriate and creative ways of interacting with found footage – ways that go beyond simple, superficial questions of who, what, where and why. We must readapt the ways we use technology and found footage in a way that reflects the current state of society as a whole, much in the same way that pioneering avant-gardists were doing during their day. Hopefully, this article was able to successfully convey the multi-layered aspects of the contemporary digital reproduction, interpretation and the exhibition of found footage, in addition to highlighting the importance in approaching this subset of art using more postmodern methods of analysis and production.



Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

Breton, Andre. Surrealist Manifesto. 1924. Online.







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