A first draft of this essay was presented at the 2017 ELO Conference at Porto, in a panel organized by the "Nar-Trans" group of the University of Granada.
film photo novel magazine, a low-brow merger of the
film novel and the photo novel that was hugely popular in the late
fifties when people liked to read these
films in print, can
be considered today a forgotten genre or medium -not just an
unknown or understudied genre or medium, but simply a lost one, to
the extent that even specialists of film history and photo
narrative may completely ignore its existence.
To quote just one example, to give an idea of what these
publications actually looked like: Ascenseur pour
Elevator the Gallows, also released under
Lift to the Scaffold, 1958), a famous pre-New Wave
feature by Louis Malle, well know as well for the jazzy score
written and performed by Miles Davis, as republished in Mon
Film (n° 681, October 1960), a long-standing French magazine
narrated films. (see six illustrations).
Yet what does it mean to say that a medium is
beyond the discussion of whether the film photo novel is still
present or not in some memories (dinosaurs, after all, no longer
exist, but few animals are as well-known as these prehistorical
creatures)? To be lost will mean here three things:
- The works themselves are difficult to find, they definitely no longer circulate via their traditional channel, which was the newsstand (or direct sale via subscription).
- In case the works are available, it is not always easy to
access their intermedial context. The films that were
translatedin these magazines have also become unknown, if they are not lost themselves as well.
- The cultural practices that materialized the medium, namely producing, publishing, circulating, reading, reusing (collecting, swapping, cutting-out, throwing away, etc.) are equally difficult to recover.
In practice, however, the situation is less negative and
frustrating, mostly thanks to the impact of digital culture. It is
possible to find digital archives and specialized websites on the
topic (the best example being Ghéra 2006), although most of them,
and perhaps even all of them, belong to the category of what Abigal
De Kosnik calls
rogue archives (2016). I am quoting from the
The task of archiving was once entrusted only to museums, libraries, and other institutions that acted as repositories of culture in material form. But with the rise of digital networked media, a multitude of self-designated archivists-fans, pirates, hackers-have become practitioners of cultural preservation on the Internet. These nonprofessional archivists have democratized cultural memory, building freely accessible online archives of whatever content they consider suitable for digital preservation. In Rogue Archives, Abigail De Kosnik examines the practice of archiving in the transition from print to digital media, looking in particular at Internet fan fiction archives.
The material made available on the internet has a strong
conservationist dimension -the basic idea being to save as
much as possible of what has been lost in predigital culture-, but
it often offers much more, such as for instance a strong awareness
of the networked character of the film photo novel, which was not a
stand-alone medium, but part of a medium network with many ties to
a wide range of broader cultural practices (celebrity
culture is the first example that comes to mind).
However, it would be a mistake to present these
efforts to restore a lost culture in terms of mere
This would be the purely
archeological aspect of the
archive, whereas a rogue archive is also a dramatically
performative and productive environment, in which
new worlds come into being. Not only because the very construction
of this kind of archive is already the creation of something new in
itself. But also because in many cases the very existence of the
archive is the springboard for new, contemporary creations that
update, reinvent, appropriate the lessons of the past (in the
example of De Kosnik, the main corpus is feminist comics).
More specifically, the creative and productive aspects of a film
photo novel archive -regardless of the new creations that it may
inspire- can be described in the same way we initially described
loss of elements:
- The works themselves are transformed in multiple ways. A first
change refers to their synecdochical reduction: what we
generally find in these archives are less the complete works than
bits and pieces (covers, fragments, descriptions, for instance).
This fragmentation has great hermeneutical consequences,
since the reader or user is almost forced to
inventwhat is not there, if not to
(re)makea new version of it… A second change, whose consequences are even stronger, has to do with the spatial rearrangement of the works: the items are no longer presented as internally organized sequences (where all elements are presented one after another, to speak with Lessing), but as lists whose basic organizational principle is now spatial (the elements are presented one next to another -and here the influence of the
postergenre so typical of celeb culture cannot be denied). As a result, the visual material of the film novel loses something -the sequential arrangement of images-, but at the same time it also gains something -each picture can become a story in itself, while the visual montage of the various images creates new and sometimes completely unforeseen narratives. Finally, one should not underestimate the
fetishizingpower of internet culture on paper artefacts: the more works become available on screen, the more we may develop a strong desire for the original paper version -the old story of throwaway pulp items becoming expensive collector items.
- Besides, the rogue archival
salvationof the film photo novel liberates these works from their traditional, bi-medial (or bi-modal) structure, and radically changes their status of mere
adaptations. Rather than being a shallow and superficial translation of the movie, which helps give it a second life once the film is no longer theatrically exploited, the film photo novel as discovered on the internet can be read as a diverse and multilayered universe in itself. Film photo novels are no longer read in relationship with the film they continue -often with variations, in a truly transmedial sense, not simply as adaptations- but in relationship with the series they are part of (each magazine has its own style, and this editorial style is always stronger than the individual style of the single volumes) as well as in relationship with all the other series that were competing for the reader's attention and money (and since readers could not afford buying too many film photo novels, for they were relatively expensive, the comparative approach of the film photo novel is something that was almost impossible before the creation of modern digital fan culture).
- We may have lost contact with the
historicalcultural practices of the film photo novel, as demonstrated by the rather disappointing results of the currently available oral history testimonies, but the rediscovery of the film photo novel in internet culture is also creating new communities and new practices, which are no less authentic than the older and
But what could be a research program for the coming years? The possibilities are immense. So just two examples.
At first sight, it may be tempting to replace the rogue archive
approach by a more scientific archival approach. Although it would
be absurd to minimize the importance or the necessity of a more
structured and traditional approach, as displayed for instance in
the curatorial work done by the Italian film museum on its own
collection (actually a donation by one filmmaker, Gianni Amelio,
who almost singlehandedly created this collection (Morreale 2007);
for the French side of the story, see Baetens (forthcoming)), it
would also be dangerous to downsize the creative chaos of the rogue
archivists. They have managed for instance to maintain a very
horizontal and democratic view of the medium, with no
outlawing 95% of the production -as is happening for instance in
the field of the graphic novel, whose roots in underground culture
did not prevent it from undergoing very rapidly a strong canonizing
dynamics. Moreover, rogue archives also succeed quite well in
giving a kind of UFO touch to their objects: film photo novels keep
something of their cultural strangeness when presented as
free-floating elements in the wide and open sea of fan-based
archives, and this openness is key to the possibility of their
cultural reframing and appropriation in other contexts, with other
means, for other objectives. A productive merger of both systems
may be a workable solution, provided each of them can freely
develop its own priorities (and it should be stressed that the film
photo novel rogue archives are far from having realized all of
A second, both traditional and radical perspective is the
possibility to use the work on the film photo novel as a laboratory
for the redefinition of the relationship between text and metatext
-and this in the very specific context of a reflection on
transmedia culture. The film photo novel is one of the many missing
links in the history of what is called the
that is the whole range of verbal and nonverbal techniques and
retell a film's narrative (trailers, reviews,
novelizations, adaptations, expansions, continuations, etc.). The
specific contribution of the film photo novel, as it is being
restructured thanks to internet culture, can be twofold: on the one
hand, the film photo novel, which often transforms the work in
various ways, is a good example to highlight the blurring of
boundaries between adaptation (hypertext, in Genette's 1982
terminology) and commentary (metatext): an adaptation is not only a
creative work, it is only a nonfictional act of analyzing the
original work (hypotext); on the other hand, this merger of text
and metatext also makes room for a more radical repositioning of
the metatext, which can become part of the text itself. If the
meaning of a work is the sum of the meanings of its
interpretations, as it is often said, we should draw the logical
conclusions of this remark and include these readings and
interpretations in the text itself. The film -photo novel -the
metatextual hypertext of a filmic hypotext- is a good example of
such a makeover and the conceptual framework of transmedia, which
tends to give equal value to all the elements of a media network,
can fruitfully encourage this line of thinking.
Riposte to this essay: Riposte to Jan Baetens, Photo Narratives and Digital Archives, or The Film Photo Novel Lost and Found by David S. Roh
Baetens, Jan (forthcoming). The Film Photo Novel. Austin: Texas University Press.
De Kosnik, Abigail (2016). Rogue Archives. Digital Culture Memory and Fandom Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Genette, Gérard (1982). Palimpsestes. Paris: Seuil.
Ghéra, Serge (2006).
Ciné-romans : http://bmania.pagesperso-orange.fr/Presentoir.htm
Morreale, Emiliano, ed. (2007). Gianni Amelio presenta…Lo schermo di carta. Storia e storie dei cineromanzi.Torino: Il Castoro.