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Photo Narratives and Digital Archives; or: The Film Photo Novel Lost and Found

This article originally appeared on Electronic Book Review and can be accessed here.

The 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 l’échafaud (Elevator the Gallows, also released under the title 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 offering narrated films. (see six illustrations).

Yet what does it mean to say that a medium is lost, 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:

  1. 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).

  2. In case the works are available, it is not always easy to access their intermedial context. The films that were adapted or translated in these magazines have also become unknown, if they are not lost themselves as well.

  3. 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 blurb:

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 rogue efforts to restore a lost culture in terms of mere recovery. This would be the purely archaeological 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 the loss of elements:

  1. 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 invent what is not there, if not to (re)make a 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 fetishizing power 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.

  2. Besides, the rogue archival salvation of 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).

  3. We may have lost contact with the historical cultural 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 original ones.

But what could be a research program for the coming years? The possibilities are immense. So just two examples.