Zoetrope City: Moment, Motion, and Memory

On Friday, October 28, OHMA students Emma Courtland (2016) and Robin Miniter (2016) met in a third story apartment in Hamilton Heights to “narrate their photos.” Using a modification of the methods used by artist and urbanist Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani to put walking tours, photography, and memory in conversation about the experience of gentrification in Prospect Heights, Courtland and Miniter planned to use photography and oral history to explore their changing relationships to the city.

Both students selected two of their own photos taken during visits to New York before applying to OHMA, and each interview session started with some variation on a simple, open-ended question: “Would you tell me about when and where you took the photo, and what it means?”

On Saturday, October 29, they visited the places depicted in the photos. This is the story of one of those photos.

Emma: “Zoetrope City,” taken January 23, 2016

Emma: “Zoetrope City,” taken January 23, 2016


There’s still no imaging technology that can represent true motion. That was my first thought when I listened to Robin’s version of my story.

It’s a memory from a textbook or a film class I took once. Or maybe it was from that public program I produced on cinematic perception, before my job got “shitty.”

It’s hard for me to remember now.

Wherever it originated, the line’s stuck with me because as long as I’ve been telling and sharing stories, I’ve obsessed myself with things that get lost or left out in the telling—and this telling leaves out a lot.

When Robin and I first pitched this project, we had intended to use a prescripted methodology to examine our changing relationships to New York: a place we’d visited often but only actually lived in for three months. The plan was to narrate photos we’d taken in the city before we got into OHMA, then visit those places and ask the same question Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani asked her neighbors in her Intersection | Prospect Heights project: “What’s different?” We had intended to write separate blog posts, with readings of each other’s stories.

Then, Robin made an audio piece—the piece you just heard—and everything changed.

Confronting Robin’s version of my story placed me in the unique position of being both narrator and listener, a witness to my own telling—which offered me distance to interpret what I’d heard but was complicated by the experience of having lived it and colored by the knowledge of everything that happened after, by all the things that I’d left out. Consequently, this is not a reading of Robin’s version of the story I told, but a public unpacking of the experience of that unique and singular position, and an attempt to pull forth some greater understanding for the practice of listening.

For people with any background in narrative cognition, the idea of narrative absence is almost a cliché at this point, but I think it’s worth reiterating here since it is, ostensibly, the subject of the photo. [Apologies in advance for the technical digression, I promise it’s meaningful.]

Source: www.mcnallyjackson.com

Source: www.mcnallyjackson.com

In Robin’s story, I mention the zoetrope: a pre-cinema device made up of a spinning drum with vertical slits in the side and a simple strip of successive images on the inner wall. The zoetrope creates the appearance of motion when viewed through the slits. If viewed from above, however, the spinning images simply blur together.

The same is true of contemporary film projectors, wherein each frame pauses in front of the projector's light source before moving to the next. To keep the images from blurring together, the gap between frames is also marked by an equally short period of black, generated by a device called a shutter, which creates a strobing effect. After a sufficiently high frame rate is reached, the strobing becomes imperceptible and the images appear to move fluidly.

Source: Rod Munday, Visual Perception 8

I want to reiterate this last part because it’s the only part that really matters: the blackouts are both integral to viewing the movement as clear and continuous, and also completely imperceptible to the viewer. Your brain edits out the black—it edits the absence—and fills in the space between.

When Robin asked me to narrate the photo, I tried to do so from within its own frame: where I was and how I was; who I was with and why I was there. I talked about how sad and lost I was then, about my job and my mentor and my emotional affair. I talk about what happened that made me feel like I needed to be there—to be here, now.

The photo gave me an entry point to tell a story that had been obscured by the shame of its parts and by the number of times I’d told it, as I put it in Robin’s version of my story: “publicly, inaccurately, intentionally.” Even to myself.

It is possible for me to tell the story of why I’m here now in a logical, progressive line of cause and effect. In all likelihood, if you’re reading this and you know me, I’ve probably told you that version already. Because, to a certain extent, historical narrative is always teleological. Our present vantage will always frame our view of the past: what events we shine light on and which we black out.
But among other things, this exercise was an attempt to disrupt that teleological nature of history—to disrupt the way the present informs the framing and omission of events to make them narratively cohesive and meaningful, like the zoetrope or the projector, without acknowledging the effort of shaping or the presence of holes. Which is perhaps why my narration is so convoluted.  

Photos provide, and therefore call attention to, their own narrative frames. And this photo, in particular, calls attention to the presence of smaller frames within the frame, each of them defined by the presence of dark columns between them. But even here, the telling is framed by everything that has happened since: by the fact that I was accepted to OHMA, by the support I’ve received from my peers and my cohort, and most significantly, by the unbelievable forgiveness and patience my now-husband showed me in the fallout of my affair. But there are other holes, too—holes that I will not fill here.

The fact that I mention any of this is in no way an attempt to explain or defend myself. And even without this invitation, you’ll judge and interpret the information because that’s what we do. In the same way that our brain takes individual separate frames and processes them as continuous, this interpretation is involuntary—it’s how we make meaning from the separate experiences that make up our lives.

Instead we ask that you simply acknowledge the presence of absence in the story, and hold space in your judgment for the things that happen before and after and between the frames.

There’s still no way to represent true motion. What you see and hear here are still just representative pieces of something that happened, a necessary framing of time to give it continuity and closure—not just for your entertainment, but for me, for the way I make sense of my life, knowing full well that there is still so much more in the dark.

For more on the methodology that inspired this project, check out Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani’s Intersection | Prospect Heights at http://inter-section.org.

Since graduating from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in English, Emma Courtland has worked as a writer, editor, film programmer, and exhibitions curator for periodicals and nonprofits in her native city, Los Angeles. The bulk of her professional efforts, however, has been on behalf the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where she spent the last seven years collaborating to devise and execute a full slate of public programs focused on the vast and ever-changing intersections of storytelling and technology. She is especially interested in cultural form and narrative cognition, and how our modes of sharing stories—written or spoken words, still or moving images—shape our understanding of and interactions with the world.

Robin Miniter comes to OHMA with a B.A. from Marist College and a critical eye turned to the experience of female bodies in motion. During undergrad, her senior capstone project was a photo documentation of feminism, gender performativity, and the experiences of women in “hyper-masculine” sporting realms. As a Fulbright-Nehru Student Research Scholar to India, she took to the pitches with her cleats and camera, as she chased the rise of women’s rugby across the subcontinent. Robin is currently pursuing her Certificate in Documentary Arts from Duke University. From OHMA, she hopes to refine her vision as a multidisciplinary documentary artist by exploring the experience of backcountry motherhood within the confines of the National Park Service.