Fire and Ice – Peter Wollen

Fire and Ice 

In relation to my work for Assignment Four, Blue Chair, my tutor recommended a look at the essay Fire and Ice by Peter Wollen.

Peter Wollen considers time versus tense in photography and cinema. He says; “The lover of photography is fascinated both by the instant and by the past. The moment captured in the image is of near-zero duration and located in an ever-receding ‘then’. At the same time the spectator’s ‘now’, the moment of looking at the image, has no fixed duration. It can be extended as long as fascination lasts. Whereas with film each sequence or image is presented for a predetermined time, then moves on.”

Wollen goes on to describe film as like fire, in that it is constant incessant motion, whereas photography is like ice, a single frozen moment.  He argues however, that his comments are not straightforward or clear-cut.  In order to pursue this line of thought, rather than using the notion of tense, i.e. it happened in the past, it is happening now, or it will happen in the future, he instead talks about aspect.  In a nutshell this means categorising situations as being either states, events or processes. A state is a static situation, something that is unchanging. An event is something of fixed duration, with a start and a finish, and may take place in the past, the present or the future. A process is an ongoing situation involving continuous change.

Wollen goes on to suggest that, based on the sorts of captions commonly used, news photographs signify events, art photographs and most documentary photographs signify states, and that some documentary photographs signify processes. He argues that a minimal narrative contains process, event and state, and that therefore individual still photographs should not be seen as narrative, but rather as elements of narrative.


Blue Chair by John Maher

So, does Blue Chair signify a state, an event or a process? The photographer’s intention (I am assuming), was to capture the moment in time (ice) and allow the viewer to contemplate the scene at length – in a way they not could do in reality, because the moment passes quickly as one moves on to the next sight before their eyes. The photograph gives the viewer time and space to reflect on the narrative. Each time I look at Blue Chair I am observing the same scene, it cannot change, the image is frozen in time. Although I do discover new items and objects, which in turn suggest a new story.  But, I know that if I was to travel to visit the scene, it will have changed, it is going through an organic process, constantly changing. Maybe in another ten years the Blue Chair would be unrecognisable. In Wollen’s terms, I see this image as all three elements of narrative: There has been an event – certainly a start, although the finish remains unknown. The State is as one sees it in the photograph, what it denotes. The image is static, unchanging. But, the viewer knows there must be an ongoing process of continuous change at the scene. There is an impermanence (fire).

Wollen, P. (1984). ‘Fire and Ice’The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. (2003) Routledge. London. p 76-78.