Oliver Wood Photography

Shooting The Past

An analytical essay on Stephen Poliakoff’s TV drama


An essay written for my BA History of Film Photography & Graphic Media course at MMU.

Through critical analysis of shooting the past, this essay will attempt to both illustrate and define the essential elements of the text with respect to the discourse of both the psychology and history of the photographic image. The piece will incorporate elements drawing on theories of culturally constructed value judgement (US Vs European) and how it may constitute a general metaphor for the drama’s range of dialectics. The essay will also make reference to the transcendent denotative power of the photograph to authoritatively qualify history & memory, essentially a tangential slant on John Tagg’s essay on the use of photographs as evidence in Law.


Shooting The Past is essentially a complex and multifaceted text amenable to quite a broad range of interpretations and critical readings. It addresses issues of psychology, art history and virtually all of the essential debates concerned with the aesthetic, social and historical issues of photographic value. The drama delineates many of its concerns in the form of metaphorical dichotomies presented as clashes of life style, culture, working practices and personality. However, the dominant element of the text naturally encompasses a sort of exposition of two of the most profound and disparate critical debates surrounding photography. Notions of the artistic, expressive and cultural validity of the photograph constitute a significant aspect of the curator’s initial discourse on the importance of preservation, illustrating the uniqueness and non-replicable quality of particularly old photographs and their significance as articles of Art History. The archive collection includes an original Man Ray. However, this mode of appreciation is juxtaposed with another significant aspect of photographic value, namely that which concerns the denotative power of the photograph. An idea famously grounded in notions of the photographs classic qualities of verisimilitude and ‘realism’ and its consequent power to provide an authoritative repository of memory and both personal and general history. This matrix of understanding rapidly develops into an important element of the narrative logic underpinning the whole raison d’être of the piece the “McGufin”(1). It becomes the tool by which the collection curators (by luck) manage to pursue an apparently unknown history of the US property developer Christopher Anderson, who threatens the survival of the archive. The narrative(s) thus disclosed effectively reconstruct Anderson’s rather colourful past before his very eyes. As the dramatic narrative moves toward a conclusion these two strands eventually merge to produce a moving and elucidating counterpoint that poignantly brings together both the connotative and denotative values of the photographic image to illustrate its unique power and qualities of discourse. The resultant emotional effect on Anderson when he realises that the archive has such significance as a repository of both collective and personal memory (including his own) is sufficient to convince him of the importance of its preservation.


Poliakoff seems to develop a very strong discourse on the fundamental differences between US and British, European culture in relation to socially constructed value judgements. There appears to be a polarisation between notions of antique value and modernity the discourses essentially being key elements of the reasoning of the British Curators, and the US “executives” respectively and true to cinematic/dramatic codes this dialectic is almost entirely articulated in the form of signs and metonymy’s. Shooting the past begins with an elaborate disclosure of the location and setting of the archive narrated by Oswald. Its a large historic English house set in an idyllic location, it is in effect presented as a grand icon of Englishnes and antiquity, solidity, and artefact. The location of the archive itself seems to hint at the possibilities of its contents original value status and historic significance. A very obvious counterpoint to this is the Americans desire to convert the building into a “a school for business in the 21st century”. Effectively a self evident index of modernity and also one that stands for the culture of commerce and economic value a culture which is totally at odds with that which prevails within the archive. When Christopher Anderson arrives with his colleague, he appears to almost rudely disturb the tranquillity and contemplative ambience of the archive rather like a group of over noisy tourists entering some foreign sacred sight. Conversations are held on mobile phones and information recovered from laptops. Anderson is enveloped in the paraphernalia of the modern world and subject to all of its pressures and time constraints qualities and concerns which are once again at odds with the timeless nature of the archives contents.

Already we have reached a point where it may be possible to suggest that Poliakoff is drawing our attention to the disparate systems of value judgement alluded to above. The whole raison d’être of the archive, as with a museum, is the preservation of original material, the thing itself, something which is invested with an almost metaphysical significance, the object made by the hand of the Artist. Could it be that Poliakoff is suggesting that this notion of original value is something peculiarly non-American? America in a sense is a repro culture; there is a common perception that it lacks a culture of antiquity, or more specifically a culture of antique value. But is instead a culture that values “newness” and would appear to be amenable to the concept of preservation by an endless process of recycling and reproduction and this of course ties in with the capitalist matrix of consumption and disposal. To illustrate the point further, Anderson is baffled by Oswald’s reluctance to use information technology as a cataloguing tool. Instead, Oswald prefers to use his memory. It is a suggestion that could be developed further in accordance with Anderson’s modern technical context. He is effectively proffering an idea, which suggests that the archive may be more efficient if it was to be preserved in the form of a microfiche, or digitised and stored on a box of floppy disks. This is essentially an idea that runs counter to the notion of artistic object value to which photographs are also subject.

This conception of values and signs connects the viewer with an ontological critique of photography which is primarily one of the discursive concerns of Oswald’s character manifest in his scopophilic obsession with the “object” the print and his motivation toward principals of collection and cherishing. The photograph does indeed have a very interesting quality in the sense of its relationship with the object or scene depicted. A quality which stems directly from its technical chemical nature whereby an image is impressed upon the negative or plate by the light emanating from the subject, to create a unique almost existential record of time and presence. A quality that Oswald would feel is lost if the image were to be removed from its original medium by technical storage, reproduction and even negative copying. This idea of photographic object value in a sense relates to an ancient notion of the metaphysical power of the art object, something which André Bazine has referred to as a “mummy complex”(2). A term used to describe the historical root of painting and image making which in large part was concerned with the preservation of life, or rather the essence of being and personality by copying likeness. Of course he also states that: “no one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image but instead the image helps to preserve the subject from a “second spiritual death” in so far as it preserves a memory”(3). However, the photograph is a rather different thing from painting and sculpture in that it does have a particular concrete connectivity with the subject recorded. Bazine also suggests that “Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of the transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction”(4)

So ultimately these ideas bring us back to the notion of “antique value” which is just a sort of re-appropriation of the mummy complex? Oswald’s position is thus one that effectively asserts that only the objects of the past can truly connect us with the past and only photographic originals can truly connect us with the lives and historical events they depict. Of course this initial speculative suggestion on the relative positions of the characters is loaded with irony in the sense that it assumes that the Americans may be aligned with a notion that Walter Benjamin refers to as the “cult value”(5) of the photograph. A category supposedly loaded with quasi Marxist overtones. However, the archives position is more attuned to Benjamin’s obverse idea of “exhibition value”(6) one which is couched in the rhetoric of bourgeois exclusivity and ‘uniqueness,’. Another more important semiological matrix is Barth’s conception of connotative meaning and denotative meaning and this dialectic seems to underpin the relative positions of Oswald and Marilyn respectively and is in some ways reflected in their differing approaches to the archive. Anderson’s position is almost that of a catalyst that effectively instigates a more active cross fertilisation between these two sets of polarities, i.e. the connotative and the denotative, cult value and exhibition value, etc. Though the various allegiances in relation to the matrix of cult vale and exhibition value are very much more ambiguous and sometimes ironically reversed. As the piece moves toward closure and resolution it is of course the images of least “value” that actually become the most significant and valuable in terms of the archives “power” these emotive and personal images essentially fall within the category that Anderson would have initially declared worthless.


Oswald is presented as something of an anti-hero but is without doubt the most entertaining and engaging character in the drama. An esoteric genius in the mould of a proverbial train spotter pedant. However, this caricaturing of Oswald may be a conscious decision by Poliakoff to articulate the fashionable perception that anyone rigorously engaged in non economically productive activity is somehow borderline dysfunctional. An inevitable consequence of “dumbing down” is the vilification of the enthusiast or autodidact. Oswald engages in a very specific kind of relationship with photography and the form and function of the archive. One ostensibly based upon an obsessive fanatical love, the archive is literally Oswald’s life, and the prospect of its possible demise is a cause of his decent into a suicidal state of depression. True to type, he appears to be quite a solitary person living alone and surrounded by the paraphernalia of his obsession. He is something of a poetic fantasist, the sort of person that would locate his identity within the meta world of stories and escapism, somewhat similar to Woody Alan’s Bogart obsessed character in “Play it Again Sam”. Oswald’s medium of emphatic assimilation is not so much cinema but rather photography. The archive for Oswald is a vast store house of crystallised dreams, fantasies, identities and “other” lives, it’s a place of both refuge and escape, a place where he can pay homage to the past. In short, Oswald’s interest appears to be primarily concerned with the connotative and quasi-linguistic qualities of the photographic image. In accordance with this he is generally presented as a literate and linguistically entertaining character, his dialogue couched in playful prose and poetics which suggests obvious imagination and cultural insight.

The suggestion that Oswald’s character is, in some way, connected with the notions of connotative meaning is further alluded to by the situation that follows the first meeting with the Americans. When they temporarily leave the building to deliberate on their plans Oswald is seen to preside over a rather sumptuous banquet, a scene that appears to be an obvious reference to the last supper. However, more significant than this is the way that Oswald uses the situation to present a possible strategy for thwarting the Americans’ take-over operation. He suggests that everyone should behave as if nothing untoward has happened, that they should all continue with their meal as if it were a routine day at the archive. He intends to convince the Americans that he and his colleagues are all mad and “capable of anything” by setting up an impression of almost intangible resilience in the face of great adversity in the hope that this will somehow persuade the Americans that they are dealing with a totally non-amenable intractable situation . This of course is the concept of “the spirit of the blitz” a mythical notion entirely created by the media and substantially supported by the photo press, no doubt the archive contains many examples of such propaganda photographs, pictures of “happy” Londoners sheltering in the underground during raids. Oswald’s positing of such an idea seems to be a very telling illustration of the possibility of the citing of his consciousness within the discourse of the photographic frame story and his tendency toward a romanticised narration of life based on the consumption of images.

Through out the drama Oswald continues to make a video diary at home, a process which also constitutes a diegetic narration device. This is one of his characters most important activities and one that has been loaded with semiological significance relating to the general thematics of the drama. The process becomes something of a grand trope for Oswald’s status as an icon of the connotative index, his interest in the “image” and his special spiritual connection with the geography of the frame. Poliakoff seems to have constructed this device as a sort of elaborate processional “McGuffin” conceived as a means of elucidating a range of concepts of photographic value and power. Oswald begins his diary with an outline of his modus operandi, whilst videoing himself he will occasionally take a still with a conventional 35mm camera. He begins his recording by disclosing his state of mind and it becomes clear that in view of the situation his intention is to commit suicide and that this material should constitute his epitaph, the mood is appropriately elegiac and sombre. . As Oswald proceeds with his recording, he takes photographs at salient moments simultaneously decanting the temporal continuity of the video recording to the iconic plane of the photograph. The process evokes an aspect of the logic of the semiological codes of the photographic image whilst simultaneously linking it with those of the cinema. We are effectively subjected to a sort of schematic delineation of the creation of “signs”. Oswald’s video recording now operates as a narrative “signified” informing and building the status of the photograph as “signifier”. As Shooting The Past progresses these photographs are poignantly inter cut with the montage of the drama almost as attractions, so that they become effectively transposed to the level of iconic symbols which now embody an emotive significance as relics of Oswald and serve to generally convince us of the importance of ordinary photographs, snap shots, family album photos etc. Its quite a simple, derivative device, but never the less very effective. It also relates back to the notion of Bazines “mummy complex” and the quasi metaphysical fixing of being in some other form or medium. Oswald does after all, hint at a desire for this material to provide a form of immortality.


Marilyn’s character seems to have been conceived to provide a slightly different angle on the critical history of photography and the operation of the archive. She is presented as a rather more pragmatic personality than Oswald in so far as she seems to share a common thread of “business like” nature with Christopher Anderson. She is ostensibly an administrator in the sense that her personal involvement with the archive is one that alludes to a sense of functionality, as if it were a systemic machine or resource for the construction of narratives and historical research, which of course it is. Even though Oswald has considerable knowledge of the cataloguing, and is instrumental in the process of connective research, it seems to be Marilyn who takes on the responsibility for a quasi-forensic assimilation of narratives from the collection of photographs. The professional similarities between Marilyn and Christopher Anderson lead to a sort of kinship bond, an identification that enables Marilyn to gain Anderson’s attention and lead him through a discursive didactic narrative on the archives functional importance.

The device that Poliakoff has chosen as the foundation of this narrative relates to the holocaust and is itself loaded with symbolic significance in relation to the overall situation, in so far as it could be read as an index of the persecution of the archive at the hands of global business and modernisation. With the help of Oswald Marilyn presents a collection of photographs belonging to the Oldendorph family. They effectively catalogue a period in the life of a little Jewish girl in nazi Germany. The narration of the poignant life they depict is relayed to Anderson by Marilyn who presents the collection as if it where a ready-made storyboard. A degree of suspension of disbelief is required at this point because it is not exactly clear as to how such a concise and coherent story could have been acquired. All that is important is the idea that Marilyn is using the archive resources to piece together a life in the manner of a forensic detective. Her mode of operation appears to be very strongly dependent on notions of the photographs likeness to truth and the didactic power which stems from this. Alan Sekulla states that; “the power of the folklaw of pure denotation in the photographic image is substantially responsible for the elevation of the photographic image to the legal status of document or testimonial”(7) an idea that would seem to relate to Marilyn’s deterministic process of information delivery. Though it would not be possible to suggest that any of her activities are based purely on the denotative category of meaning, obviously the emotive power of these photographs is based on the connotation of the holocaust. Allan Sekulla also suggests that; “In the real world no separation between denotation and connotation is possible and any meaningful encounter with the photograph must necessarily occur at the level of connotation”(8). We could spin off at a tangent at this point and go into a long winded speculation on the relationship of denotation and “functionality” and how it could be operating as a metaphor for the functionality of the archive, but there are more important issues raised by this section of the film, which seem to relate directly to my perception of a matrix of “values”.

It is at this point that Anderson declares himself to be Jewish and that he fully understands the upsetting potential of Marilyn’s didactic picture narrative (didactic in the sense that it demonstrates how the archive operates). At this point, there appears to be a slight ring of dissonance and a sense that Poliakoff is postulating a vaguely unsettling theory. My perception is that Poliakoff’s primary allegiance is biased toward the archivists and as we now know their operation is threatened by specifically US “big business” and modernity personified by Anderson. The culture which is also a part of Anderson’s life vis-à-vis business, trade, cultural modernism, is very largely perceived as being strongly connected with US jury, some have cited a “US Jewish industrial complex”. However, the raison d’être of the archive is strongly associated with notions couched in the histrionics of the Euro Christian bourgeois elite’s vis-à-vis esoteric value and antiquity. Generally Poliakoff’s handling of this situation feels uncomfortable, it seems to lack any of the usual ethical coherence and resolution that one would normally expect in the presentation of such material and the characters stand points seem to be unclear and oscillatory. Marilyn continues with her narration laying the “evidence” out in front of Anderson, though there are certainly obvious emotive counterpoints to this sequence the overriding concern still seems to be located in the communication of insight and a process of indoctrination. The photographic material continues to be proffered as a form of “proof” and the central code of the discourse remains with the notion of photographic denotation. There is however, another angle on the history of photographic critique that Poliakoff could be trying to evoke almost subconsciously, that is the darker side of photography, which relates directly, not only to Marilyn’s perceived attention to verisimilitude and “proof”, but also the whole business of photographic storage. Photography has been famously misused in the past and re-appropriated to the pursuit and transmission of dangerous pseudo science. Hugh Diamond found the medium to be perfectly suited to an illustration of his theory of physiognomy. The public belief in the authority and ineluctable truthfulness of the photograph was instrumental in the development of this pseudo science and the science of eugenics that sprang from it and both of these have been cited in the persecution of the Jews. Photography was an instrument through which the state was able to acquire higher degrees of hegemony, particularly in terms of policing, a photographed suspect has literally no where to hide. This prospect intern relates to the dystopian possibilities of monitoring and control the ideals of a fascist state.

Mr Anderson is obviously highly moved by Marilyn ‘s presentation and comments; “incredible, a story caught like that!” and again it is difficult to tell weather Poliakoff is being ironic and cynical in view of Marilyn’s certainty in the telling of Lilly’s story. Marilyn’s narrative adventures do however bring our attention to one of Anderson’s other potentially destructive economically motivated plans. As a compromise, he suggests that he (his company) will buy all of the most valuable prints in the collection and that Marilyn should either keep or dispose of the “worthless stuff” . As a counter to this, the range of narrative techniques and disclosures of functionality concentrate on the vital importance of the collections heterogeneity. As suggested previously all of the images in the archive broach some aspect of value, some may have phenomenal significance that is as yet unqualified and many of the images which constituted Lilly’s photo-montage would have been considered worthless in any other context by Anderson. Poliakoff seems to have construed Marilyn’s montages as a mini treatise on the notion of context and value which has particular significance to the “polysemic”(9) quality of photographs, that is their tendency to a quality of plasticity in terms of connotation that is dependent on the context of presentation. Photographs are also polysemic in a temporal context and unlike painting or sculpture they have a tendency to become diachronic symbols. We are all familiar with the process were by famous press photos, for example, gradually metamorphose into icons, and then eventually become transfigured into items of art history and end up as “source material” for post modern artists and graphic designers.


Marilyn resolves to approach the advertising industry in pursuit of a buyer for the collection a situation that Poliakoff seems to have construed with the specific intention of introducing a symbolic narrative discourse on the condition(s) of post-modernism. A category which up until this point has mostly resided in the semiological form of the film, a notably example being the self-reflexive cross current effect of Oswald’s video diary project. A meeting is consequently arranged with the director of a significant agency and Poliakoff sets up this situation in what appears to be the form of a metonymical mise en scene. The semi impromptu meeting is set in a night club where the rather unappealing Ad director impatiently sits through Marilyn’s badly prepared presentation. The ad director is presented almost as criminal “type” surrounded by his entourage in a tableau reminiscent of a scene from the villains lair in a Bond film, the mise en scene is decidedly hedonistic possibly even seedy. Poliakoff seems to be alluding to a perception that this mans profession is rather unworthy of the material that Marilyn is attempting to present. He is a representative of the culture of consumption and a culture that consumes images, he belongs to an industry that steals meaning and re-appropriates it to its own needs and as with any common thief the stolen material is inevitably passed off at a fraction of its original value. This man takes something of significance and makes it superficial and transitory. Marilyn appears almost naive in the context of the situation and by proffering what appear to be some of the collections most significant artistic and graphic images it is as though Poliakoff is confirming a negative perception of the situation. The ad director is primarily interested in colour images, he wants to know what percentage of the collection is in colour? Of course, the answer is very little. Colour is presented as an index of modernity it is also a rare and usually disfavoured medium within the remit of high art photography and practically non existent within the category of classic art photography and the most historically significant imagery. Yet again, my perception is hinting at dichotomy, crossed purposes and dialectically structured narrative. The characterisation of the ad exec could possibly disclose Poliakoff’s contempt for the advertising profession, or more significantly post-modernism and its possible associations with a culture of superficiality and dumbing down. In terms of the photographic issues of the piece, the advertising industry could certainly be cited as an important player in what Jean Baudrillard has referred to as the “industrial simulacrum”(10). A notion that relates directly to the process of copying, mass reproduction and the dilution of the “object value” which is an important concern of the archivists. Again this idea of the industrial simulacrum relates back to the concept of cult value something originally conceived of as a proto Marxist assault on bourgeois cultural traditions and the obverse concept of exhibition value. It has since been pointed out by Theodore Adorno that the principals underlying the notion of cult value are intrinsically fixed in the capitalist processes of production(11). From this and many other perceptions of the film it would appear that Poliakoff’s arguments are aligned with the “exhibition value” and connotative associations of photography.

As the drama moves toward its conclusion the subtext(s) are simultaneously orchestrated into a grand contrapuntal crescendo in an effort to produce a fortuitously meaningful correlation of events. In a last ditch attempt to save the archive in its entirety Marilyn subjects Anderson to one last remarkable demonstration of the archives capabilities. Again, this takes the form of a presentation of a photographically illustrated parallel narrative only this time it has direct significance for Anderson himself. It is effectively the culmination of a hasty but non the less effective research effort conducted somewhat obscurely by Oswald, who at this point is recovering from an overdose. The process of research itself becomes a subtext of the diegetic meta narrative of this photographic divulgence of Anderson’s unknown past. The process virtually becomes an epiphany for him, it is presented as a reconstructive event, one that serves to reconstruct his whole identity and one that is seen to finally elevate his understanding of the archive and provide a point of clear empathic insight into the minds of the archivists. The device is identical to that employed in Marilyn’s presentation of the Oldandorph family photos.

It employs a process of research which is primarily forensic and therefore denotative. The more effective connotation of these images is construed in their narrative juxtapositioning as a sort of parallel montage of attractions, as opposed to the Oldendorph collection which seemed to be more linear like a story board.

The connotative value and power of this small slice of the archive is ostensibly a manifestation of the decanting of Oswald’s more introspective and prosodic talents. Again, the presentation is imbued with a sense of the photograph as an ineluctable document of truth, or “evidence”. There is no question of fabrication or of any misconstruing. As with the Oldendorph photos it is clear that this collection of pictures has come from right across the archive and encompasses a broad range of subjects and authors, it includes many images that would have appeared insignificant in isolation and now appear to be vital cognitive stepping stones. The narrative presentation also serves to recall the matrix of context and meaning.

The film concludes with Mr Anderson finally deciding to save the archive in its entirety and thus retaining its functionality, though I believe it is to be shipped elsewhere possibly to the USA. A situation that would have resonance’s with the Americans fondness for the wholesale purchase of other peoples relics and setting them in inappropriate contexts. Oswald is now in a state of convalescence following a near fatal overdose that has resulted in brain damage and a consequent loss of normal speech capability. The photographs that Oswald took of himself now acquire added poignancy as relics of all that he has lost including the archive with which they are connected in a reflexive sense.

Copyright Oliver Wood 2001


1. McGuffin, Alfred Hichcock’s term for the seminal narrative device that clarifies the logic of the plot. ie Alex Delarge’s misappropriation of the Nietzscheian concept of “The Will to Power” in Clockwork Orange.

2. Bazine André, What is Cinema, Vol 1, University of California Press 1967, p.9

3. Ibid. p.10

4. Ibid. p.14

5. Bolton Richard, The Contest of Meaning, MIT Press 1992, p.16

6. Ibid. p.16

7. Burgin Victor, Thinking Photography, Macmillan 1992, pp.86-87

8. Ibid. pp.86-87

9. Ibid. p91

10. Bolton Richard Op.cit.,p.15

11. Op.cit., p.17


Bazine André, What is Cinema, Vol 1, University of California Press 1967

Bolton Richard, The Contest of Meaning, MIT Press 1992

Burgin Victor, Thinking Photography, Macmillan 1992

Rosenblum Naomi, A World History of Photography, Abberville Press 1997

Tagg John, The Burden of Representation, Macmillan 1998

Wollen Peter, Signs and Meaning in the cinema, Secker & Warburg 1998