“Through exploring the visual materiality of the world that surrounds us I try to make the insignificant significant and reveal the hidden tensions between the material and the imagined.” –Adele Stephenson
A striking film poster often frames or shapes our experience of a movie well before we enter the theater. When we recall movies that we haven’t seen in years, it’s often a poster or a DVD cover that first sparks memory. The skill and artistry that goes into the iconic images that circulate through film posters, lobby cards, and print advertisements are often overlooked as these works are rarely considered beyond their central function—selling tickets, DVDs, and downloads. At the other end of the spectrum, we find fan art. Because it does not financially benefit its producers, fan-created art is too easily dismissed (despite Henry Jenkins‘ best efforts) as an obsessive hobby for sad sacks who don’t fare well in the “real” world. Nevermind that the best of film-inspired art, both the official “products” and the amateur labors of love, can offer an alternative lens into a film, expanding the story world through imaginative interpretation.
Adele Stephenson’s commissioned works for the film journal Black Camera’s “Close-Up” features on Lee Daniels’s Precious (2009), Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), and Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders (2010) offer a third possibility–professional work created in response to a film, but not intended to advertise. Rarely is film-inspired art considered in relation to the fine arts, but Stephenson’s work helps us to break down such distinctions. These mixed-media pieces critically engage with the films, drawing on central themes and the historical contexts in which they were made. Stephenson’s striking images allow us to “re-see” each film, and they also ask us to look more closely at the images and materials that extend beyond the film itself. Rather than reducing these visual texts to the commercial or the “obsessive,” we might consider the myriad of ways that artists and designers contribute to cinematic experience before and long after the relatively brief viewing experience. The currently running exhibit “Still: Adele Stephenson and the Art of Film” seeks to re-engage the viewer, drawing our attention to the commercial and artistic interplay that runs between a film and its extra-filmic texts.
Exhibit organizer Dorothy Berry expands on these themes in her curatorial statement:
“Commercial art, in the form of posters and advertisements, has played a major role in the framing of popular cinema since its earliest days. The delicate and complex process of designing art to promote a film to the widest audience possible, while encapsulating hours of moving images into a single graphic is often denigrated by the anti-art for art’s sake label “marketing.” This exhibit seeks to challenge the distinction between “marketing” and “fine art” by placing Stephenson’s collages alongside the studio-sanctioned art of movie posters and DVD covers. The goal here is not to create equivalencies, rather, to interrogate and, oftentimes, celebrate the transition of moving image to static art.”
Each of the three Black Camera issues that feature Stephenson’s work for the cover art also includes a gallery of additional sketches, paintings, and collages created by the artist in response to the film. The galleries are each preceded by an essay by Art History Professor David C. Wall (Utah State University) that foregrounds the relationship between the African American image in relation to both histories of cinematic representation and Western Art. In “Close Up Gallery: Precious” (Black Camera, Winter 2012), Wall argues that Lee Daniel’s film cannot be understood outside of the popular discourse that surrounded its release. The questions that arose in its aftermath threatened to overshadow the film itself (e.g. Is Precious a brutal look at the realities faced by the Black underclass in America, or yet another portrayal of Black poverty and victimhood made to satisfy white liberal sensibilities?). The bold imagery of Lionsgate’s poster for the film, featuring the shattered body of its faceless African American protagonist, unquestionably played its role in framing these conversations. Alternately, Stephenson’s art invokes classical Western Christian imagery of Madonna and Child. The artist notes in Wall’s article that after repeated viewings of the film, the theme that stood out most prominently to her was that of mother and child: “Precious is obviously a victim– of racism, of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, but I wanted to give a much deeper dimension to her. She is the victim of those things, but she is not reducible to those things. She is, for me, much more defined by her relationship to her own children.”
Wall points out that while Stephenson’s portrait directly references Raphael’s painting Madonna with Child and Book (c. 1502), that it just as significantly evokes other complex cinematic depictions of young Black motherhood in films such as Leslie Harris’ s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T (1992) and Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979). Wall explains, “These representations refuse the limits that broader cultural and social stereotypes attempt to place around them. In offering her version of a black Madonna and child, Stephenson is further emphasizing– and attempting to subvert– the cultural and historical contingencies of racial representation and the functioning of whiteness as the determinant element in Western visions of the Virgin Mary. Blackness, she is saying, can also function as a universal signifier of motherhood” (222). Wall’s reflections suggest the power of a single image to not only reflect, but to reassess–contributing through adjacent visual mediums to moving image discourse.
(Above Left: Madonna with Child and Book, Raphael c. 1502, Above Right: Ariyan A. Johnson in Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., 1992)
Perhaps changing the singular, iconic image of Precious from the broken, faceless shadow to that of an identifiable young woman, empowered by motherhood and newfound literacy, would shift our perception as well as the critical and popular reception of the film. This is not to criticize the official studio-approved art, which is quite harrowing in its suggestion of the sense of identity loss at the “hand” of an abuser. This is simply a consideration of the many components that contribute to cinematic discourse in various cultural and historical contexts, including the range of readings of a single image and the inevitable foreclosures when marketing decisions are made.
Some internet commentators have pointed out that the official poster art for Precious appears to be “stolen” from graphic artist Lanny Sommese’s, whose 1987 Rape Line bears a striking resemblance. However it’s just as easily derived from a combination of the iconic Saul Bass poster art for Man with a Golden Arm (1955) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the latter of which also inspired the poster for Spike Lee’s Clockers. In this sense, the history of film poster art, like that of Western “fine art,” is one of interpretation, appropriation, and revision.
The exhibit runs through October 17th, located in the reading room outside of the Black Film Center Archive, Wells Library, 044 (next to the media reserves desk). Dorothy Berry, now the programming director for the Theatrical Historical Society in Chicago curated the exhibit while a graduate student at Indiana University, working with the BFC/A. In an email interview, Berry wrote: “I was spurred to propose this exhibit because I wanted to share the amazing resources at the BFC/A with a wider audience of IU-B students. Curating this exhibit helped me gain experience working with archives staff and collections and hopefully led to more students being aware of these great collections.” All of Stephenson’s commissioned works as well as the studio-produced posters included in the exhibit are part of the permanent collection of the Black Film Center/ Archive.
Black Camera issues are available through JStor, where you can find the close-up sections on these films, Adele Stephenson’s galleries, and David C. Wall’s corresponding essays:
“Close-Up: Precious,” Black Camera, 4.1 (Winter 2012), 53-220
“Close-Up: Nothing but a Man,” Black Camera, 3.2 (Spring 2012), 85-204
“Poster Gallery: Coming Attractions, Black Camera 3.1 (Winter 2011), 147-162 (on Freedom Riders)
Film poster art is slowly garnering the attention it deserves for its cultural, historic, and artistic contributions to cinema. John Duke Kisch’s recent book Separate Cinema: First 100 Years of Black Poster Art, featuring posters from his private collection, is certainly a step in the right direction. The Guardian published a gallery of images from Kisch’s book and an interview with the author, accessible here.