Susan Sontag concluded her book On Photography with a plea for an ecology of images, an approach to making and reproducing photographs that would protect both the meaning of particular pictures and the integrity of the reality they depict.
Since the 1970s, when the essays in Sontags book were written, the global glut of images has grown almost beyond measure. In the age of Instagram and Google Earth it is easy to believe it is sometimes hard not to believe that every inch of the planet, every human face and patch of wilderness, has been snapped up and uploaded. We have seen it all.
Ron Frickes new film, Samsara, shot in a grand and vibrant 70-millimeter format including some remarkable time-lapse photography is partly a Sontagian case for sustainability. Or, to adapt the food-obsessed ecological language of the moment, it presents a visual argument for slow looking, for careful, meditative attention to what is seen.
A spool of arresting, beautifully composed shots without narration or dialogue, Samsara is an invitation to watch closely and to suspend interpretation (another notion Sontag might have approved).
There are some interesting paradoxes clinging to this project. The first and most obvious is that the exquisite singularity of Frickes images is overwhelmed, and perhaps undermined, by their sheer abundance and variety. His camera seems to float through the world, hovering above rivers, oceans and forests and then alighting on nearly every continent.
He has an eye, behind the camera and in the editing room (where he worked with the films producer, Mark Magidson), for reflections and patterns. The structure of Samsara, which is propelled by the breathy, resonant hum of music by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci, is like that of a poem or a sonata, a complex tissue of rhymes and motifs.
The films title is a Sanskrit word that means the ever-turning wheel of life, and a loose and sometimes playful sense of the connectedness of everything pervades its 99 minutes. Traveling across 25 countries, to cities and rural outposts, you are invited to notice resemblances. People in factories and animals in factory farms, worshipers and prisoners, dancers and undulating waves these things exist in a visual and choreographic harmony that allows you to infer themes that link them: work in the global economy, the state of the environment, the interactions and collisions between industry and nature.
But arresting as these images are, they may also be familiar, especially if you have been keeping up with the recent spate of documentaries that investigate the state of the modern world. The chickens and pigs in processing plants might remind you of Food Inc., while shots of crowded third-world slums, Chinese sulfur mines and transvestite prostitutes seem drawn from the lexicon of photojournalism and cinematic consciousness-raising.
This is not a matter of copying but rather a symptom of the visual information glut that alarmed Sontag. The only way to restore the power of images in a world inundated with them is, it seems, to make more, and to produce a context that will make them strange rather than obvious to the point of invisibility. Fricke did something like that 20 years ago with his film Baraka, a precursor to Samsara, and both films owe a clear debt to the work of Godfrey Reggio, on whose 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi Fricke worked as a cinematographer.
Reggios Qatsi trilogy, with its Philip Glass music and its rapid cascade of intuitively associated images, stands as a monument of socially conscious head-trip cinema. Baraka and Samsara seem, in comparison, more accessible and perhaps a little softer. While they do challenge the viewers habits of perception wrenching us temporarily out of our addiction to story and into a state of reflective reverie they are also likely to soothe as much as they provoke. The world Samsara gives us is strange and beautiful, and in places disturbing, but it also seems manageable, even in its vastness, and perhaps too easily consumed through beautiful images.