This morning I rode an escalator down to the subway in Munich, Germany. As I travelled down the moving stairs, I observed that every fourth step would reflect the light for a moment, and then quickly flash back to a flat gray. As one group lost its light, another would “light up.” I carefully watched this dance for a minute or two, until I reached the bottom. The scene was beautiful, indescribable through the two-dimensional words of this page. By the time I returned to unaided strides on the bottom floor, I immediately made a connection between the movie Blade Runner and the art of photography.
Blade Runner is a movie directed by Ridley Scott, produced in the 80’s, starring Harrison Ford. For the purposes of this essay, I shall assume that you, the reader, have seen this movie. If you have not, I recommend that you make haste to remedy your deprived state. I was first hipped to the movie Blade Runner by my Dad, also a fan. I will concede that, in my experience, not many people really like Blade Runner, at least anywhere near the level that I do. And this is puzzling to me. In the end, I cannot truly explain the neutrality of others toward this movie, but I can articulate the reasons for my own fondness.
I maintain a wide potpourri of reasons for loving Blade Runner, though here I shall only elucidate those related to the subject at hand. The movie follows a blade runner called Deckert, who is tasked with retiring, or killing, four replicants who escaped to Earth from some space colony. Replicants appear human, though they are actually man-made through genetic engineering. Their lifespan is set to a hard four years, a key point to the movie. They are stronger than humans, and generally are predisposed to violence.
Replicants are not allowed on Earth, by penalty of death. The reason that these four replicants risk their lives to come to Earth is clear by the end of the movie. They want to live longer. They rapidly approach their four year lifespan, and wish not to die. So they seek their maker, and Batty eventually finds him. To his dismay, no life extension technique exists. Deckert eventually kills three of the four replicants, and enters into an artful showdown with Batty. Batty is clearly superior in their conflict. In the iconic, culminating scene of the movie, Batty sits down near the defeated Deckert. They face each other atop a roof, where rain falls down through the darkness. Holding a white dove in his hands, Batty utters the lines:
“I’ve seen things you people couldn’t imagine.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.
All those moments will be lost, in time.
Like tears in rain.
Time to die.”
He then releases the dove and hangs his head, his animation permanently halted. Clearly this movie questions the meaning of life, and the futility of life in view of inescapable death. Now, several facets of the movie suggest that Deckert is, himself, a replicant. In his home, he displays an array of photographs depicting unseen family members. He clings to these photos as the replicants cling to theirs, even though the pictures that the replicants cherish are fabricated—lies given to them by their maker. Deckert can really take a beating, suggesting superhuman strength. The other detective gives Deckert a unicorn figurine at the end of the movie, perhaps showing that the detective has knowledge of Deckert’s unicorn dream, just as Deckert knows Rachel’s memories. When Rachel asks Deckert if he’s taken the Voight-Kampff test, a test designed to detect if a person is a replicant, he answers in the negative.
Personally, I believe that Deckert is a human. The points given above are not meant to prove that Deckert is a replicant. Instead, they show that replicants and humans are similar in their wants and their fears, their hopes and their dreams. The replicants’ problems are our problems. That familiar but mysterious calamity called death is a common ground for all mortal beings. Not mentioning the beautiful cityscapes and excellent soundtrack, this is probably the main reason why I love Blade Runner. Constantly I seek meaning in an ambiguous world and wonder if meaning is possible in the face of sure death. I can relate to Deckert and his constant solitude. The movie attempts to tackle those issues that persistently haunt me.
But the facet of the movie that grabbed me today was this: Batty’s last words suggest that the true tragedy of death comes not from the fact that our existence will cease, or that death is painful, or that we are kept from achieving all our goals. Instead, Batty laments the fact that his memories will be lost.
You see, as I rode that escalator this morning, I wished that I could capture the scene that I was viewing. I grieved over the idea that my exact circumstances would never be again repeated. Memory is fickle in its choice of remembered scenes. And when an experience is remembered, it is invariably unreliable. Worst of all, all memories die with their holder, as Batty rightly expressed in his final words. This is why I love photography.
Now before going further, I certainly understand that, though photography is a great thing, it falls short of the real thing. A picture cannot repeat the way in which the human eye focuses on a single point along the line of sight, leaving everything peripheral a hazy, smudge of color and vague shape. Video photography, which I hereby include under the term “photography,” at least includes sound and motion, though their reproduction will inevitably be flawed. All sorts of photography lack the ability to capture the encompassing caress of hot air on the skin, the quickly changing whiffs of strong odor impinging the nostrils, an indistinct taste from the previous meal, or the dull soreness within legs long standing. A photo or a video will freeze an experience, though this experience will be slightly divergent from the experience a man would gain. But for now, photography is the best thing at my disposal. And I’m happy to use it.
With my camera, I can capture the same rays of light that bombard my own eye. By adjusting the shutter, aperture, and CCD sensitivity settings, among other things, I can arrive at a photo that reasonably approximates the sight that a human eye would view from the same location. Of course, I can change the camera settings to make the photo look much different than the eye’s view, for artistic purposes. But often I desire to make a photo that exactly replicates the world I see. I want the picture I take to be perfectly similar. And when I achieve such a deed, I know deep down that a brief segment of my life is forever incarcerated. I can return to that sliver of my life whenever I wish. This piece of vision will not be distorted by memory or surrendered to forgetfulness.
But even more rewarding is the knowledge that any vista I photograph contains the potential to outlive me. Not only can I prevent myself from forgetting the sights that I see, I can pass them on to others around me, and even to those not yet born. Photography is a small means of combating the futility arising from death. If experience is good, in and of itself, then the preservation of the visual aspect of experience is also a great good, or so I contend.
Now, through writing I can chronicle the internal aspects of life, to include thoughts, feelings and the stimulation of all five senses. By merging writing with photography, I can create a closer representation of my experiences. But the discussion of writing’s benefits and limitations I shall leave to another day. For now, suffice it to say that I love photography, and I feel fortunate to live in a time after its invention. Probably something better will come about in the future. But for now, I will enjoy taking pictures, not only due to the aesthetic pleasure that I gain from them, but also from the contentment I receive in the knowledge that my experiences can be preserved, that not all the sights I view in this life will necessarily vanish at the infinitesimal moment of my death. Batty’s final trepidation was that “all those moments will be lost, in time.” Ah, but with photography, a few of them may be saved.