I was surprised/impressed by an unexpected dramatic use of photography in an old re-run — the second half of a two-part episode of the time-travel series Quantum Leap (The premise of the series is that the current-day hero Sam’s consciousness “leaps” into the bodies of various (usually non-famous) characters from late 20th century history. He is assisted by his colleague Al, who guides him with info gleaned from 21st-century sources). The episode is titled “The Leap Home Pt 2.” If you like this TV series and haven’t seen that episode re-run on SciFi yet, well:
…the episode revolves around Sam in the Vietnam war, attempting to prevent the death of his older brother, a Navy SEAL. To collect information from the future via his friend Al, Sam manipulates a news photographer into accompanying the SEALs on a mission, so that her report of it will appear in future newspapers. We see her working on the story in the field, snapping as action goes by. Sam saves his brother’s life, but in the course of changing history, the photographer is killed. No changing history without a penalty. But her Nikon F survives, and in it is a photo which is recorded by those future newspapers as a Pulitzer prize winner. Sam sees a print — and it actually is a terrific shot of American POWs being dragged down a shadowed dirt road by the VC, one POW’s face turned back sadly toward the light. If such a shot had actually existed in 1970 it probably actually would have been prizewinning and historically-memorable — so as I’m watching I was already impressed that the scene portraying the “actual shooting” did indeed match the photo, yet the shot is so vividly realized and styled differently from the “usual reality” that we’ve seen in the show’s regular cinematography. Then the knife twists further as Sam realizes that the face of the POW is that of his own friend Al, whose freedom has also been sacrificed (by Al’s own choice — he could have led Sam to save the POWs rather than Sam’s brother, thus folding the narrative back again into the photograph, where young Al alone gazes toward the lens of the hidden PJ).
How unusual to let so much ride on a single photo in a drama, much less for television! The emotional payoff of the show all revolves around a single black and white photograph, one that needed to be a convincingly terrific-looking PJ shot. Without the filmmakers delivering the goods on the photo, the episode would have sentimentally collapsed. What’s more, the audience has been granted the priveleged view of seeing the very photo being made, earing the shutter click at what we know must have been The Moment. It’s hard to imagine a screenwriter successfully getting this sort of scene into a film, so it’s no surprise that the episode was written not by an outsider but the series creator and producer himself.
Is there some connection between photographs and time-travel dramas? There actually seems to be…. I can think of a few examples, such as La Jetee, the Back to the Future series, Memento (okay, not technically time travel), or the repeated presence of altered family photographs in the series Sliders.
While one could argue that a photo makes for very high-speed exposition in a story, a sort of storytelling shorthand, could there also be a conscious-or-not tip of the hat to the frozen nature of photographic time? What Richard Avedon once called “the death of a moment…part of the melacholy nature of photography”?
(Posted in an earlier form as part of an APUG thread, though I’d started writing here first…)