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Precious Images

With so many outlets available to us, it’s easy to tell ourselves that the act of adding words or images to a blank space passes as creativity. Are we all artists now? Well, yes we are, but only in the same sense that travelling 26 miles on foot during a lifetime makes us all marathon runners.

Which is more creative, the original work that lacks original thought or the reproduction that gives us fresh insight?

In 1988 the Museum of the Moving Image opened in the National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank. A series of lovingly crafted exhibitions told the story of cinema and television across decades and continents. While it was primarily a celebration of original work the highlight, at least for me, was a montage playing on a continuous loop which, strictly speaking, had no claim to originality at all.

Precious Images is a short film by Chuck Workman. In editing together almost 500 brief clips Workman tells the story not only of Hollywood but of humankind in the 20th century. We race through the history of screen action, romance, music and comedy and finish with a sequence of many of the most memorable and rousing moments in English language cinema. The running time excluding credits is seven minutes. If I had seven minutes to live, I’d spend them watching it.

Most clips are seen for less than a second, just long enough to recognize the source movie and understand where it fits into the extraordinary story Workman is telling. Segues between genres are deftly handled – we pass from musicals to thrillers by linking a synchronised swimming sequence to the first shark attack in Jaws – and towards the end we find a clip that isn’t taken from a movie at all. It’s the defining image of human achievement; that of Neil Armstrong taking the first step onto the surface of the Moon.

This is followed by a clip of the alien ship landing in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then a clip from High Noon in which the camera zooms out from the figure of Gary Cooper preparing to face danger completely alone in a deserted town square. Why is this sequence so powerful and moving? The moon landing, mankind’s calling card to the Universe, is followed by Spielberg’s declaration that we are not alone, but then trumped by the even more penetrating truth that in the end each of us is alone, facing fear and danger in cruel black and white isolation. In these few seconds Workman tells us who we are, what we’ve accomplished, what we’re hoping for and what we must fear and live with. It’s both beautiful and devastating, on every viewing.

Precious Images won the 1986 Academy Award for best short film. Not everyone approved. Had Workman created, or just stood on the shoulders of true artists and copied and pasted? Maybe it’s time we opened our minds to new definitions of creativity. Some people have talents that can’t be contained in one small box.

Lottie Merchant has a gift for visual creativity that leads her and her audience on a memorable journey. Her art may begin with a visual representation of her feelings, evoking the power of our emotions and the power of nature to influence them. It puts you at the eye of a storm that will move you and buffet you but never break you, because the artist herself is far too strong to be broken. She weathers the storm and channels its power, and it takes her to a place where she can express herself in words as well as images. Lottie finds her way to the most evocative language through the most evocative imagery.

The end result is more than a portrait and more than a poem. So what is it? Next Spring you can judge for yourselves, because Lottie is organizing an exhibition of her work and the work of a group that meets on a weekly basis to trace the relationship between art and wellness. This exhibition, in April 2023, will share the vision of people whose talents can’t be easily pigeonholed. When we can’t fit work of art into a box and give it a familiar label, that’s all the more reason to celebrate its beauty and originality.

Chuck Workman would undoubtedly agree, With Precious Images he doesn’t just reproduce the emotional power of a century of great movies, he distils it. Everything it means to be human - our joy and awe, our aching isolation and our longing for inclusion - all concentrated into a few treasured snapshots.

While the line between creation and mere reproduction can sometimes blur, I believe refashioning original work into something beautiful and new is an art form in its own right. And if you’ve created a message visually then recreated it in writing, you’ve taken artistry somewhere exciting and new. Next Spring, Lottie Merchant will show us how she and her creative group turn precious thoughts into precious words and precious images. Whatever route you take to that destination, it’s well worth following. Bon voyage


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