A Riddle in Temporality: Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia

Hollis Frampton’s black and white 16mm film, Hapax Legomena I: Nostalgia (1971), takes us on a journey through moving and still image and memory and anticipation: obstructing and restructuring filmic temporality. The film serves as an ‘auto-biopic’ of Frampton’s work as a photographer: filming the first photograph he took for art – his supposed last – and several between.  His stories are recounted to us via voiceover by filmmaker and colleague Michael Snow; each photograph is used as a ‘diegetic container’ from which Frampton’s memories are expounded.  However, the narrative framework is obstructed by the fact that picture and sound are asynchronous.  Moreover, we are told the story approximately three minutes before seeing the image that it belongs to: disrupting our own perception of time and forcing us “into the impossible task of visualizing what is about to come, while remembering what is disappearing from the frame, at the same time trying to appreciate, or make sense of, the juxtaposition of the images and sounds being screened” (Eagon 680).  Furthermore, the ‘disappearance’ of each photo comes from their individual destruction: slowly liquefied and carbonized atop an electric-stove ring while we struggle to burn the image into our mind.  Although multifaceted, these aesthetic elements function emblematically to force the viewer not only to reflect on memory, but to experience the film’s own representations of past, present, and future.

Frampton defines nostalgia in a Hellenic sense: “the wounds of returning… not an emotion that is entertained; it is sustained.  When Ulysses comes home, nostalgia is the lumps he takes, not the tremulous pleasure here derives from being home again” (Jenkins 56). For Frampton this means visiting a “quite dreadful” time in his life when he was a struggling photographer surrounded by his contemporaries; we see them in five of the eleven portraits in the film that are destroyed on the stove top (Moore 18-19).

We begin exploring Frampton’s nostalgia after a brief introduction and microphone check, which together function as a sound bridge that carries us through the black leader to a cut in of the first photograph.  Here, we see a close up of a photo atop a round electric-stove burner framed by a white but charred stove top. The blackened surface creates diagonal vectors that move towards the corners of the frame and therefore simulates movement around the still image (with help from the jitter of 16mm film).  The contrast of the burnt stovetop attracts our eye and functions in telling us that this photo – just like all of the others – is about to be destroyed.  As the narration continues the photo begins to warp and move as the emulsion melts, then smokes before finally catching fire.  Although the image itself is a still photo that belongs to a memory of Frampton’s past, Snow’s voice acts as a kind of internal diegetic sound (inside Frampton’s head experiencing his memories with him).  This movement, and Snow’s narration, functions in bringing the photos and therefore Frampton’s memories back to life.  However, after three minutes they are completely destroyed (joining their essence to the charred stovetop).

The notion of the photo leaving the past and entering the present briefly is an important concept in this moving film.  That is to say, a still photo does not imitate true motion and therefore “suggests that it is already dead” in a certain sense, unlike moving images that appear more lifelike due to their continued motion and constant state of “flux” or change (Barthes 79, 89).  The sentiment and “effect of a still image is spectral, infusing the visual evidence of a living subject with the paradoxical information that this subject nonetheless already dead—entrapped in a moment ineluctably past, beyond, and ‘without future’ (Ma 5).  Whereas when cinematic time passes it “becomes palpable, not in the fleetingness of a halted second but in the fleetingness of sequence in process, an amorphous, elusive, present tense, the immediate but illusory ‘now’ that is always experienced as fading into the ‘then’ ” (Mulvey 188).  In other words, cinema has an “unparalleled power to mediate presence and absence, and to negotiate past and present” (Ma 100).  Cinema is a visual hybrid that demands our anticipation of both the present and future ‘flux,’ even though it is only constructed from pieces of an absolute past; not at all unlike Frampton’s narrative in Nostalgia.  Importantly, the ability to navigate these multiple tenses is also a function of memory.

Frampton is ‘punning’ on memory by showing us different tenses through the unification of the two types of image, while taking it a step further by separating sound from visual anchors or ‘visual tenses.’  Moreover, setting each still image ablaze in the film reanimates the past momentarily as the heat gives the pictures a state of ‘flux’ and movement that further unifies them with the moving image and therefore the present tense.  These melting images straddle the future as well because as we watch them burn we anticipate the next image the current narrative belongs to.  Using these notions of tense and flux, the film straddles the past, present, and anticipation of the future through the use of still, moving image, and voiceover.  This play on tenses functions to highlight some of the components of memory.  Furthermore, the arduous process of assembling the narrative information in the film points to the difficulties surrounding total recall.  By keeping image and story separate, Frampton is demonstrating the disconnection between imagined memory and the finite.  Roland Barthes posits that “not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory… but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter memory” (Barthes 91).  Frampton is asking us to pick which ‘memory’ or medium we believe is real, while we fight our own memory to reconstruct the story behind his photos.  This notion parallels the human necessity or natural function of our brain to fill in the blanks when memory becomes out-of-focus.

The repetition of time and themes of memory are emblematic to Nostalgia as we have explored, but these are not the only themes in the film.  Nostalgia was coined a structural film because every photo was recorded on its own individual one-hundred foot role of 16mm film (Moore 2).  Each segment begins with a pristine still picture on top of a burner and ends with it as ash.  This has been referred to by writer Rachel Moore and others as being “structured by fire” (Moore 5).  Moore expands on this idea, quoting Philippe Dubois: “Burning a photograph is only an extension of the photographic process: the photograph is a sensitive surface (like the soul) burned by the light that strikes it, and gnawed from within by the very things that all it to exist: light and time” (Dubois 169).  What Moore is trying to explain is that “The film visually puns the photographic process by which light burns onto the emulsion of film and imparts an image” (Dika 25).  Therefore, adding yet another pun or bon mot.  However, it is important to see that there is a broader structure around these themes: cycles.

Snow tells us in the beginning of the film that “This is the first photograph I [Frampton] ever made with the intention of making art” and cyclically expounds in the end that “I think I shall never dare to make another photograph again.”  This cyclical journey is important because it reflects the life of the photographs: we hear about their creation and then experience their destruction.  This allegory not only intersects with Frampton’s nostalgia or “dread” for his life as an artist/photographer, but the supposed death of his profession and work he produced.  The use of black leader in the beginning and end of the film is also cyclical in nature.  However, Moore has argued that though it feels cyclical the final “black image or leader is a completely exposed piece of film,” and is in fact the final image we are not shown at the end of the film, however Frampton has repeatedly denied that is the case (Moore 47-48).  Therefore, since it is placed right before his logo in the end of the film, it more likely functions cyclically (though it also keeps his logo from being the first image at the end).

In conclusion, Frampton offers us only fragments of memories, all of which are disconnected from a timeline due to the asynchronous quality of the narrative.  We can only assume he is showing us the photos with any kind of continuity; he is pointing out another pitfall of reminiscence and memory (remembering events in the correct sequence).  After all, each segment has been recorded on its own reel of film and there are no events connecting the sequences directly to one another.  It is plausible that this is yet another pun on memory.  During the creation of Nostalgia, Frampton defined himself as a kind of archaeologist probing “leavings and middens… sifting for ostracising potshards” (An).  It is interesting that we should be sorting through his ‘leavings and middens’ and trying to find what is tangible both inside and outside the images.  Furthermore, that we share his search and judgment of the artifacts of his past: casting our own Hellenic ballot in potsherds when we decide which of Frampton’s memories we hold on to and which ones we ostracize.  Whatever the case, the shattered temporality we see in the film forces us to experience these three distinct temporalities: the past the still pictures represent, the present from which we see the film, and the future where an image awaits that we have only heard about.  The combined movement carries the film away from the ‘death rattle’ of the cindering photographs and towards a reflexive filmic world of memory and reflection.


Barthes, Roland. Camera lucida: reflections on photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Dika, Vera. Recycled culture in contemporary art and film: the uses of nostalgia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Dubois, Phillipe. Trans. Kirby, Lynne and Petro, Patrice. Photography Mise-en-film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Eagan, Daniel. America’s film legacy: the authoritative guide to the landmark movies in the National Film Registry. New York: Continuum, 2010.

“An Evening with Hollis Frampton.” New York: MoMA Archives, 8 March 1973. SR, 70.22.

Jenkins, Bruce. Krane, Susan. Hollis Frampton: Recollections and Recreations. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984.

Ma, Jean. Melancholy drift marking time in Chinese cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

Moore, Rachel O. Hollis Frampton: (Nostalgia). London: Afterall Books, 2006.

Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a second: stillness and the moving image. London: Reaktion Books, 2006.


Hapax Legomena I: Nostalgia. Dir. Hollis Frampton. Perf. Snow, Michael. 1971.

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Jeremy Shattuck is a screenwriter, post-production ninja and award-winning writer. His current mission is to help incubate culturally relevant films in New Mexico through screenwriting workshops.
About Jeremy Shattuck 46 Articles
Jeremy Shattuck is a screenwriter, post-production ninja and award-winning writer. His current mission is to help incubate culturally relevant films in New Mexico through screenwriting workshops.