Trace, Mark, Imprint – A Personal Clue to Cinema

Wir wissen von keiner Welt als im Bezug auf den Menschen; wir wollen keine Kunst, als die ein Abdruck dieses Bezugs ist.[1]


Weiser entweich ich jäh vielleicht.
Wie Wildspur will im Wald vergehen


The experience of discovering and learning about cinema sometimes comes in unexpected ways. These are often trivial revelations but I find joy in understanding the most fundamental and clear aspects of my interests.

An invention called Pinscreen had a formative impact on my relationship to cinema, as it introduced me to the idea to look at films as traces and imprints. This invention by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker is a fabric filled with movable pins, which can be moved in or out by pressing an object onto the screen. It is lit from a particular angle, so the protuberant pins cast shadows. This way, any kind of Gestalt can be formed and the artists started to make animation films with this technique. They carefully designed an image, then altered or even abolished it to create the illusion of movement. However, the invention caught my attention when in the film Pinscreen (Norman McLaren, 1973) the artists showed how to imprint shapes with the simplest, most common objects, like a fork. It evoked one of the aspects of cinema that I am especially interested in. An ordinary fork touches the pinscreen again and again, forming a treelike shape – the imprinted details of reality are combined in a way that the original reference point is almost unrecognizable. Cinema rearranges the traces of reality, either it aims to represent a pre-existing reality, or to create a new one. In McLaren’s film Alexeieff does both of these things.

In Hungarian, trace, sign, an evidence or a clue in an investigation, to leave a mark and imprint share the same etymological root – nyom. Nyom, nyomni, nyomot hagyni, lenyomat. This wordplay made me think of artworks I feel close to, and the nature of film in general.

Above all, leaving a trace is clearly unintentional, like in the case of the footprint found in Kenya dated to between 1.51 million and 1.53 million years ago. No one would attribute an wilfulness to these footsteps, the intention of leaving a mark for the after-ages. As Maurer Dóra writes with brilliant simplicity in the introduction of her book on imprints: “Forgetting to wipe one’s feet on the doormat after having been out in the rain and walking around on the clean floor with muddy shoes must be a familiar experience to many. Every taken step stamps the clearly outlined mark of the shoe tread onto the floor until the mud abrades.”[3] Making imprints intentionally is also a common, accessible and essential childhood experience – pressing toys in the sand, making snow angels, learning the frottage technique through shading coins or simply identifying footprints in the forest are basic ways for us to learn about materials, creation, identification and likeness. A footprint, for instance, is the evidence of the fact that someone was there, preserving the marks of the foot, outlining a recognizable form on the ground, symbolizing the one who was there. A snow angel, by contrast, is made with the intention of hiding the evidence-like nature of the imprint, focusing on the new meaning formed in the shape of the angel. On Pinscreen, we could outline a tree with the imprints of the fork, however the traces of the fork would be impossible to recognize then on the Pinscreen.

The peculiarity of making an imprint is its immediacy. Immediacy, both in the sense of describing the contact between two materials meeting, and the accuracy of the imprint’s representation of reality. Shading coins teaches about the size and shape of the real coin, but also about the pencil you use and how much you press the pencil to create brighter or darker prints shaping the image of the coin. From that perspective, leaving a trace or making an imprint can easily be understood, and are frequently used, as metaphors for making art. A trace tells us about the surface, weight and position of the imprinted object or body, outlining the most typical features, while simultaneously revealing the nature of the most basic materials used in imptinting. To define the relation of the imprint with the original material, Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of three kinds of signs[4] can be quite revealing. Contrary to icons and symbols, which are based on associations and mental operations evoked by likeness, the essence of indices is the association resting on contact. An imprint could be a perfect example of this indexicality. Peirce also implies that all signs have all the three qualities to a different degree at the same time.

Understanding indexicality roots back in the theoretical cycle and vocabulary of religious belief. Hans Belting has dedicated various books and publications to the matter, one of which, Das echte Bild. Bildfragen als Glaubensfragen, discusses the aesthetics of the image through its theology and deduces the term of das echte Bild from religious, above all Christian imagery. Belting turns to the question of religious belief to relate the nature of our belief to the authenticity ascribed to paintings and photographs.

Given this context, the mediating power of the imprint comes into focus in Saint Paul’s strictly philosophical definition of the image. He described Jesus himself as an image, the wraith of God. To describe precisely this relation, he uses the Ancient Greek work kharaktér,[5] which comes from the lexis of stamping and stealing practices. Being a wraith of God’s glory gives his human body a divine trait, creating the duality of his nature which can only be dissolved by the Holy Spirit.

One of the most decisive reliquiae is the Shroud of Turin, which innately shows the importance of directness and imprint regarding authenticity. “The holy shroud became the negative imprint of the body of Christ, its luminous index miraculously produced and miraculously inverted in the very act of resurrection, henceforth to be conceived of in photographic terms.[6] Georges Didi-Huberman emphasizes the relationship the relic has with photography, claiming it not to be merely coincidental. As Belting describes, the shroud first attracted worldwide attention when the polemics about taking a photograph of it emerged.[7] Having been struggling with the question, Umberto I. of Italy finally agreed, on the condition of having an amateur photographer, and chose a lawyer, Secondo Pia, to take the pictures. It was only after when the photograph was taken, that he realized that from the negative, the positive image of Jesus was looking at him. Religious people started to invade his home to see the real face of Jesus – at this point, Belting expresses his suspicion, people might always have dreamed of having a photograph of him. Taking a glance on Belting’s idea might lead to the consequence that people trust photography more than they do imprints. However, I would rather focus on people’s desire to possess and be directly addressed by the portray. Having a photograph offers the sentiment of nearness, the subject of the photograph becomes part of one’s own personal archive, most intimate space and everyday life in general. It can be concluded with certainty that a photograph is more accessible and more easily exhibited than the shroud itself.

Some religions forbid the depiction of God, as it is considered idolatry. The paintings commissioned by the Catholic Church throughout the Renaissance were criticized by protestant movements for being too idealistic in the depiction of Christ, and for becoming cult images, idols of which worship was forbidden. This debate is rooted in religious people’s relation to said images and what reformation perceived as deceit of reality. Whether the images are searching for something real in themselves or they just emerge as symbols to evoke a sentiment as the Catholic Church argued. From this perspective, the manipulative nature of images comes into focus. Indeed, many portraits of Jesus rely on symbols and lack a particular facial expression or a background, yet others are placed in a historically identifiable setting and depict the suffering Jesus with a more human, realistic facial expression. Are they made to string along people? According to the standpoint of the Catholic Church, these images do not intend to represent reality or impose belief on people, they only serve as reminders for the faithful. Yet, after watching carefully painted portray of Jesus, it is likely that a spectator would identify him with the man seen on the image, thus the symbol immediately becomes the depiction of reality. Cinema, more than any other ways of representing reality, has this manipulative potential. All films document something and all are constructed in a very unique way, still, we tend to accept that what we see unambiguously matches reality.

Another similar relic is the Veil of Veronica, which Francisco de Zurbarán painted in series in the 17th century. These paintings show the altered nature of the veil as consequence of the encounter with the holy body – the once casual veil turned into a holy object. Not only the figure but also the event gives the relic an outstanding value and all the paintings reflect upon that. While only outlining the characteristic traits of the face, all the pieces denote a unique facial expression also serving as an evidence of suffer. The transfer of values happens to the painting, the sanctity of the relic, to a smaller degree, is transferred onto the painting as well. This sanctity comes from the belief that the artwork stands as a testimony of something that took place in the past, making available the Veil of Veronica for those who are not able to see the original, like in case of the photo taken by Secondo Pia.

The photograph and the paintings of the reliquiae clarify their essence. Deduced from Peirce’s definition; they are interrelated as icons, indices and symbols, for they physically correspond with the signified, provide evidence of it to the public and gain their own meaning in a complex cultural net related to it all at once. The artworks, especially the photographs taken of the reliquiae were virally spread mostly for bearing witness to the existence of the signified, for their imprint-like quality – their indexicality. André Bazin also refers to indexicality as the most specific attribute of film, which makes a par excellence difference to all the other art forms.[8] This statement rather refers to the audience’s desire for reference points to reality than to the pure indexicality of the image – especially considering the constantly changing relationship of cinema to reality.

As Zurbarán’s paintings or the photo taken by Secondo Pia, films can also be seen as testimony to reality. Films not only tell a constructed, reframed segment of life, but they unconsciously blunder out some of the truth of the portrayed reality. Be it the age of the actors or the complicated details of a judicial proceeding, films unavoidably explore and expose the nonrecurrent present moment (in) which they (were) capture(d). The severity of films as testimonies can be seen from the phenomenon, that films representing a serious social, political or moral issue can hardly be criticized, because most of all, they are understood as testimonies. This inner conflict can be dissolved by reminding us to the imprint-like nature of film – it cannot be equated with the reality; it is a mere trace of a reality.

On Photography, Susan Sontag uses the term trace not only as a metaphor, but rather as a picturesque analogy to photography: “(…) first of all a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.”[9] This analogy describes the two qualities of photography with precision. Footprint stands for instantaneous photographs that have the potential to capture movement and moment, with a sense of immediacy, and death masks, which I rather associate with a series of images or portraits that are destined to represent something or someone.

The former example leads me back to the idea of preserving a temporal state as truth. In Roland Barthes’ description, photography appeared as a mediator between past and present and carries the intractable truth of “that-has-been.[10] Then, he goes further, defining the intention of watching a photograph as the exploration of the photographed subject’s essential existence. “Photography (this is its noeme) authenticates the existence of a certain being, I want to discover that being in the photograph completely, i.e., in its essence, »as into itself . . . « beyond simple resemblance, whether legal or hereditary.”[11] This expectation of Barthes presumes that photochemical traces function just the same as mechanical ones – they outline the typical, distinctive, strongest characteristics. The certainty of a “that-has-been” experience mediates between past and present, but first and foremost evokes a sense of evanescence.

Belting writes about personal photographs as the catalysts of a new cult of death masks. What is common in photographs and death masks is that they do not have a purpose of declaring statements about the dead one, but invite a symbolic contemplation and generate the feeling of nostalgia, on the condition that we take posed photography as examples. However, an essential difference between photograph and death masks is analogue with the difference between the eyes and the look of the portrayed subject. Barthes is mesmerized by the people looking at him from photographs, their liminal state between being the symbols of the past and being summoned by their image in the present, while on death masks, the eyes are often omitted or pictured as closed, expressing the comforting consciousness of the past. Both of them preserve a particular moment in space, but on portraits the gaze seems to provoke us. The circumstances of their perception also supports our uncertainity of the photograph’s tense. While we only see death masks on special occasions, when we go to a museum, behind a vitrine, where nobody can touch it, we can have the photograph of any person. By having the possibility of watching, touching or even tearing the photograph, we have a more direct relation to it, so the look of the person on the photograph might find us personally. For me, these personal relations always exist in present tense, I realized that when, immediately after the death of my grandfather, I felt the urging need to put his photograph on my wall.

In the history of photographs and paintings that represent a singular instant, images depict and condense events into one moment. Yet because they refer to a larger process taking place, there is a sense of lacking the immediate before and after. Ernst Gombrich argues the depiction of motion as the primary motive of making images. He highlights that in order to reach a more complete engagement with the image, we move around in instinctive and unconscious ways. We cannot assume the duration of a painted or a photographed event without taking a close look at the details, going closer or stepping back a little bit, and so the interpretation requires “scanning backward and forward in time and in space.[12] Another way we respond when we cannot figure out and identify the elements in the picture is by slightly shifting our head, as though we distrust our own eyes.[13] These motions of the viewer help to create a sense of space, colluding with the different picturesque techniques and perspectives of the paintings. In case of a motion picture, we watch a movement – from a fixed, unmoving perspective –, in which it is much easier to make the spatial relations clear. By all means, it is not necessary and there are several techniques which intend to achieve especially the opposite, to destabilize our sense of space. Although, we should mention that the need of experiencing the space in cinema is very present in the time-to-time renewing inquiry towards 3D and 4D cinema. Despite these techniques having been pioneered long ago, they cannot rule the world of cinema, the reason being, as I take it, that experiencing motion is still the more captivating facet of a film. By capturing motion, we imply space, nevertheless, what we focus on and preserve is the duration, the time that passed by. In that sense, film is the imprint of a period of time.

Pictures made with printing techniques, might also have a direct relation to motion, as they can densify the whole course of it in themselves. Take the case of making snow angels, which are formed by the movement of our limbs. If we abstract the recognizable angel-form, we can see the imprint, the trace of our movement in the snow. We can infer the intensity, direction and duration of motion from the trace, and even if our assumption is not entirely exact, we certainly detect that there was motion taking place. As Maurer writes in her book on printing techniques, “Prints are documents. They are frozen images of an event.”[14] One of her early works, Nagyon magasról leejtett lemez (1970) perfectly exemplifies this phenomenon. Maurer drops a disk from a balcony, then photogravures the damaged disk. This way, the imprint documents the motion generated by the artist stressing her creative presence. Other artworks, like Untitled Anthropometry (Yves Klein, 1960) works with the logic of moving image and register the different phases of a movement with the direct imprint of the painted body. The event character of the imprint is emphasized in Ana Mendieta’s performance Untitled (Blood Sign #2/Body Tracks, 1974). This work implies various associations based upon the act of expressing an aesthetical-political standpoint by the evidence of her motion, her presence. Our associations are based on the bloody hands, which recall the notion of sacrifice and the similarity between the blood marks – the line of motion of the bodily signs – and the general idea of a tree’s image. Unlike watching the performance, when we take a look at the imprint, we first recognize the tree-like form. However, it’s a tricky game Mendieta plays, as the tree-shape resembles her position at the beginning of the performance. First, I had the association of sacrifice on a symbolic basis, then I saw the indexical, and at the same time, iconic trace of a motion outlining a tree, but the network of meanings can only be compiled in retrospect, by identifying the artist as a tree. The discrepancy between the interpretation of the imprint as a trace movement and as a fixed form standing for an abstract significance gives the work its inner tension. Film also functions like that: while depicting motion, it is a fractured but fix unity, where every part of the whole is subordinated to its meaning, at the same time maintaining their indexical relation to reality.

The idea of the preservation of a past state can also be related to the deterioration of the material. An exceptional piece is the Déjeuner sous l’herbe at Jouy-en-Josas (1983) of Daniel Spoerri, and also the excavation of the artwork (2010), which consists in the organization, the burying and then the excavation of a banquet. The event is preserved, the objects remained as they were, but by burying them they started to decompose. The objects not only hinted at the moment of the banquet but also the time that passed by while they were covered underground. The marks and traces of deterioration, even without a comparison to the original, are perceptible. These marks are made by the ground, Spoerri did not have a control over it, but he buried the event exactly for this reason, to let time leave traces on it. When I first read about the artwork, I immediately imagined all the people and the atmosphere preserved under the ground, and for me, that is still a relevant clue to Spoerri’s art.

Spoerri works from the idea that the objects also have a life, to be precise, multiple lives, they are in a constant circulation. The artist, by redefining the objects by placing them in the context of an artwork, starts a new chapter in their life. A spoon, which was used for eating becomes a part of the composition, representing all spoons or a variety of any object. By the act of burying, with the help of the ground, he makes the passage of time more visible on the surface of the objects. As time leaves its marks on people’s faces in form of wrinkles and furrows, time becomes visible on the objects excavated from the ground. Spoerri’s intentions converse with a cinematic phenomenon, for in cinema, too, everything that is consciously or unconsciously part of the mise-en-scène gains a new meaning.

Watching films, for me, is like the act of excavation in Spoerri’s work. Films proclaim: this happened. They are made with the intention of preserving a special period of time and atmosphere and yet we cannot prevent the present truth of the documented action or mood from being exposed to the passage of time. The experience of a film gives you the impression of the documented zeitgeist while also giving you a distance from it at the same time. They can evoke a sense of nostalgia and alienation.

Furthermore, evidence can be understood by strictly focusing on the indexical relation to reality too. Photography and moving image are often seen as witnesses, as it was mentioned in the case of the depiction of reliquiae. They are the evidence of the existence or the happening of something. This trait qualifies them both to be fundamentally related to institutions of justice, from the beginning of its history. Friedrich Kittler explored the relation between photographical indexicality and the act of investigation. “Photography, according to Arnheim’s excellent definition, means that something real (whatever that may be, criminal or otherwise) leaves its traces in a storage medium.[15] The new media made possible to systematically register and identify people. Kittler mentions Alphonse Bertillon, who was a pioneer in standardizing physical measurements and photography used in the identification process, which technique later was overwrote by the fingerprinting of Henry Faulds. Moving images were first accepted as evidence before the Nuremberg Tribunal,[16] which was a significant, institutional statement about the unwavering truth of film.

Another decisive moment in the history of media and film as evidence was the Zapruder Film, recording the brutal assassination of John F. Kennedy. This unprecedented 8mm film shocked American society as it received accentuated attention on court. In a panel discussion, Peter Kubelka explains his relation to digital restoration through this very example. He proposes the question, what would have happened if this film had been restored digitally, and answers it. “This film could not have appeared as testimony in court because a digitally restored film is not a film anymore – it’s an animated film.[17]

Despite this rather attractive standpoint, in general, digitization elementally altered the evidence-like character of photograph and film. There has been and still is an excessive debate on the consequences of the digital media on film culture, even so, my perception is that people in general tend to expect some kind of referentiality to reality from film.

While digital film ceases to be a photochemical imprint, digital technology and digital imprints are used in many ways of identification. Albeit a popular topic in art theory, I would rather point out a few instances of our everyday dependence on digital imprints, inventions that simplify and accelerate administration, such as digital signatures, eye tracking and pregnancy tests.  Moreover, a self-conscious relation to our digital traces or footprints becomes more and more common as the way shared content and metadata render us vulnerable to the market, in front of companies or possible future employers gains unavoidable urgency.

However, even before digitization, the reliability of film was not always self-evident. The Hungarian Bartos family’s collection of 8 and 9,5mm film is an extremely touching set of footages, documenting life and history from the thirties till the of earnest of the Second World War. In 1978, Bódy Gábor created a whole new story out of it by restructuring and manipulating the original material in his film, Privát történelem. Ten years later, Forgács Péter returned to the original atmosphere of the material and narrated the family life arching decades in his film, Bartos család.

Aiming at authenticity, visual lyricism or simply inspired by the freedom of getting rid of the apparatus, the idea of immediacy is something that artists continue to discover and return to. In the Twentieth Century, artists like Moholy-Nagy László started to make photograms – in his case it meant the direct imprints of his body captured without a camera. In film history, one of the representatives of direct cinema, Stan Brakhage glued pressed natural objects between two filmstrips in his film Mothlight (1963). Without using a camera, he entirely leaned on the aesthetic and expressive power of imprints, and realized a moving visual work reflecting upon hardships in his career. His undoubtable impact can be felt in many contemporary films and trends, the general idea of imprint-like filmmaking without camera lives on in many forms. For instance, the film Underground (Emmanuel Lefrant, 2001) was made by the director burying filmstrips in different kinds of grounds (soil, snow, mud, etc.) for different periods of time. During screenings, the audience read the evidence of the film material as a witness of its own creation but also very abstract images, which do not have a recognizable reference point.

These were my fundamental associations to imprint, but obviously there are many more possible ways to engage with the subject matter, like technical reproduction, as a more practical line of thinking. More poetic, abstract senses of the trace-like characterization of the depicted might start with Tarkovsky’s book on filmmaking, where he explains the concept of time imprinted on the filmstrip.[18] This idea could be taken to a similarly poetic, more trivial but not less important direction towards the diversity of how films represent reality, yet that discussion would lack the specific aspects of imprints and would be rather based on personal impressions.

For me, every detail of this article has a direct reference to cinema. Even if a certain relation between an idea and film is not clear, while writing, I have been keeping an eye on cinema and I feel any film could be understood as a trace (nyom), that leaves its mark for the posterity (nyomot hagy), a sign of an idea (nyom), an imprint (lenyomat) and an evidence (nyom) of reality. When I see a film, I feel like being in a forest, looking for footprints, wondering if there is any left to be found by me personally.



Beitragsbild: Nature Prints, Ivana Miloš, 2021


Footprint from Kenya (between 1.51 million and 1.53 million years ago)

Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave, negative handprint, a.C. 30.000

Fossils of a seashell

Untitled (Blood Sign #2/Body Tracks), Ana Mendieta, 1974

Roman bronze stamp seal

A purported Pollock fingerprint on a stretcher, photo by Georgianna Lane, Courtesy, Fine Art Registry

Fotogram, Moholy-Nagy László, 1925

Untitled Anthropometry, Yves Klein, 1960

Taposott kép, Hopp Halász Károly, 1980

Shroud of Turin

Mothlight, Stan Brakhage, 1963

Commingled Containers, Stan Brakhage, 1996

Nile Born, Ana Mendieta, 1984

The Holy Face, Francisco de Zurbarán, 1631

The Holy Face, Francisco de Zurbarán, 1658

Fotogram, é.n., Moholy-Nagy László, 1973

Death Mask, Israel, ca. 7000 a.C.

Death Mask of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 1781

Nagyon magasról leejtett lemez, Maurer Dóra, 1970

Reel Time, Annabel Nicolson, 1973

Underground, Emmanuel Lefrant, 2001

Excavation of Déjeuner sous l’herbe at Jouy-en-Josas, Daniel Spoerri, 1983/2010

Boyhood, Richard Linklater, 2014

Little Dog For Roger, Malcolm Le Grice, 1967

Decaisa, Bill Morrison¸ 2002

Colour Flight, Len Lye, 1938


[1] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von: Maximen und Reflexionen. In: Goethes Werke. Hamburg: Christian Wegner Verlag, 1953. p. 701.

[2] József Attila: (Talán eltűnök hirtelen…) (ford. Daniel Muth) (Weiser entweich ich jäh…)

[3] Maurer, Dóra: Rézmetszet, rézkarc. Műhelytitkok. Budapest: Corvina kiadó, 1976. p. 5.

[4] Peirce, Charles Sanders: The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings. Vol. 1. Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel (eds.), Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. pp. 225-228.

[5] Belting: A hiteles kép. p. 94.

[6] Didi-Huberman, Georges: The Index of the Absent Wound. (trans. Thomas Repensek) October, Vol. 29 (Summer, 1984) p. 65.

[7] Belting, Hans: A hiteles kép. Képviták mint hitviták. Budapest: Atlantisz Könyvkiadó, 2009. pp. 90-91.

[8] Bazin, André: The Ontology of the Photographic Image. (trans. Hugh Gray) Film Quarterly, Vol 13. no. 4. (Summer, 1960) pp. 4-9.

[9] Sontag, Susan: On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks LLG, 2005. p. 120.

[10] Barthes, Roland: Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography. (trans. Richard Howard) New York: Hill & Wang, 1981. p. 77.

[11] ibid. p. 107

[12] Gombrich, E. H.: Moment and Movement in Art. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 27 (1964) p. 302.

[13] Gombrich, E. H.: Art and Illusion. A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. London: Phaidon Press, 1960. p. 221.

[14] Maurer: Rézmetszet, rézkarc. p. 37.

[15] Kittler, Friedrich: Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999. (trans. Anthony Enns) Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.  p. 141.

[16] Douglas, Lawrence: Film as Witness: Screening Nazi Concentration Camps Before the Nuremberg Tribunal. In: The Yale Law Journal Vol. 105, No. 2 (Nov., 1995) pp. 449-481.

[17] Kubelka, Peter: Lezioni di cinema. Il caso Österreichisches Filmmuseum (24:25-25:25)

[18] Tarkovsky, Andrey: Sculpting in Time. (trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair) Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989. pp. 57-81.