Gjon Mili and the Mannequin Challenge: The Amusement of Capturing Lightning in a Bottle

Nathan Le Master
December 31, 2016

“Time could truly be made to stand still. Texture could be retained despite sudden violent movement.”
-Gjon Mili

When thinking about the earliest photographs in the history of photography, you probably conjure up images of daguerreotypes of stuffily dressed men and women wearing Victorian scowls. Or those B&W pictures of fifteen people lined up, where one face is blurred because that individual probably moved too much for the long shutter exposure. And its because its easy to get people to sit still for a short period of time, as well as the very human reasons of sharing and retaining images of loved ones, that portraiture remained the most popular type of photograph for so long (which I guess puts selfies on the very end of this long legacy). This was before photography as an art form blossomed into so much more. This was also before the technology of photography was so limiting.

But people are not naturally still.

You probably don’t know Gjon Mili by name. But you’re most likely familiar with his famous photo of Pablo Picasso:

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Originally from Albania and Romania, Mili emigrated to America to pursue a career in photography, working primarily for LIFE. Here he got the opportunity to shoot photographs of sports, celebrities, fashion, dancers, architecture, sculpture, as well as portraits of Pablo Picasso and Adolf Eichmann. But more importantly, what fixes Mili’s place in the history of photography is his pioneering technique of stroboscopic photography, as well as being one of the first to adopt flash photography.

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Now, the best painted portraits don’t just merely show a replicated image of an individual. In order for them to do justice to a personality, they also try to project certain emotions or objects that capture that individual’s identity. Whether its toying with lighting or colors to convey if a person is naturally morose or gleeful, or unsubtly positioning objects in the foreground to represent a person’s profession, these are all ultimately limiting techniques. But with Mili’s photography, Picasso playing with light painting to depict a centaur, or Gene Kelley’s grand jeté caught from start to finish, could be captured, and with it, a more well-rounded idea of their unique character and abilities. Much more could now be contained in a single image.

But depicting motion wasn’t the only thing Mili was able to achieve. Now, moving objects could also be frozen in place. Take for example, this photograph of a basketball game in Madison Square Garden:

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Or this image of Willa Mae Ricker and Leon James dancing the lindy:

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What I love about these photos is that they depict activities that aren’t supposed to be captured as still images. Both basketball and dancing are naturally fluid sports. Moreover, in a moment of heightened activity, in every second, our senses are so bombarded and preoccupied with processing information that we can’t analyze each individual micro-detail. So with the basketball shot, we can now almost conceive each individual’s thought as their bodies respond to the milliseconds before a dunk. And with the dancers, thanks to the expressive face of Willa Mae Ricker, we can now see the lighthearted goofiness, as well as their pure enjoyment of their dance. Capturing them as stolen, fragmented moments inspires them with an almost physical texture.

Perhaps this fascination with creating texture to still images helps explain the popularity of the late 2016 viral phenomenon of Mannequin Challenges. After all, it’s undeniable that there’s a playful novelty in being able to inhabit a space that we, a passive observer, weren’t physically meant to inhabit. Hence, this is why I see the Mannequin Challenge as the inheritor of a tradition that begins with Mili, this tradition of being able to capture lightning in a bottle.

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