Positive Negatives

Local gallery curator’s first film up for an award at international festival

Photo By joe kocsis

Watch the film:The Pressman Negatives can be viewed online.

Chico State University Art Gallery curator Jason Tannen is a familiar face to many students as an instructor of film and photography. And when he is not in front of a class, he is also an artist, photographer and now a lauded filmmaker.

Tannen has been the gallery’s curator for a decade, and has had his photographs exhibited everywhere from Chico to the Bay Area and as far as Switzerland.

His latest project, the 10-minute short The Pressman Negatives, was recently nominated for a Tinny Award in the film noir category at the 2008 Swansea Film Festival in Wales. The highly regarded international festival takes place May 31 through June 7, and will screen some 175 films.

The Pressman Negatives recounts in film-noir tradition the final hours of doomed jewelry thief Sidney Pressman and his criminal colleagues, set against the dark backdrop of a Rust Belt city during the 1970s. Through snapshots, allegedly taken by Pressman, the montage uses moments frozen in time to briefly resurrect the players as they are brought together for one last heist. Ostensibly the narrative was built from long-forgotten negatives found between the pages of a dusty volume found in a box of old books purchased at a flea market.

Although the actual images were created over 20 years, Tannen didn’t begin the project until 2005. He completed it about a year later.

“The narrative was developed over a period of about six months, with an additional period of revising and honing a story that is, in the film-noir tradition, complex, intricate and ill-fated,” Tannen explained.

Pressman combines three elements: still images, a spoken narrative and music with ambient sound. Using a combination of existing light and photo lights, most of the photos were taken in Cincinnati, Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco.

Tannen said he combined two approaches to photography—a candid, documentary style and a more controlled approach in which he directed the scene before taking the photograph.

“The underlying theme in my photographs—the Pressman story—is artifice: where does the real end and the artificial begin?” explained Tannen. “While writing the narrative, I returned to ‘the scene of the crime’ in several cases.” For example, the two shots of Lunken Airport were taken 20 years apart.

While a few images with people are true candids, most of the players were people Tannen enlisted and placed in the settings for the purpose of the narrative.

The project was realized with Adobe Photoshop and Apple’s iMovie, the black-and-white negatives scanned into the former and then dropped into the latter for editing.

“The narrative was recorded directly into iMovie in just two takes. From there, it was all about pacing, flow and building a sense of desperate people racing toward a bad end.”

Completing a project is only half the task, as Tannen moves his creation into the festival circuit. He said he regularly checks sites like Withoutabox.com regularly, which lists hundreds of international film festivals. In the past two years The Pressman Negatives has shown at four of the approximate 30 festivals Tannen has submitted it to.

He’s already looking ahead.

Tannen is currently at work on a photo project, Small Collections, which documents strange, eccentric or visually interesting personal collections.

“I’ve [also] started another film—integrating family photographs, home movies and found footage—that traces my family history from my ancestors landing in New York to the Beatles playing at Shea Stadium.”

The new projects don’t have the same dark tone as Pressman. And although Tannen’s photography has taken various forms, he said he often returns to the inspiration of film noir, and the dark, urban crime dramas from the 1940s and 1950s.

“I’ve sought to capture—in photography—some of film noir’s key visual and emotional motifs, such as stylized urban settings, harshly lit scenes with deep shadows and bright highlights, and an overall sense of anxiety.”