The Creaturely Nature of “Thumb-cinema”

Mädchen mit Sommersprossen. Photos: Volker Gerling.

My research took me to Berlin earlier this year, and during my visit I became acquainted with the work of a local artist, Volker Gerling,[1] who is Germany’s only professional ‘Daumenkinograph’. In English, a rather raw translation of Daumenkino would be ‘thumb-cinema’. And having been encouraged to flick through one of Gerling’s photographic flip-books — a portrait of a freckled little girl — I was struck by how this obscure form of art was able to capture what theologians might refer to as the creatureliness, or temporal finitude, of the human condition. In my view Gerling’s work merits theological attention, because of the interesting contrast between his particular way of depicting a person, and those portraits generated by more conventional types of media, such as still photography or film.

The Daumenkinos themselves are long rectangular flip-books comprising thirty-six pages, each of which features a black-and-white photograph on its right-hand side. When a viewer thumbs through the book, these images form a short, jerky animation — a portrait of someone Gerling will have met whilst travelling around Germany. Gerling shoots the flip-books by attaching a motor to a Nikon 3 camera, so it captures three images per second for twelve seconds in total.

Mädchen mit Sommersprossen. Photos: Volker Gerling.
Mädchen mit Sommersprossen (Girl with Freckles). Photos: Volker Gerling.

The important differences between these sequential depictions of people — with their short, open-ended narratives — and the single photographic portraits upon which we tend to rely, are immediately apparent. And I would venture that it is precisely because of these differences that the flip-books are better able to convey the notion that people are created, or, that we are formed through the passage of time.

Indeed, since they eternalize a particular scene in abstraction from a wider context, individual photographs can work to disintegrate the viewer’s sense of temporal flow, giving them a distorted picture of the subject as a kind of timeless being. Yet not only are Gerling’s flip-books able to circumvent such impressions of atemporality, they also — according to their very form as ‘thumb-cinema’ — encourage a more holistic approach to imagining the person portrayed. For as tangible and audible portraits (there is a distinct ‘thwack’ as each newly-turned page hits back at the last!) as well as visible ones, they are better equipped than ordinary photographic snapshots to remind us that a fruitful account of embodied personhood must attend to all of our senses.

It may seem more difficult to mark out those features which distinguish the Daumenkinos from  conventional cinema, in a way which again leads us to treat the former as better equipped to capture human finitude. After all, both sequential forms of media portray people in their becoming, and are in some sense able to suggest life’s temporal flow. And yet, my closing suggestion in this contribution would be that it is the pronounced gaps between the images in Gerling’s flip-books — in contrast to the slick sequences of conventional motion pictures — that make them a more fruitful medium for representing people as created, embodied beings. Gerling (who is not working from a theological perspective himself) gets at this when he adopts a paraphrased verse from Hebrews 1 as the epigraph to a book which he wrote about his craft: ‘That which we see, comes from that which we cannot see’. Indeed, unlike the ‘God’s eye view’ afforded us by traditional films, with their swooping shots and panoramic views, the Daumenkinos reflect the limited nature of human sight. And being jarring, incomplete, portraits they also gesture to the fragile nature of creaturely life, suggesting the sense of dependence central to the doctrine of creation.

Ruth Jackson is a PhD student at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Her research is on the themes of temporality and dependence in the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher.



Image credit: Photos provided courtesy of Volker Gerling.


  • Ruth Jackson is a PhD student at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Her research is on the themes of temporality and dependence in the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher.

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