There are two weird photographs in Blade Runner. One of them has always been more obvious to me: the photograph Deckard recovers from the Replicant Leon’s apartment—the one he puts into his digital photograph-analysis machine. In the film’s extended photo-analysis sequence, Deckard somehow manages to change the perspective of this photograph, moving it to a different angle so that he can find what he’s looking for in it. This scene is one of the keys to the themes of Blade Runner, and it is often discussed as such.

The other weird photo took me years of re-watches to notice and confirm. It’s the photo Rachael leaves with Deckard after she first confronts him about the positive result on her Voigt-Kampff test. To prove that she cannot be a Replicant, she gives him a photograph of her and her mother sitting on a porch, smiling at the camera. Turning the photograph over after she’s stormed out of the apartment, Deckard focuses intently on it, and we’re given an extreme close-up insert shot of the photo. 

The shot only lasts for a second or so, but in the fraction of a second before the cut-away, the photograph seems to become animated: the shadows of branches cast onto young Rachael and her mother shift slightly, and we can see the girl take in a single breath. The moment passes so quickly that it almost seems an illusion, as perhaps it is meant to be. 

At the moment we notice the animated photo, the continuity of the film-text Blade Runner threatens to break apart, as we have no established code for determining its meaning in the context of the film or its universe. That is to say, as a rule, photographs in reality don’t move, and nothing in the film suggests that in this sci-fi universe, the photographs are animated. Our film-going experience teaches us that such moments of heightened, impossible vision are usually characters’ hallucinations, but Hollywood films are generally pretty reliable in letting us know what is illusory, subjective vision, and what is taking place in the characters’ reality. 

Director Ridley Scott, however, doesn’t let us know what’s going on with the photograph, preferring to have us question whether what we have seen is real, and what its meaning might be. It’s hard to say that it’s some sort of hallucination, and even if we decide to reconcile it with the film by theorizing that we’re simply seeing what Deckard sees, that reconciliation is a process that begins with the “text” of the film being completely destabilized. It’s a strikingly avant-garde device in the midst of a big-budget Hollywood production, as for a quarter of a second, it suspends the fiction and calls attention to the material the film is made of—to the photographic basis of pre-digital cinema, the fact that every second we’re experiencing is composed of 24 discrete photographs. 

Cinephiles will point out that Scott’s animation of the photo is hardly an innovative device, but is rather taken from Chris Marker’s La Jetée, an experimental sci-fi film composed completely of photographs, except for a single moment in which the narrator’s love interest looks into the camera and blinks. I much prefer Scott’s use of the device, however, precisely because it comes in the context of a relatively straightforward Hollywood film and, by taking us momentarily out of that film, underlines the ways in which Blade Runner’s complex treatment of memory, technological reproduction, and capital-B Being apply to our own world.

The question at the center of Blade Runner is whether we are still human if all of our memories are fake or—really the same question phrased differently—whether empathy is still possible in an artificial world. The grand question of whether Deckard is a Replicant himself, subject of many a “fan theory,” actually hinges on this issue: in the world of the film, empathy is the human quality Replicants cannot fully replicate. But Blade Runners, the legalized assassins of the Replicants, also must lack empathy in order to fulfill their professional duties. Their Voigt-Kampff test uses animals to test empathetic reactions in humanoids, but if an animal is deserving of empathy, how or why can that empathy be suspended for Replicants? If Blade Runners must lack this kind of empathy, then aren’t they just as artificial as the androids they’re obligated to kill? 

Again, another, similar question: if our identities are determined by our remembered experiences, and these experiences can be faked, how can we know that our emotions are not mere simulations, as faulty and incomplete as an android’s? The moment with Rachael’s photograph relates to these questions in multiple ways. It, along with all of the other photographs in the film, symbolizes the complexity of memories in a world dominated by the circulation of reproduced images. 

It helps to remember that photographs did not always exist, and that they, on the timescale of human existence and civilization, are a very new technology. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans remembered without the aid of a photograph; when a person aged and died, who they had been became a memory held only by those who knew them, soon to vanish “like tears in the rain,” as Roy Batty so famously puts it at the end of Blade Runner. Their own memories could be validated by no outside, “objective” source, like a photograph.

By serving as a prop for our memories, photographs introduce non-organic, mechanical elements into our process of remembrance—and therefore, introduce technology into our very understanding of ourselves. But while they testify to the reality of a single moment in time, photographs also reveal the unreliability of our own memories, because they cannot verify an entire context, an entire event, an entire memory. Viewing our own photographs does not always guarantee the veracity of our memories; much the opposite, it serves to privilege certain moments over others, to enforce, by compelling recall, the tendency for oft-recalled memories to become distorted. Photographs are, in multiple senses, artificial memories: images “remembered” by an artificial machine that change the way we think about ourselves.

Cinema, too is a photographic technology, a remembering-machine. The moment with Rachael’s photograph calls our attention to that fact that the very film we’re watching is an artificially animated memory, a series of still images propelled at 24 frames per second to give the illusion of life, the illusion of real events—a simulation of transpired time, and therefore an artificial memory. But more than just pulling us out of the film, this sudden animation also carries emotional heft in Blade Runner’s story, as we understand it as the becoming-real of Rachael’s artificial memories. It’s a profoundly melancholy split-second, a realization that, however artificial, such moments are real to Rachael.

Ultimately, Deckard decides not to view photographs as a crutch, a simple guarantor of the reality he thinks he has lived. This revelation finally comes to him in the film’s most unusual and iconic moment—all the more iconic for being so unusual—of his sudden vision of a unicorn galloping through a forest, which he has while sitting and pondering photographs at his piano, later in the film. The unicorn, Deckard suspects [though the film has the grace not to spell it out in so many words], is an implanted memory, an impossible vision he can’t have acquired in his actual life experience. 

The vision’s origins are obscure [if Deckard is a Replicant, why would the Tyrell Corporation need to give him unicorn visions?], but its meaning within the film works even without the film’s ambivalent-unicorn-origami ending. Even if the unicorn is not an implanted Replicant memory, but just a moment of hallucinatory fancy, the only difference between reverie and false memory is that we are conscious that reverie is false. Whether or not Deckard is himself a Replicant, here he recognizes the speciousness of deciding who lives and who dies based on who has artificial memories and who has “real” ones. As photography reveals, there’s no guarantee that any of our memories are real, and acting on false memories is as human as anything else.

Deckard also decides, and eventually convinces Rachael [as represented in the film’s most objectionable and inexcusable scene], that it doesn’t matter whether one’s memories are real or artificial, but that the real of the present moment and the inevitability of time’s progress is what is paramount for living beings. Uniting all things mortal, as Roy Batty’s final act of mercy and subsequent death shows, is the inevitability of death. Photographs are [rather flawed] attempts to deny that end, to keep time from passing and assure us of the persistent reality of our past—a persistence that cannot not truly exist. In the end, the fact of death, and not the shared “reality” of our hazily remembered past, is what should tie us together. 

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.