I once read that the famous American photographer Edward Weston was employed by the government as a spotter during World War II. At home atop the Carmel Highlands, where many of his most well known photographs were taken, Weston and his wife sat with binoculars scanning the horizon for Japanese submarines.
It’s a story I’ve always found evocative, one that I made an effort to hold on to though I couldn’t have said exactly why or what for: an answer that convinced me there was some question I needed to figure out how to ask.
Recently though I’ve begun thinking about the story as a sort of parable that can illustrate a certain unconventional approach to understanding the role of photography in World War II– not an answer, then, but a lesson on how to ask questions.
World War II is still something like the Ur-text for technologically deterministic theory–its historians can find the substantial refinement, if not the genesis of almost every post-War media technology in this or that military program. This week and next, I want to use this story about Weston–the Spotter’s Parable– to propose another critical model. This is because it isn’t a story about how some technology was developed in the military and then moved into Art; it’s a story about how socio-political conflict provokes the improbable folding together of both those worlds.
When Weston began to work as a spotter, he relied on exactly those things–the unique topography of his environment and his visual keenness–that define his photography. And though I won’t go so far as to say that there was no difference between Weston’s spotting and photography, it is also simplistic to say that he was always doing one or the other: when he was looking for submarines he was still using his position (literally and metaphorically) as a photographer, and vice versa. As such, World War II wasn’t (just) a violent incubator for new media technologies that would go on to have importance in avant-garde aesthetic or critical fields, it was an experimental field where aesthetics and politics mixed. But I don’t want to confuse this with the autistic fetishism of the Futurists who marveled at the aesthetic virtuosity of World War I’s killing machines–my parable doesn’t abstract or glorify war, it weaves war back into a human history of seeing and feeling.
Check back later in the week for the first post in this series.
“Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”
I’ve made the argument that aesthetic technologies and techniques are ultimately derived from socio-political behavior and that artists should look to these emergent habits to discover new forms of art-making. Maybe this is obvious but this means that I think “Art” is the last place an artist (or anyone for that matter) should look for inspiration. So I want to spend sometime exploring unconventional sources for contemporary aesthetic forms.
For a while now I’ve been fascinated with the aesthetics of conspiracy theories. Though conspiracy theories exist from other times and places, they are predominantly a product of the last sixty years of American history/media. Conspiracy theorists also make up one of the only mass-cultural aesthetic communities that remains a community of amateurs, uninterested in and uninteresting to commercialization. Yes, people sell books, movies, and t.v. shows based on conspiracy theories but those products represent only the tiniest fraction of the creative work in a field that is largely maintained by hobbyists who work and distribute their work for free. In historical terms, then, conspiracy theories represent one of the greatest undiscovered folk art movements of modern America.
The most popular targets for theories–the moon landing, the JFK assassination, 9/11– are also, not coincidentally I think, the most dramatic photographic events in American history. More specifically, they are all distinguished by the huge differential between those who actually witnessed these events and those who witnessed them (in some cases, simultaneously) through photography. Conspiracy theorists are fundamentally concerned with the difficulties of the mass extension of historical truth through photography; their theories necessarily, become experiments in photographic comprehension. For in order to overturn a mainstream opinion, which itself is largely based on photographic evidence, conspiracy theorists must propose new ways of seeing and understanding these images if they are going to be persuasive. Because they are also almost always amateurs without privileged access, they work with the shared resource of public images and rarely reveal totally new content. Their work is the extreme formalization of the principles of remix culture into a research sub-culture.
Aesthetically, then, conspiracy theories are a rich source of formal experimentation. In this context, I don’t care at all if a given conspiracy theory is true or even plausible–the content of theories is besides the point, it’s their formal innovations that interest me.
Above is a video of a video processing technique developed by the youtube user femr2. According to femr2, the technique, which creates “Smearograms”, can reveal otherwise imperceptible details in videos. Femr2 developed this processing technique for the specific needs of the so-called 9/11 “Truther” movement, a loosely affiliated community of (largely) amateur investigators devoted to disproving various parts of the official 9/11 story.
To create his Smearograms, femr2 first divides the image plane into a series of single pixel-wide columns, then he dedicates each frame of the video to one of these columns, showing that column’s changes over time, left to right within a single frame. It is essentially a series of snapshots–each frame of the video diagrams the progression of a single vertical column of pixels as it changes through the duration of the original video. Successive frames of the Smearogram move from left-to-right in the picture plane, column by column, so that the length (number of frames) of the final Smearogram is a function of the original video’s width in pixels.
Formally, this amounts to nothing less than the total inversion of the normal conventions of cinematography: space and time reverse roles. Usually in any photographic image, a given frame is expected to represent an illusionary two or three dimensional space; movement from the left of the frame to the right “represents” horizontal movement, movement up and down, vertical movement. The passage of time is reproduced by the linear presentation of frame after frame. If this sounds like a confusing way to explain how this works, it’s because it is so obvious we don’t even think about it: in normal film/video space is space and time is time. But in Smearograms space turns into time and time into space. The left to right (x) axis of a Smearogram frame shows changes over time to a single column of space, while each successive frame represents not elapsed time but spatial movement from one vertical pixel-column to the next.
Femr2’s formal innovation deserves to be thought of in terms of some of the great experiments of avant-garde filmmaking. I think, for example, we could productively compare femr2’s work with Gordon Matta-Clark’s short film City Slivers (1973), which was included in Peter Eleey’s remarkable 9/11 exhibition at P.S.1.
Using only in-camera editing, City Slivers juxtaposes various vertical slivers of New York City within a single frame. Cars wind their way through traffic; two revolving doors refract thin swatches of the street; a barge plies the east river, bathed in afternoon light. And in one of the final shots, taken from atop the newly finished Twin Towers, two horizontal black strips slowly recede to the edges like a curtain to momentarily reveal the south-facing skyline.
To include femr2 in the tradition of experimental filmmaking isn’t to validate the speculative content of his project. I happen to think the ideological content of these videos is nonsensical and worse, that manipulating the documentation of tragedy, though well precedented in Art History, is ethically suspect . But I don’t think this discredits the form.
Instead, I think such conspiracy theories are quintessential examples of how the social and political activity of a community generates new aesthetic techniques. For this reason, Smearograms seem far more interesting than any similar work of experimental but intentional “Art”. Smearograms illustrate the fundamentally open-ended and underdetermined meaning of any given technology (here, rudimentary digital-editing software and Youtube) as it exists “out there” in the real socio-political fabric. There is no accounting for what a given technology can or will do before it enters this field, all meaning is contingent on use. To whatever degree the “Art World” self-consciously identifies its techniques as useless (i.e. “art for art’s sake”), its members can only hope to engage with technology when they remain open to learning from those who develop meaning through everyday use. So finally, it’s these amateur, utilitarian aesthetic communities at-large that are literally the most experimental because they alone risk new tentative definitions of technologies without concern for historical trends or markets.
Two weeks ago, Kodak, the company that drove film photography for 131-years, filed for chapter 11 in order to restructure as a digital printing specialist. This week the Columbia Journalism school received an 18 million dollar donation to establish an institute devoted to digital media innovation. Both times, the first thing I thought of was the above image. It accompanied a ridiculous NY Times article last Spring that proclaimed “3-D Avatars Could Put You in Two Places at Once”! The part that stuck in my mind was a tiny detail in the image–nestled in the corner of the CG-conference room is what must be a video-camera, of the type that is commonly used in real conference rooms to broadcast the meeting to a screen somewhere else. But this was a virtual video-camera inside a virtual conference room all for a virtual meeting. So what was the camera doing there? Somehow this question never gets old. And when I read these two recent stories I realized it’s actually a very serious question: what is the camera doing there?
Let’s start with the obvious art writers’ party line on the Kodak/Columbia life-and-death see-saw. We could easily declare the death of analog and the rise of digital–this thing kind of writes itself, just tack on a “kids these days will never understand real photography” angle or a “computer’s will solve everything” angle, and either way the conclusion is essentially the same: photography is dead, long live photography!
I think photographers and those who write about them are comfortable rehashing this debate every few years because its an easy opposition–analog vs. digital–that actually works to preserve their common faith in the permanent value of photography. Preoccupied with the question of what kind of photography will exist in the future, we avoid the difficulty of asking the more threatening question: will any kind of photography exist in the future?
So this is what I want to ask specifically in terms of photojournalism–not how journalists will take pictures in the future but if they will at all.
The contemporary threat to the general practice of camera-based photography is more obvious when you look at commercial and entertainment photography, where computer-generated photorealism is probably less than a decade away from providing near-universal aesthetic and economic incentives over “live-action” and camera-based methods. But the digitization of social and political life threatens to discard the attendant field of photojournalism as well. As more and more social, economic, and political life is given over to non-visual informational networks, the needs, desires, and abilities to photograph that life decrease proportionately.
What iconic visuals (if any) will there be from the historic anti-SOPA/PIPA internet strike last week? What will be the front page visual for some future act of cataclysmic cyber-terrorism? They might be screenshots. They might be info-graphics. But they won’t be photographs. To be sure, a large portion of world events were never available to photography, e.g. the abstract vagaries of markets, most advances in the sciences, ect. But only recently has the political sphere ceased to have the type of reliable physical presence necessary for photography. I think this means that the cultural value of photography will also necessarily shift in the coming decades. Nothing about the digital revolution (so far) has substantively changed the fact that camera-based photography is the process of fixing luminous reflections of the physical world. But despite or maybe because of this, this type of photography finds itself fundamentally changed. Camera-based photography can no longer be considered to be the medium of historical documentation because much of history may no longer avail itself to the camera. It’s a kind of inverted parallax effect: the movement of the object (history) produces the apparent displacement of the viewing subject (the camera).
Case in point: a documentary by Ben Mendelsohn on one of the world’s largest internet exchange centers, 60 Hudson st.. The short film profiles the giant data center that resides within a nondescript brick building in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood. The center serves as one of the internet’s largest switching-posts; in 2010, Google paid 1.9billion dollars to buy a similar data center nearby. The premise of the documentary is that 60 Hudson St. is proof that, despite what we think, the Internet is a physical thing made up of wires, terminals, ect. Interviews with computer scientists and employees at the center are juxtaposed with photographs of the server’s material “guts”. OK. But what are we actually looking at? To that end, the film also intersperses clips of the city’s bristling urban streets to draw an analogy between the two types of infrastructure. The social and political content of urban locomotion is a distinctly visual and visceral phenomenon that lends itself (and possibly even owes its parallel development) to the camera; this is something even the earliest filmmakers grasped. But the physical stuff of the Internet bears no visual marks of its social and political activity. The base technology of the Internet offers nothing to the camera and in turn images of it offer nothing to us, save the awe of incomprehensibility: the mute image of the technological sublime. As one of the disembodied voice of one of the center’s engineers narrates early on: “When you sit down and think about how much bandwidth and traffic is going through a site like this it will kind of boggle your mind, but there’s no time for that.”
That isn’t to say such useless images have to be useless– only that they have to be worked into a more coherent critical framework. The post-Marxist critic Benjamin Buchloh has tried to construct such a framework around Thomas Struth’s most recent photographs of various technological sites around the world. Buchloh essentially recycles a thesis he had developed for Struth’s earlier urban photography, which had argued that the barren streets of those black and white urban portraits spoke to the social dysfunction of the contemporary urban environment, that they were like solemn cenotaphs for some lost socio-political body that had been evacuated from the revolutionary streets of yore. Buchloh sheds the Marxist nostalgia from his discussion of these new photographs, writing simply, “by confronting their technological incommensurability with the curiosity of the photographic eye, these images suddenly seem to contest the credibility of the photographic image, or to challenge the continuing functions of photography itself.” Buchloh’s prognosis is typically dour but it points to what might finally be a productive advance for our understanding of documentary photography. For a long time various critics have sought to rhetorically undermine the naive “credibility” of the so-called documentary photograph but the emergence of invisible politics (can invisibility emerge?) actually manifests this critique as an ineluctable condition. It doesn’t matter if we believe in the documentary power of photographs when the world refuses to have its picture taken.