Try, for a moment, to image what it would be like if you were the last person left alive on Earth. There are about a thousand reasons why such a thought is terrifying; you’re utterly alone, there’s no one to talk to. Even if you manage to survive on your own for years, the knowledge that the human race ends with you is always in the back of your thoughts. It’s not surprising, then, that literary and cinematic history is rife with works of fiction based upon this scenario. Part of what makes this notion so terrifying is the unknowable, post-human reality that persists (we can only assume) after we have all perished. This is an invisible future, shaped by forces that are outside the scope of human vision. For Dillon DeWaters, “making visible the unseen”, in his words, is one of his motivations as an artist, and he does it quite well.
Dillon’s process is fairly straightforward in description: It largely consists of multiple-exposures with colored gels on medium-format film and minimal post-processing. He gets almost all of his effects in-camera at the time of exposure, not digitally. But, as is often the case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Combining exposures in this way causes ripple effects from the first images to wash over and alter the way the second is rendered on the film. The result is typically a strange hallucination of both and neither image simultaneously. For Dillon, the unseen that he’s striving to make visible shows up where the two overlap. It’s no minor feat that Dillon achieves these seemingly effortless effects completely in-camera, given the unpredictable nature of his process. Dillons has found a way to divine a visual order from this invisible and unpredictable process.
When I visited his studio, Dillon and I talked as much about reading as we did about photography. A voracious reader, Dillon names a wide range of literary influences, from Walt Whitman to the speculative fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Nods to these influences show up in his titles. One of his current projects, Weapon, Shapely, Naked, Wan, takes it’s title from Whitman’s Poem Song of the Broad Axe. Whitman lived in and around Ft. Greene Brooklyn, and was a major advocate for the creation of the park that bears the neighborhood’s name. Many of Dillon’s recent images recount a photographic ghost-hunting expedition of sorts in Ft. Greene: his multi-exposure process revealing the underlying nature (no pun intended) of the park and it’s environs, taking the words of Whitman as a cue.
And despite recent infusions of figures in Dillon’s images, the human form appears more as a spectre or outline than a straightforward portrait. Slivers of light, faint outlines, and obscured features read to me like Dillon’s hallucinatory riffs on Sugimoto’s wax figures: they are filled with references to life but they aren’t exactly human either. In Dillon’s mind, these figures provide the context of narrative to the images; they give us as viewers a way of inhabiting this world Dillon is recording. The human figures in the work are less active participants in a storyline than they are uncertain detainees in that weird limbo between being and nothingness. Dillon told me that he’s striving to allow this nothingness to be a participant in his work; if that’s the case the deck seems fairly stacked against us.
The title of this post, if you haven’t already guessed, is taken from Eugene Thacker’s book In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1. In this first volume, Thacker takes the idea of nothingness, the unknowable, and what he describes as the-world-without-us as his starting point. “The-world-without-us”, he says, “is the subtraction of the human from the world” and lies “in a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific”. With requisite nods to the philosophical history of nihilism, Thacker proceeds to examine these ideas through the horror genre in literature, film and popular culture. In particular, speculative fiction, a big influence for Dillon, plays a leading role in the way human culture has attempted to grapple with the limits of human knowledge, and the fear of forces both natural and supernatural that lie outside the threshold of our senses. And in a lot of ways, this is exactly what Dillon is doing in his work. Rather than use words, (or as in the case of H.P. Lovecraft, an economy of words) Dillon uses an economy of visual forms and allows us to, paradoxically, gaze into this nothingness.
This oxymoronic “manifestation of nothingness” is explored in depth in Thacker’s book, and in particular, his chapter Six Lectio on Occult Philosophy. This section systematizes the ways in which the unknown, the supernatural, and the “weird” intersect with the human world; magic circles as in Faust, strange radio signals from deep space, incantations, seances, etc. Dark clouds, fog and mist are a common motif as well. Which brings us full circle to my question at the beginning of this post. Thacker says that “the mist in these types of stories is not only itself vaguely material and formless, but in many cases its origins and aims remain utterly unknown to the human beings that are its victims.” He names M.P. Scheil’s 1901 work The Purple Cloud as a “blueprint” for the mist motif in speculative fiction (he actually says that “In The Purple Cloud [..] it is through mist that the hiddenness of the world manifests itself “) The story is that of the last man on earth, told through his diary entries, after an ominous purple cloud descends upon civilization and wipes out everyone in it’s path. I’ll leave you two entries that seems eerily appropriate for Dillon’s work:
Alone that same day I began my way southward, and for five days made good progress. On the eighth day I noticed, stretched right across the south-eastern horizon, a region of purple vapour which luridly obscured the face of the sun: and day after day I saw it steadily brooding there. But what it could be I did not understand.
Always—day after day—on the south-eastern horizon, brooded sullenly that curious stretched-out region of purple vapour, like the smoke of the conflagration of the world. And I noticed that its length constantly reached out and out, and silently grew.
Dillon’s website can be found here
If you’re something of a Photoshop nerd you might recognize this image “Jennifer in paradise” as that taken by John Knoll of his then-girlfriend Jennifer in 1987. John was working on a cheaper alternative to highly-priced imaging software. Since digital images were not easy to come by (it feels weird to even type those words) John used a scanner (also not easy to come by in 1987) to digitize this photo, which was all he had on him at the time. The software that John was working on would eventually become Adobe Photoshop, and the rest is history. Even in version 1.0, the software is impressive in what it can do, as John shows in this recreation of an early demo:
With this development in software, users could install and operate Photoshop on consumer-grade machines rather than pay for time (up to $900/hr) on hardware-based imaging applications. The democratization of digital image editing we know today started here, and Jennifer in paradise was the first proving-ground. Artist Constant Dullaart made it the subject of an exhibition in London a few years ago, and this open letter to Jennifer is worth a quick read. Although John himself doesn’t find the project particularly interesting, as this Guardian article notes, Jennifer is nonetheless inextricably linked to the history of digital imaging.
In a post last month on ArtSlant about Dullaart’s work with the Jennifer image, Edo Dijksterhuis argues that there is no overriding moral imperative that prevents us from altering images, with a couple minor exceptions. He cites the World Press Photo competition’s rejection of 20% of it’s entries on the grounds of their being digitally altered as one example of manipulation that is frowned upon. Another example is the widespread practice of restructuring the female body in advertising. Dijksterhuis says that we collectively disapprove of these particular offenses, but by and large we accept and condone the prospect that every image has been altered. But…is that really the case? Resigned acceptance and complicity are not necessarily the same thing, to say nothing of approval. We certainly don’t accept or approve blatant manipulation in the political arena (when we can prove it). This was the case when Russia provided altered satellite images as proof of Ukrainian involvement in the downing of Flight MH17 (twice). This was also the case with Iran’s or North Korea’s doctored images of missile launches. It was not acceptable in 1994 when Time magazine (unintentionally, according to them) published a sinister-ized mug shot of OJ Simpson on it’s cover. And on a far more banal level, I doubt most people accept it in online dating profiles either. And for every instance that gets called out, how many more do we miss? Are we ok with that?
This is, of course, not to say that digital image manipulation is inherently wrong and should be socially unacceptable. Rather it points to the fact that we as consumers of images haven’t really figured out what we want from photographs, or how to reconcile them with our ingrained notions of truth. We want photographs to be both objective and expressive. This is a prickly issue much larger than a blog post can fully address, but the question of our expectations from photographs is less resolved today than it ever has been in the past. Photography’s dual-citizenship allows it to seemingly offer hard-truth objectivity on one hand and speculative fabrication on the other. Which of course makes it the perfect medium for politics, which are often bound up in the same contradictory elements of aspiration and pragmatism, particularly when these emotions are entwined with images of war. Take the story of the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima by the US Marie Corps in February 1945, just over 70 years ago: The iconic image on which the memorial in Washington D.C. is based was the second flag raising that day. Marines were ordered to remove the first flag because it was too small and could not be seen from the beaches.
In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag describes the second flag-raising at Iwo Jima by stating that “With time, many staged photographs turn back into historical evidence, albeit of an impure kind – like most historical evidence.” She goes on the claim that actual staging of events largely ended with the Vietnam war due to an abundance of photographers (I for one am not convinced this is true), and conceded that the possibilities for post-production manipulation are much greater as technology progresses. In the same book she traces the history of staged photography in war all the way back to the Crimean War in 1855. She describes a scene in which photographer Roger Fenton allegedly altered the landscape of a battlefield to make it appear more dangerous. Documentary filmmaker Erroll Morris — in an effort to find evidence for or against Sontag’s unfounded claim — wrote an opinion piece about the photographs in the NY Times in 2007 but it’s much more satisfying to listen to him talk about it on Radiolab.
More recently, the images surrounding the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011 have their own set of photographic uncertainties. Faked images of his body were published in major news outlets before being discovered as fraud, but these images still circulate widely on the internet (I’m not linking to them, but a google search will bring them up easily should you want to look). And while that image is clearly not authentic, even the more verifiable image of the “Situation Room” in the the White House taken during the raid itself highlights the way politics takes advantage of photographic ambiguity:
The image itself is both gripping and evasive; we don’t know what they are looking at (is it the downed helicopter? Or the ensuing gunfight? Maybe the signal was lost and they’re simply waiting for it to return?). Ken Johnson in the New York Times went so far as to describe Hillary Clinton as Roland Barthes’ punctum, her hand covering a repulsed gasp. But…she also said she had allergies that day and was probably just stifling a cough (maybe it was even a yawn?) What can we make of that? Do you read that image differently now?
So while we know and resign ourselves to the fact that manipulation is and has always been part of photography, where do we go with that knowledge? Perhaps the most insightful approach comes from a computer engineer, Roger Cozien. Cozien developed Tungstène, an image-analysis program that is used to detect digital manipulation of photographs:
(WARNING: the faked bin Laden image appears at the head of this video, so skip it if you don’t want to see it!)
In a recently translated article, Cozien has strong words for the World Press with regard to the vague rules regarding manipulation in their entries, calling their rules “nonsense”. Taking a look at the actual guidelines of the world press photo competition, Rule number 12 under the Material Specifications says, “The contents of an image must not be altered. Only retouching that conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards.” In other words, “we’ll know it when we see it.” Cozien is worth quoting at length when it comes to the question of truth in photography:
We are all mistaken in considering that photography is the witness of reality. It’s wrong. Photography is a way for the photographer to express himself. The question is not: “What does the photograph show?” but: “What did the photographer mean?” Take a photographer coming back from Nepal. His speech will be very emphasized: “I was in Nepal, it was dreadful, unbelievable, horrifying!” Someone writing a press release using those terms will not be told: “Sir, you said it was dreadful but it was not, it was only tragic.” We never have this type of reflection. We never blame a journalist or a witness for using an inappropriate word. However, a photographer saying: “I saw a fire. My photograph was not representative enough of what I saw, so I darkened the smoke to give it a more terrible effect.” Why would this photographer be more blameworthy than someone who used some words to report an event? When the photographer modifies his photograph to show us, who were not there, the extent of what he saw and which was not depicted in his photo, is his action reprehensible, blameworthy? Is it legitimate?
This perspective is especially compelling given that it comes from a man whose career centers around raw computational data; he is not a photographer or an artist who takes advantage of ambiguity in his work, his work deals with unequivocal numbers and mathematical analysis. And yet when it comes to how we should approach photography, and what we should expect from it, he considers photography the exclusive domain of individual expression in precisely the same way that language is. He’s even working with a specialist in semiotics on a book addressing these issues in photography. In his view, if we want truly “neutral” images, we should get rid of human photographers (easier said than done) and allow it to be done by machines. That’s an issue for another day. Cozien thinks that we should respond to photography (all photography, not just art) in much the same way that we respond to the written word; take it all with a grain of salt, but a tweak isn’t necessarily a lie. Because there’s no reason to expect that this form of expression will be anything but easier and more accessible in the future. Adobe is still working on ways to allow photographers to manipulate their images on the go:
So with that said, feel free to hit the beach, because soon enough you’ll be able to make a perfectly expressed twin-copy of Jennifer before your feet leave the sand.