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.
A good way to begin thinking about Joseph Desler Costa’s work is by way of an anecdote he relayed about a friend of his. This person is a music teacher working with young children. Apparently, their students, who are taking their inspiration from any one of a number of pop music examples, have begun to emulate the jerky, robotic tenor of auto-tuned vocals in their natural singing voice. The internet tells me that this is actually possible to do, as this video shows (yes, she really sings like that):
Apparently, the technique this girl uses is similar to the jumping vocals inherent to yodeling. And equally discomforting:
Joseph mentioned this story to me in passing, but I think it’s offers some valuable insights into his recent body of work Supplementary Materials. On one level the kids are simply emulating what they hear. But they’re also emulating the artifact of digital manipulation, the fingerprint of an algorithmic “improvement”. In watching these videos, there’s something mildly creepy about hearing those sounds come out of a human being. In Supplementary Materials, this vocal mimicry of digital manipulation is translated into a photographic toolset. One the most immediate qualities this work reveals is the influence of tools like photoshop both in the post-production and also in the construction of these images. The auto-tune analogy makes sense to me because, as Joseph put it, he’s mimicking the look of heavily retouched images with material components; instead of trying to sound like his natural voice is auto-tuned, he’s making images that look like the’ve been photoshopped.
At one point I asked Joseph how “Sunkist Eclipse” was constructed, specifically wondering how much of it was photoshop. And I was glad to hear that yes, it was mostly done in-camera by painstakingly cutting perfect circles out of black foam-core and combining all the elements you see in a single exposure. But asking the question “Why is it better if it was done in-camera rather than in the computer?” misses the point for me with respect to Joseph’s work. The payoff is the fact that he’s successfully mimicking a digital look with analog materials. It’s the inverse of why something like Alex Roman’s weirdly realistic 3rd & the 7th from 2009 is so cool, because it’s actually ALL CGl but damn if it doesn’t look ‘real’ at moments. Both manage to hover in the negative space between the familiar and the uncanny.
Our conversation called to mind Annie Dillard’s essay on witnessing a solar eclipse from 1982’s Teaching a Stone to Talk and in particular the incapacity of a photograph to provide sufficient context for the experience:
You have seen photographs of the sun taken during a total eclipse. The corona fills the print. All of those photographs were taken through telescopes. The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array than language can cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal experience. Lenses enlarge the sight, omit its context, and make of it a pretty and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas card. I assure you, if you send any shepherds a Christmas card on which is printed a three-by-three photograph of the angel of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a multitude of the heavenly host, they will not be sore afraid. More fearsome things can come in envelopes. More moving photographs than those of the sun’s corona can appear in magazines. But I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.
(Edit : and also this entry from Sarah Charlesworth’s Modern History project)
In his project statement, Joseph describes “a reality in which identity is fluid from one moment to the next” and in which “objects of mass production and consumption become vehicles for transcendence and beauty”. And of course the images bear a superficial slickness that reinforces this notion of transfiguration unencumbered by identity. But as he goes on to say, this surface gloss is undercut with melancholy, like a candy shell with a rotten core. Lips and Gorilla are stock images (one of which Joseph sold to a stock agency and then bought back from them for the piece) sporting Xzibit-worthy—in more ways than one— mods like holographic window tint and high-gloss paint.
And lest we remain too cheerful in this post, here’s a Nietzsche quote that came to mind:
What do they really want? At least to represent justice, love, wisdom, superiority—that is the ambition of the “lowest”, the sick. And how skillful such an ambition makes them! Admire above all the forger’s skill with which the stamp of virtue…is here counterfeited.
That would make us consumers the sickly ones in this equation. But hear me out: this might have more bearing that it seems on work like Joseph’s, in that the context of the quote Nietzsche describes nihilism as the “uncanniest monster” at once familiar and yet deeply discomforting. Joseph’s work captures that bizarre mixture of familiarity and repulsion, and a sense of the uncanny is deeply embedded in the images he’s crafting. And along with it comes a recognition of the illusory seduction of surface sheen. Rather than avoiding the discomforting emptiness behind surface gloss, we are asked to embrace it as a fact of life and get on with the show already. Even in writing this post, I had a persistent sense of familiarity with one image in particular:
I still can’t place what about it looks familair to me. Is it one of Robert Smithson’s Mirror displacements?:
Or is it something more direct like John Baldassari’s 3 balls?:
Or maybe it’s even more banal, and I’ll never quite be able to resolve it:
Joseph’s website can be found here.
Back in 1995, NASA pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at a small section of the Eagle Nebula (M16) in the constellation Serpens 7,000 light years away. The image it produced, known as The Pillars of Creation, is probably one of the first images that spring to mind when talking about astrophotography. The public was predictable thrilled with this and other images coming from the telescope (images like the Hubble Deep Field). And thanks partly to their public-domain status, these images find their way into all kinds of usages. The Pillars of Creation, being among the most famous, can be found on almost any object, from skateboards to aprons:
Simply put people love this image. But, as this article points out, the famous pillars don’t exist anymore and were actually destroyed by a supernova that took place about 6,000 years ago; the light of their destruction just hasn’t made its way to Earth just yet. So what does it mean that the famous pillars in the photograph we all know were obliterated about 5,820 years before photography was even invented? And should this have any bearing on how we should think about the images we make here on Earth?
Part of what’s fascinating about images like this to me is the fact that they visibly record the incomprehensible. The first hurdle in trying to comprehend what you’re seeing in these pictures is the scale of the distance involved. I would argue that even conceptualizing the amount of empty space in our own solar system is pretty much impossible. The website If the Moon were only 1 pixel does as good a job as any at trying to parse this amount of space down into a human scale, but still. You. Just. Keep. Scrolling. The distance between Mars and Jupiter alone is incomprehensibly far when you put it in human terms like miles or kilometers. And if the scale of our own miniscule solar system isn’t mind-bending enough, think about it this way: When the Hubble revisited the Pillars of Creation earlier this year, NASA published this side-by-side comparison of the structures 20 years apart:
Besides the higher resolution provided by the updated camera Hubble got in May of 2009, it looks pretty similar, right? Some tiny differences maybe, but nothing drastic. Now realize that, according to this NASA report from January, parts of these clouds of gas are moving through space at about 450,000 miles per hour. For 20 years. That’s 10.8 million miles per day. Over 20 years? That’s 78,840,000,000 miles. And it looks almost exactly the same. That’s how far away we are; something can shift by billions of miles and look pretty much the same. It makes the whole notion of human scale seem a little inflated (cue Carl Sagan). What we see is impossibly abstracted from anything human. Jorge Luis Borges’ short story On Exactitude in Science comes to mind as a vehicle for thinking about of abstraction and representation of physical spaces:
… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
The other difficulty in thinking about these photographs — which proceeds as a result of these huge distances — is that we have what equates to an exaggerated, 2-dimensional view of these objects and events; we can’t stick our head out far enough to get a true sense of depth, and our “eye” the Hubble is effectively a cyclops. As an example: if you’ve ever been stuck behind a really tall person in a full movie theater and can’t change seats, you can probably understand this dilemma. Additionally, one of the characteristics of a long, telephoto lens is that it compresses the space that it records. Now attempt to complete the oxymoronic task of imagining that effect on an incomprehensibly massive scale. This gif is a great example I use to show students how the same scene looks vastly different depending on the lens used (you can read more about how this was made here):
This Chrome experiment, 10,000 Stars, is a great if limited way of showing the vastness of the Milky Way in 3 dimensions. And by using the MUSE instrument as part of the Very Large Telescope, NASA and the ESO do have the ability to image the Pillars in 3 dimensions: this video published just a few weeks ago give you a sense of what it can show us about the Pillars of Creation:
You might already be familiar with the fact that many of the images we see of celestial objects are composites made up of processed monochrome images; it’s also the subject of artist Adam Ferris’ project 500 Years Away. And a more in-depth explanation of what is behind Hubble’s color images can be found here. Essentially the “natural-looking” images from space are filtered and compressed versions of wide imaging data sets that sit within the spectrum of visible light our eyes can see. This manipulation of photographic data goes beyond just color, such as these recently re-processed images from one of the Russian Venera probes sent to Venus in the early 1980s:
It looked a little more like this in its raw and unprocessed state:
So what does this have to do with photography here on Earth, then? Part of NASA’s primary mission is “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind” and it seems obvious enough that photographs play a big role in that mission. Or, more precisely, photographic data that are gathered from a immobile perspective, and then manipulated and massaged into a more recognizable form. Not in an effort to deceive, but as the mission statement says, to “reveal the unknown”. I think we’re doing the same thing when we make art. Of the many definitions out there, one of my favorite definitions of art is that it reveals the hidden aspects of the familiar. How else can we do that but though forced perspective, manipulation; by shifting the balance between foreign and familiar? These images from deep space manage to shrink the massive distances that separate us from the rest of the universe. To me, art functions in much the same way, only on a more recognizably human scale.
A couple weeks ago, I received an email that said simply the following: “I am a huge fan of your art. I wonder if it would be possible to get your autograph? I collect artists autographs and it would be wonderful to add yours to my collection.”
The fact that I got a spammy message is not particularly interesting or surprising. But, If you’re an artist — and especially if you’re a photographer —there’s a good chance that you’ve received exactly the same email, down to the letter. Go ahead and search your email (and email me if you did). If you did get the same one, you probably brushed it off like you would any other junk that made it past your spam filter. Oddly enough, just before the email appeared in my inbox, I had seen a Facebook post from last November asking about an email with the exact language in the my email…from the same person. It was in a photographers group, and several members — including several I know personally – had received the same email as me, and were wondering if this was for real. The general tone of the comments was roughly as follows:
- Don’t do it. It’s a scam
- Most likely it’s an identity theft organization
- They find your work online, ask for your autograph, then apply it to the work they’ve printed and try to sell it
- See you all in the shantytown we will all be living in after [he] steals everything we own!
So when “my” email contained the same exact wording from the same exact person, I was naturally suspicious. But I figured, why not mess with the guy? I mean, who does he think he is anyway? So I wrote him a very brief reply:
“That’ll show him” I thought, fairly pleased with how awesomely I’d just burned this guy. And so I was a little surprised when he wrote me back, literally within 5 minutes:
“Thank you so much.”
For some reason, this response crossed a line. I hadn’t planned to send anything other than the “ok” (hoping he’d get more than one meaning from it). But then I wondered, “Wait…Is this guy going to print my website photos and paste an emoji on them as a signature?” I looked around online and was surprised that I couldn’t find any examples of artists had actually done this. All I could find was this awesome pillow for summer campers. Nonetheless, this guy seemed to be taking me seriously, so I felt I had to let him know about it:
“Yeah. Sure. Stop trying to scam people.”
I figured that would be the end of it. 2 minutes later:
“Not trying to scam people, I have collected artists autographs for over 20 years.
Sorry to have bothered, very odd response.”
Ok, well this is a pretty weird scam. At this point I assumed that he was committed to his little ruse and was just trying to wear me down with this whole feigned innocence act. I wrote back — a little more abrasively this time — “Oh, ok you want to play that game? Cool. So tell me…what are your thoughts on this:” And, after blacking out all the profile pictures and names, I pasted in a screenshot of the Facebook conversation that listed his first and last name, email address, and identically worded email. His response:
Right. Libelous. Obviously. By this time I was curious enough to ask the guy some more questions, and I was willing to entertain the possibility that he might be legitimate. I sent him a longer, strongly-worded email that advised him to, among other things, personalize the language in his emails rather than using identical language in each request: “You should really know better, that is practically the textbook definition of spam.” He seemed genuinely apologetic, thanked me for my “measured response” and said he’d take my thoughts into account in the future. Because that’s how he wins my trust and then exploits it, right? I asked him to send me some proof of his collection, and of the article he wrote in Autograph Quarterly Magazine. I couldn’t find much about this magazine apart from their site (which seems to have been made around 1996) and this discussion on a hobbyist forum, which only raises further suspicion. He said he’d be happy to. Here are some of the photos he sent me:
Over the past 2 weeks I’ve exchanged around 30 emails with this person, and I still have no idea if he is genuine or not. Call me cynical, but it’s hard to believe that there is someone out there collecting artist’s autographs (and that they want mine). But if this is a scam, this guy must be pretty committed to his cover story, and so I’m just really not sure. It’s why I’ve decided to keep his name anonymous (although you can probably figure it out pretty easily if you try). Here’s what he’s told me about himself over the course of our correspondence:
- On what he collects: “I have everybody from sculptors to performance to photographers to graffiti to electronic / digital to textile artists…Photography is one of my most favourite types of art.”
- On how big his collection is: “I have over 2000 autographs including artists, politicians, magicians, sports stars…I think [my collection] is the biggest collection of contemporary artists autographs.”
- On what he does with the autographs: “I don’t display them or do anything apart from store them safely…I genuinely believe that at some point my collection will be significant, I have pioneers in art, early performance artists, and as art changes and different art disciplines occur, I hope to also get these autographs…A museum would be a good home.”
- On how he finds artists: “I first find artists I like the work of, then research shows, try to attend if possible, research awards. I try to research notable, emerging, news worthy artists.”
- On why he doesn’t just collect artwork instead : “I do collect art, I have a small collection.”
- On why he wrote me back: “I wrote back because I have done nothing wrong, I am neither scamming or spamming, I am not selling a service, just asking for an autograph. I felt I needed to show that I had no ulterior motive.”
- On if he has considered the monetary value of his collection : “No never, I work, I have a home. Don’t have the need for the money. Don’t need to sell collectibles, you can’t replace them…and I just enjoy collections.”
- On what he does for a living : “I work as a salesperson, on the telephone. Selling plumbing equipment”
In response to my asking if anyone had ever accused him of being a scammer (before me), he said this:
“I have had a few emails back saying no to autograph, but nobody has been rude or called me a scammer, I am not and this is the first time I have had such a response.”
Well now I feel like a jerk. But…really? Out of thousands of emails I’m the ONLY ONE who thought to say something back to this person? That is the hardest thing of all to believe, for me. Yet even if this is a total shake-down, I can’t really figure out what the scam is. Think about it: How valuable is your autograph/signature in today’s world? According to the BBC, “the signature is in retreat” and rapidly being replaced by digital methods of authentication. This collection of anonymous and mostly illegible signatures captured at POS stations was featured in the first installment of Paul Soulellis‘ fantastic and ever-evolving Library of the Printed Web:
Looking at these, or perhaps this famously minimal signature, and it’s pretty easy to see the drawback of using signatures when more secure and sophisticated options are available thanks to technology. Hyperallergic writer
Whatever the truth may be about my email friend, there ARE definitely scams targeted at artists floating around the internet. They usually involve a more direct appeal for money in exchange for “exposure” or as inflated competition fees. But there also appear to be more than one example of individuals who have taken this shotgun-approach to collecting artist ephemera: a very similar case involving a handwritten letter from a French girl is explained here, and This American Life has even done a story on an English man who solicited artwork from “more than a few” artists, allegedly for his artistically-inclined autistic son (here’s the link, it’s worth a listen). Both of these actually seem to be genuine in the end, if not a little weird. And it may well be the case for my guy as well. But either way, I’m not sending anyone my autograph.
Photographs alone aren’t enough for Charlie Rubin. In his recently completed body of work, Strange Paradise, many of his images are printed as straightforward photographs and then painted with inkjet pigments. These altered prints are scanned, and the ink becomes another layer in the new version of the photo. Although the technique of layering both digitally and physically is not particularly unique to Charlie’s work, his playful take on it is a reflection of his multifaceted practice. If you haven’t seen Strange Paradise in book form up close, its materials (embossed endpapers, orange foil-stamping, a sticker pack) are a perfect complement to Charlie’s photographic assemblages.
I’ve been familiar with Charlie’s work for a few years, but when I asked him to send me some of his newest images for this post, I noticed a quality that exists through all his recent work that I’d never recognized before. It started with these images:
It may be the prevalence of water or shimmering ripples of color in these images combined with Charlie’s love of inky washes, but I immediately thought of videos and photos I’ve seen online demonstrating surface tension. Typically these are high-speed and, like all high-speed imagery, they utterly transform even the most banal of everyday events. Take this high-speed video of water droplets snapping into a pool a water much more abruptly than it would appear at normal speed:
Charlie’s work seems to me to be capturing a moment of flux or transition, where objects and their environment are bending or just about to collapse together. Like this image of a water balloon snapping, its contents momentarily suspended in the air before gravity kicks in:
Or even something as seemingly simple as a paperclip floating on water, leaving deep impressions on its surface but somehow not breaking it:
I think what’s appealing about these kinds of videos and images is that they don’t play any tricks on us; they show us the hidden side of what’s right in front of us. And in some sense, isn’t that what art is supposed to do, too? It’s not uncommon to find artists, Charlie included, working with heaps of banal, everyday materials. In many cases, its because they know there are things hidden in all this…stuff…that is sitting right in front of us, and their job is to uncover it, and to show it to us.
Something else that struck me about some of Charlie’s recent work is the recurring images of hands, disembodied and floating in a flattened, zero-perspective space:
I asked him about this, and his response — after denying my accusation that he might have a weird hand fetish — was that the hand is a way to keep things grounded in human, physical reality. For Charlie, the hand is a counterweight to the digital space of the computer. Charlie is clearly in good company, considering this recent exhibition at MoMA dedicated to hands. And beyond MoMA’s fantastic historical examples, many of which share Charlie’s graphic sensibilities, I can’t help but think of this:
…and this image made by the longest surviving Bauhaus member, Herbert Bayer:
…which (after being transformed into this letterpress design) inspired this 2007 album cover:
…and of course, there’s Thing:
By “showing us his hand” in the work — literally or figuratively — Charlie asks us to look more deeply at the tactile world that lies directly in front of us. Images of hands have been invoked historically to represent political unity, hard work, a connection to a computer interface, or in the case of Bayer (and Thing) something transcendental, magical, or surreal. Whether we actually see an image of the hand or not, Charlie’s layering of images and washes of ink, or his unconventional materials (one of his custom-printed silk scarves appears above) remind us that touch is perhaps the most powerful human connection with both the physical and the digital world. Look no further than your pocket for proof:
If you’re in Los Angeles, you’re lucky enough to have a chance to stop in on Charlie’s first solo exhibition with Kopeikin Gallery through June 6th. If you’re elsewhere, here are a few shots of the show:
Charlie’s website can be found here.
A few years ago, I started giving an assignment to my students; usually it’s the very first assignment of the semester. I send out a pdf of 10 photographs from a wide variety of sources. I provide no context; titles or supporting text is cropped or removed, and the students see nothing but the photograph. After a few basic remarks on formal terms like composition, lighting, focus, etc., I ask my students to look at these decontextualized images, and formulate a written response based on on what they see, where they might expect to find such an image, and whether they think it is even worth discussing in the first place. Ideally, they’ve never seen any of the photographs before. I also ask them to please not do a Google image search because providing the “right” answers is not the point. The point is, of course, to initiate the process of investigating and unpacking the internal logic of a photograph; I want to know what they see in the most literal sense of the word.
Art thrives on context, and good art sets up complicated relationships between context and content. Stripping out the peripheral information about a photograph and handing it to my students is partly an experiment on my part to see what sticks when all that’s left is the image. If I tell my students that I am showing them the work of an artist, they are already primed to see and respond to it in a particular way depending on what assumptions they carry about art — good or bad. Some of the images might look like they could be art but aren’t; I’ve used abstract NASA satellite imagery of the moon prior to the Apollo program, and more recently the Rosetta orbiter’s selfie from last year:
I always look forward to hearing what my students have to say about the work from Corey Arcangel’s Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations:
Usually the responses to this work range from, “I think this would be in a book about color theory,” to “This would probably be found in a hippy dorm room.” Fair enough. Which brings me to the picture at the top of the post, from Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. It probably should come as no surprise that Stephen Shore is having a good time on Instagram. But the fact that he is, and the fact that the my students — who know nothing about his work— echo the obviousness of this connection is oddly striking. Here are a some of the responses this photograph has gotten over the past few years:
“This image of breakfast would probably be found on a social network.”
“This photograph looks like it would be found in someone’s phone.”
“Overall, I think it is a boring image.”
“Due to the poor quality, I’d probably find this image on social media.”
“I would expect to find this on Instagram, because it would look better if cropped to a square.”
This last one was especially good, because the student drew the square frame onto the printout that you see at the top of this post. And yes, some of these responses might seem funny on the surface, but I think they show with razor sharpness the weight that we give to the context of images when we decide to call them art. I’m not sure if it’s cliché to say that I learn from my students, but…I do. A lot. Especially when it comes to talking about art. Talking about art with artists or with experienced art students is easy; on some level, we all take the value of art for granted. But starting the conversation with just the image —with ONLY what you can see — is a valuable tool in reminding myself as a teacher and an artist that taking the value of things for granted is the cardinal sin of art making.
And by the way, if you were wondering, of course Stephen Shore take pictures of his food like anyone else. But there are only a couple, and this one of a mutton chop is his 3rd least-liked image (but please note the comments on it). Somehow, Stephen Shore’s food pictures on Instagram zipping past his followers without being liked seems a little weird considering this, this, and this to name a few. Don’t worry though, his photo of chicken fried steak did considerably better in the likes department. I tagged him in a shot of my students comment with the drawn-on crop marks and he liked it. That’s good enough for me.
I’ll leave you with this response to John Baldassari’s Wrong, which makes absolutely no sense to any of my students.
“This picture is not worth discussing because it is too simple.”
It’s likely you’ll recognize the names of at least a handful of the more than 100 artists who have participated in Oranbeg Press’ Interleaves (a current list is at the bottom of this post). Interleaves are 2-sided inkjet prints measuring roughly 12″ x 15″ which are designed to be folded in half, twice, making them about the size of a small paperback book. It’s one of several ongoing projects orchestrated by photographer and Oranbeg’s Founder John O`Toole in which the traditional photo book is a format is ripe for re-imagining. Oranbeg’s seemingly boundless enterprise — there’s always something new in the works— takes full advantage of the instant-gratification digital photography offers, and the press functions in equal parts as an unconventional art publisher and a community hub. Running through all of Oranbeg’s output is a DIY inclusiveness that is sometimes missing from the ultra-exclusive-limited-edition scene of art book publishing.
A perfect example of John’s all-hands-on-deck approach to publishing took place under the name Imprint as part of Pratt Institute’s RiDE initiative (Risk/Dare/Experiment). Over two days, John rolled wide-format printers and multiple computer stations into the main corridor of Pratt’s photography department for collaborative production sessions. Students/faculty as well as the general public were encouraged to stop by, design an Interleaf with John on the fly, and come back a few hours later to pick up their free copy. Projects like Imprint — fast, and with minimal premeditation — are fantastic opportunities for artists and art students to engage in a low-stakes yet highly-rewarding project. It’s a refreshing reminder to students and everyone else that this whole art thing is supposed to be fun, after all.
As of today, John has commissioned exactly 110 artists to take part in the Interleaves, and according to him, the project will end with the 150th iteration: only 40 more to go! One of the things I love about the project is that John brings a high level of technical skill to the project (his day job is as a photo lab technician) and yet manages to keep the project fun, accessible, and most importantly tactile. These aren’t pristine inkjet prints encapsulated in a frame, they’re meant to be folded, handled, and worn. And they are all the better for it — some of the older contributions to the project have become soft and fuzzy around the fold lines after being folded and unfolded, and carted from book fair to book fair. They remind me of fold-out posters in magazines or CD’s, or National Geographic map/infographics like this one of the Orion Nebula from a 1995 issue (maybe someone should submit an Interleaves design of an unfolded poster?):
Not every design specifically incorporates the fold-lines as a central element, but there are more than a few clever artists that take the act of folding and unfolding as an opportunity to reveal and conceal elements of the imagery. What’s appealing about this format to me is the intimacy it fosters with the work it contains; paper is ultimately vulnerable and fragile and so the act of turning this material in your hands requires a soft touch. The Interleaves take what’s best about zines—DIY, democratized production with little-to-no barriers to entry— without putting quality reproduction and nuanced subtlety on the shelf.
And Interleaves is far from the only project on John’s plate. He also organizes Oranbeg NET, a series of online group exhibitions that recruits outside curators for an online exhibition and digital PDF of the show. So while part of the charm in the Interleaves project is its physical presence, Oranbeg’s reach extends into exclusively digital spaces as well. All of this is to say that what Oranbeg does particularly well is act as an inclusive and participatory hub for current photographic practices. The list of artists involved in one project or another is already substantial and “in a constant state of update”. At $3 apiece, it’s not a significant investment to pick up one or several Interleaves and the poster-like format takes all of the cost-effective advantages inherent to digital publishing without falling prey to the preciousness that can keep artist publications hermetically sealed on bookshelves in plastic sleeves.
As for what’s next, the second edition of Oranbeg’s newest publication venture SoSo — described on Oranbeg’s site as “A periodical released every once in a while” — will be released at the Philadelphia Art Book Fair and will feature Alex Thebez, Nat Ward, Everything is Collective, TJ Elias, Hannah Solomon, Lauren Wansker, Sarah Frohn and an essay by Colin Todd. SoSo will also have a companion zine, Gutter, which was sourced through one of Oranbeg’s many open calls. Check Oranbeg’s Tumblr for the most up to date news.
Here’s the full tally of Interleaves artists (current as of 04/17/2015 and bound to change soon):
Ben Alper, Michael McCraw, Timothy Briner, Colin Todd, Daniel Augschoell, Varvara Mikushkina, Michael Vahrenwald, TJ Elias, Irina Rozovsky, Carlos Lowenstein, Maggie Shannon, Jay Muhlin, Michael Marcelle, Sophie T. Lvoff, Pauline Magnenat, Nat Ward, Ginevra Shay, Dan Boardman, Leigh Van Duzer, Mark Daniel Harley, Meghan Schaetzle, Curran Hatleberg, Tristan Hutchinson, Lynley Bernstein, Mike Finkelstein, Quinn Gorbutt , John M. O’Toole, Joe Lingeman, Josh Poehlein, Patrick Hogan, Matthew Austin, Seth Fluker, Nicole White, Tammy Mercure, Eric Ruby,Carl Gunhouse, Daisuke Yokota, Ben Huff, Aaron Canipe, Nelson Chan, Jake Reinhart, Claudio Nolasco, Tara Wray, Sara Stojkovic, Sara J Winston, David Oresick, David la Spina, Amy Lombard, Andrew Hammerand, Solomon Schechman, Clayton Cotterell, Shane Lyman, Susana Zak, Jeremy Haik, Jesse Hlebo, Coley Brown, Erin Jane Nelson, Andrew Frost, Colin Stearns, Magali Duzant, Jordan Baumgarten, Stephen Hilger, Lindsay Metivier, Jane Tam, Kai McBride, Kim Hoeckele, Ryan Arthurs, Nicole Reber, Caitie Moore, Jesse Untracht-Oakner, Peter Hoffman, Stephanie Powell, Amiko Li, Matthew Mili, Sean Stewart, Joe Leavenworth, Casey Dorobek, Mona Varichon, Matthew Gamber, Melanie Flood, Nathaniel Grann, Skylar Blum, Matthew Cronin, Brittany Marcoux, Jamie Hladkey, Erin O’Keefe, Keith Yahrling, Erik Schubert, Eli Durst, Matthew David Crowther, Vivien Aryoles, Daniel Terna, Zachary Norman, Hirokazu Kobayashi, Jesse Crimes, Brian Ulrich, Annie Solinger, Benjamin Davis, Jenna Garret, Katie Shapiro, Ron Jude, Alex Nelson, Stephanie Bursese, Melissa Cantanese, Mike Slack, Susan Worsham, Dru Donovan, Laura Heyman, Eva O’Leary and Dylan Nelson.