Camilo José Vergara, from Invincible Cities
I’m reworking next week’s essay, so we’ll have a slight break this week. As a bit of a preview, though, be sure to check out the Invincible Cities database, which I’ll be touching on next week.
Taryn Simon, from ‘An American Index Of The Hidden And Unfamiliar‘
I had a friend in photo school who, for her thesis presentation, eschewed actully taking pictures and proceded to draw up obsessive charts of all of her relations with the things and people around her, which were then meticulously scrubbed of any identifying information or text. When asked what she was doing, she explained that, for her, photography was a practice of obsessive cataloging, and in creating an artwork of obsession she was cutting out the middle-man that was the camera.
Although my friend clearly wasn’t capturing everything with her new method of ‘capturing pictures,’ she had succeeded in isolating an important element of photography. Photography is an obsessive medium after all – We select certain elements and moments and isolate them at the expense of all others. The act of framing something is the same as pointing and saying “This is important.” Photography is, naturally, an exercise in creating hierarchies in reality.
And so, it appeals to those of us with a natural predilection towards collecting. We are not quite Langley Collyers – more like Victorian museums; venturing out to capture the notable things in the world and bring them home to arrange in picture frames on our walls, tucked away in albums on our shelves, or organized in folders on our desktops. Photographers have noticed this.
This prediliction towards obsessive photographing is a handy tool for indexing reality, of course. Besides some of the index projects mentioned elsewhere on this blog, there are, of course, the more functional indexes of police files, surveys, and anthropological cross sections. These would all be shodows of themselves without the descriptive power of photography, and photographic history is irreperably tied to these uses by power. ‘Evidence‘ is, of course, a classic play on this.
But the classic index has always been tied to the real world limitations of size, space, and cost. Indices are now spreading out, creeping out from the square vertical index of the filing cabinet to an amorphous tag-cloud thingy. Will photography spread too, or will it keep the right angle limitations of a book, a gallery, a flat file?
The first digital camera, courtesy of Kodak’s PluggedIn blog
It took 23 seconds to record the digitized image to the cassette. The image was viewed by removing the cassette from the camera and placing it in a custom playback device. This playback device incorporated a cassette reader and a specially built frame store. This custom frame store received the data from the tape, interpolated the 100 captured lines to 400 lines, and generated a standard NTSC video signal, which was then sent to a television set.
The irony, of course, is that the company that first developed this technology has been almost entirely unable to capitalize on it. Steve Sasson, the engineer who helped develop the camera, apparently titled the internal demonstration “Film-less Photography,” which seems apt, but probably didn’t go a long way to convincing managers at Kodak to push forward with the ideas. The patent is publicly viewable, btw: U.S. patent #4,131,919.
What seems at first to be an interesting side note, but what is in fact quite central, is that upon completion of the camera, the engineering team snapped a picture of a female lab assistant who, the story goes, did not like the picture at all. And so, the first digital picture ever was promptly deleted, becoming the precursor to the trillions of images that now follow it into the digital ether, making room on cassettes, cards, whatever for the trillions more that followed.
I find this a tedious issue. People make way too much out of the digital versus film. The challenges in photography—focus, crop, shutter, aperture, and of course the biggest ones of all, the ones that really matter: what you actually point the camera at, and with what intelligence you use it… are all still there, completely unchanged. So quite whether that camera records the information with a piece of celluloid or a piece of silicon is of little significance. Get over it. I doubt anyone can go to the MoMA exhibition and tell me 100 percent correctly which images are digital and which are film.
The inherent elements haven’t changed at all, but more importantly the way that the are distributed and our way of experiencing them is completely different (see here for an overview): A change that we as artists, are only now starting to take advantage of. There have been some examples – End Commercial, for one, which sought to theorize the urban environment visually, a process only possible with the billions of images digitally produced. Interestingly, Photosynth is constructing worlds the same way that end commercial was trying to deconstruct them and reveal their underlying architecture.
As deeply unserious as they may initially seem, street style sites like The Sartorialist or its more youthful counterpart Face Hunter are almost ideal examples of the type of photography unleashed by digital. Why try and sum something up in as few pictures as possible when there is an endless exhibition space online, with almost no cost associated with it whatsoever? They are online indices, each of a certain style, more complete than any book on the topic could ever be.
And yes, I suppose photo-a-day blogs are another example of what digital distribution has rendered not only possible but almost imperative. However, in their very attempts at artfullness, they present a contradiction – traditionally photography is as much about what you take out (editing, framing, etc) than it is what you leave in a picture – why limit yourself to one photo a day when you could post a billion that describe every detail that passes in front of you; or, conversely, why describe every day of your existence when you could pick 10 that sum up everything essential about it?
These are two reactions to the digital world; a grand picture or pictures which sums up something essential, like a Gursky or a Wall, or an avalanche of images shot quickly and with apparent lack of artfulness, like the prolific outputs of Terry Richardson and the contemporary snapshot aesthetic, and the billion kids with cameras taking ‘party photos.’ There is, too, an interesting techno-spirituality showing up in art online, but that I’ll save for another post.
Oh, and I will just say that this post and others like it are an attempt to formulate some kind of an understanding of how, exactly, photography is changed by its place online. I highly encourage you to argue with me, vehemently, if you so desire.
So is the internet – the internet of objects, designs, creativity, cataloguing and chronicling – merely a modern day cast court or print room? All ‘work’ is reduced and resized, hung on the same gallery walls and given the same passing glance, the glancing perusal of the perpetually scrolling museum. Just as the dense clusters of imagery that marked early museums contrasted strongly with the more open, expansive, curated galleries that subsequently evolved, the internet of objects appears increasingly at odds with the internet of connectivity and expanded human horizons. How will we deal with the growing distinction between cabinets within rooms within corridors within buildings within streets within cities?
12th Press is back, and with it comes this blog, On Shadow. Unfortunately, we’re still working through some technical details, so please excuse some of the gaps on the site, and the possibility that we may have lost some of your recent comments. New posts should be up tomorrow, but in the meantime, check out my new ‘zine available in the Books section of the website.
After a long hiatus, 12th Press has returned.