CAMERA OBSCURA

... on the arts, literature & photography

Friday
Oct152010

Jim Lewis, Meet Your Nemesis

It’s pretty clear that the future of books is digital.  But as more publishers and readers move to this new format of reading and looking, the more nostalgists yearn for the page itself.  And the ever growing debate about the physical medium of reading is endlessly sucked into the same feedback loop, the most recent example of which is Jim Lewis writing at Slate’s Culturebox.   Lewis, a novelist, ostensibly has no problem with the act of reading by e-book, arguing that content is content regardless of the medium (though Tim Carmody and Jonah Lehrer at Wired would disagree). His problem is with the act of looking.  Since William Henry Fox Talbot invented the negative/positive process, photographs have been deeply wedded to the printed page. Lewis argues that’s where they belong, singularly unsuited for viewing on computers, Kindles or iPads. 


I couldn’t disagree more with Lewis. His understanding of the medium of photography - how it’s viewed and engaged with - is not only limited, it's obtuse.  Since Fox Talbot, photography has continually been in flux. Unlike the other plastic arts, it’s harder to pin down a definition of the photograph since its uses and appeal are so varied – high brow, low brow, documentary, scientific, artistic, etc.  What has tied together this diverse medium is its reproducibility. Lewis denies even this, writing: “The negative, or perhaps the original print, is the actual artwork, but mostly what we see are reproduction and reprints.”   Huh?  So only the negative or the first print the photographer produces is valued as art? Are digital photographs inherently denied artistic status?


Photography is intrinsically about reproduction: It reproduces reality and it reproduces itself.  Certainly Lewis’s misunderstanding of photography affects his overarching argument, which is ostensibly about the poor quality of reproduction in digital viewing (ie. on a screen).  He actually has a point, albeit a limited one.  He writes:



It matters even more for art. A decade or two ago, students learning about, say, Stephen Shore, would head to the library and find a book, or perhaps see some slides projected in a classroom. Now, they sit at a computer and call up some images, which is much worse; because what they're looking at is only a very rough approximation of what the photographer actually intended. The colors are wrong, the details are missing, the subtleties have vanished. In the absence of those qualities, one tends to focus on content—on what the picture is of or about— effectively rendering all photography a species of photojournalism.



Yes, reproduction changes a work – the orange tones Picasso’s Demoisellles d’Avignon are more vibrant in a photograph and Malevich’s squares look far more painterly in person than they do in photographs – and yes, it is a “rough approximation.” But, at least in terms of painting, the problem isn’t an e-text, it’s the photograph itself. Susan Sontag once called it “a slice…an effect.”  But this is really the only valid point Lewis has to make, and anyone who has visited an art museum knows that. 


More importantly, Lewis is privileging not only a particular kind of photograph, but also a particular kind of looking. Neither of these is monolithic.   His examples give him away: Ansel Adams, Man Ray, William Eggleston, all of whom were photographers who reveled in the ability to create sleek, mechanically reproduced worlds (Eggleston is one of the earliest color photographers and Adams and Man Ray experimented with lighting and the technical limitations of the medium).  They were also photographers who were very engaged with the substance of their work.  Lewis dismisses “content” and “photojournalism” and in doing so disregards one of the most active forms of the photograph and a large portion of photography’s history (like, the whole nineteenth century).  Looking at photography is not just about enjoying the lush qualities of the print – it’s an engagement with the real world photographically reproduced, and the technology which enables that interaction. 


More importantly, Lewis’s assertion that “looking at photographs on electronic media will be at best misleading, and at worst miserable,” make me wonder whether he’s even aware of the invention of the digital photograph.  Most photographers no longer capture images in the traditional way, which is meant for negative/positive reproduction. They choose images on a computer screen.  So, when one views them on a computer screen, an iPad, or a Kindle, that mode of looking in more in tune with “what the photographer actually intended.”  Indeed, one would see the photograph as the photographer herself saw it.  Perhaps Lewis doesn’t know, but one of his great photo book champions, William Eggleston, now only works in digital.  

Wednesday
Oct062010

Criminal Abstractions: Anthropometry, EvoFIT, and the Static Future

Last month The Economist ran a short piece on a new software, EvoFIT, that aids in the identification of criminal suspects.  It works on the principle that witnesses are terrible at recognizing faces and identifying suspects, and is meant to replace current police facial reconstruction methods – methods that are already familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a television procedural.  You know the scene: the witness sits down with a sketch artist and carefully chooses individual facial features – the jaw, an ear, eyes – tension builds and music swells until artist and witness arrive at an image that closely resembles the criminal. It’s never that dramatic, in large part because witnesses are not very good at reconstructing criminals' faces from memory.  According to The Economist, even when working from fresh impressions, such images are only recognizable about 20% of the time.  The problem arises from the fact that the act of witnessing is generally impressionistic: People are good at recognizing faces in their entirety, but have a difficult time describing individual features. 


Alphonse Bertillon, Frontispiece of Identification anthropométrique, 1893, demonstrating how to take measurements for his identification system.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
That’s where EvoFIT comes in.  The software, developed by Charlie Frowd at the University of Central Lancashire and Peter Hancock at the University of Stirling, works on the premise that the mind is better at recall than it at actual recognition.  Instead of asking witnesses to select individual facial features, EvoFIT, presents them with a grid of 18 randomly generated faces that match the race, gender, and shape of the suspect.  From these 18, the witness is then asked to select the two images that most resemble the suspect.  EvoFIT then takes these two images and “breeds” them, mixing them together and producing 18 new “children.”  The process is then multiplied until it produces an accurate digital likeness of the suspect.  The strapline on EvoFIT’s website is “evolving the face of a criminal," the software has been adapted by 11 police forces in Britain, and Frowd and Hancock are also working with Boston police. 


This story piqued my interests because as Margaret Atwood recently claimed, new technologies are nothing more than “modernizations of things that already existed earlier in some other form.” The historian in me trembled.  EvoFIT technology is new, but it is deeply invested in a visual history of identifying the criminal body. 


Our current approach to criminal identification relies on the description and selection of individual parts of the body and their photographic documentation - the ubiquitous mugshots that flash across television screens and decorate the off-white walls of every American post office.  The system dates from the end of the nineteenth century. In 1882 Alphonse Bertillon, an employee of the Prefecture of Police in Paris, developed what he termed “criminal anthropometry.” Bertillon’s anthropometry is essentially a speaking portrait – one which attempts to document every inch of the criminal body – height, weight, marks, scars, even the shape of the ears and nose.  American journalist Ida B. Tarbell described the Bertillon process in a McClure’s article in 1894:



[T]he photograph is made simply to be recognized. The poses chosen are: A perfect profile, since that gives a sort of anatomical cut of the face; then a full face view, since there one has the habitual expression and the pose of the head. The picture is never retouched, since scars, moles, and spots are such infallible means of identification. Absolute uniformity is sought in the size, form, and style of the different photographs. In order that the distance may be invariable, the chair and camera are screwed to the floor, and there is a perfect system of adjustment. The result is hard on the subject. One does not care to display his judicial photograph, but for the purpose they are admirably, brutally exact.



Alphonse Bertillon, Bertillon Card of Francis Galton, 1893
Image: Wikimedia Commons
So, basically Bertillon used photography in its very literal and documentary sense. Photographs document reality, and the mugshot - originally called a Bertillon Card - is documentary evidence of a criminal’s appearance.  The foundation of Bertillon’s method is physical evidence of the individual.


EvoFIT inverts this long standing paradigm.  Instead of producing an image of an actual person, it creates an image which has, literally, no reference to reality – it isn’t a representation of a specific person but rather a generic impression of an idealized type. EvoFIT isn't interested in the specific measurements and marks which map the individual body. Instead, it treats the criminal as abstraction and reversed engineers the individual from it.  EvoFIT might seem like a purely modern technology, something that only the internet age with its love of algorithms and predictability could create. But it isn't.


Around the same time that Bertillon was developing his system a British scientist - the inventor of fingerprint identification, Darwin cousin, and eugenicist Francis Galton, was working on another method for identifying criminals.  Instead of relying on the documentary quality of the photograph, as Bertillon did, Galton turned to the burgeoning technology of composite photography (the use of multiple negatives to create one positive) to create a general likeness, or impression, of the criminal.  Galton was a pioneer of eugenics  - it’s to him that we owe the phrase “nurture versus nature”) and he used photography to verify and illustrate his study of heredity.  What better way to prove, then, that criminality was a genetic trait then to expose an arbitrary number of criminal mugshots on a photographic plate? EvoFIT results are strikingly similar to the ones produced by Galton more than a century years ago.  


Francis Galton, Composite photographs of criminals from Inquiries into Human Faculty, 1883
Image: Wikimedia Commons
The overlapping images caused criminals’ individual physiognomic qualities to vanish and accentuated the characteristics thought to be common to criminals.  The results were slightly blurred and almost artistic in appearance. Galton described them, in his 1883 book Inquiries Into Human Faculty, as portraying “ no specific type of person, but rather an imaginary figure endowed with the average characteristics of a specific group of people…[This] represents the portrait of a type and not an individual.”


I’m not suggesting that one can draw a straight line from Galton's eugenics to EvoFIT’s system of facial composites. What I am suggesting is that both approaches increase the separation between photography and the real.  In doing so, they both elevate the symbolic or abstract trace of the body. Even though methods of representing the criminal body have changed - aided, of course, by new technologies - the methodologies have remained quite static.  


 

Thursday
Sep232010

The Photographic Reality of Eadweard Muybridge

Statue of Eadweard Muybridge in San Francisco's Presidio.
Image: Stassa Edwards
It began as a rich man’s bet.  In 1872, Leland Stanford wanted the question definitively answered: do all four of a galloping horse’s hooves lift off the ground at the same time? Standford sought out the British-born, San Francisco-based photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904).  Muybridge's experiments, interrupted by a brief trial for murder, finally settled the question in 1877. Muybridge managed to do something that no other photographer had done before - recording evidence of actual motion - by rethinking the apparatus of photography. For the first time, there was visual evidence of something the human eye couldn't register on its own: a horse’s full range of movements, including a galloping horse's hooves leaving the ground.  Muybridge had made the subject of photography into a verb, and ushered in a new kind of photography, one which captured the invisible and showed us what we cannot see with the naked eye.


Muybridge’s photography was a radical investigation into both the limits of the medium, and the limitations of human vision. “Eadweard Muybridge”, currently at the Tate Britain, uses photographs from the entirety of Muybridge’s career and places his works within the context of his experiments: from his early stereoscopic photographs of the American West, to locomotion studies of horses and other mammals, to his invention of the zoopraxiscope (a precursor of film, the zoopraxiscope is considered the first movie projector) and finally his panorama of San Francisco.  The exhibition highlights Muybridge’s remarkable importance to later artists who were invested in the dissection of locomotion – from the Italian Futurists to Marcel Duchamp and Francis Bacon


The Tate Britain’s exhibition, like the Corcoran’s earlier this year, is an important reclaiming of Muybridge’s central place in the canon of artistic modernity.  As is the case with claiming “scientific photography” as the sole province of art and art history, there is a tendency to overlook the incredible role that Muybridge played in the histories of naturalism, perception, and vision.  Like most photographers of the time, he was frustrated by the constraints of long exposure photography, which edited out movement. He experimented with composition printing, a method in which one positive is made from multiple negatives, inserting clouds into landscapes to make the scene appear more natural.  Muybridge also understood the technological capacity of photography.  Like many 19th century photographers, he understood that a photograph was by no means realistic or natural.  Rather, he saw it as a machine enhancement of human vision. This ideology is what drove his experiments for Stanford, as well as later experiments he conducted at the University of Pennsylvania. 


Muybridge understood photography’s specific role in what the University of Chicago's Joel Snyder has called “Picturing the Invisible” – showing us what we do not or cannot see (rapid motion, the behavior of matter, the ordinary and everyday).  Photography of this sort might be better understood as a device for translating the unseen or unseeable into something that looks like a picture of something we could never see.  When Muybridge captured a horse in motion, he was using high-speed film at exposures as fast as 1/2000th of a second – faster, of course, than the speed at which human beings stop being able to consciously differentiate visual stimuli. 


Pointing out Muybridge’s photography of the invisible might seem a rather pedestrian. But Snyder (riffing off Walter Benjamin) argues that "If photographs are about ‘the real world’… then in what sense is a picture that shows us something unseeable still to be thought of as about ‘the visible world’? We are left in the unusual predicament of maintaining at one and the same time photographs show us facts about ‘the visible world’ that have no counterparts in our world outside…of photographs. Thus, photography challenges our traditional notions of what constitutes our world, our reality."


Muybridge didn’t just take pictures of horses. His photographs opened up a realm of photographic possibility that forever changed our modern perceptions of the real.  We understand our world photographically – it's our visual point of departure when we define "real" or "natural". The technological witness trumps physical witnessing. This is certainly evident not only in documentary photographs that define our understanding of foreign cultures. It extends to photographs of the planets, weather patterns, x-rays, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), among other things.  We know what Earth looks like not because we’ve see it, but because we’ve seen photographs of it.


We take these terms for granted; photography has a way of quickly rewriting the flexible definition of naturalism.  Perhaps in reviving Muybridge’s reputation, Tate Britain’s exhibition can also restore an awareness of photography’s central role in our perceptions of reality.  Muybridge’s studies of mammal locomotion are part and parcel of our visual history of naturalism — of reality — a history which should grant the importance of the technological apparatus. 


When Muybridge debuted his zoopraxisope in London, he projected the now iconic galloping horse.  The Photographic News heralded his work and exclaimed “A new world of sights and wonders was, indeed, opened by photography, which was not less astounding because it was truth itself.”  Muybridge opened the door, and photographic "truth itself" still floods our comprehension of our world.  

Friday
Sep172010

Art & Plagiarism: Shepard Fairey, Damien Hirst and the Modern Artistic Discourse

Plagiarism is the art world’s mot du jour.  Last week, a March 21st trial date was scheduled for “street” artist Shepard Fairey, whose melodramatic fight with the Associated Press will finally be ended in a not-so-dramatic manner.  Fairey, as most of you probably know, is responsible for the iconic branding of once-candidate Barack Obama: remember that Hope poster, the one that seemed to have a life of its own? Alas, Fairey’s image of Obama was lifted from an AP photograph.


Legal jargon over fair use and copyright infringement ensued. This was followed by claims that Damien Hirst - British art star, embellisher of skulls, and embalmer of adorable mammals - is a plagiarist.  The latest claims of Hirst’s plagiarism count no less than fifteen works he "borrowed" from his colleagues. Charles Thomson, artist and co-founder of the retrograde group Stuckists, compiled the number of plagiarism claims about Hirst’s work and published them in the latest issue of the art magazine Jackdaw (the exhaustive inventory can be found here).  Thomson told The Guardian: "Hirst puts himself forward as a great artist, but a lot of his works exists only because other artists have come up with original ideals which he has stolen.  Hirst is a plagiarist in a way that would be totally unacceptable in science or literature."



Thomson, if you can get past the unfortunate artistic program he and his group are trying to promote, raises an interesting point.  Thomson, like many, values originality as the foundation of great art and its masterpieces, and since art (like science and literature) is an intellectual engagement, it should thus be subject to the ideal standards of science and literature. Let's set aside for a moment legal, moral and aesthetic judgments of Hirst and Fairey (neither of whom particularly impressed me) and ask ourselves if the visual arts are or should be subject to the same standards as either their sister art - literature - or the sciences.  Certainly, the public wants to believe in the unsullied, enduring and contemporary ideal of the masterpiece. At art museums, visitors throw around terms like “masterpiece,” “originality,” “great artist” - descriptions more nostalgic than accurate.  This is, in part, because plagiarism and copying are part and parcel of the modern artistic discourse.


Plagiarism of words is a conspicuous transgression (hello, Tony Blair) and is almost universally condemned - though that great blogging convention, the cross-post, continues to flaunt the limits of copyright and ethical behaviour. In the visual arts, copying and appropriation have a long and respected history. In the Renaissance it was called imitatio: copying the work of another artist, which was seen as a declaration of one’s admiration, and a display of the level of skill achieved by a young artist under the tutelage of a "master". Peter Paul Rubens copied Titian, Nicolas Poussin copied Annibale Carrracci, and so on.


By the nineteenth-century, copying was considered pastiche – a form of parody – and it was no longer meant as admiration, but rather a witty critique of the production of art itself.  Indeed, art under what Walter Benjamin called, “the machine age” or “the age of mechanical reproduction” was perpetually defined, like the photograph, by its reproducibility.   Édouard Manet made that bold declaration throughout the 1860s.  In the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp selected readymades (as did Andy Warhol).  By the 1980s Richard Prince was pastiching print advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes and Sherrie Levine was re-photographing the work of iconic American photographers and exhibiting the results as her own work (usually with titles like After Walker Evans and After Edward Weston).


In Benjamin’s terms, modernity was solely about the death of the original; the aura killed by the copy. Levine and Prince are, in many regards, the supreme practitioners of Benjaminian modernity. By putting the very notion of artistic originality in doubt they upped the ante on Duchamp and Warhol.  The so-called plagiarism practiced by Hirst and Fairey should, therefore, come as no surprise: they are the inheritors of Prince and Levine, however impoverished. Hirst’s and Fairey’s works don’t demand a radical reading of pastiche as parody. There’s little if any irony to be sought in embalmed sharks and Andre the Giant posters.  There is, however, plenty of posturing, which doesn't add up to much more than a weak understanding of the potential power of pastiche and appropriation – particularly in the digital era. 


Art in the modern era, be it high brow or low brow, is defined by the copy.  You only need to look at the comics, fashion, Web design, and music sampling to see how incredibly entrenched pastiche is in our construction and consumption of culture.  To expect “Art” to be resistant to the digitization of culture is naïve. And indeed, it seems downright Renaissance to be looking for "originality".  Art has always been subject to technology and the expectations that new technologies cultivate.

Friday
Sep102010

Notes on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

A few weeks ago The New Republic posted a series of photographs documenting Glenn Beck’s "Restoring Honor" rally on the National Mall.  They're not particularly compelling; the stuff of typical snapshots. They bear only the documentary gesture of pointing: I was there, I took this photograph.  One of them, however, of a steady stream of visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM), struck me as particularly interesting. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to see rally participants visiting the VVM. Since its dedication in 1982, Maya Lin’s memorial has become the most visited in Washington, DC, and is now considered the National Mall's very own sacred space.  It wasn’t always so, and the rhetoric employed by Beck and company is an affecting reminder of the mutability of space and of history. 


As Beck spoke about the “scars,” that will “crush us or redeem us,” he seemed to miss the irony of that particular metaphor for the seemingly reparative acts of Tea Party politics  (a point made by LA Times art critic Christopher Knight). Indeed, Beck extolling our ability to ignore the scar and see only “what it stands for” signalled a public act of forgetting of a kind the VVM was meant to prevent.  Lin had envisioned the VVM as a V-shaped gash in which two black granite walls, placed below grade, would meet at an apex signifying the chronological closure of the Vietnam conflict.  Lin: “I had an impulse to cut open the earth…an initial violence that in time would heal.”  The VVM is antiheroic, a trace of violence suffered, not victory brandished in a heroic cause. It was meant to materialize a shared wound that will never heal, a scar that will never fade. The wound it represents is the process of memory – but the visitors captured by TNR’s camera were, in essence, rewriting space and history by reinscribing American imperialism. In doing so, they resisted the very function of the VVM itself and the uncivil discourse into which it was born. 


When Lin’s design was first unveiled, critics condemned it for politicizing the shame of an unvictorious war.  They called it the “black gash of shame,” a “degrading ditch,” a “black spot in American history,” a “memorial for Jane Fonda,” and a “wailing wall for draft dodgers and New Lefters of the future.” The VVM’s design became a locus of political discord. Though six years had passed since the end of the war, a cohesive narrative had yet to emerge in which to frame the memorial and its expectations.  Thus, the VVM and Lin herself became the focus of widespread fears about the state of the nation and equally emotional narratives about social stability, civil unity, and national security.


The framing of the Vietnam conflict was important to Cold Warriors, and they did their best to undermine Lin and her design.  Pat Buchanan worked hard to derail the project. So did William F. Buckley Jr., Rep. Henry Hyde, Jim Webb and President Reagan himself (who refused to attend the dedication ceremony).  Each had his own reasons but all seemed to agree on one thing: the VVM should be an American monument - designed by an American, not a young Asian woman. Lin was born and raised in the US, but that part of her identity was swept under the rug in the effort to rejig America's post-Vietnam narrative.  Her design too was deemed foreign – Communist, Vietnamese, anti-heroic.  Though Lin endured jingoism and unwanted additions to her design, the monument was, of course, ultimately built, becoming a postscript of the narrative frame of the Vietnam conflict itself. 


I bring up the VVM because its creation story is similar in many ways to the current debate about Ground Zero. Marita Sturken, author of Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism From Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, suggested that Vietnam ruptured our perception of war.  Beck's rally, and similar incidents in New York, are desperate attempts to conceal and suture the rupture, and to redefine our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Public art is inseparable from what Jügen Habermas called, “the liberal model of the public sphere” – an idealized space in which disinterested citizens could contemplate a transparent emblem of their own inclusiveness and deliberate on values.  It seems, however, that we are far from the Habermasian vision of a public sphere in which rational citizens can exchange ideas and come together in progressive actions.  Instead,"space" and "history" are highly contested terms and their frames seems especially marked by irrational appeal and affective investment.


Like the VVM, Ground Zero is a place in which space and construction are politicized because they are still symbolic, because we recognize that whatever is built on or around Ground Zero will be part and parcel of the future narrative of 9/11, foreign wars, and nationalism. It’s a narrative worth fighting over.