The Art of the State: Leibovitz’s Elizabeth II

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Annie Leibovitz

It’s been said that prostitution is the oldest profession, and espionage the second oldest. Public relations might well be the third, and certainly for as long as we have had formal rulers, their artistic depiction has played an important role in creating a sense of their status amongst the public. This has particularly been the case in Britain, where paintings of Kings and Queens have always tended to be tightly controlled, the right to produce such images sometimes licensed to a single court appointed artist and subject to a high degree of vetting. In other words the public relations gauntlet which must be negotiated in the process of photographing the political rulers of the present is nothing new, nor are image makers willing to do exactly as they are bid by these figures and their attendants.

Historically royal paintings were potently political and highly constructed, laden with symbolism which was designed to carefully hint at the character and role of the Monarch depicted. Carefully choosen imagery helped to broadcast a sense of the times in which that person lived, and their role as leader of the nation within those times, whether as warrior, peacemaker, or something else entirely. Few monarchs took such care with their depiction as Elizabeth I who was painted with remarkable frequency during her life and reign. Paintings of Elizabeth overflow with allegorical objects and characters, all intended to broadcast a certain vision of her in the minds of those who stood before these images. In early examples items like pearls and moons alluded to her virginity and purity, she sometimes held a book to suggest studiousness and religiosity, while a red rose would symbolise her loyalty to the house of Tudor.

Later paintings increasingly drew parallels between Elizabeth and classical mythology, part of the process of raising her to an almost god like status. They also emphaisised her military leanings, and in some her dress is exaggerated in a way which starts to suggest plate armour, an important allusion for a female Monarch ruling in a time of instability and the lingering threat of invasion from Catholic Europe. Perhaps most fascinatingly the emphasis on symbolism in these paintings went so far as to completely compromise their realism. Despite renaissance innovations in the use of light and shade to create more dramatic and realistic depictions of shape, techniques exemplified by her father’s court painter Hans Holbein the Younger, Elizabeth reputedly disdained shadows in her portraits, viewing them as contradicting the image of purity and youth she had so carefully cultivated. The result of this Royal intervention into aesthetics was a distinctive style of court portraiture which remained remarkably flat in contrast to the ever greater verisimilitude of court paintings in other parts of Europe. Elizabeth was obsessed in short with the power of symbolism and allegory, the enormous power of applying them properly, and the equally grave damage they could cause when they were not properly prescribed.

This genre of portraiture persists to some extent today albeit in photographic form, with three portraits recently ‘released’ by Kensington Palace to mark the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. Taken by court appointed celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz, these are perhaps not such careful cultivations of subject and symbolism as their Elizabethan forebears, but they still might be read for similar meanings and insight. I feel it is irresistible to read them for answers to the essential question of the role of a taxpayer funded hereditary monarch is in a 21st century democracy, not least a democracy struggling to pay for essential services like disability benefits and healthcare, and a society beholden to neoliberial ideas about work and earning. In such a society the images of the inherited wealth and power which the current Queen’s Tudor namesake so consistently broadcast to her subjects are hardly welcome ones. Perhaps reflecting that we don’t find Elizabeth II depicted in regal dress as she was the last time she found herself in front of Leibovitz’s lens, a session which took place back at the very start of the global economic recession).

Instead we see a monarch taking on a much more normal guise in a series of almost informal settings, surrounded variously by grandchildren, with her daughter, and her dogs. The subtext one feels they’ve aimed for, as if it needed spelling out, is that the monarch isn’t the all-powerful god figure or magisterial head of state she might once have been presented to us as. Instead she is a sort of fuzzy and benign babysitter, responsible for overlooking her brood of grandchildren, standing in here perhaps for the succession of short timer politicians who periodically shuffle into serving as her prime minister for a few years (she’s seen 12 of them to date) before presumably shuffling off again to a nice job as a corporate advisor. It’s inevitably tempting to connect specific prime ministers to particular children in this group portrait, in which case the girl to the left of the Queen clutching a handbag almost as large as she is would undoubtedly be the late Margaret Thatcher. I’d peg current PM David Cameron to the small boy in shorts on the right who looks on the verge of tears and like he just wants the whole thing to be over.

This attempt to normalise the Queen falls flat mostly because of the glaring opulence of the surroundings. ‘I didn’t realise they had so much Ikea furniture’ quipped one person in my Twitter feed. However any sense of this as a naturalistic family grouping is also shattered by the awful crapness of the photograph, in particular the way the subjects are so over lit and over-processed that they appear to leap off the background behind them. The lack of relationship between sitters and their surroundings callsto mind a photograph of Judge Dredd as a baby which appears in the original rather fascist 1995 movie adaptation. In-plot forensic examination of this photograph later reveals is a composite fake constructed to hide the grim reality of a child secretly reared in a government lab as part of a genetic experiment. With the exception of the baby on the Queen’s lap, the children look as if they have been photographed in isolation and inserted like Judge Dredd on to a backdrop to which they bear no spatial (or emotional) relationship. The more I look at this image the less sure I feel that it’s a single exposure, which needn’t matter (since, lest we forget, this is not journalism) except in the sense that it reveals the extent of utter construction that still takes place in the making of a monarch’s state portrait, and of course, the complicity of the one who makes it. For all that’s undoubtedly changed since the time of the Tudors, it would seem that the shadows (or the lack thereof) still have it.

History in the Making: Palmyra’s World Tour

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The reconstruction of the arch nears completion in Trafalgar Square.
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A replica of Palymra’s Arch of Triumph has just been unveiled in London. The original was constructed by the Roman Empire and was believed to be over two millennia old by the time it was dynamited by Islamic State in late 2015. The group were later driven out of the site by Syrian government forces. The replica arch which now stands in London’s Trafalgar Square was engineered by the Institute of Digital Archaeology who created a digital model from photographs of the original, before having a replica made in Italy, where it was machine tooled from Egyptian marble by a robotic cutting arm. This new arch will soon go on to tour to other cities including Dubai and New York. “Antiquities like this belong to all mankind and it is imperative that we all strive to safeguard our common heritage,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson as he unveiled the recreation, apparently oblivious to the distinction between a genuine relic and its copy.

Photography is evidently mixed up in this recreation in very practical ways, as the means by which the arch has been so meticulously reconstructed. But photography also offers a model for the way we think about the relationship between original things and their copies. A photograph is not a window on another world, as some people like to think, nor increasingly even is it a trace of the thing it depicts. Photography is a pattern of tones and colours, and whether it be an analog print or a digital upload to Instagram the image lives far less in the medium itself than in our minds. The same one might say is true of history and it’s traces. In Phillip K Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, the plot revolves in part around an inflated market for icons of Americana, driven by the rapacious collecting of the Japanese soldiers who have occupied the country. In response an industry of fakes has arisen, with artisans producing items like wild west style pistols, carefully aged, but completely inauthentic. Everyone knows that these items are fake, including the collectors who pay huge sums for them, but no one has the will to speak this truth out loud. I feel something similar here.

The reconstruction of the arch has been questioned by some as a rather hollow act, a Disneyland attempt at history, and certainly for me the recreation of the arch calls to mind the underwhelming Stonehenge used as a stageset by the fictional rockband Spinal Tap. Others have criticised it as downright unethical. Martin Makinson from the Association for the Protection of Syria Archaeology rightly highlights the politically contested nature of these sites and points to the way that the reoccupation of sites like Palmyra has become a way for the Assad government to reclaim a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of some in the west, even as it continues to torture and kill its own citizens. Any attempt to willfully recreate history says as much as an attempt to willfully destroy it and so the recreation is undeniably political, and attempt to pretend otherwise is disindigenous. The understated photograph above by Stefan Rousseau hints at this in the way it uses a section of the arch to frame Nelson’s Column, a victory monument in it’s own right, and in the distance the looming clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. One might say the same of attempts to occupy or colonise certain sections of the past, whether that occupation is undertaken by the descendants of the people who built what is being colonised, or it is done by foreigners acting in the name of humanity at large.

In this sense one might say that we are doing something not entirely dissimilar to what the Assad regime has done in making the rescue of Palmyra from Islamic State a military objective. In erecting and celebrating this arch in London, we are asserting our cultural credentials in an attempt to show that we are doing something tangible in response to this terrible and protracted war. The destruction of cultural artifacts is something most in the west can comfortably express outrage over, even if doing so just rather awkwardly reveals the gulf between our horror at the destruction of these irreplaceable ancient monuments, and an enduring indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people, every one of those people is just as irreplaceable. A particularly memorable chapter in Vassily Grossman’s Second World War epic Life and Fate consists of Grossman describing at length the absolute impossibility of constructing a computer which could think and feel as even the most average human being is able to. He then imagines the excitement that such a machine would engender among the techno-fetishistic German armies then ploughing their way across the Soviet Union. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the unbearable irony these people who would hail as miraculous a machine which could muster even a poor imitation of a human mind were actively exterminating millions of people.

Raising this arch of triumph also reflects a certain inability to remember recent history of our, for example when our tanks rolled over ancient archaeological sites during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the American military set up a base on the site of what had been the ancient city of Bablylon damaging it enormously in the process. For me this amnesia rather poses the question of whether either of the two are worse; people who willfully destroy ancient monuments and culture because of an overdeveloped sense of what those objects represent, or those who destroy them because of the opposite, out of a sheer ignorance of their importance. There is needless to say also a certain irony in erecting this arch in London, one of the prime marketplaces for looted antiquities smuggled out of conflict zones like Syria, and a city with so many museums containing artifacts that are much more directly the spoils of state aggression and imperialism. Touring the arch to the art superpowers of Dubai and New York would seem to only underline this.

In contrast to the rhetoric of ‘great men’, true history isn’t something which can be made. History is something which accretes, congeals, weathers, falls apart and gets blown up, and which almost always has on it the traces of those who lived it, a deficit all the more apparent in the case of this copy because it has not been even been sculpted by contemporary human hands but by a machine. History is also a finite and naturally accruing resource, not something which can be synthesized or manufactured, and imagining that one can simply replace the past when it can no longer be put back together represents a terrible misunderstanding of what history is and how it relates to the present. It’s a misunderstanding not so unrelated to the conception of the present that imagines that things like drone bombing campaigns can recorrect our past foreign police mistakes, and which refuses to consider that these new innovations are in Marx’s famous words an example of history repeating itself (as tragedy in the case of the drone campaigns, perhaps as farce in the case of London’s paltry Arch of Triumph).

One wonders what future arcs of triumph will mark the War on Terror and the wider misadventures of the past two decades. In pondering this, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of the Roman historian Tacitus. In writing his epic Agricola around the same time that Palmyra’s original arch was constructed Tacitus referenced the Scottish chieftain Calgacus and attributed to him one of the most remarkable speeches against Rome or any empire, one made all the astonishing because these bitter words were in fact almost certainly not those of the soon to be defeated Celt, but rather those of Tacitus himself, a Roman citizen. ‘Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they create a desolation and call it peace.’

New Project – A Model Continent

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Venice, Italy. From A Model Continent

I’d like to introduce a small project which I have recently published. A Model Continent documents a theme park in Belgium where European national landmarks are reproduced as scale models. Part funded by the European Union, the park showcases an idealised continent where once divided nations co-exist in peaceful harmony.

The requirements of a tourist attraction however creates unintended juxtapositions between these models and their surroundings. The model crowds at momentous historical events are noticeably small, roads and bridges end abruptly in mid air, and the branding of corporate sponsors are incongruously inserted into the scenery. Even the selection of which monuments are included in the park reflects a very loaded sense of which parts of Europe’s history matter, and which do not. These awkward contrasts seem to speak of the difficulties of the real continent to which this park refers. Rather than an exemplar of harmony, Europe is an increasingly a divided union, wracked by financial, political, and humanitarian upheavals, and where the lessons of history are often forgotten in the search for comforting but simplistic narratives.

I first encountered the park during my travels around the continent in 2012 documenting the difficulties being caused by the financial recession and Euro crisis. Even then I found the park fascinating and planned to return to it. Three years later I finally have, and it says something about the present state of the continent that many of the same issues remain pertinent, and if anything have been added weight by the refugee crisis and news of an impending British referendum on the country’s future membership of the EU. The series is published as a small postcard book which can be kept intact or disassembled and the individual cards posted or displayed and is available now from my online store.

8 Latvia - Freedom monument

9 Great Britain, White Cliffs of Dover

9 Spain, Palace of the Escorial

Photography and Anti-Intellectualism

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 I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, John Baldessari, 1971

In a recent post on his blog Grant Scott argues that photography is a democratic global language and takes aim at the ‘powerful cabal’ of practitioner-educators who try to protect photography as something special, failing to equip students with the skills to survive, and punishing those who refuse to fall into line with their view of what good photography is. I agree with the ethos here and there is nothing productive about courses geared to churn out identikit students without the skills to make a living or the intellectual independence to make their own work and continue their creative development after their studies end. But there are also quite a few issues in this piece which need discussing in more depth, and which in some cases need challenging.

Major ones are the two assumptions in the title of the post, which I don’t really want to dwell on in great depth because I’ve already written about them both in past posts and may well do so again in the future. The ideas that photography is a language and democratic are both laudable aspirations, but repeatedly saying these things doesn’t make them true. Photography is not a global language, at best it is many languages understood by the many different groups who use photography in very different ways. The idea of photography as a global language takes no account of the complexities of what different images and symbols mean in different cultures and to say nothing of the need to simultaneously understand the customs and conventions that take place behind the creation of images in order to be truly ‘literate’ of photography. Likewise in terms of the democracy of photography, while the medium has certainly long had democratic potential I would argue that potential is still on it’s way to being fufilled and it remains primarily a tool of elite individuals, groups, and societies. Photography’s history to date has in fact often been the very opposite of democratic. It’s been oppressive, totalitarian and hegemonic.

What I really want to address though here is Scott’s concern with a particular sort of photography education. Again this is an area well worth scrutinising, and from my perspective photography education has its share of problems which need to be addressed through open discussion among teachers, students and the photography industry at large. It’s absolutely a problem when teachers take the approach of trying to shoehorn their students into making the same work as their own, and photography education at its best ought to be a space where students are free to be taught, learn and experiment in whatever direction they want within a framework aimed to steer them towards an independent career. But in connecting these problems with educators who make work which is ‘obtuse and deconstructed, supported by and clothed in a thick cloak of verbose socio-political language’ what Scott seems to be trying to do is to rather awkwardly lay these issues at the door of those who are interested in the intellectual side of photography, without acknowledging that there are bad photography educators of all bents, including those who are dogmatically interested only in the commercial and technical aspects of photography.

To me this criticism of what you might call ‘thinking photography’ is resonant of a barely latent anti-intellectualism in many sections of the photography world, an often quite inarticulate rage directed at people who want to talk about the ideas on which photographs rest, as well as actually making images. Abbas Attar (a photographer who I’ve long admired) once said that ‘young photographers think too much. If I did all that thinking, I would never go out and shoot anything’ which rather sums up this attitude for me. Referencing a famous quote from Magnum founder Robert Capa, photographer and educator Tod Papageorge offered a nice if unintentional rejoinder to Attar’s comment when he wrote that ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough’ [this quote was attributed to Papageorge by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Papageorge maintains he never said it. A tip of the hat to Adam Bell for that information]. Ideas certainly are sometimes poorly articulated, even by the people whose job it is to do just that, but some ideas are also just bloody hard to express. Their being so does not mean there is some sort of conspiracy to over intellectualise, to create privileged territories for academics and their favourites. To suggest otherwise and to imply that these sorts of discussions are irrelevant is I’d argue just a total abdication, a failure on the part of the accuser to engage with ideas which are hard.

Among certain sections of the photography community it’s fairly routine for terms like ‘artist’ and ‘academic’ to be used as terms of insult intended to suggest the target is hopelessly lost in their own esoteric field of inquiry, regardless of whether anyone else is concerned by it or not. Whatever you feel about artists and academics, the one thing you have to acknowledge about even the tallest ivory tower is that occasionally something drops out of it and falls to earth with a resounding crash. Academia might be a domain of people fixated on niches, but those niches widen out into things which later have enormous benefits for the rest of us. Scott’s piece is confusing in this regard because at one turn he seems to praise the mass of non-professional photographers for producing images without concern for ‘peer review’ (except what is an Instagram or Facebook ‘like’ but a mechanism of peer review?) while in the next breath criticising practitioners who are unconcerned that their work isn’t relevant to the great bulk of these normal people but only focused on institutional rewards and funding (i.e. their peers).

And now for the tough test, should we make the work that matters to us, or should we make work we think audiences will respond well to? The answer of course depends entirely on circumstances. If I do a job for a client, as I was before I wrote this piece, listening to my audience becomes pretty essential if I want to get more work. If I want to make photographs for myself, to see what I can do or where I can push my ideas, then broad audience response is much lower down the list of priorities. Throughout history not worrying exclusively about mass appeal has often been what has made for provocative, beautiful art work. As I said at the start of this piece, I agree with the Scott’s basic point that there is nothing useful about courses geared to churning out identikit students without the technical and intellectual skills to satisfy clients and themselves, but nor is there any value to being anti-intellectual for the sake of it, however easy the target and however fashionable it might be to do so. The fact is there are many gatekeepers in photography, and a career in the field often unfortunately ends up being to a lesser or greater extent dependent on these people. However not all gatekeepers are the same, the gates they keep are not all the same size, nor do they all lead to the same rewards for those allowed passage through them. Depending on where you stand Scott is a gatekeeper, and loathe though I am to admit it I have to acknowledge that I am one as well. That’s a fact something we both need to be conscious of, working actively to counter it in our deeds and words, and opening the gates we ward to as many people as people. Unfortunately this sort of reverse snobbery and anti-intellectualism is as bad at doing this as is the worst academic obfuscation.

Volatile Smile by Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann

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High-frequency trading workspace, #14, 2010.
Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann

Like all technologies, photography emerged from a very particular milieu, and in certain ways all its subsequent applications and adaptations will reflect the concerns of that moment. In the context of photojournalism and documentary photography what often feels awkwardly evident and yet rarely spoken of is that while the world has changed enormously since 1839, moving by most consensuses into a new age (whether the age of information, the anthropocence, (post-)post-modernity or something else) photography for the most part hasn’t. Digital imaging is in some respects a dramatic leap forward, but beyond the end of photography’s physical existence in some ways it just represents an electronic emulation of the type of photography pioneered by Niépce, Talbot et al, and not such a dramatic step forwards as is often suggested. Their world was one grappling to visualise and understand things just beyond the vanishing point of human physiology, things like the craters of the moon like the movement of a galloping horses legs. Today we grapple with many issues which are perceptually speaking in different orders of magnitude. When the camera’s exposure is measured in seconds what does it mean to try to use this technology to speak about processes which occur in a thousandth or less of that, who’s major actors are composed of lines of code, and who’s actions leave few tangible traces beyond evaporating energy? Can the camera and the ways that it encourages us to think about and see the world be retooled to meet these new challenges? These are constant and at times crushing questions for me.

Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann are an artistic duo based in the United States using photography to examine a range of subjects, but I think of particular interest for this discussion is their 2014 book Volatile Smile which examines financial markets, looking at them through a series of visual studies of trading spaces and apparatuses, and ending with a series of images of american homes repossessed as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. Marx famously wrote that what capitalism desired above all else was the annihilation of space and time, a potent metaphor which remains useful in thinking about capitalism and technology today. Innovations like hyper-fast algorithmic trading make that latter objective seem ever more real and the consequences of it ever more troubling. Probably the most widely seen part of Volatile Smile are a series of photographs of algorithmic trading stations in the Willis Tower, Chicago, a city which lies on one of the fibre optic laylines that make high frequency trades possible. These workstations are where human overseers monitor the programs which make and lose fortunes in a fraction of a blink of an eye. Rather than usual single or dual monitor of most modern offices (dual monitors already speaking to a sense of information overload), these desks abut entire walls of  blacked out monitors, with other empty supports waiting for new ones to be plugged in to them like some sort of alien life support systems awaiting new dependents. Close ups of the work surfaces reveal little in the way of personalisation one might expect in even the most corporate workspace, the one reoccurring hint of human presence are a series of images of hand sanitizer products, images which I find hard to read except with the implication of a workforce desperately trying to wash themselves clean of something.

Sahn and Geissler are artists, not journalists, but I think their work sheds light on some of the difficulties of contemporary visual journalism. Like those photography projects which seek to reveal the essence of the internet by presenting us with images of shining server rooms, photographs of algorithmic trading desks tell us comparatively little about the context and consequences of these practices, and reveal that the axiom on which photojournalism has long been built is often no longer relevant. Robert Capa famously declared that if a photograph wasn’t good enough it was because the photographer had not been close enough, in other words that good photojournalism was about proximity to the story (a declaration which of course didn’t stop Capa from occasionally reinventing the story and his proximity to it as circumstances required). This traditional approach is part of the angle pursued in Volatile Smile, the photographers have come right to the heart of the labyrinthine financial empires being made possible by high frequency trading algorithms, and at the heart of the labyrinth they have found no Minotaur but instead a series of blank black screens, devices intended for imparting information but which instead remain uncompromisingly blank. In the new era of nebulous and elusive topics, spatial proximity has ceased to be a guarantor of journalistic revelation or insight. In capitalism’s war on space and time and in particular in terms of the way that conflict is represented by journalists and artists, it sometimes feels as if it has almost succeeded in annihilating space, and is well on the way to rendering time as we think of it, an archaic irrelevance.

Spiking the War Primer

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War Primer 3

This piece is an adapted version of a talk I gave at Helsinki Photomedia 2016 on the theme of materialities, and in my talk looking specifically thinking about how elements like material form contribute to the reading and meaning of photographic projects published as books. Over time I’ve become more and more interested in the politics of images, and I’ve found it’s often useful to think about photographs in terms of their having something of a metaphorical genetic code which might be mapped like an organisms genome and then sort of read for insights which can guide the way those images are treated and used. In the real world a genetic code is something we are all born with, but exposure to the environment causes that code to periodically change and mutate, in ways which might become a beneficial evolution or which might prove to be a fatal cancer. I’m interested in the way that different stages in the life of an image might do something similar, mutating the image’s base genetic code in ways which accent or even completely change the genetic code of the image. I’m speaking in metaphor here, but with digital imagery the idea of a photograph having a genetic code clearly becomes much more concrete.

One example of these mutational changes maybe is the context of your encounter with image, the situation you first see an image in (whether gallery, book, magazine, etc.) and the material qualities of the image in that encounter, whether it is printed, projected on a screen, or something else. You might take the example of how the presentation of forensic images in an exhibition like The Burden of Proof already prefigures how you understand these photographs, before any further context is provided for them. A second example is what the photograph actually shows, and perhaps just importantly how it shows that thing. Thirdly, going right going back to even before the ‘birth’ of the image, the technology that creates it is important to it’s politics if you feel as I do that the circumstances of any technologies creation become an irreducible part of it. For an example, the fact that contemporary civllian mapping satelites are the direct descendents of optical surveillance satelites is not something which can be separated from the images they produce, nor is the fact that the rockets that launch them are the direct descendents of rockets intended to flatten cities. These things all impart important elements of the genetic code of any image which results from them.

This will all probably seem very obvious to some people reading this, and in many ways it is obvious, but I think it’s those obvious things you can easily forget to include in the equation. Engaging with the politics of how images are made and disseminated is valuable because if you work in appropriative way as I sometimes do, or in a way which is commenting on the production and circulation of images, as I also try to do, this offers a way to identify how powerful images might be, at the risk of horribly mixing my metaphors, defused or ‘spiked’. For the uninitiated spiking is a method of sabotage once used to disable heavy cannons in wartime. It involves simply hammering a small pin into the channel which is used to light the main charge, thereby rendering a huge cannon is as good as useless with a piece of metal not more substantial than a nail. I’m drawn to the grace of this image of sabotage and this is more or less what I have sometimes attempted to do in my work as a photographer, to take a perhaps rather dangerous form of imagery developed, created or employed by powerful interests and to try to find a way to twist or subvert that visually in a way which turns that power back against the original owners and creators. I wouldn’t say I’ve always done it successfully, but that’s one of the consistent aims I have when I make work.

And so an example of where I’ve attempted to do this is with my book War Primer 3. This is an appropriation of an appropriation of an appropriation, where each level of appropriation mutates the physical form of the book to say and do quite different things. The first iteration of this was Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, the name given to the 1998 English edition of his 1955 book Kriegsfibel. This is a fascinating, creative and at times very moving analysis of the deceptive qualities of press imagery particularly in the context of war and politics. In essence it’s also a way of slipping semiotics in through the back door, and teaching people that press photographs can’t be trusted as objective information. The teaching element is also evident in the name primer, which implies a children’s textbook, and the physical form of the original version of the book very much plays to that. It is a mass produced, affordable and essential work. From a photography perspective what I think is really interesting about War Primer is that Brecht is sort of employing similar strategies to those that make his plays so compelling, primarily the idea of alienating an audience, showing them the cracks in the narrative and the medium sued to create that narrative, and in the proccess hinting at the arbritariness of reality, and the idea that reality is not a fixed thing but something we shape by our actions as individuals and societies.

The second iteration of the book is Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2. Again a fascinating work, the duo build on Brecht’s book by adding new photographs over his originals. This new images are intended to resonate with Brecht’s original poems and critically they all relate (more or less) to the global war on terror. In effect the duo thereby make the argument that many of the issues of censorship, propaganda and manipulation that frustrated Brecht remain present today, albeit by making a somewhat dubious equation between the Second World War and the War on Terror. More problematically for me, the method of production involved in the book turns it in to an unattainable art object. Even more problematic was the use of interns to produce the work. As with Brecht’s original I think there is a form of alienation taking place here, but it is less the alienation of Brecht’s epic theatre and more the alienation of Marx’s critique of capitalism, i.e the alienation of a workforce from control, profit or credit of their labour. I should say at this point I’m not a Marxist, my relationship with theory is much more that if something as resonances for what is happening in the world it is useful, and I think that’s the case here.

And so finally we come to my version, War Primer 3, which in turn appropriates Broomberg and Chanarin’s book and updates it into a piece about the global economic conflict that is capitalism, and which highlights various examples of the fallout from that. It does this by combining images of economic inequality and disaster with the text of Brecht’s poem A Worker Readers History, which is very much a eulogy to the forgotten workers, soldiers and slaves of his history. One imagines interns might have featured in it as well. But besides these interventions a very important part of reworking the book was to return it to a material form closer to Brecht’s original intentions to make a book which was mass produced and everyday, like a child’s school book. Given the material resources available to me the only logical solution seemed to be to disseminate the work online as a PDF, so that’s the form it took. A physical book of War Primer 3 exists which served as the base for making the PDF, but the physical book is not the book, the PDF is. And I think an unintended but quite pleasing consequence of that is that when you search for War Primer or War Primer 2, my book appears scattered about the results. So while I haven’t perhaps nullified all of the things in it’s predecessor which I perceive as problematic, and while War Primer 3 also undoubtedly introduces problems of it’s own, it has for me been one of the better successes for me in terms of appraising the politics of images and then using that knowledge and a material form to try and spike them.

In Praise of Peers

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Ramillies Place street sign in the Peer Forum meeting space at The Photographer’s Gallery.

Today marks the final session of Peer Forum, a monthly mentoring session I’ve been organising since last year in conjunction with a group of nine other photographers and supported by The Photographer’s Gallery and Artsquest. Peer Forum provides a space for its participants to regularly meet and share work with each other for feedback and comments, as well as a chance to hear from invited guest speakers from a range of backgrounds in the industry. The idea for Peer Forum was that each person would share the same project throughout the six months as a way to sense what progress was being made and so that the group didn’t encounter new work each time, and so advice given would build on previous discussions. The result of this was, for me at least, really pretty amazing, and I thought I’d write up the experience as a way to mark its end, and make a general claim for the value of creating organised groups of peers within which to share ongoing work.

The project I’ve been sharing is titled City of Dust and it’s one which I’ve been labouring with for about two years. When I say labouring, really all I’ve laboured with was the idea, specifically suffering from a paralysis in terms of figuring out what I was trying to talk about this work, and an equal difficulty then getting the idea to match up with the photographs I’ve been taking. At the start of the Peer Forum process I was seriously thinking this might be a project I would just have to abandon, it had reached the point of feeling so untractable and unresolvable. Of course like many things we lose sleep about most of that intractability was just in my head, the consequence of tying myself in knots thinking about the project and failing to just get on with it.

Sharing it with a group of peers proved a turning point, and City of Dust has resolved itself from a miasma of loosely connected ideas and vaguely defined objectives into a much simpler and I think better project, which still addresses the key ideas that really interested me when I first started it. Simply having to articulate what I was trying to do to a group of people and listening to the confusion of most of the words coming out my mouth really helped to drive me to crystalise previously vague ideas. The more I spoke these ideas out loud the clearer they seemed to become. The impetus to make new work to show each time was also very useful, an artificial deadline of sorts which proved very motivating.

My positive experience of these six months has got me really interested in the wider possibilities of peer mentoring and learning, both as a tool I want to increasingly employ in my formal teaching, but also as something I want to to advocate for greater use of within the photographic community. I feel it could have a number of real benefits here, as an alternative for example to the trend towards paying for access to professionals for feedback through portfolio reviews and like, and as a way to counteract the inherent isolation of working as a photographer, particularly on your own projects. Of course almost all of us engage in peer mentoring on some level, typically the informal one of showing a friend a few photographs or a dummy book over a coffee or beer, but I think working in small groups and formalising these sorts of meetings offers a number of strengths.

For one a formalised group seemed to foster an environment of equality and quid pro quo which is very much at odds with the demands and power imbalances of paid for portfolio reviews. Advice is very clearly exchanged for advice and everyone has a go at both giving and recieving. This is also in contrast to what can happen in more informal exchanges where some people are much more routinely demanding of others and give less back in return. Another nice thing about Peer Forum was that things like age or career stage felt far less important in this sort of environment than they might seem to be in an informal mentoring situation or a paid for review. Equal membership of the group felt like a very effective (if admittedly arbitrary) leveller. These comments all come with the caveat that this was my experience of one group, we knew each other to some extent before the process began and were all fairly invested in the process. What I’m really interested to do now is to see how the positive experience I had of the proccess can be replicated in other settings.

Ken. To be destroyed by Sara Davidmann

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Ken. To be destroyed by Sara Davidmann

If the archive is defined as sort of memory technology for gathering fractions of a complex and disintegrating present so that it might later be retold, it is not hard to see why it holds such allure for photographers. Photography in a sense is a very similar practice, and photography as a medium has tended to carry similar expectional burdens to those of the archive. Expectations about objectivity and neutrality which are often misplaced and found wanting in the final account. Perhaps because of this closeness photography practice has undergone an archival turn in recent years, as a growing number of photographers and artists have turned to disparate archives for influences, ideas and material. To cite just a handful of examples you could consider Simon Menner’s interventions with the archive of the East German Stasi, the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition which included a rambling display drawn from the esoteric Archive of Modern Conflict, or more recently The Burden of Proof exhibition which makes extensive use of imagery from criminal and other institutional archives. The archival turn is an interesting one, particularly for someone with one foot still planted in academic history, but what I find is often missing when photographers make these turns are important questions about exactly what archives are, the politics of their making and survival.

The contents of Sara Davidmann’s book Ken. To be destroyed belongs to a particular genre of archive known to practically all of us, the family photo album. In many ways it reveals the sometimes misleading and constructed nature of these collections in a way which is not dissimilar to the supposed neutrality of bigger state or institutional archives, where some things are hidden, left out, or forgotten. The book tells the story of Davidmann’s uncle and aunt, Ken and Hazel Houston and the family’s discovery soon after their marriage in 1954 that in private Ken was transgender, something which in the context of the time was little understood either medically or culturally. To put things in perspective regarding British attitudes towards sexuality, 1954 was the same year that Alan Turing committed suicide after being convicted of ‘gross indecency’. Despite the discovery Ken and Hazel remained together pursuing joint interests including ballroom dancing, and Ken’s transgender identity remained a family secret up until and beyond his death in 1974. Despite Davidmann having worked for some time with transgender people in her own practice she only made the discovery in 2011 while clearing out her mother’s house. There she discovered several packages labelled with the four enigmatic words which are the title of the book, parcels which contained letters and photographs sent throughout the fifties and sixties between Hazel and her sister, Davidmann’s mother. This cache has allowed Davidmann to reconstruct the narrative of this family secret.

This reconstruction is achieved primarily through the letters, which recount events from Ken and Hazel’s first meeting through to Ken’s correspondence with doctors in an attempt to research and understand his condition. These letters are shot through with a very strong sense of a particular era in British social history, from the couple first meeting by writing letters to each through the British Friendship Society, a sort of analogue penpal service, to Ken’s tentative first contact with the Beaumont Society, an early advocacy and support group for transgender people. Alongside the letters are also reproduced a series of photographs of the couple, including a number taken by Ken of Hazel, which resonate strangely between affection and a tension produced by the sense of a photographer looking intenesely at another person who was what they themselves could never be. The photographs are initially reproduced unaltered and at approximate scale, but as the book goes on Davidmann intervenes with them in various way, for example tracking in close to the image, forensically scanning it for marks and traces, and in the proccess very much calling to mind Jacques Derrida’s obsession with the ‘substrate’ of archives, only in this case the concern is with literal substrate of the photographic print. In other cases Davidmann intervenes more dramatically, rephotographing or reprinting the images, overlaying them with objects, printing them as chemigrams and collaging them together. In one series Ken’s head is collaged onto Hazel’s body, an attempt Davidmann says, to imagine how Ken might have looked had he been able to openly liven as a women.

Ken. To be destroyed is an attempt to bring a particular story or record into the light, but there is a sense that it is also an attempt to resolve or settle bad history, to offer some sort of retrospective retribution however delayed. This will be an inclination familiar to anyone who has worked with archives which tell stories which ring with a sense of injustice or personal loss, and where the temptation is always there to try and heal the wrongs of the past, if only by the act of allowing them to be witnessed and remembered by the present. For the French historian Jules Michelet the task of the historian labouring in the archive was imbued with an almost ressurectional power. In the preface to his 1844 History of France he wrote of conjuring the forgotten of history from their slumber amongst the dusty documents of the Archive Nationales. ‘Softly my dear friends, let us proceed in order’ he wrote, ‘as I breathed in their dust, I saw them rise up. They raised from the sepulchre, one the hand, the other the head, as in the last judgement … or as in the dance of death’. The archival proccess as a sort of death dance is perhaps most apt, since the historian or the photographer must always know that any hope of restoring the dead to life is pure performance and illusion. For Derrida this was in the essence of the archive, as a place very much the product of the Freudian drive towards death, whatever the aspirations of the archivist or historian, the archive could only ever remain a form of tomb.

(Critical transparency: Review copy provided by publisher. Sara Davidmann is research fellow at London College of Communication, where I also teach. However we do not know each other).

Gazing into the Algorithmic Abyss: On Microsoft’s Tay AI

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‘Tay’

Algorithmic automation is becoming an ever greater part of advanced socieities, and barring a return to the dark ages these technologies will continue to make their presence felt in more and more fields, from finance to healthcare, to imaging and journalism. The conversation between the camps that promote and oppose this ‘algorithmitisation’ of our societies generally seem to figure these technologies as being essentially neutral, and more likely to be dangerous because of dumb machine stupidity than anything else, much in the same way that acar left on a hill with the handbrake off is dangerous. This feels like a natural extension of the ‘gun’s don’t kill people, people kill people’ argument which has often typified our attempts to understand complex and controversial new technologies. This was always rather a fatuous argument though at least in the sense that guns are explicitly designed to kill, that function is embedded in the technology in a way which can’t be extracted, (and it becomes an irrelevant argument the closer algorithms and AI get to self-awareness). To a greater or less extent I would say something similar occurs in all other technologies, the context of their creation always being inescapable from their later use, however they are retooled. One can’t, or at least shouldn’t, think about the rockets which are used to put men or satellites into space without also thinking of their technological ancestors, the V2 rockets which were explicitly designed to destroy cities. This being the case there is an important but it seems largely unheld discussion to be had about the extent to which algorithms and increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligences might carry similarly vestigal and troublesome motivations in their code.

Microsoft’s Tay AI offers an insight into this idea in several ways. Tay was a twitter bot developed by Microsoft, designed to behave like a teenage girl but also crucially to learn from it’s interactions with other users. Within a day of her launch Tay had just done that and as a result of her interactions had become a misogynistic, Hitler praising, conspiracy theorist, who advocated voting for Donald Trump, until an embarrassed Microsoft pulled the plug on her. Twitter is no lab, it’s full of people who like to troll and disrupt experiments like this, but this is precisely what’s important about this example. When algorithms which have been developed to operate in closed systems and controlled environments are released in an unpredictable and perhaps even hostile world the results are very hard to anticipate. A similar example perhaps was the pricing war which took place between two Amazon algorithms, and which led to a relatively obscure book on fly biology rapidly increasing in price until it peaked at $23,698,655.93. This was the result of two algorithms set to monitor and adjust prices, but which didn’t take account of the way their combined actions would create a sort of algorithmic feedback loop, leading them to constantly ramp up their prices until the error was spotted. Algorithms don’t just have to anticipate their encounters with people now, as the world becomes ever more crowded with lots of them doing different tasks, the possibilities of their encountering each other, and the possibility of those encounters having unforseen consequences becomes ever more likely. This was a war over pricing, but the word war is instructive here. Could we one day see the algorithmic equivalent of the Petrov incident?

If the Amazon example shows what happens when algorithms encounter each other unexpectedly in the wild, what we see in the example of Tay is an extreme parodic example of the danger of technologies which are designed to monitor and learn not from each other, but from us. Learning implies a trust that what is being taught is useful, safe and correct. As anyone who has ever had a sociopathic teacher will attest, learning is not always like that, and a vital part of learning is the student’s own discrimination about what information is useful and when indeed their teacher might be leading them astray. In Tay’s case, her ability to learn but her inability to distinguish and make judgements about the course of her learning on anything but a rather basic level was her undoing. This time it offered us all a bit of a laugh at Microsoft’s expense but it’s not hard to imagine something occurring where a learning system controlling an important asset might do something similarly unanticipated, for all the Three Laws style safeguards that might be built into any such system, as Asimov’s novel I, Robot indicates it’s very hard to safeguard against what hasn’t been anticipated. This becomes more true the more complex these technologies become, when they learn for themselves, and inevitably when algorithms start creating other algorithms. In the 1973 movie Westworld, a robotic theme park becomes a bloody murderfest as the robots break down and turn violently against their operators. Puzzling over a disabled robot, one scientist makes the remark that no one really knows how they work, since these machines are so complex they have been designed by other machines. Science fiction can be instructive, but in reality I’m not really talking about machines-taking-over-the-world stuff here. I think what we might need to be more concerned about are changes and adjustments that these technologies might make to our lives which we may not even be really aware of taking place, but which might still be highly undesirable to us, certainly that has often been the consequence of new technologies in the past.

Some commentators made the point that particularly in terms of her new found misogyny and apparent self-loathing, Tay was an apt reflection of the industry which spawned her, given that the technology and IT industries remains predominantly male and prone to poorly judged manifestations of this (if not out and out sexism). This raises the further important question, which I hinted at earlier, of the extent to which algorithms also reflect the tendencies of their makers in very unintended ways. If code is effectively the DNA of an algorithm, it’s going to become increasingly important to consider whether a developer’s own biases and prejudices might be embedded in various ways into the code they write and algorithm which is the result. In spheres like policing, defence and surveillance where the use of algorithms and in particular computer vision is making dramatic advances, the implications of this question are potentially enormous. If powerful institutions start to increasingly develop and deploy their own algorithms, we need as a public to question the extent to which institutional politics (for example institutionalised racism) could become incalculated into these technologies in the process. While recognising the huge benefits these technologies may bring we need to carefully consider and perhaps start to counter the narratives which regard algorithms and AI as essentially neutral and lacking the prejudices of the humans they are starting to replace. What I think we need to start asking with more and more urgency is if man gazes into the algorithm, what happens when the algorithm gazes back into man?

Sorry is the Hardest Word: Terrorism and Refugees

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Fedja Grulovic / Reuters

Roland Barthes wrote of the punctum, that thing in the stadium of the photograph that pricks you, and makes the image personal. In a time when such massive numbers of images are produced of the mundane and day to day (to say nothing of exceptional events) his idea perhaps needs refiguring. At the risk of mauling a beautiful conception of the proccess of reading photographs, one might also think beyond individual images, and speak also of a stadium of all the images produced in response to an event, the galleries, tweets, statuses, and more encountered in the moments and hours after an attack and the cumulative effect they have, might be thought of in contrast to the single image amongst those many, the image which pricks, stops you in your tracks, and lingers on your mind.

With the terror attacks in Brussels photographs with the same sadly familiar tropes emerged, in the vast quantity we have come to expect in a time of mass camera ownership. Images of bloodied victims and shattered buildings, smoke rising in the sky, heavily armed soldiers examining the damage with detachment of one professional inspecting the work of another. Not surprisingly many of these images were reminiscent of previous attacks in other cities, stills and video showing people fleeing through the tunnels from the Maalbeek Station attack calling to mind very similar images from the London terror attacks in 2007. Other images had a local twist to them, not least the staggering multi-culturalism of Brussels on show in many of the photographs, a reminder that even in an age of globalized terror, mass communication and cultural homogenisation, small national differences still have the potential to momentarily jar.

Amongst all these photographs for me the one which really pricked was one taken over a thousand miles away from the bombings. The image above by Fedja Grulovic was taken in the Greek village of idomeni. This border settlement of 150 permanent residents has become a holding point for refugees waiting to cross the closed border into Macedonia, in effect becoming a new Calais for a new Continent as the consequences of the closure of borders across the continent ripple closer and closer to the edges of Europe. The culmination of that ripple will probably be the deal currently being threshed out between the EU and the Turkish government to end migration into Europe completely, an agreement being made despite Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s effective abandonment of many of the democratic tenets the EU is supposed to pride itself on. Estimates for the number of refugees waiting at Idomeni range as high as 12,000, the camp has been compared to a modern Dachau, and yesterday two of the refugees self-immolated in protest at conditions there, although unsurprisingly given the timing and subject matter that event made few headlines.

Grulovic’s photograph, taken at a refugee protest against the closed border, shows a young boy holding a sign which reads ‘sorry for Brussels’ with the last word dripping with childishly drawn blood. The idea of this boy expressing this sentiment over an event occuring thousands of miles away in a city which is the seat of the European Union is made all the more painful by the background behind him. On show is the biblical chaos one would expect in a Hollywood recreation of a refugee camp or transit point, with a great number of exhausted faces looking up from the ground. They are towered over by a man with a megaphone, who may be leading the refugee’s protest but in the context of this image acts instead as a visual shorthand for the ineffective disaster management that has typified the humanitarian crisis on Europe’s borders and within them. On the boy’s arm is a bandage with a bloom of red that echoes the blood on the sign, although it is unclear if this is a real wound, or a sort of black armband worn in tribute. In a sense of course it could and perhaps should be read as both.

‘Sorry’ is a difficult word, a context specific one even by the standards of a confusing language like English. I say sorry when I hear that a friend of yours I didn’t know has recently passed away, I express sympathy. Being English I say sorry when someone has done something to irritate me, I express annoyance, I am sorry I have had this encounter. I also of course say sorry to express regret at my actions, I apologise for my conduct. In the west we sometimes ask Muslims to say sorry for the actions of their violent co-religionists, which seems reasonable only so long as the rest of us are willing to apologise for the conduct of these people as our co-human beings. The boy’s sign is of course most likely intended as an expression of sympathy, tinged by the knowledge that these attacks will likely lead to a hardening and harshening of European attitudes towards refugees. It might also be read though as an expression of regret, of apology. ISIS attacks in Europe are understood at least to be partially intended to stem the flow of refugees from their territories, who are feared as fifth columnists, cuckoos, enemies within. And so increasingly we shun them. We often tell ourselves that while terror is incapable of a millitary victory against democratic nation states, and that the only possibility of true defeat is would be if in the face of this threat we abandon the essential tenets that define us. Humanitarianism, democracy, diversity, empathy. In the context of ISIS, and other threats like a resurgent Russia seemingly intent on bringing the EU to it’s knees, and seeking to do so in part by undermining the continents unity and sense of self, remaining true to these ideas remains more essential than ever, and yet as the deal being made with Turkey indicates, we are selling out wholesale. Reading that boy’s sign, and looking at the chaos behind him, it’s really hard not to feel that we are the ones who might owe him an apology.