Writing on photography

_IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg

Since it’s invention, photography’s status has been contested, it’s precise nature unclear. Never before though have we been able to legitimately feel so unsure about what we mean when we talk about a photograph. This uncertainty in part forms the basis for a new series of books by the artist Mishka Henner. To call these ‘photobooks’ would be apparently inaccurate, but is in fact quite apt. Each book presents the raw data of a historic photograph as text, turning what might be a familiar, apparently straightforward image into reams of alpha-numeric data. The first volume, memorably titled _IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg is a paperback about the thickness of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, each of its near eight hundred pages filled with code, a typical syntax of which reads ‘t¶×Wsæëhe.‡¶Í®ö:Û?IüÇó^¥¿’.

Included as a separate print in the back of the book is a reproduction of the photograph to which this mass of code refers. In it five soldiers, trudging wearily along a diagonal of duckboards, look towards the camera. They are crossing a large pool of muddy water, in which are reflected the surrounding tree trunks, the shattered remains of a forest. The men are likely to have been posed or have at least been asked to pause for a moment on the march towards their distant rest, however the last man in the group hasn’t followed the instruction and has shimmered into an indistinct blur. The location is Chateau Wood, Belgium and the date is 29th October 1917, in the midst of the third battle of Ypres.

Henner’s choice of this particular photograph is not injudicious. Its photographer, Frank Hurley, was something of a controversial figure in his own day, one who like Henner was not averse to taking photographs to pieces in order to see how they work, and how they work on us. Marooned with Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition at the start of the First World War, Hurley joined the Australian Imperial Force on his return in 1917 and arrived in France in August of that year. Commissioned as a honourary captain and charged with photographing the conflict for the official Australian war record, he quickly found himself frustrated by the inability of the then rudimentary photographic technology to show the true nature of this immeasurably destructive war. In his journal Hurley complained that ‘everything is on such a vast scale. The figures are scattered, the atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke, shells will not burst where required. It might as well be a rehearsal in a paddock’.

Hurley’s answer to this problem was to stage shots and even to create composites, sometimes blending several negatives into a single larger photograph. What resulted was a series of remarkable images, sweeping panoramas reminiscent of nineteenth century paintings, which arguably did a far better job of capturing the verisimilitude of a war fought for the first time on every spatial plane, from the cold air above, to the thick mud of the trenches, and the tunnels below. Hurley’s practices however quickly brought him into conflict with Charles Bean, the head of the Australian photography unit, a traditionalist and an empiricist, who believed in the importance of an unmanipulated record of the war. For Bean, Hurley’s photographs were dangerous fakes which threatened to undermine the documentary efforts of his unit. Frustrated by Bean’s interventions, Hurley left France and the Western Front for the Middle East about a month after the Chateau Wood photograph was taken

Hurely’s Chateau Wood was not a composite, but the history that surrounds it reveals that in 1917 many of the same dilemmas troubled the users of photography that continue to trouble them today. Questions about the relationship between surface appearances and deeper truths, about how we mediate or alter experiences when we record them in photographs, and about how photographs come to shape our understanding of the world. These questions are however now far more complex. In 1917, whatever its other ambiguities, the photograph could at least be said to be a physical trace of something, the cumbersome glass plates bearing the direct touch of the same waves of light which had first touched on Hurley’s subjects, before radiating back towards his camera lens.

By contrast, physicality is not the native state of the digital photograph of the present, nor even is visibility. The natural state of the digital image is in fact the reams of code contained in the many pages of Henner’s book, and in this sense it is more than apt to describe this textual volume as a photobook. The digital image is something latent which must be brought into existence each and every time we wish to view it by the natives of an electronic ecosystem which we have constructed but are unable to navigate. At our demand these algorithms or image engines speed read through these huge books of code, translating them for a moment into something we can understand, and recognise as a photograph, before dematerialising again when we click and close the window. Like any process of translation, this one can be subjective, and different translators are want to word passages and phrases differently.

_IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg is about photography then, and what a photograph now exactly is, but Henner’s book is also more basically about knowledge and information, and the states in which information resides. What was once a privileged commodity which offered to provide answers to many of the world’s problems is today something which we all generate in quantities which are difficult to comprehend. Technologies like photography, which once offered to reveal the inner workings and complexities of the universe, now do as much as to obscure these things behind cataracts of useless information, torrents which seem to become more severe with every passing year. In our search for truth we have created a system of entropy masquerading as knowledge, where every action, even those aimed at making sense of this confusion, seems just to add irresistibly to it

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

Writing on photography