Writing on photography

Seduced by the Machine: Looking into Lidar

Regular readers of Disphotic will know that as much as I love delving into photography’s murky past, few things interest me as much as pondering its unclear future. Where these two activities collide you’re sure to find me. So I eagerly listened to a talk last Thursday given by William Trossell and Matthew Shaw of Scanlab Projects about their use of Lidar (or Light Detection and Ranging) technology for a mixture of artistic and commercial projects, including their new work Horizontal Humans commissioned for Media Wall at The Photographer’s Gallery.

Lidar is something I’ve read quite a bit about in the context of it’s use in mapping and surveillance satellites, Scanlabs by contrast make use of slightly more accessible and portable Lidar systems designed for practices like architectural surveying and police forensics. This system uses a scanning laser to measure distances from the scanner to objects in the space around it, information which can be used to build up an extremely detailed 3D map of the targeted area. What is produced by Lidar is not really an image in a traditional sense but an intensely detailed data set of countless points in the measured space, a data set which can be visualised as a three dimensional map and explored in video as a virtual space, or rendered out as a still image more comparable to a traditional photograph.

Lidar remains in relative infancy, at least so far as portability and affordability of the units are concerned and while advocates seem pretty confident it will go mainstream (helped perhaps by its key role in a range of next generation technologies like Google’s self-driving cars) there is still a way to go before it becomes a consumer technology. Despite these hurdles Trossell and Shaw made the interesting prediction that Lidar could be the next step in the evolution of photography, leading the medium into the type of 3D imaging long prophesised by science fiction. For now the technology certainly offers some interesting if slightly superficial parallels with early photography. Lidar scanning is a time consuming affair, requiring around ten minutes for a single scan, and consequentially producing images of people that either have the stiff awkwardness of early daguerreotypes, or strange blurring, something the duo have particularly exploited in their work. The ‘images’ produced are black and white, since the technology can’t yet detect colour differences in spaces it scans, and they have a strange, elusive quality about them not entirely unlike the slippery polished silver surface of a daguerreotype.

Perhaps the most compelling comparison between Lidar advocates like Trossell and Shaw and early proponents of photography is the way that, as one audience member suggested, the duo seem to have been rather seduced by the technology and it’s possibilities. They were unremittingly enthusiastic about it, and while they acknowledged technical shortcomings there was no real discussion of the critical or philosophical implications of it. They suggested during their talk that Lidar was essentially just a ‘dumb machine’ which would simply hoover up all the information presented to it, without much in the way of human intervention or the subjectivities of traditional photography, for example framing. In this way Lidar lays claim to a forensic, impartial objectivity, much like the claims that were made for photography in its earliest days.

Of course people quickly found ways to exploit the truthful, evidential credentials of traditional photography to show things which had not happened, or to alter the readings that viewers took from photographs, and to my eye Lidar has its own share of subjectivities to grapple with. It’s positioning in a scene seems particularly relevant, because this determines where blind spots in the scan will occur at the points behind objects where the scanner’s laser cannot reach, potentially obscuring critical information. Equally the illusion of a light source that the scanner creates in the final rendered spaces seems to me to be quite loaded, suggesting that the scene is illuminated by a source within the eye of the viewer, an arrangement which takes the observer centric viewpoint of single point perspective to a bizarre, almost narcissistic extreme. Moving towards the technical side of things, the way Lidar scenes are composited together and the proccess by which colour is introduced also sound as if they present issues of manipulation and subjectivity. Given that at least in early years we are likely to read Lidar images in the same fashion that we presently read conventional photographs, these technical traits could well be exploited by someone canny enough to recognise an opportunity to do so.

The work of Trossell and Shaw reveals Lidar to be a fascinating and fruitful technology, even if they perhaps don’t escape a sense of seduction with what the technology is capable of for long enough to question it’s limitations or potential for misuse. Perhaps that will come in time as it did with conventional photography, as the manipulations that are possible with Lidar become more apparent to it’s users, and in turn to the consumers of it’s imagery. If predictions for its future development into something more accessible and affordable come to be accurate then I have no doubt though that Lidar or it’s derivatives will  have a profound effect on practically every domain where photography is considered useful today, including journalism. More thoughts on that perhaps, another time.

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.

1 comment

  • It’s fairly clear that some sort of 3d imaging, some sort of application of it, is the future. Light field cameras, the multiple cell-phone camera modules of the new camera from “Light”, LIDAR, and so on.

    I rather doubt that the future is in twee renderings of 3D space, rotated slowly for our edification. The LIDAR gang seems to be producing poor copies of other people’s ideas, and ideas long since mined out, and counting on the novelty of the technology to drive interest.

    But they are, I believe, correct in that bringing the 3rd dimension in to play, and computational photography, are components of the future. How, exactly, this plays out, don’t have much of an idea. Interest in overtly 3D imaging has been resolutely close to nil for 150 years, it has always been a novelty and I see no reason this will suddenly change (and evidence that exists that it isn’t). The uses of 3D information, on the other hand, there’s something there. Quick, easy, compositing followed by digital re-lighting are things I’ve called out as possibles.

Writing on photography