Not the Death of Photography, Just a Rebirth

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Detail of printed Gutenberg Bible, 1453

The end of the year always ushers in a period of introspection as people attempt to judge how well or badly used that time was, and how appreciably better or worse the world has become. This is no less true in the photography world, and the close of 2013 saw a number of posts and articles predicting grave challenges to the medium. Many of these pieces (for example this one and this one) appeared to identify one consistent threat to photography, which was, rather paradoxically, photography itself.

The belief that there is too much photography in the world is very familiar. Concern lies in the idea that this abundance somehow undermines the intrinsic value of all photographs, almost regardless of their individual characteristics (and yet I suspect many who agree with this statement would challenge a similar idea, that photographs are never entire of themselves, understood independently of each other). A recent project of mine explored these same ideas, and I’ve discussed here before how this fear of the flood of images is one which seems to arise in almost every generation, certainly as far back as the start of the last century.

Knowing that the mass of photographs in the world is only set to grow (because the number of people with access to cameras and means of dissemination remains small) I think it’s important to explore and challenge the notion that more photographs undermines photography as a whole. The obsession with predicting photography’s imminent demise is a subject which could be studied in it’s own right. Rather than being rooted in legitimate concern I think it rather reflects both the tendency of many photographers to self-flagellate (why are we such a negative bunch?) and also the rabble rousing side of the internet, the temptation to garner views through negative titles and topics that are bound to get people’ hackles up. Yet while without merit these claims can still be demoralising and damaging, undermining the confidence of less secure photographers, and making us appear like a bunch of conservative pessimists to the outside world, eulogising an irrelevant past.

When people talk about photography being under threat I think often what they really mean is the ability of a small group of people to survive by making photographs. Undoubtedly a combination of more readily accessible amateur photography via the internet and an apparent unwillingness to pay for photographs do put professionals and amateurs in competition like never before. This needn’t necessarily be the death knell for people who want to make a living from photography (not least because there will always be areas too specialised for amateurs to make inroads into) it might just mean changes to how this is accomplished. We have to recognise that these amateurs are not just competition but also potentially an enormous audience, a visually sophisticated market for our work. We just need to figure out what to do with it.

What we must not do is to get drawn into believing that professional photographers (of whatever dint, whether artist or photojournalist) are photography made flesh, and that without them the medium is somehow going to collapse into banality or disappear entirely. The economic value of photography really has very little to do with its cultural value, and in terms of the latter photography has never been more valuable or important. Equally while this great mass of photography does consist of the banal (true of professional as well as amateur photography) it also leads to enormous diversity, sophistication and innovation. Open a photographic book of yesteryear when the global output of photographs was perhaps measured in mere millions of pictures, and the most noticeable thing to me is how dull many of the photographs are.

This booming interest in photography is a product of the digital revolution, which has made photography so much more accessible to both makers and viewers, but it is also a revolution in its own right with the potential to reshape the medium in extremely exciting ways. For example I wonder if the abundance of technically excellent and very beautiful photographs, and the increasing difficulty of making value judgements between them will lead us to reconsider how we appraise photographs, moving perhaps still further away from judgements which remain rooted in aesthetics and closer to judgements based on the ideas contained in photographs. At this stage it is nearly impossible to perceive the paths that we might yet take, and this hazy middle distance appears threatening to those who have much invested in the current state of things.

I think it can help to look at similar media revolutions as a way to banish some of our fears of change, or at least give us a sense of who amongst us should be afraid. A recurrent trope when discussing the digital revolution is to compare it to the print revolution of the early modern period. The monopoly held by monasteries over the production of text by hand was subverted by the introduction of the printing press, which made it possible for relatively humble people to record and disseminate their own ideas and with comparative ease and freedom. To be sure we have our own photographic monks and monasteries today, eager to retain their privileged positions as custodians of creation or curation.

For our own photographic transformation another rather more overlooked revolution seems relevant. Emerging out of the aftermath of the print revolution was a literacy revolution, where a combination of factors including the proliferation of cheaply printed books and the rise of Protestantism (with it’s emphasis on a personal relationship with scripture) led to growing rates of reading and writing in Europe. This culminated in the UK with the establishment of formal primary education in 1870, extending the possibility of learning to read and write to more or less everyone. Not to speak of photographic literacy (which I think is is an over played, little substantiated concept) but I think we are seeing something similar now with the growing numbers of people who are making, sharing and looking at photographs.

I doubt many in 1870 were decrying the threat that universal literacy posed to the integrity of the journal or the novel, instead writers got new audiences and audiences got new writers. People who would never previously have been in a position to put pen to paper were able to do, and the works they penned reflected a new diversity of human experience, and ultimately changed our ideas about the forms that writing can take. As photographers we still have this to look forward to. The spread of photography is not the death of photography, if anything it’s a rebirth.

Review – Bending the Frame by Fred Ritchin

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The digital revolution is heralding unprecedented change in virtually all industries. Perhaps not since the industrial revolution began over two centuries ago have we seen innovation that has been so rapid, transformative, and, in the eyes of some, so dangerously out of control. This is particularly true of this revolution’s effect on journalism, and photojournalism, where traditional models of working, dissemination and financing have been rendered almost completely obsolete in a matter of little over a decade.

Many commentators and theorists discuss this revolution much as they would an act of god, as an unstoppable force which cannot be reasoned with or steered, but at best understood. Most ask ‘where are we going?’ but very few ask the far more important question ‘where do we want to go?’ Fred Ritchin is a rare exception to this, and his latest book Bending the Frame is a much needed examination of the massive changes that have occurred in journalism in recent years, and more vitally an attempt to suggest how we might use a combination of new technology and new working practices to change journalism and better carry out it’s mandate in the future.

Across six chapters Ritchin explores a wide range of topics pertinent to the state and future of the industry. For example in The Useful Photographer he examines photojournalism’s traditional values and roles in wider society, how these are being affected by change for better and for worse. In  counterpoint to cynics like me who tend to assume that journalism’s ability to tell or show the ‘truth’ and thereby enact change has been completely undermined, Ritchin makes compelling arguments for ways that new technology can actually reinforce these very traditional journalistic functions, not erode them.

In another chapter, Other Alliances, Ritchin turns his attention to the use of images by competing and contradictory factions as part of a global image war which is ‘so intensely visible it is difficult to perceive’. He examines how imagery has been used in the global war on terror, where acts of violence are planned with their appearance as press images in mind. In the second half of the chapter he investigates the use of imagery by non-governmental organisations, an increasingly important source of financial and moral capital for journalists struggling to find traditional editorial outlets and backing for their work.

Every chapter is peppered with useful, real world examples of photographers employing innovative techniques to approach familiar and unfamiliar subjects, and tackle problems old and new. Simply as a catalogue of photographers using novel strategies in their work it’s an exhaustive and exhausting text (I spent a sizeable amount of time just looking up the names and projects I didn’t recognise). Ritchin also suggests many innovations of own invention, from embedding extensive contextual information within images to playing photographs off against each other. He notes an attempt of his own to temper the anger of 9/11 by juxtaposing a photograph of the ruins of the World Trade Centre with one of the ruins of Kabul, already ravaged by decades of war.

Ritchin is a rare exception to most writers on these topics, a theorist not a fearist, he acknowledges the bad but always in the context of positive counter-points and potential solutions. Equally he is neither utterly hostile to old fashioned photojournalism as some writers on photography are, nor is he blindly protective of its tenets and traditions for their own sake, as many in the photojournalism industry. For anyone in this field, but also for anyone who is interested in the evolving nature of photography and it’s many possible futures Bending the Frame should be considered absolutely essential reading.

Review – The Prix Pictet Commissions: Munem Wasif, Ed Kashi, Chris Jordan and Simon Norfolk at Somerset House

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Simon Norfolk

Recently opened at Somerset House is a small exhibition displaying work from the last four Prix Pictet commissions, awarded to Munem Wasif, Ed Kashi, Chris Jordan, and Simon Norfolk.  The Prix Pictet, which is funded by the Swiss private bank Pictet & Cie, awards a commission roughly every eighteen months to one photographer in order for them produce a body of work in a region where the bank funds development work. These commissions fall under a fairly broad title theme each time, past titles have been ‘water’ and ‘power’, and the latest one is ‘consumption’.

The four bodies of work then, first Munem Wasif’s 2008 work in the Satkhira area of Bangladesh examines the implications of extreme water shortages in a country often associated (at least in the minds of western observers) with the opposite problem. Rises in water salinity have forced people travel long distances to collect supplies. Wasif demonstrates how this impacts on other areas of life, for example schooling, by forcing people into a desperate search for water, and how other priorities suffer as a result. It’s in many ways the most conservative of the four bodies of work; black and white, beautifully shot but also strangely forgettable. One photograph showing a group of men pushing a boat full of water through mud (a bizarre reversal of the normal order of things) has the most lingering impact.

Second is Ed Kashi’s 2009 project in Madgascar. The focus is again on the difficulty of balancing environmental protection with sustainable living. Madagascar’s biodiversity is under threat from the poverty of it’s population, and Kashi focuses on the attempts to introduce more sustainable approaches to farming to offset this. For me this was probably the weakest body of work, it has Kashi’s signature on it but not his usual feeling of commitment to a subject. If I was feeling kind I might wonder if it’s perhaps because the environments here are different to the relatively urban locations that have given rise to some of his best work. It may equally just reflect the fact it’s a commissioned subject that maybe didn’t grab him as a photographer, who knows.

Third was Chris Jordan’s  work in Kenya’s Northern Rangelands. Again the focus is on the importance of sustainable living as a way to offset the need to encroach on and poach endangered animals (in this case specifically elephants) and degrade the natural environment. Again the photographs on show were variable but there were quite a few notable ones. One of a ceremonial knife with a Colgate toothbrush and a small plastic mirror attached to it particularly caught my eye. Also tough to look at were a series of photographs of an elephant dismembered by poachers, but perhaps given slightly too much space in the gallery (there were about four, when one would have sent the same very distressing message as effectively).

Finally Simon Norfolk’s The Disaster Season (2013), was for me the most interesting perhaps because it feels least like a PR project intended to highlight development work for a donor. Rephotographing the same sites in an Afghan province over the course of a year Norfolk shows the changing cycle of the seasons as one photograph dissolves into another on a wall mounted TV. As one watches small huts and the remains of destroyed tanks become overgrown with plants and scattered with snow the overwhelming sense, as with much of Norfolk’s previous work, is of the transitory nature of man and the overwhelming power of time and natural forces.

The main thing that I came away from the show thinking about though was it’s sponsor. Exhibition sponsorship is such a norm we don’t even notice it. People are often surprised if you tell them the UK’s leading contemporary art gallery is named for a family of sugar magnates. I even met someone recently who thought Taylor Wessing was a famous portrait photographer, not a firm of lawyers. The Prix Pictet is, I think it is worth remembering, a competition organised and funded by a private bank to highlight their activities. The lingering question for me is how this shapes my encounter with the work on display, almost irrespective of the quality of the work, and what is at play beneath the surface of this small show. Prix Pictet Commissions is on until October 31st 2013

Eva Stenram: Discomforting Domesticity

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Eva Stenram, Drape

Once something of a backwater populated by hoaxers, practical jokers and a few Dadaists, the borderlands between photography and collage are becoming ever more densely populated. One artist who resides here is Eva Stenram, who works with photographs that are appropriated and digitally reworked to resemble neutral, even domestic spaces, but which on closer inspection reveal sinister undertones incompatible with these original assumptions.

For example an early series, Landscape with Cameras, consists of forested scenes into which security cameras have been digitally added. Aside from their unlikely location, these cameras are often positioned at improbable angles, facing into hedges, or so close to the ground as to be entirely useless for their intended surveillance purpose.  Another body of work pornography/forest_pic, sees Stenram trawling the internet for pornographic images, set again in forests, before digitally manipulating the adult actors out of them. The result is a series of odd unpeopled scenes, loaded with with the sense that something has just happened, or is just about to. Stenram herself likens these images to forensic photography, and there is something of a crime scene about many of them, littered with discarded clothing, blankets (even a gun) and in many cases with the exact spot where the ‘crime’ took place marked by squashed down foliage.

A third piece that extends Stenram’s fascination with domestic spaces into new territory is her on-going video piece Break-In, which mixes video from two classics of sixties American cinema, Hitchcock’s The Birds and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Stenram’s description of the work identifies the shared setting of a fortified domestic space as a point of interest, but both films can also be read in a multitude of other ways that have relevance to her practice. For example the themes of loneliness and conflicting female roles in The Birds, and the subtext of domestic discord and the threat of incomprehensible external forces in Night of the Living Dead.

However Stenram’s best known body of work is arguably Drape, currently on show at Open Eye gallery in Liverpool and for which she has just been awarded the inaugural Cord Prize. For Drape Stenram takes as her starting point a series of vintage pinup photographs from the 1960’s, photographs showing women literally draped in various poses across furniture in the mundane domestic spaces of sixties suburbia. She then digitally reworks these analogue images, bringing drapes and curtains out of the background and into the foreground, in the process obscuring the models that originally formed the centre of attention, and leaving little of them on view but dispossessed limbs.

As a viewer these images pull you in a multitude of directions simultaneously. The curtains emphasise the performance and titillation of the photographed scene, that these objectified women are here performing for the camera and their distant viewer. However at the same time they deny the viewer the opportunity to actually see the model and the performance. This sense of denial both makes one acutely aware of the awkward voyeuristic nature of these pinup photographs, and ironically heightens it, the absence of seeing only increasing the desire to see, the few traces of these women that are visible amplifying the need for more.

Equally perplexing is the realisation that because of the positioning of many of these women in front of curtained windows, Stenram’s extension of these drapes might mask her subjects from our view, but also presumably exposes them to view from some imaginary outside. What had been a private erotic event becomes a public one by the simple repositioning of the curtain. And still the relationship between viewer and viewed is unclear, whether they are hiding from us, teasing us (as some like Drape IV suggest) or are even altogether unaware of our presence.

Several critics including Marco Bohr have made connections between Stenram’s work and cultural and psychoanalytical theories of fetishism. In his essay Photography and Fetish, the film theorist Christian Metz notes the fetishistic quality of photographs, objects which are largely formed and consumed in private, as keepsakes, mementos, trophies. According to Freudian theories this private, domestic world is, as Metz notes, the birthplace of the fetish, the almost inexplicable sexual attachments to objects and situations that have no obvious erotic value. With their domestic settings and sets of disconnected arms and legs, fetishism is an inescapable theme in Drape. Stenram’s manipulations remove anything that might distinguish these women as different from one another, Indeed even the question of the subject’s gender is at times in uncertain. Features which might identify them as individuals in even in a very superficial sense are covered and erased, the remaining limbs heightening the depersonalising quality of pornography.

Photographically Stenram’s collages are also strange, contradictory images because the transplantation of the background into the foreground confuses the eye. What was distant is now close, what was close is now rendered invisible, the normal rules of depth of field and perspective are suspended. Stenram works roughly, making no great effort to create seamless manipulations. In Drape IX for example the size of the curtain bears no relation to the apparently much taller women obscured by it, in Drape VII the bottom of the curtain is noticeably crudely cut. These obvious imperfections in the images pose questions about the constructed nature of erotic photography (indeed all photography) and the unrealistic and distortive sexual expectations that such images are able to transmit.

In some respects, not least in terms of source material, Drape tempts comparisons to the work of John Stezaker, the English collagist who has worked extensively with reclaimed and appropriated photographs, predominantly of movie stars, a profession not entirely unrelated to that of the pornographic actor. Like Stenram, Stezaker dismembers and reassembles these photographs to create new images which at first glance often appear untroubling, but become more disturbing the longer one looks. Similarly Stezaker plays with our sense of photographic perspective, telescoping near and far, as a close up portrait gives way to a distant landscape and vice versa.

However unlike Stezaker, who seemingly lifts a veil on the subjects of his source material, tempting strange comparisons and creating visual metaphors that seem to delve below the airbrushed surfaces of his otherwise inscrutable subjects, Stenram does the reverse, very literally lowering a veil over her appropriated subjects. It is tempting to suggest this masking gives Stenram’s work a subtly feminist quality, as if she is acting to protect these objectified women from our leering gaze. Perhaps these images are a form of retrospective photographic intervention, righting an old wrong. Indeed one can almost imagine Stenram ritualistically burning the originals after creating her manipulations.

This convolution of the erotic and domestic, the exploitative and the protective, also brings to mind the work of Linder Sterling, who’s photo collages often combine material from women’s fashion magazines with pornographic photographs, again highlighting the competing and contradictory expectations placed on women by contemporary culture. And yet compelling as Drape is as a comment on these themes of domesticity and gender, I keep finding myself returning to the issues that it raises of the distinction between public and private. The thought that remains most compelling to me is that as these women are hidden from us by these drapes they must be revealed to someone else, on the other side, the idea that perhaps in certain forms of concealing there is also a revealing that takes place.

We have never been less certain of the boundaries between the private and the public than we are right now. A.C. Grayling has written that in our rush to embrace technology we have forgone our privacy, that ‘we have stripped ourselves naked to any eyes that wish to see’. Almost everyone unthinkingly advertises themselves online, sharing vast amounts of personal information, which is readily scooped up by companies and governments to profile and assess us, as potential customers or possible threats. We are reduced in the process to two dimensional abstractions of ourselves, purposed to satisfy the fetishes of commercial marketing or governmental paranoia. Intentionally or not, Stenram has tapped into something of the nature of our age with her collages, an age where privacy is uncertain, territories are porous, and we are all to some extent on display.

Open Source Self-Publishing

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After what was initially a great response to my launch of War Primer 3: Work Primer last week I hit up against a bit of a wall. The project had at first spread reasonably far by word of mouth, with the book notching up two thousand views on Issuu in a day, pretty good going for a work which undoubtedly has quite narrow appeal. However going beyond this it has proved really difficult to get any photography or visual culture titles and websites to show any interest in the work, or to persuade them to write even a short piece on the book and the issues of artistic appropriation and exploitative labour practices that spawned it (you can read more about these topics here.)

For a while I wondered why. Perhaps it’s because they just see the project as rather mundane, it is after all, a derivative of a derivative. On the other hand perhaps it’s too controversial, maybe writers and editors don’t want to risk souring their connections to influential individuals and institutions by running a piece on it. Maybe none of them even bothered to read my messages. Either way dozens of e-mails and tweets to publications big and small have met with only a handful of responses, and only two sites to date having the balls to actually run it.

Increasingly frustrated I started turning to the photographic community for advice, initially just for suggestions for magazines and sites that might show some interest in the work. However I got more than I bargained for when Andreas Schmidt suggested making War Primer 3 an open source photo book. His idea was to encourage people to download the PDF of War Primer 3 from my website, and then print their own version through print on demand publishers like Blurb.com and Lulu.com, and to sell their new copies of the book via online stores. The only restriction being that the new printed versions should be sold at production cost, not for profit.

I love this idea because as well as being an answer to the problem of how to more widely distribute War Primer 3, it adds to the project on several levels. The book was already about the issue of appropriation and reuse, so the idea of people appropriating my appropriation to produce a series of ramshackle bootlegs seems like a wonderfully logical one. Hopefully it encourages some wider ownership of the work, beyond the limited edition books of Broomberg and Chanarin, and even beyond the unlimited digital edition of my iteration.

It could also be really interesting because as Schmidt pointed out the lack of standardisation and the variety of paper and format choices available through print on demand publishers mean that each new version of War Primer 3 printed in this way will most likely be a unique edition. There could ultimately be dozens or hundreds of different version of this book floating around, from big, expensive colour hard back editions, to small, black and white pocket books printed on cheap paperback grade paper. Participants could also alter the book more profoundly, for example playing with the page ordering, or adding new images or text as Schmidt has with his version War Primer 38.

So if you’re tempted please download, upload and print away the PDF of the book can be got by clicking here or you can download the book as a set of high res jpegs here. Then it’s just a case of laying the book out in whatever design software you use (for example Indesign or Blurb’s own Booksmart software) exporting and uploading the new book ready to print through the site of your choice. I’d love it if anyone who does so can send me links, either to their version of the book in an online store, or better still photographs of a printed version, and I’ll compile a list of places selling it and photographs of the different ‘editions’, a library in effect of a single book.

I’m off for a holiday in the middle of nowhere for a few days now where I will be writing away ready to return to the usual schedule of critical writing from next Monday.

War Primer 3: Work Primer

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I know Monday is usually the day I post a bit of critical writing and so I apologise to anyone (if anyone) waiting on tenterhooks for this. I just wanted to share something I’ve been working on over the last few days, in response to the issues raised by many interesting conversations about the value of photographic appropriation, exploitative intern use in the art world, and the worthiness of this year’s Deutsche Börse prize winner.

War Primer 3: Work Primer is a reworking of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Deutsche Börse winning War Primer 2 (2011) itself a reworking of the 1998 English edition of Bertolt Brecht’s 1955 book Kriegsfibel. In this unique exploration of photography and conflict Brecht sought to extract the hidden meanings behind Second World War photographs with short poems modeled on the funeral epigrams of the ancient world. Broomberg and Chanarin in turn updated Brecht’s book, by introducing images from the War on Terror, each intended to resonate with Brecht’s original texts.

While brilliant in some respects, Broomberg and Chanarin’s followup was also deeply problematic, for a variety of reasons some of which I have outlined in my review here. I felt particularly uncomfortable with the book’s existence as an expensive, editioned art object, and the use of unpaid, uncredited intern labour in its production, both things Brecht would most likely have baulked at.

In response to this, and in the spirit of Brecht’s playful invocation not to ‘start with the good old things but the bad new ones’ I have reworked the digital edition of Broomberg and Chanarin’s book into a ‘work primer’ on economics and labour, past and present, at home and abroad. To do this I have replaced Brecht’s original epigrams with text from his poem A Worker Reads Historya meditation on history’s forgotten, and reordered the pages of the book to loosely match the words of the poem. To these pages I have added new text and images. The result is a small tribute to the forgotten of today, the unacknowledged workers, labourers, and slaves that keep the engine of the world, even the fine art world, turning.

More on the project here.

Sordid Aesthetics

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Gaza Burial, Paul Hansen

The last week saw yet another tedious photo-scandal. A questionable forensic analysis led to the accusation that Paul Hansen’s World Press Prize (WPP) winning photograph was in fact a composite, which was followed by a denial from Hansen, a counter-analysis by the WPP which largely disproved the initial analysis, and a final ruling that the original award would be upheld. Then followed the usual slew of boring articles on the technical elements of the case and a certain amount of people siding with or against Hansen.

I wouldn’t normally want to add anything to this, these periodic photo-scandals are routine to the point of boredom. They play themselves out and are forgotten again in time for the next one to surface a month or two later as if no lessons had been learnt. Except this case encompasses so many facets of the debate about photomanipulation that it seems like a good opportunity to put down some very broad thoughts on what this issue says about the photojournalism industry, and photography in general. I apologise in advance that this maybe isn’t as considered or polished as what I would normally write, take it as more of an ill considered outpouring of things that have been troubling me for a while.

Secretively manipulating images is seen as one of the cardinal sins of photojournalism, an act against the natural order of things, almost akin to incest. Careers can be destroyed by these sorts of accusations when the prove to be true, just as careers are probably often made in the first place by photographers peddling heavily edited photographs. Such are the stakes, so it goes. Justifying the severity of the punishments meted out for this behaviour, it is often argued that as well distorting the truth of the individual photographs subjected to it, manipulation has the effect of undermining the evidential value of all photographs. To misquote Donne, ‘no photograph is an island, entire of itself…’.

This all seems very clear, except low level manipulations like cropping are still in widespread use by journalists, and are seen as indispensable tools, despite being just as capable of distorting the meaning of an image (check out the Stepan Rudik case). This makes for a confusing situation, a result of an industry that wants to have its cake and eat it. Critics of manipulation often resort to vague, shorthand terms to mask this huge contradiction. For example WPP’s own guidelines which states that ‘only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards’. As Joerg Colberg pointed out when this new rule was added in 2009 in the wake of Rudik case, ‘currently accepted’ doesn’t really mean anything.

The real concern I think isn’t with the idea that the fabric of an individual image has been interfered with, or that the truth has been distorted (does anyone really still believe photographs are true?). Hansen may have extensively altered his photograph, but we still understand the substance of his image to be more or less accurate, in that it reflects what happens in certain parts of the world all too often (ever is too often). Indeed the documented cases where a journalist has intentionally, deceptively sought to alter the meaning of an image by manipulation are relatively few compared to the overwhelming number who have done it for the sake of aesthetics. The simple sordid reason of trying to make a photograph look better, as Hansen presumably did, to increase the chances of a sale or a prize.

No, I think instead concern about manipulation stems from something much more childish. On the one hand a sense of cheating, that the photographer has achieved his end result not by photographic talent alone, that they have therefore broken ‘the rules’ (but as serial image manipulator W. Eugene Smith pointed out, who made these rules, and who ordered us to abide to them?). On the other hand, a sense of betrayal of the audience by the photographer, as if the secret workings of the magic trick has been revealed. The photograph suddenly seems so disappointing and so shallow, similar in effect to discovering a concert was lip synched and just as inconsequential.

This idea of betrayal leads the obvious question, what right do we have to feel betrayed, should we trust journalists so implicitly? These people who are essentially self-appointed, largely unaccountable, and increasingly independent even from the limited oversight offered by rapidly atrophying traditional news organisations? Don’t many of us retain a naive mental picture of the noble press that belongs to Hollywood films of the forties, an image which has no place today in an age of increasingly autonomous freelancers, anonymous citizen journalists, and distant editors?

Since the United Kingdom’s Leveson inquiry into press ethics, the camps in this country seem more clearly divided than ever between those who believe journalists are righteous heroes who can do no wrong and those who think they are scum out to profit by exploitation and misrepresentation. Part of coming to terms with occasional cases of press deception, whether perpetrated by image manipulation or other methods, involves I think a moving towards a more realistic way of viewing the profession, as something somewhere between the two extremes, neither idolised nor demonised.

Returning specifically to the current case, Hansen argued that what he did was only ‘to recreate what the eye sees’, overcoming the limitations of camera technology to create an image that was more real. This is a defense that has been used many times before, and it’s not an entirely invalid one. The First World War photographer Frank Hurley used the same argument to justify his use of composite techniques in what were supposed to be documentary photographs. His images were decried at the time as ‘fakes’, but are now regarded as some of the most accurate representations of the conflict. The main difference between the two cases is Hurley was upfront about his practices from the start.

The problem with desiring to make photographs more real is that it just highlights their very irreal quality, the fact that while a photo may often fall short or sometimes even exceed our experience of something, it will never be equal to it. In the quest for something that is more real photographers often end up producing, as Hansen did, a hyper-real, cinematic photograph, which distracts from the content and does more to further undermine the medium’s fragile grip on reality than to reassert it. As Jens Kjeldsen wrote on viewing such photographs ‘I remain a spectator immersed in the story, in awe of the artwork, waiting for the movie to premiere.’

From movie poster to video game, after judging the competition in 2009, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin made much of the WPP’s rapid game show style judging system, writing of how ‘Each of us clasped a voting button in the half darkness, and as the images flashed across the screen we voted anonymously to keep it in the competition or “to kill it”. They also noted the lack of captions, meaning any image that required context to be understood fell by the wayside. The need to manipulate in order to produce images that are ‘more real than real’ isn’t just a product of the technical limitations of photography. It’s the result of an industry that, whatever it’s rhetoric, trades primarily in aesthetics, and which in its dealings with that troubled commodity is increasingly geared towards the quick consumption of photographs which are perhaps visually remarkably, but materially rife with cliché. Photographs that illustrate or titilate, rather than inform or provoke. in 1980 Andy Grundberg speculated this would be the consequence of the growing avaliability of photo-manipulation software, instead it has been the result of the industry that claims to safeguard photographic truth.

I’ve rambled and I’ve roamed, and I don’t have a big conclusion to make to all of this, just a feeling that grows with each year, as I see another set of prize winning photographs like those I’ve described unveiled. A sense of disquiet that stems from the knowledge that the judging chamber of the World Press Prize is in many ways the locus of an industry. The point of collection for photo-journalistic practice radiating inwards from tens of thousands of photographers, before emanating outwards again. To be absorbed by millions of people, who’s understanding of the value and power of photojournalism will be informed, perhaps even formed by the decisions made within. A feeling that much is wrong in mainstream photojournalism, and that if we need to rely on it for anything  but simplistic illustration and gratuitous aestheticising, then we might be in trouble.

Beyond Terminal Velocity

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Motion study, Eadweard Muybridge, 1886

In a recent piece I argued that the technical evolution of photography has always been leading towards some form of ‘instant’ photograph. By this I meant a photographic technology which makes the elapsing time between photographer desiring an image, and it being shared with that photographer’s audience, effectively imperceptible. I wondered if achieving this might present a challenge to our understanding of photography in the same way photography has often challenged how we understand time, and felt this might be a topic to discuss a little more.

Part of the appeal of photography is its ability to abstract the way we see the passage of time. Photographs by their nature never show events in what we experience as ‘real time’ instead they visually compress or expand a moment, allowing us to see things that the limits of our physiology would normally make invisible, for example by freezing a speeding bullet or drawing out the slow arc of the sun across the sky.

By revealing the movement of the effectively invisible, photography can force us to reconsider how we understand these things, and can lead to a better understanding of time. An early example of this was Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering motion sequence photography, reputedly commissioned to settle a bet over whether a galloping horse takes all of its feet off the ground, something imperceptible to the human eye. Photography allowed Muybridge to settle the question, to dismiss one of two conflicting narratives of the world.

Muybridge’s rather functional, scientific images proved to have huge public appeal, something some theorists have attributed to the pace of change in the late nineteenth century, and perhaps a growing public sense of temporal dislocation as once familiar ideas about space and time were exploded by incomprehensible new technologies. Motion sequence photography captured something of the zeitgeist of the era, perhaps because they offered an opportunity to understand time in a world where it was becoming ever more central and important, and at the same time speeding ever more wildly out of control.

Photographs can also challenge our notion of time and how it works, rather than support it, because of the privileged status of photographs as artefacts that exist inside and outside of the present. While a photograph physically exists as part of the on-going movement of time, subjected to all the physical processes that entails, it shows something irrevocably isolated in the past. This temporal incongruity often has no noticeable effect, but certain photographs can break the thin separation between past and present, projecting  an ‘illusion of the real’ directly into the now.

I first experienced this while still at school, skipping through a history textbook I came across a photography of the Russian monk and mystic Grigory Rasputin. I felt an overpowering sense that something was emerging out of the image, almost as if this long dead person was in fact right in front of me. As I became more aware of the effect I experienced it again, the contents of certain images refusing to remain where they belonged. The effect is subjective, the causes unknown, by way of explanation it has been suggested that certain photographs behave in a similar manner to traumatic memories.

Freud compared the functioning of memory to a camera; experiences are recorded, but then must be processed and assembled into the narrative of memory. Theorists including Ulrich Baer have argued that memories of traumatic events, and certain photographs that in some way also defy understanding or resist historical categorisation refuse to be simply stored as part of this narrative. Instead they remain unsorted, uncategorised, repeatedly and unexpectedly intruding into the present like a terrible memory.

Turning to photography’s own traumatic history, it’s only relatively recently that discourses have found voice that describe photography in ambivalent terms. Certainly at its inception and for maybe the first century or so of its existence, photography, a technical and conceptual child of the enlightenment, firmly represented ideas of rational scientific progress. These ideas were undoubtedly undermined by the rupture that followed in the wake of the Second World War.

The use of the products of rational progress to perpetrate brutal and irrational acts and advance profoundly anti-progressive ideologies demanded a reconsideration of the narrative of progress. It lead to the disturbing realisation that technologies like photography are not inherently progressive, but at best neutral, and can as easily be deployed for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ purposes. It can be used to guide a bomb more accurately onto it’s target, or it can be used to locate a bullet in a victim’s skull. Photography is no impartial observer, it takes the side of whoever pressed the button.

But despite this rupture the idea of progress as an end in itself still holds huge sway in the world. We retain a childish belief in things like the apparently endless possibilities of scientific ingenuity, the boundless productive capabilities of capitalism, the limitless resources of the natural world. But hitting some sort of technological glass ceiling, or reaching in some sense the terminal velocity of the medium would perhaps in a very small way challenge this still further by reminding us that progress is finite, that there is not always more, to discover, to produce, to consume, and of course, to photograph.

Google Glass and the Terminal Velocity of Photography

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Equipment required for the Daguerreotype process

It seems almost too self-evident to be worth saying, but the passage of time is central to photography. So many stages in the photographic process are bound up in it, from the length of the original exposure to the period of time that has elapsed between the image being made and a viewer looking upon it, and the effect of this on the way an image is understood. Noting the technical similarities between early cameras and timepieces Barthes described the former as ‘clocks for seeing’ an apt metaphor which I find myself constantly returning to.

The thing that I increasingly believe makes the history of photography interesting is that it is really a history of the relentless pursuit of speed. One might imagine that in a visual media each major innovation would be one of improving image quality (as has been the case in, for example, cinematography). But in photography each advance, from Daguerreotype to Polaroid, digital single lens reflex to the camera phone, has been first and foremost about increasing the medium’s pace, often indeed at the expense of image quality. It has been about shaving off a few more minutes or seconds between the moment that the photographer feels the desire to make an image, and the moment when it is visible to a third person.

With each innovation it becomes harder to perceive the remaining distance between current technology and the inevitable achievement of some form of near instantaneous photography, by which I mean photography which is conceived, created, and shared instantly. Many saw the mass availability of the phone camera as the dawn of a new era because it meant that an imaging device was constantly within reach, but as anyone who has used one will know a camera phone still leaves plenty of opportunity to miss potential photographs. It must still be on, be readied, be aimed.

It is not in practice the same as having a camera which is constantly at the ready, constantly trained on the scene ahead and whatever it might offer, ready to record it all, quite literally at a word. Google’s new wearable camera-computer ‘Glass’ perhaps comes close to this, and represents a step nearer to what may prove to be a photographic terminal velocity, a point where photography hits a technical or perceptual glass ceiling and can become no faster.

Because what could be quicker to use than a device which is constantly worn and activated by sound? Perhaps one which is directly integrated into the eye and controlled by thought. This starts to sound like science fiction, but then some of the wildest imaginings of the twentieth century now seems laughably prosaic, once futuristic communicators for example now look like incredibly tacky mobile phones. Perhaps in another fifty years the prospect of a camera in the eye won’t be so ridiculous, eventually perhaps we will not be talking of innovations that shave seconds off the time taken to photograph, but fractions of seconds.

Maybe we are still further from this boundary than it seems, perhaps just as we appear to reach it there will once again materialise a way to break through it. Computers predicatively rendering ‘photographs’ in response to our thoughts, without the need to ever use a camera, or some sort of quantum photography, anticipating our desire to photograph long before we even know it ourselves. More science fiction maybe. Feasibly it will prove a barrier that is impossible to even reach. I remember reading not that long ago that due to the functioning of our nervous systems, we all live slightly in the past. However fast our reactions, and however close at hand our cameras, photography may never catch up to the present, what we see may in effect have always already passed us by.

But what if we did reach it, what then? Maybe the need to fundamentally reconsider one of the axioms on which photography rests, causing us to question long held truths about it’s relationship to time. Perhaps the cult of speed, which seems so fittingly central to such a modern media as photography, will wither and be replaced by something else. Perhaps photography, which has always been so effective at breaking open familiar narratives of time, will end up exploding its own comfortable narrative, that of the history of photography as one of relentless progress.

Engines of Doubt: Digital Archives

At some moment in history our collective knowledge as a species must have exceeded what a single person could remember. This led to the need to record things, hieroglyphics, writing. As this information accumulated our records themselves must have grown beyond human understanding, to the point that one could never read all that was known in the span of a human life, let alone remember it.

From here our knowledge continued to expand into vast archives and libraries housing millions of texts. Their subject matter as wide ranging as the experiences they reflected. These too grew to the point of complexity where even the structure of their organisation, the systems by which their content were categorised, grew in complexity went beyond the possibility of being fully known even by the most dedicated archivist.

Now the archive as physical thing is disappearing, their records and artefacts are gradually being digitised and absorbed into a global network of computers, a virtual warehouse of unimaginable proportions, storing and sharing information on everything from ancient Greek philosophy to motor bike maintenance guides, lists of dictators victims to hard-core pornography. The human archivists are gone too, and the gatekeepers to this knowledge are now the search engines.

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These engines of knowledge spend countless man hours, devotedly filtering the growing vastness of the internet. It is an unknown and unknowable vastness, estimates of its size vary from ten billion to as many as three trillion pages. Filtering it, valuing it, indexing it, ordering it, for later recall on demand in fractions of a second, these engines ‘know’ the internet as much as it could ever be possible for it to be known. Suitably enough the first web search engine was named ‘Archie’, an anthropomorphised shortening of ‘archive’.

In an atheistic age perhaps these machines are functionally the closest we know to gods. All being and all knowing, never resting, operating largely independent of us. We rely on these engines to find what we need in this growth of knowledge called the internet, a growth of knowledge which paradoxically often contributes to an increase in doubt. A growth which like an enlightened cyst is metastasising rapidly into ever more areas of our lives, making us in turn ever more dependent on the god-engines, information shamans who alone know how to traverse this virtual world in search of answers.

So what then when these archivist-idols fail, when by accident or design they are unable to return information reliably, what then? It has been estimated that only a fraction of the internet has been indexed by search engines, the pages returned are only what the engine knows, not all that is there. Even these god like machines are unable to comprehend all the knowledge we have generated, of things both sacred and profane.

They are also open to manipulation. Techniques like search engine optimisation uses an understanding of what these engines look for and how they ‘value’ sites to increase the likelihood of returning a certain result. By more sinister intent, a related technique, Google Bombing, exploits knowledge of the way search engines gather information. By knowing this it is possible to coax the engines into returning certain answers, one of the most notable was that for a time a search for ‘miserable failure’ returned information on George W. Bush. Funny as this might seem the technique has more insidious uses, for example redirecting internet searches for a hot topic like a war or a political scandal away from reliable sources of information and towards organs of propaganda.

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These moments of doubt are not limited just to text. It is possible to reverse search from an existing image and have the engine find you ones it imagines are similar. Looking for a reproduction of a portrait by a grand master, I was offered everything imaginable. Photographs of celebrities, actors, sports people, porn stars, the UN secretary general, everything except what I was actually looking for.

The problem with these new archives is that when using them one is often not completely sure what one is looking for, relying instead on the engine itself to interpret what you provide and find the right answers for you. When that situation changes and you know quite definitely what you want to see it can be quite disturbing to find how far from the mark the results are.

We trust these idols implicitly, we use them dozens of times a day without even a thought. Can anyone remember their first time, their first search? Now the process has become so thoroughly mechanical, so without consideration or incident. But what cannot be disregarded is what information we are given and why, how these engines of doubt are shaping our view of a world more and more divorced from the physical and anchored instead in the virtual.

Photographs of a Google server farm from here.