The Blind Eye and the Vision Machine

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The Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, North Dakota, USA.
Became operational September 1975, deactivated eight months later.

This text is based on a talk given at a symposium the London College of Communication on January 14th 2016 to mark the opening of The Forest of Things. This talk and draws together a few different ideas I’ve been thinking about over the last year around the status and place of the photograph today, and expands on some of the darker implications of algorithms and photography which I first speculated about in An All Seeing Eye. In The Forest of Things, the graduating show of the the 2015 masters degree in Photojournalism and documentary photography is at London College of Communication until January 22nd.

Empiricism, the belief that knowledge comes from direct experience, has been at the heart of western understanding for several centuries, and in turn the human eye has been at the heart of empiricism, sight valued above all other senses. The camera was conceived of as a sort of mechanical extension of that sight, which replaced some of the demands on the living eye to be physically present at an event, and which opened up knowledge which was beyond what the human eye could perceive unaided. But the camera still ultimately depended on the living eye to interpret and understand the images it produced. What I would like to somewhat provocatively suggest is not only is this is now changing towards an ever greater emphasis on the computational analysis of imagery, but that we are perhaps unwittingly also preparing the groundwork for us to be permanently locked out of the role of seeing and interpreting, whether we want this future or not.

Soon after its invention photography was readily integrated into a range of authoritarian structures. The camera satisfied the expansionist desire to know all and control all, by apparently offering us the possibility of unlimited seeing all through it’s photographs. With more time the camera of course also became part of a broader, more democratic culture, as a tool of reflection and expression. It seems a very contemporary angst that this democracy of the camera has given rise to a world where there are too many images, but it is not a new one. The Weimar cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer decried what he called the blizzard of images, and the way that this storm challenged photography’s ability to bestow meaning. Kracauer’s world was very different one from our own, a world where I would say technology and technological progress still seemed to offer the possibility of an almost omnipotent vision, an all seeing eye encapsulated in the blind stare of high technologies like the Cold War radar system featured above. Today we live in quite a different world, one which is so inundated with imagery as to make Kracauer’s blizzard of images seem like a light frost. But the fact of photography’s abundance, so often quoted, so often fretted over, is I think not nearly as interesting as the form those images take.

In Kracauer’s time the image was a material object, significant in that the image could truly be said to be a trace of the thing it recorded. Because of this materiality it was also something which was inherently visual, the photograph could be held and viewed in the hand. Today neither of these things can be said to be the case, digital technology has democratised photography and made possible an explosion in quantity, but it has also led to a more profound change in that the massive bulk of images are no longer really physical nor visual, they are alphanumeric data, pure information, inherently not visual things. I think this fact is significant insofar as it is increasingly causing photography to intersect with one of the other technologies which is defining our age, the algorithm. Photography had tended to be difficult fare for algorithms, partly because of it’s material form, no longer an issue in the digital age, but perhaps also because of it’s complexity and subjectivity. In the 1980’s, thinkers like the French philosopher Paul Virilio began to anticipate the coming of vision machines, essentially algorithms which could not only see but also understand images. Facial recognition was an early example of this, but the efforts involved were often huge and the results often crude. Today we are seeing algorithms that are ever more capable when it comes to sorting, sifting and understanding visual material, and have that material readily available in massive quantities to practice on. Up until now many of these algorithms have only been demonstrators, and appear rather like parlour tricks, more often amusingly inept than threatening. As they reach the real world their roles are for now are mostly supplementary, so far supporting people rather than supplanting them.

But even in this role these technologies pose interesting questions about the extent to which they are not only guiding and advising us, but also shaping us. As much as we feedback into and refine the algorithms we create, perhaps they are starting to do some similar to us. When man gazes into the machine, the machine gazes into man. It has been suggested that the result of algorithms playing such a prominent role in social platforms is that they are increasingly serving to shape interpersonal interactions which they have no business being involved with. In the case of dating websites it has been said that computers are now breeding people. These ideas have particularly strong implications in photography’s old stomping ground, the repressive realms of policing, intelligence gathering and warfare, major growth areas for automated technologies that reduce the intensive manpower needs of these fields, and offer to remove the personnel of the security services from harms way. Given the huge advances and investment in these areas it seems to be only a matter of time before technologies which are able to search, fix and kill without human intervention features of a battlefield somewhere. Indeed I suspect that one day we might look back at the era of piloted drones with the same sense that we now regard the early pilots of the First World War, as something which is quaintly romantic in it’s crudeness and it’s dirty violence, in contrast to the cold, distant killing of today, or tomorrow.

To return to Paul Virilio, in an interview given the same year as the publication of The Vision Machine, he spoke of reading a science fiction novel about a world where cameras had become so ubiquitous that they were now even being inseminated into flakes of snow, which were released on the world, seeing everything there was to see, and leaving no blind spots. When asked what he believed we would dream of in a world so saturated with imagery and the machines that produce them he responded that we will likely dream of being blind. What I would like to suggest to you is that perhaps we are starting to reach that point, where images dominate our world and confound our understanding so much that the thought of blindness might even start to feel like a relief. But we have also perhaps begun to move past it, and perhaps we are responding to that overwhelming feeling by starting to relinquish the task of to interpret and understand, and passing this burden on to the machines. We are allowing these algorithms a part some of the most important, powerful roles our societies have, and I’d suggest we are also starting the process of locking ourselves out, as machine vision develops in forms which are beyond our perception, as machines are built to see with technologies designed primarily for the understanding of other machines, not human eyes. Vision is no longer just mediated through technology as with traditional photography, technology is now overtaking and replacing our vision, with our partial our assent. So what I’d like to leave you with is the idea that we maybe now face a choice, between on the one hand the desire to shut down our senses to this incomprehensible storm of imagery, to delegate the role of interpretation and judgement, and on the other hand the need, the responsibility, and the burden, to see.

On Rejection

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A demonstration of FM radio’s noise rejection properties,
Popular Science magazine, 1940.

Writing comes from the heart. It’s an awful cliché, but like many of those it’s also one with a certain amount of truth behind. When people ask me how I find the time to write and post something new every week while still spending at least three days teaching and two days doing commercial shoots (plus finding the occasional time to work on personal projects) the answer is pretty simple. I try to only write about things that stir me, and I try to only write when I’m stirred. Follow those two guiding lights and I’ve found the rest comes relatively easily.

Over the last fortnight I’ve had work rejected from three prizes and grants, two of which I felt pretty well positioned for, and one of which I felt confident about. Rejection is not in itself something I’m alien to, I know I make odd work and hold odd views about photography, and those things inevitably mean I have to spend a certain amount of energy struggling against a flow which often seems to run in the opposite direction. Occasionally though you feel confident you’ve found a home for your work, a place which which will understand what you are trying do, and when that doesn’t materialise it’s like being back at the start again, being that new graduate, that recent entrant into the world of photography clutching a slightly sad and solitary collection of photographs which no one but you has any real interest in.

This piece is aimed at the younger me, one who had much less faith, who might have believed that rejection meant that what he was doing was in some sense not worthwhile, not worth continuing. Rejection hurts, but it’s never an objective judgement on the quality of your work, even when by various measures it is presented as exactly that. Judgements on your work, whether they be positive or negative, are always the product of prejudices and predilections, biases and allegiances, vogues and fashions. Sometimes you coincide with these, and sometimes you don’t, but never let these things be your guiding lights, and never let anyone tell you your work isn’t good enough because you follow your own lights and not theirs.

Prizes, competitions and grants are a necessary evil, a means of getting the money and momentum to finish old work and make new things, and to launch work out there, but the laurels that come with them are questionable at best, tattered and worn by many other ’emerging artists’ before you who sank without trace. If recognition is what you’re seeking then it might be worth asking why. I always question a prize which presents its selection as the best and brightest in contemporary photography. In the blizzard of images which we all inhabit that sort of judgement is as ludicrous as picking a few snowflakes from your shoulder and proclaiming them to be the most beautiful snowflakes in the world.

In the end I believe in the work that was rejected, I believe in it almost without question, that’s what this post is really about. Belief, faith, whatever your want to call it, it manifests as an almost irrational confidence that what you do matters in spite of what might be the commercial unsustainability or the artistic unfashionableness of it. This faith needs at times to border on delusion, and to many who observe you from a distance it may appear as such, or perhaps as arrogance. At the same time there are only ever limited supplies of this belief, reservoirs you draw on in times of inner or outer doubt, when you need that last bit of energy to push something that little bit further. Rejection drain those reserves and leaves you with little to show for it, rejection makes it hard to continue.

Rejection hurts, that’s all there is to it. The best advice I can offer when you feel it is the same advice I would suggest you follow every time a stumbling block finds its way beneath your feet. Take it in your stride and find a way to turn it’s momentum in your favour. Climb up on it, wave your fist at the moon and shout as loudly as you can; ‘you’ll be sorry you fuckers!’

The Photobook: Regression not Revolution?

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A resident struggles to walk in a blizzard in Manhattan,
New York, 1969 (author unknown)

As a writer it’s sometimes interesting to use the tools at your disposal not only as a way to put forth a fully fledged and developed argument, or even an argument that you completely believe in. Instead sometimes it is worthwhile to tentatively explore an idea one suspects has some kernel of truth in it, or even simply to play devil’s advocate, to push forward an idea which might be flawed and suspect, but which there is still some value in discussing, even if it is ultimately dismissed. I issue this slight disclaimer before launching into the discussion proper because what I am about to suggest will seem extremely inconsistent to the many who will know me as someone who is heavily invested in photobooks and photobook making.

My suggestion then is this; that the current clamour around the photo book actually has very little at all to do with photo books as an end in themselves. Rather the enormous interest in this form as a way to package, distribute and view photographs is a reflection of something else. That is a something else which has spurned similar revivals in other rather anachronistic areas, like the rediscovery of analogue photography by so many who had abandoned it or who gained admission into photography sometime after silver halide’s departure into obsolescence. I increasingly suspect that what these rediscoveries or renaissances of rather old fashioned practices are really about is a deep rooted angst about the status of the photographic image, and by association the status of photography as whole, in contemporary society.

The nature of that angst is well charted on this blog and elsewhere and so I will only pay it cursory attention in this post, but I think it can be traced to two principal characteristics of contemporary photography. Firstly and most obviously it’s ubiquity, the massive explosion in the production and dissemination of imagery which has taken place over the past decade or so. This is inextricably linked to the second characteristic, the de-materialisation of photography from the physical object of a film or glass negative into an abstract collection of alphanumeric data, something which is natively no longer physical nor visual. These two things, but in particular the former, have contributed to a growing disquiet about the value and nature of the individual image in a world where photographs are abundant, slippery and often untrustworthy.

The more I look at photobooks the more I feel that to employ them is often an unconscious attempt to reclaim some token sense of control over what Siegfried Krakeur called the blizzard of images, the raging storm of a visual culture, in his case an analogue one, in our case a digital one. In many ways Krakeur’s analogy is all the more apt for our present, a world of pixels, fragments and reductions, together making up an increasingly incomprehensible whole. To apparently reclaim some control back through reversion to such old fashion forms as book and analogue film is a satisfying and empowering experience for a photographer, but it is an illusory form of control, the equivalent of pulling down the shutters and trying to ignore the raging squall outside.

The nature of photography has changed completely, and as much of a pleasant or reassuring distraction from this as books might be they are ultimately an unhelpful diversion from attempting to answer or even just identify some of the huge questions that this shift in the nature of the image presents us with. I am generalising somewhat, and a small and determined minority of book makers use the form in a way which runs exactly counter to the mode I have described above, turning it instead unexpectedly into a way to raise and contest these questions about the status of the photograph. These are few however, often viewed for their progressive tendencies as strange eccentrics or outsiders, by a majority and a ruling circle of photobook insiders lost in anachronistic notions of photography.

This view of this minority of innovators is ironic also because the rediscovery of the photo book is so often described in terms which imply that as a movement it is inherently forward looking. Terms like ‘revolution’ and ‘manifesto’ are thrown around, suggesting the rediscovery of the photo book is a progressive, indeed even political practice, aligned in some way to the progression and development of photography. In reality it is at best a slackening of progression, and at worse perhaps a reversal, a turning towards the past which has ever less to do with the present. Photo books in themselves are not revolutionary, they’ve been with as since the birth of the medium and while there might be technical or conceptual innovations within the broad field of photo book making, this should not be mistaken for photographic innovation. The photobook genre as a whole is not, and can never again, be innovative.

Despite the happy, cheerful and independent packaging that the photobook publishers and advocates often give the practice, I’d suggest that what photobook publishing really masks a deeply entreched form of photographic conservatism, a denialist desire for the medium to be something other than what it is now. As I remarked at the start of this piece, such a claim might seem odd coming from someone who long been a devotee of the photobook. Increasingly however find myself less and less interested in the format, and more and more I feel this sense of it as a distraction from more pressing concerns. I have been wondering for a while if this means that without realising it I am gradually coming to terms with my own angst about the present form of photography. That I am finally accepting the idea of myself not anymore as a photographer who makes images and then attempts to make them stand out against this storm of competitor images, and more and more as someone who simply moves through this blizzard, trying to regard it as a whole.

Curation as Creation

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Adam Patterson/Edison Peña

This is part two of a double post on copyright, curation and photography, part one here.

I recall a reading a short piece not long ago (which I frustratingly now can’t locate) which argued that to be a photographer increasingly means not in fact to photograph anything, but rather to just curate what others have created. This idea will I’m sure rile many photographers, who grip to the image of themselves as visionary artists or long sighted journalists, and who see their photographs as discrete products of a unique view of the world. To curate the photographs of others is often seen as entirely auxiliary to this, a secondary and inferior service to the primary profession of picture making.

However the idea of the photographer as a curator (in a very loose sense of the term) is clearly a relevant one when you look at contemporary practice (of course some might argue it is the problem with contemporary practice). For example three of the five artists shortlisted for the Deustche Boerse 2012 work with appropriated photographic material. We could even extend this to a fourth, Christina de Middel, who plays off the idea of appropriation, using material of uncertain genesis, which might be rescued originals or equally might well be entirely invented. This is not limited to the fine art world either, take those remarkable photographs of the trapped Chilean miners in their underground prison. They were photographed by one of the men, but then ‘curated’ (selected, ordered, presented) by Adam Patterson, the person we might normally think  of as the photographer.

As is often noted we live in a world which appears to haemorrhage photographs unstoppably. A world where there already exist an unquantifiable numbers of images, to which are daily added more photographs than we can perhaps count, let alone understand. Of course this superabundance of photographs is nothing new. It has been noted throughout the medium’s history, since at least the start of the last century when Siegfried Kracauer described the ‘blizzard of images’ which he believed confounded understanding of the world more often than it served it. Eighty six years later his blizzard looks more like a rather light dusting of snow by comparison to our own torrent of photographs, which will presumably look similarly weak to anyone still writing about this in 2099. This trend, if nothing else, should reassure us.

Still in this context it is always tempting to question the value of new photographs, particularly as one who produces them. I often feel uncomfortable with the thought of contributing to this visual maelstrom until I better understand it, and have a more concrete sense of exactly what I am contributing, what photographs are, how they behave, and how they shape understanding of the world. In this context the curation of existing images seems to offer an opportunity to explore some of these questions, without adding considerably to Kracauer’s blizzard. Appropriating and curating existing material is like seizing individual snow flakes from the storm, to study them and explore solutions to the questions of photography’s increasing abundance and apparently growing meaningless, without in the proccess contributing to the original problem.

There are also more tangible, practical benefits. Working with photographs that one has not created offers a liberating sense of distance that never exists when working with one’s own pictures. Like many photographers I often feel impossibly caught up in the memory of the circumstances of a picture’s making. We have all had someone show us a rather average photograph and get hopelessly sidetracked into recounting the enormous lengths they went to achieve it, as if the anecdotal means justifies the unremarkable end. When working with photographs taken by other people only the content of the image matters, the background and context is often something which has to be purposefully sought out, and which sometimes is indeed already irretrievably lost.

Non-ownership of the photographs one curates also helps somewhat to nullify old notions of artistry and individual vision which have always been of questionable importance in relationship to photography. Photographs which are ‘flawed’ (vernacular, naïve, etc) are of equal value to those which are technically or conceptually perfect (sometimes indeed they are of far greater value). Instead of the individual image, the narrative structure and the relationship between images becomes much more important. The photograph as a discrete rectangle is replaced by photographs as a series of relationships formed by the circumstances they find them selves in. Robert Heineken’s work is an excellent example of this, for example in his piece Child Guidance Toy #4, where the bringing together of an advert for a child’s shooting range alongside a figurine of JFK changes the meanings of both images radically.

Another interesting example of a photographer turning to curation is Susan Misealeas and her project Kurdistan: In The Shadow of History. What seems to have begun as quite a conventional reportage project increasingly evolved  into a work of history as Misealeas’s own photographs took on an diminishing role, replaced by the historical photographs and documents she began to unearth and reproduce. Contrary to the notion that working with the material of others is lazy or plagiaristic, I think Misealeas’s work demonstrates that it often takes courage to put your own photographs (and all their baggage) aside and start to work with material which is not your own.

Appropriation and curation of other people’s work, without their permission is as I noted in my previous piece, an inevitably controversial tactic because of copyright concerns and the continuing stigma attached to appropriation in certain sections of the photography world. None the less it’s a powerful and diverse way to approach visual material, which sidesteps many of the problems of constructing a body of work from one’s own photographs. Equally gripped as we are by a storm of photographs which seems, rather than illuminating the world, to grow more brilliantly blinding by the day, curation is a way to step back from production while continuing to grapple with fundamental questions about the purpose and functioning of photographs.