Writing on photography

Review – Spirit is a Bone by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

One of my aims for this year is to drastically reduce the number of reviews I publish here. For a brief period this way of engaging with work seemed to be good for me, and I felt a vague sense of satisfaction when people described me as a critic. Increasingly though I dislike the word with it’s implication of being an all knowing arbiter or judge of what is good and bad in photography. I would much rather use this platform to share thoughts which more generally reflect on the shape and direction of the medium, rather than as a way to pronounce judgement. It seems a little suitable to draw my reviewing phase towards a close by returning to a new title by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, a duo who’s work I have often written about in the past, sometimes quite savagely. In spite of the commonly held belief that I have some sort of vendetta against the pair, I think that of all the work made in recent years on the fault line between art and documentary practices, theirs is amongst the most interesting. War Primer 2, for all my criticisms of it, was also quite brilliant, as a photographic strategy and as a critique of contemporary events. In general it’s always been a policy of mine not to write about work I really hate, because what after all is the point of expanding energy on something which you consider to beyond hope?

Broomberg and Chanarin’s new book Spirit is a Bone does what I would say the duo do best, which is to collide quite different photographic sources and influences into something very interesting and maybe just a little messy. The best resolved and polished projects are sometimes the least interesting, the ones with frayed edges often the most thought provoking and the most open to intriguing readings, and I think that is particularly true of their work. In this case they are colliding the structure of August Sander’s seminal documentary project Face of our Time with a contemporary surveillance technology. Sander’s work is so well known as to hardly require introduction. It consisted of a huge and somewhat idiosyncratic attempt to document the make-up of early twentieth century German society through an extended series of portraits. Documenting people by profession, vocation, politics and other esoteric markers, Sander produced hundreds of portraits between 1911 and 1929 when the book was published, quickly becoming a key work of Neue Sachlichkeit. The work was overshadowed by the rise of German Nazism, both because the Nazi party reacted badly to Sander’s vision of what Germany was, but also perhaps because in the longer term the use of systems of racial and political categorisation in Nazi repression has cast Sander’s own methods in a light which can seem awkward to contemporary viewers.

The surveillance technology which Broomberg and Chanarin employ is a form of facial recognition software system developed in Russia from ANPR. This new system creates a three dimensional model of a subject’s face by compositing viewpoints from multiple CCTV cameras as they move about a city like Moscow. The result is what the developers call a ‘non-collaborative portrait’ in reality a point cloud but rendered as a three dimensional photograph imperfectly mapped with skin and other details for the benefit of human viewers (a good reminder that what we think of as facial recognition vision is never what the machine sees). Using this technology Broomberg and Chanarin have photographed a series of contemporary Russians whose occupations or identities correlate with the categories used by Sander to title his portraits of early twentieth century Germans. Facial recognition technology has evolved since its earliest days in a cat and mouse game between it’s developers and those who are conscious of it and seek to evade it. As each side innovates the other must respond. What this technology takes account of it that while clothing, hairstyles, expressions and other features might be changed to fox cruder automated recognition, the shape of the face, and the underlying skull, are unique and permanent. In this sense this technology then has a resonance with the discredited practice of phrenology, the determination of character through measurements of the skull, something very much in vogue in Sander’s time, and in which photography had an awkward complicity.

The 3D images (I hesitate to say photographs, but perhaps that’s exactly what they are) that result from this contemporary surveillance technology are compelling and strange, disembodied faces which at times disintegrate into seams and glitches. The duo have compared them to digital death masks, but this comparison, while undoubtedly making for a catchy headline is less apt I think than describing them as digital life masks. The life mask has been overshadowed in contemporary knowledge by its rather more morbid sibling, but for a time enjoyed a similar vogue and there was particularly a market for life masks of the celebrities of the day. In the era before photography, the life mask was something with some comparable traits, an object which bore a direct and very tangible physical relationship to the person it represented. The process of making one was long winded and in some respects quite coercive, also not unlike early forms of photography. Reportedly when Beethoven sat to have his made in 1812 he panicked mid-way through the process, overwhelmed by the intense feeling of being smothered by the heavy plaster mould, and in the panic the mask was destroyed and had to later be recast.

There is an apt metaphor buried in here I think for our relationship with technology and the way that surveillance is less a subset, category or consequence of technology. Rather it is starting to feel like something which is inherent to almost all the technologies we own and use, from smart-phones to smart-kettles, and even technologies which were never intended for surveillance now seem to be routinely retro-programmed to fulfil this task. We live within a web of devices in public and private which survey and monitor and which we only occasionally and briefly feel the burdensome weight of as they cast their sensors across us. In the rapidly progressing field of automated visual surveillance, the technology featured in Spirit is a Bone is now relatively out of date, an acknowledgement which inevitably makes one wonder what new nightmares are currently being developed and deployed. In an interview included in the book, Professor Eyal Weizman of Goldsmith’s Forensic Architecture Centre draws the conversation towards the algorithmic anticipation of behaviour, a practice with evident resonances of phrenology, and another growth area of surveillance, often justified by it’s proponents by reference to the imperviousness of terrorist cells to traditional forms of infiltration and observation. To think these technologies and their ramifications are simply limited to the presumed future-guilty is a mistake, they judge us all, and make potential criminals of us all. At what point I finally wonder will the weight of these technologies induce more than mild curiosity or slight alarm. When will begin to feel the smothered by our digital life masks.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself, also NB in case you didn’t read the first paragraph closely I have some form with the work of Broomberg and Chanarin)

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

  • For a brief period this way of engaging with work was good for me, and I felt a vague sense of satisfaction when people described me as a critic. Where such information?

Writing on photography