It’s been eleven years since Tess Horwitz, Tony Steel and myself designed and built the ACT Bushfire Memorial. Tess’s plantings look great, Tony’s stream gurgles beautifully. My five ‘digiglass’ columns of 600 photographs have faded, but not as much as I feared eleven years ago. There’s a general loss of density, but not a severe colour shift. Eleven years in the sun on the side of Mount Stromlo is a hell of a lot of UV. The columns have fared better than C Type prints, rapidly shifting to oblivion in the climate controlled solander boxes of our art museums.
An interview I did with Katrina Sluis from the Digital Programme of the Photographers Gallery, London, is now up at Daniel Palmer and myself’s Photocurating site. Check it out. There’s one there Daniel did with Ian North too. While you’re there have a look at our Timeline and see if you can spot anything we’ve left out. Then let us know. We still need more installation shots.
Hard to know where to begin with the clash of temporalities that is evoked when you stumble across a click bait link that uses one of museum photography’s most canonical projects. As has been celebrated for decades, Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters project — shot on 8 x 10 film and contacted printed into luminous prints once a year, every year, over 40 years or so — proceeds at the same pace as time itself. It records memory and mortality for a lifetime’s worth of unfolding on museum walls and in art house photobooks. The click bait version, with it’s breathless drive to click through to the next spectacle of temporal ravagement, is certainly compelling, but the noble contemplation of flesh growing into time is replaced with impatience for the next shot to load. In the click bait version authorship is wrested from Nixon and invested in the sisters. But the downside for them is that are unwittingly cast in a soap opera of aging.
When I was a teenager in the mid seventies and just getting interested in photography David Hamilton was everywhere, on every magazine rack and in every bookstore, even in Brisbane. Barely out of puberty myself I admit I was attracted to the impossibility of his adolescent art-house eroticism. Later, at art schooI in Sydney in the late seventies , I learnt to disdain his cloying kitsch and forgot about him. It wasn’t till I was clearing out my childhood room a few years ago that I found some glossy pages again, wrinkled with decades of humidity, and gasped at the now-obvious pedophilia. Today I hear that after being accused of rape by his child models of long ago he has been found dead in his Paris apartment, a pill bottle by his side. The apotheosis of kitsch. But I sort of don’t want him to disappear altogether, his ‘sunlight filtered through corn onto downy skin’ look burrowed its way into our culture. And remains there.
I find myself shouting at the radio more and more, and this morning I found myself shouting at the gross hypocrisy of Dawn Airey, CEO of the Getty Stock Images, who is in Australia. Getty scrapes public domain images and then re-offers them for use with its own ‘licence’ fee. Using public domain images for commercial gain is not illegal, as Getty will be the first to point out. But Getty goes further, using bots to ‘chase down individuals’ who unwittingly use the public domain images Getty have incorporated into their digital archives. Thus Carol Highsmith, who donated her collection of 18,000 images to the Library of Congress, found herself on the wrong end of a stiff letter from Getty demanding $120 from her for using one of her own images, because Getty had scraped it from the Library of Congress. She replied with a billion dollar law suit. This morning Airey told the ABC she was confident that thanks to Getty’s lawyers, Highsmith ‘will go away’, in the same way oligarchs are confident that only stupid people pay taxes. But big archives are deliberately blurring the distinction between copyright and usage fees for their own gain and against the interests of image users. When I look at things like Getty’s ‘worthy’ Getty Images Instagram Grant for third world photographers, their behaviour in the algorithmic space of digital archives just makes me shout at the radio.
I’m saddened by the prospect that the fatal algorithms of this app might actually being used by some hapless people on their snapshots. Photographic contingency, the precious flame worshiped by generations of photographic theorists, is extinguished by the cold blast of these automatic operations. Time, memory, and place are all sucked into their frigid black hole. In the future the image will no longer prick or prod us with the unexpected, it must lie supine. Under the tyranny of these ‘healing’ tools photography no longer records but projects pale antiseptic fantasies. Yes, fantasy has always been a part of the snapshot, but at least they were constructive fictions, what is proposed here is solipsistic fantasy through erasure and exclusion.
Some images taken by Alex Hobba of the magic lantern performance ‘Tragic Drowning Fatality’ performed by Martyn Jolly and Alexander Hunter at Siteworks 2016, Bundanon, with: thirty original magic lantern slides from the 1880s to the 1920s; two JW Steward magic lanterns from the 1880s dissolving one slide projection into another; members of the ANU Experimental Music Ensemble (Ben Harb, Andrew Ryan, Jack Livingston and Chloe Hobbs) on double bass, guitar and percussion; and actors from the region (Kez and Libby Thompson, Peter Lavelle and Clare Jolly) reading verbatim coronial testimony of an actual double drowning that happened in the Shoalhaven River in 1922.
“We understand that these limitations will sometimes affect content shared for legitimate reasons, including awareness campaigns or artistic projects, and we apologise for the inconvenience.” Facebook on the removal of the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph The Terror of War by Nick Ut.
‘We apologise for the inconvenience’ is a curious turn of phrase for Facebook to use. It’s something a big company tells a little person when something inevitable is about to happen and there’s nothing they can do about it – a major road widening, or a server upgrade, say. It’s not something you expect to hear when an entire sphere of public discourse is morally recalibrated. Was it an entirely digital algorithm that sampled the pixels in Ut’s photograph, calculated ‘naked child’, and automatically executed the function ‘delete’. Or was it a lowly paid, poorly educated, Facebook shift worker who saw a naked child and knew that there was only one rule to follow in the Facebook rulebook: ‘delete’. Either way, Zuckerberg’s convenient contention is that Facebook is just a technical ‘platform’, so that such chilling acts of censorship, which are occurring frequently in other cases involving breasts or photographs of family intimacy, are just an inconvenience to be met with a begrudging and hollow apology. The alternative seems to be that Facebook is a publisher, and therefore needs editors with a depth of cultural knowledge and personal agency. The former is toxic for the way we are all forced to rely on Facebook as the only game in town, and the latter obviously doesn’t fit Zuckerberg’s globally rapacious business model.