Bill Henson’s digital Pictorialism

I was intrigued when I noticed at the National Gallery of Victoria that  each landscape-oriented image in Bill Henson’s latest installation of pigment prints from digital scanned negatives had the same slightly rough edge around the black border. Was this a digital simulation of the effect you would get at the edge of a negative printed from an optical enlarger? And since each rough  edge was exactly identical, as is visible even in the online selection, was this a single film-edge stock-file composited on top of the different digital scans? This automatic visual affectation simulating an optical print in a bit mapped print-space is pure Digital Pictorialism, as assuredly as overly desaturated, or overly saturated, or overly healed Photoshop images are. They are all either technologically skeuomorphic or aesthetically nostalgic. These added-on edges are beginning to make Henson’s iconography look not only familiar, but also rote.

The edge of a Henson digital pigment print

Henson print, skeuomorphic edge? (mobile phone bit out of focus)

Different Henson print, same edge

Vintage ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ at the NGV

Try as I might I just can’t get myself worked up into a rage about the ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ hang at the NGV. In fact I quite liked it. The show which was shipped out to Australia from London’s portrait gallery contained two new large scale digital enlargements from scans of his 1970s negatives to entice punters into the space; and then, cue gasp, new digital prints alongside ‘vintage’ 1970s dye-transfer prints. I agree with one colleague who pointed out that it’s a shame the opportunity was missed to show Australia’s own Eggleston dye-transfer portraits, including the super-iconic ‘Huntsville Alabama’ c1969-70, only in this show as a new digital print, which is sitting in all its dye-transfer glory in a solander box up in Canberra. And I could immediately see for myself that the London portrait gallery’s addition of gossipy back stories to some, but not all, of the prints seriously corrupted the totality of Eggleston’s ‘democratic’ vision. But, standing back from the walls a few metres, the mixture of print technologies visually ‘scanned’ together coherently for me, and when I got up close I loved the warm toothsomeness of the dye transfers, of course, but also thought the dry stipple of the new digital prints was pretty good too in its own way. And why can’t Eggleston agree to make large scale enlargements for the kids who, brought up on giant face-mounted acrylic museum photography, are used to big prints? He’s still alive, he can make his own decisions. Once lured inside, the kids found themselves treated to a selection of his small black and white ‘vintage’ work prints from the early sixties which I saw them eagerly poring over. This fetishisation of the vintage print, vocalised by the tuts directed towards this hang, can’t sustain itself for much longer. Before all of their other elaborations, most photographs (OK, not daguerreotypes and not iPhones) are in two parts: negative/print, capture/display. The vintage print may be the ordinary gallery-goer’s safest path to directly accessing the artist’s vision at the time the work was conceived, no question, but photographers, particularly photographers like Eggleston, are shooters as well as printers. Negative and print are separate objects, separated even ‘about the time the negative was made’ by separate technologies which activated different sets of substrate, pigment, halide, dye, coupler and bleach in different ways. They were divergent even in this mythical and temporally undefinable prelapsarian ‘vintage’ time, and they haven’t got more divergent since, only the technological nature of their divergence has changed. The supply/demand market-based logic of editioning photographs is alien to the fundamental nature of photography, it was imported into photography from manual printmaking conventions by gallerists trying to make a buck more recently than you realise. (Dupain never editioned ‘Sunbaker’ for example, he just wearily put the neg in the enlarger one more time whenever he was asked.) Also fundamentally alien to photography is setting up the print as the capital of all photographic aesthetics. Where would you rather look to find an old street photographer’s original intention, at a faded and severely colour-shifted type-c print made in some dodgy darkroom, or at a pigment print made from a fresh scan of the original negative? But which will get the higher price in a gallery? Those of us who aren’t in the print fetishists club are told we lack discrimination. Quite the opposite. We are quite capable of discriminating the nuances of different camera AND print technologies, and understanding them in terms of the technological history of photography, which includes deterioration of negative and print in different ways at different rates. But unfortunately our task isn’t helped by the lazy labels in the Eggleston show where the different exposure and printing dates are deliberately fudged, and viewers are encouraged to not discriminate. (Thanks to Geoff, Justine, Danica, Jane, Bronwyn and Isobel!)

Interview with Katrina Sluis, London Photographers Gallery (Digital Programme)

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.

Fatal algorithms

'Snapheal' ad

‘Snapheal’ ad

‘Fatal Algorithms’

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.

Breasts

In the last week Facebook has banned the aged breasts in the background a photograph from 1999 posted by Ella Dreyfus, and the indigenous breasts from a traditional Aboriginal ceremony posted by Celeste Liddle. Both bans are of course absurd and offensive. But Facebook’s explanations are revealing. On the one hand it claims that ‘diversity is central to Facebook’s mission of creating a more open and connected world’, but on the other hand, it explains: ‘The reason we restrict the display of nudity is because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content – particularly because of cultural background or age. In order to treat people fairly and respond to reports quickly, it is essential that we have policies in place that our global teams can apply uniformly and easily when reviewing content. As a result, our policies can sometimes be more blunt than we would like, and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes.’ Facebook’s mission is actually to circulate messages and images to as many consumers as possible, as rapidly as possible, so they can view ads. It may fantasise that it is something like a Habermasian public sphere, but on Facebook discursive relations are always subsumed in market relations. The connected world is a global market. (Plus, as Clementine Ford points out, Facebook HQ is still permeated by frat boy culture). Unfortunately, because of the ruthless efficiency of its image distribution model, for many artists and activists  it remains indispensable.

Ella Dreyfus, Age and Consent, 1999

Ella Dreyfus, Age and Consent, 1999

Chris Graham, Aboriginal Women at a Northern Territory public, 2016

Chris Graham, Aboriginal Women at a Northern Territory public ceremony, 2016

The Truth About Digital Photography

From the ANU Reporter Vol. 46 No. 2, May 2015

In the world Trending #2

There have been two different phases in the relatively short history of digital photography.

First was the apocalyptic phase, when there were dire warnings of ‘the end of photography’. The coming ‘revolution’, it was claimed, would fundamentally reconfigure the photographic ‘eye’.

We would be cast adrift from the firm shores of analogue photography, where chemical emulsion reliably reacted to the light reflected from real-world scenes, and left to float on a digital sea where pictures, now just data, could be changed at will.

Like many apocalypses, this one didn’t come. Although iconic names such as Kodak were swept away into history, the practice of photography itself went from strength to strength.

Cameras got cheaper and smaller and people took more and more photos to post on social media. Far from being bankrupted, the newly ubiquitous medium gained more impact than ever.

What those Chicken Littles didn’t realise is that photography is much more than just a technology, it is a social practice, a personal habit, a psychological need, an accumulated history of looking and, increasingly, a global network of exchange.

Photographic truth is supported by social protocols, and it is the multiple micro-recalibrations of these that we are currently experiencing in the second phase of digital photography. News organisations still protect direct photon to pixel mapping.

When Adnan Hajj, a hapless stringer for Reuters, was caught out by sharp-eyed bloggers using Photoshop’s clone tool to increase the amount of smoke rising from Beirut after a 2006 Israel bombing raid, he was summarily dropped. All 920 of his images were immediately removed from the Reuters site and a picture editor was sacked.

However, while minor excisions and additions to the image are strictly policed, enhancements or modifications to the connotational ‘feel’ of the reportage image as a whole are still allowed by press photography protocols.

In 2010, Stepan Rudik was stripped of his World Press Photo award.  He had radically cropped thephotograph he submitted, Street Fighting, Kiev, Ukraine, and  applied a heavy Photoshop filter to it. But that wasn’t why he was stripped of the award, it was because he had digitally removed a tiny pinch of pixels representing the intrusive foot of an irrelevant figure in the background of the image.

This year, 20 per cent of World Press Photo entries were disqualified for similar digital cutting and pasting and controversies like these, big and small, continue to erupt across the Internet.

But if we take a sideways step into celebrity photography, we find not only a tolerance for digital enhancement, but an expectation of it.

We are all now so completely habituated to seeing the flawless, poreless, skin of our celebrities stretched over their cheekbones that we barely give the routine post-production enhancement of the glossy images we consume a second thought. Indeed we now expect it as a kind of fantasy ‘truth’.

When 224 un-retouched photographs from a Beyoncé advertising shoot were released on a fan site earlier this year, before the texture of her tiny acne scars, moles and wrinkles had been digitally smoothed away, her fans “freaked out”, and were left “shocked and lost”.

The site was forced to remove the photographs of what they maintained was just Beyoncé as a “naturally beautiful” “regular woman” because “some of the things we have seen posted were just horrible, and we don’t want any part of it”.

But, before we laugh too quickly at the betrayal Beyoncé’s deluded fans felt, we must realise that reportage photos are also routinely undergoing similar makeovers.

In 2013, another controversy engulfed the World Press Photo Award when winner Paul Hansen’s Gaza Burial was accused of digital manipulation. It was eventually revealed that it was the product of the superimposition of three separately modulated versions of the one file, which gave the final digital composite a cinematic feel as though the director of photography on a big Hollywood movie had lit it with movie lights. Nonetheless it retained the prize because, although it had been enhanced, no pixels had been removed or added.

The meaning of the words ‘photographic manipulation’ is shifting before our eyes and growing in complexity. Today’s digital cameras don’t take pictures, they record data.

In this new imaging logic, the journey from scene to image is a continuity where image manipulation can feedback into a scene’s ‘truth’.

Add to this the exponential proliferation of images online, the acceleration of their transmission, and their accumulation into vast data-bases and we are set for yet more fascinating recalibrations in photographic truth.

Two suns at Tianjin

Thanks to my Hong Kong friends for pointing this out to me. They joke that when the Chinese leadership visited the site of Tianjin’s ‘Big Bang’, they commanded two suns to appear in the sky (check out the arm shadows). However Reuters still seems to be using the image without comment.

The image as it appears on Hong Kong's TVmost site.

The image as it appears on Hong Kong’s TVmost site.

TVmost's comment

TVmost’s comment

The image supplied by Reuters and used without comment by the South China Morning Post.

The image supplied by Reuters and used without comment by the South China Morning Post.

Google Photos app tags black couple as gorillas

As discussed in my chapter ‘The Face in Digital Space‘ in the book The Culture of Photography in Public Space, the human face first entered abstract matrices of comparison in the late eighteenth century with the pioneering physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavatar.  He placed the face in a psychological hierarchy using either zoological analogies or biometric algorithms. As a coda to my analysis is the recent news reports concerning Jacky Alcine, an early adopter of Google Photos, which automatically placed photos of him and his African-American friend in a folder called ‘Gorillas’. It is not possible for an algorithm to be in and of itself racist, but nonetheless Google scrambled to roll out a fix within two hours. However Google’s first fix led to yet more human faces to be categorised as gorillas, so it had to temporarily remove the word ‘gorilla’ as a category while they worked on more nuanced face recognition algorithms. These accidents point to how ‘live’ and ‘hot’ pseudo-Darwinian narratives still are in popular race discourse, such that Google quickly confessed to  being ‘appalled’ by the unintended result of their algorithmic facial analysis. It also points to how easily automatic tagging and profiling systems can overreach themselves in the newly fluid context of face recognition. The face is never neutral, therefore mathematical error quickly transcodes and multiplies itself into linguistic disaster.

Google Photos' algorithmic tagging of Jacky Alcine and friend.

Google Photos’ algorithmic tagging of Jacky Alcine and friend.

Johannes Kaspar Lavater, 'Essays in Physiognomy', plate 52.

Johannes Kaspar Lavater, ‘Essays in Physiognomy’, plate 52.

Johannes Kaspar Lavater, 'Essays in Physiognomy', plate 29.

Johannes Kaspar Lavater, ‘Essays in Physiognomy’, plate 29.

The Face in Digital Space

Published in ‘The Culture of Photography in Public Space’, edited by Anne Marsh, Melissa Miles and Daniel Palmer, Intellect, Bristol, 2015

GALLERY OF ILLUSTRATIONS

That configuration of eyes, nose and mouth stuck to the front of our heads, which we call the face, not only connects the outer sociological self to the inner psychological self— the old ‘window on the soul’ idea — but it also connects one person to another in a relationship. For the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas the face was the place of authentic encounter between self and other: ‘The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation’. (Levinas 1979: 210) According to Levinas, when two faces face each other, each demands something from the other, even if it is only recognition. It is the power of ideas such as this that still underpin controversies around the role of the face in public places of social interaction. For instance, the debates around recent attempts by various European governments to ban the burqa and the niqab in public, place the face at the very centre of contemporary definitions of personal autonomy and public citizenship. (Chesler 2010)

In order to perform this social function of human interaction the face has to be abstracted away from the body so that it can enter into a system of semiotic exchange. Deleuze and Guattari called this ‘faciality’, a process that over-codes the organism of the body with other strata of signification and subjectification. (1988) To them, the face is an abstract machine of ‘black holes in a white wall’ — a technology increasingly becoming enmeshed with other technologies.

Facial history

But in many ways this process of abstraction and ‘over-coding’ begins much earlier, with John Caspar Lavatar’s popular Essays in Physiognomy from the 1770s. Lavater defined his new science of physiognomy as the ‘the science … of the correspondence between the external and the internal man, the visible superficies and the invisible contents.’ (Lavater 1885: 11) He established that correspondence by either visual analogy, where a bovine-looking person must exhibit dull, bovine personal characteristics; or by biometric algorithms, where the slope of a brow, for instance, indexed cranial capacity and thus intelligence. A brow at a high angle above the nose was the mathematical index of a large brain, but also the visual equivalent of Roman nobility. A brow at a low angle indicated a small brain, and was also literally simian. Lavater’s analogical mapping and algorithmic vectorization allowed him to compare and classify faces, but they also removed the face from the ranks of the purely human, and placed it into an abstracted morphing space which was also shared by animals. Plate 80 of his Essays in Physiognomy demonstrates this with startling clarity as Lavater’s illustrator morphs a drawing of a frog’s face through twelve separate frames. In the first frame the angles of the isosceles triangle between the frog’s eyes and its lips is, Lavater tells us, just 25 degrees. Frame by frame the frog’s eyes slowly become more almond shaped and the whole face lengthens until, by the final frame, we find ourselves looking into the face of an androgynous human. The angle between the eyes and lips of this face has now increased to 56 degrees, a facial angle shared, according to Lavater, by Aristotle, Pitt, Frederick the Great, and Apollo.(497)

Eighty years later Charles Darwin completed the project of placing the human face within the realm of animals with his development of the theory of evolution. In his wildly popular follow-up book of 1872, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he homed in on the mechanics of the face and established that human facial expression was an instinctual animal behaviour, rather than a social language. (Darwin1 872) He demonstrated the automatic, biological mechanics of expression by artificially decoupling the external hydraulics of the facial muscles from their usual inner, instinctual motivations. For instance, for plate seven he obtained from the French scientist Dr Duchene a photograph of the facial muscles of an intellectually impaired man being twitched into the expression of ‘horror and agony’ by the external application of the terminals of a galvanic battery. He then juxtaposed this with a photograph he had commissioned of the photographer Oscar Rejlander acting out exactly the same expression. By photographically proving that muscles could be manipulating by two entirely separate methods — electricity and pantomime — to produce exactly the same expression. In this plate Darwin demonstrated that the face lay on top of the self, the face alone, without the self, could enter the plane of abstracted analysis and comparison.

Lavater’s physiognomic analogs and algorithms, and Darwin’s muscular decoupling, had the effect of conceptually delaminating the face from the body. But it was photography that then circulated that face within society. The greatest celebrity of Victorian England was the royal courtesan, partygoer, actress, beauty, and endorser of Pears Soap, Lillie Langtry. Through photography her face left the realm of her body and entered other media spaces. In Victorian England the most lubricious place where newly mobilised images bumped up against each other was the stationer’s shop window, and Lillie’s photographs were right in the middle of every window, disturbing the pre-existing social order. A writer at the time commented on:

… that democratic disregard of rank which prevails in our National Portrait Gallery of the present day — the stationer’s shop window — where such discordant elements of the social fabric as Lord Napier and Lillie Langtry … rub shoulders jarringly. (Ewing 2008: 22)

 Langtry was also the very first person in the world to find herself in a photographic feedback loop, that is, to feel the effects of her photographed face, as it circulated though Victorian visual culture, reflecting back on to her actual body. In her autobiography, The Days I Knew, she recalled:

Photography was now making great strides, and pictures of well-known people had begun to be exhibited for sale. The photographers, one and all, besought me to sit. Presently, my portraits were in every shop-window, with trying results, for they made the public so familiar with my features that wherever I went — to theatres, picture galleries, shops — I was actually mobbed. Thus the photographs gave fresh stimulus to a condition which I had unconsciously created. One night, at a large reception at Lady Jersey’s, many of the guests stood on chairs to obtain a better view of me, and I could not help but hear their audible comments on my appearance as I passed down the drawing-room. Itinerant vendors sold cards about the streets with my portrait ingeniously concealed, shouting ‘The Jersey Lily, the puzzle is to find her’. (Langtry 1925: 40)

 

Facial velocity

In the subsequent 130 years, of course, the velocity of that photographic circulation has only increased in speed and brutality. And now it is not just the mega-famous who find themselves caught up in photographic feedback loops. Erno Nussenzweig has become the chief exemplar of the ever-present possibility that any one of us can suddently become an accidental celebrity. One day in 1999 this elderly, bearded, orthodox Jewish man innocently emerged onto the sidewalk from a subway at Times Square. It wasn’t until five years later that he discovered that at that decisive moment he had been photographed by Philip-Lorca diCorcia who had set up a bank of flashlights on scaffolding to capture random passers by as they came into his camera’s plane of focus. diCorcia had exhibited the portrait at the prestigious Pace/McGill Gallery, published it in a book called Heads, sold out its edition of ten prints at between twenty and thirty thousand dollars each, and had eventually won London’s prestigious Citibank Prize with it. Nussenzweig sued for 1.6 million dollars claiming the photographer had used his face for purposes of trade, as well as violated his religious beliefs. His lawyer, Jay Golding, put his case best succinctly to the New York Post who in their report ‘What’s a picture worth — he wants 1.6 Mil’ quoted him as saying: ‘It’s a beautiful picture. But why should this guy make money off of your face?’. (Hafetz 2005: 23) diCorcia’s lawyer, however, was able to convince the judge that the photographs were taken primarily for the purpose of artistic expression, not commerce, and were therefore protected by the First Amendment.

Or consider the case of Neda Soltan. In 2009 she was videoed by the mobile phones of three separate pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran as she lay dying from a government-sniper’s bullet. After the videos went viral on the internet her face was even turned into a mask and worn by pro-democracy demonstrators at a protest in Paris. (Wikipedia ‘Death of Neda Agha-Soltan’ 2013) Meanwhile, in the hours after her death, some eager journalists mistakenly harvested a photograph of another Iranian woman with a similar name, Neda Soltani, from her Facebook page. It was this face that was used in many improvised shrines to the other, assassinated Neda. Iranian authorities then began to harass Soltani in order to get her to cooperate with them in claiming hat the original murder had been a set-up by the western media. After twelve days of harassment the other Neda was forced to flee Iran and seek refuge in Germany, from where she wrote a book about her experience, My Stolen Face. (Soltani 2012)

Or put yourself in the shoes of Nicole McCabe, an Australian citizen living in Jerusalem and pregnant with her first child. She also had her photograph harvested from Facebook. In 2010 the Israeli Government had stolen McCabe’s identity for a Mossad agent to use in order to assassinate a Hamas official. When the story broke and the passports the Israeli’s had forged were circulated in the media, complete with their actual passport numbers, Nicole McCabe decided she did not want to talk to Australian journalists, or be photographed by them. But after having the door slammed on them by McCabe’s angry husband, the journalists simply sourced photographs of her from Facebook, where friends had posted her wedding photographs. Nicole said she felt:

‘sick, angry, embarrassed and upset … even if Facebook is public, they have no right to take what they want without asking. I was more determined than ever not to let anyone take a photo of me.’ (Media Watch 2010)

 Or consider the fate of the footballer Sonny Bill Williams. In 2007 he embarked on an afternoon drinking session at the Clovelly Hotel with his team-mates and a group of football groupies that included celebrity iron woman Candice Falzon. Later that night one Clovelly local got a message on his phone. The local reported: “It said Candice Falzon had followed Sonny Bill into the toilets upstairs at the pub and everyone knew about it. The next message I got was an … um … action shot.” The shot, taken by putting a mobile phone under the toilet door as William and Falzon had sex, was soon being widely circulated amongst the mobile phones of Clovelly, and when it was eventually published on The Daily Telegraph’s website, it attracted a record number of hits. Williams reportedly had to spend all the following morning buying up copies of newspapers in his area in a futile attempt to stop his girlfriend learning of his toilet tryst. Although the person who took the photograph could have been liable for two years jail under the summary offences act for taking lewd photographs in toilets and change rooms, the newspaper itself could not be successfully prosecuted for posting the photograph once it was taken. (The Daily Telegraph 2007)

Incidents such as this show that faces don’t just have features, they also have velocities. The more famous you are the more recognizable you are to more people, but also the faster your face is circulated in the media. Even if you aren’t famous, a lightning bolt of sudden celebrity can dramatically, thought temporarily, catapult your face into a higher strata of recognizability, which propels exchange at a faster velocity.

While some have felt themselves suddenly swept up into these currents of facial velocity, others have attempted, with mixed success, to ride those turbulent currents to even greater fame. Consider the career of Lara Bingle. Once an ordinary bikini model, her celebrity stocks rose in 2006 when she was chosen for a tourism campaign. The men’s magazine Zoo Weekly then published revealing photographs of her that had been taken eleven months earlier, before she was chosen to be the wholesome face of Australia, on which they superimposed sexually suggestive speech bubbles. She sued the magazine for defamation. She won the case when the judge accepted that the magazine was smutty and had implied that she had willingly consented to pose for the sexual titillation of its readers. (Sydney Morning Herald 2006a, 2006b) However by the end of 2006 the tourism campaign had flopped, and Bingle was having an illicit affair with the married footballer Brendan Fevola. But by 2008 her stocks had risen again, she was engaged to the cricketer Michael Clark, and they were one of Sydney’s foremost celebrity couples, even endorsing an energy drink. By early 2010 she had even signed up with celebrity agent Mark Marxson. But then Woman’s Day published a mobile-phone photograph her ex-lover Brendan Fevola had taken of her in the shower back in 2006, which his football mates had been circulating between their mobile phones for some time. Her engagement with Michael Clark broke down and the energy drink company dropped them. Mark Marxson threatened to ‘strike a blow for women’s rights’ by getting her to sue Fevola, but she did not have a case because, unlike in the Zoo Weekly case, no specific laws of defamation were broken. (Byrne 2010) Bingle’s stocks in the celebrity marketplace plummeted but, after a period of careful career management including charity work, family-friendly television appearances, and the avoidance of footballers, they begun to rise again. They rose so far that by 2012 she successfully negotiated with a TV production company to become the subject of a ‘reality’ TV series Being Lara Bingle on a commercial television network. Conveniently, just before the premiere was about to air, another controversy erupted when she was supposedly photographed surreptitiously by the famous paparazzi Darryn Lyons (who was in fact a business partner of Bingle’s) standing nude near the window of the Bondi flat that had been rented for the show. This confected ‘invasion of privacy’ allowed her to tell breakfast radio that: “There should be a law against someone shooting inside your house …. it’s just not right”, thus garnering pre-publicity for the series, and conveniently forming the content of the first episode. That first TV episode rated highly, however subsequent episodes in the series steadily lost viewers, to the point where Bingle’s career languished once more. (O’Brien 2012) Bingle then climbed back in the celebrity news cycle after she began to date the Avatar actor Sam Worthington, reportedly introducing him to the use of social media platforms such as Instagram. In February 2014 the couple suddenly hit the celebrity gossip headlines when Worthington was arrested in New York for allegedly assaulting a photographer who had allegedly kicked Bingle in the shin. (Clun 2014)

The camera has ruled Lara Bingle’s career as celebrity, someone defined by our desire to look at her. But this has been the case ever since Lillie Langtry. However the roller coaster ride of Bingle’s value as a bankable celebrity has also been ruled by the sudden eruptions or irruptions, whether planned or not, ‘authorised’ or not, of particular recognisable photographs which re-attach the ‘face’ of Bingle to the ‘brand’ of Bingle in different ways. The speed of their circulation through both social media and the mainstream media, create the volatility of the market for her images. Celebrities are sometimes even forced to engage in this market directly. For example, in 2013 the TV and radio presenter Chrissie Swan, who had acquired her celebrity status dispensing homespun wisdom to ordinary women, was photographed smoking whilst she was pregnant, something she herself had campaigned against. So that they could never be published, she engaged in a bidding war with two magazines for the photographs, eventually pulling out after offering $53,000, two thousand dollars less than the winning bid by Womens Day. (news.com.au 2013)

Facial vecotorisation

These examples indicate the high speed of facial velocity. But what of facial vectorisation? The terrain of the face continues to be the site of scientific research that updates Lavater’s and Darwin’s pioneering efforts and re-affirms the face’s muscular mechanics as central to our humanity — although now not by indexing some immutable inner person as Lavater had supposed, but through their intrinsic role within language comprehension. Contemporary cognitive psychologists such as professor Rolf Zwan, from Erasmus University Rotterdam, are researching the ways that facial muscle-movement directly feedbacks to the brain. For example experiments have shown that if you are smiling you can read sentences about emotions quicker than if you are frowning; and if you have had Botox you have more difficulty interpreting photographic portraits of emotions because in conversation your facial muscles subtly enter into a feedback loop of micro-mimicry with your interlocutor, which Botox decouples. (Lingua Franca 2011; White 2011; Zwaan 2013) Other experiments suggest that if you are in the presence of the representation of a face your moral standards are higher. (Bourrat, Baumard, McKay 2011; Smith 2011)

 

While these examples of cognitive research indicate that the face as a concept remains central to discourses of the human, individual faces are also increasingly caught up in ever-finer meshes of delamination, vectorisation, and mobilization. For instance plastic surgery is moving down the social scale from being the prerogative of the famous and the fatuous, to being a commonplace conventional practice for all of us. ‘Extreme makeovers’ are increasingly re-mapping everyday faces, and recalibrating with the scalpel the vectoral angles between eyes, noses and chins in order to ratchet their owners up in scales of beauty.

If the facial structure itself can be morphed through surgery, in other instances the facial pixel maps representing the person can be manipulated. The regular Photoshoping of celebrity portraits in our magazines simply replicates in two dimensions the effects of the cosmetic surgeon’s scalpel, and the amount of pixelated deviation away from the ‘truth’ can even be algorithmically calculated and given a value. (Fahid, Kee 2011) Photoshop can also be used to disguise faces. Consider the case of Christopher Paul Neil who liked to post pictures of himself sexually abusing Vietnamese and Cambodian children on paedophile websites. He applied a swirl filter to his face to disguise his identity, but German police simply applied the same filter in reverse and unswirled the pattern and reveal his face. Interpol then posted the image on their website where he was recognised by five different people and identified. After his face was picked up by a surveillance camera at Bangkok Airport he was eventually arrested in October 2007. (Daily Mail 2007; Wikipedia ‘Christopher Paul Neil’ 2013)

Neil was recognised by a human being, but the technological possibility exists that eventually his face could have been recognised by a machine. Facial recognition software applies algorithms to the same sets of vectors between eyes, nose and mouth that Lavater originally identified. Australia is at the forefront of facial recognition research. We have not only already introduced ‘smart gates’ at our airports to match our facial algorithms with a database, but National ICT Australia (NICTA) received 1.5 million dollars from the Cabinet to research what it describes as the ‘holy grail’ of surveillance: ‘real-time face-in-the-crowd recognition technology’. Concurrent with these Australian research projects, international protocols are also being developed. For instance the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology hosted the Face Recognition Grand Challenge open to entrants from industry, universities and research institutes. This means, according to NICTA, that:

The surveillance industry is currently undergoing the same revolutionary changes that shook up the computer industry when internet use took off in the 1990s. Instead of each supplier providing a unique product, the sector will soon be dominated by standards and interoperability. Surveillance will eventually merge into a virtually seamless multimedia network embracing social media, location services, mobile devices, maps, and 3D models. (Advanced Surveillance Project 2013; (Bigdeli, LovellMau, 201abc)

However even though technology is yet to actually deliver on its promises, the idea of facial recognition and facial manipulation has already become commonplace in the media, and almost domesticated. For several years it has been something we can all indulge in as a kind of game. A whole class of smart phone apps are based on face recognition software. We can also apply face recognition algorithms to the vast reservoirs of faces on the internet, or on Facebook, or in our iPhoto libraries, in order to locate friends we are looking for even when the metadata tags aren’t available; or to look for celebrities; or to calculate how much we look like a celebrity; or to calculate which of our children most looks like us. Many new cameras also have face recognition software built in which recognises, automatically focuses on, and tags, particular people even before the shutter is clicked.

In a way of thinking about the face that is very similar to Lavater’s and Darwin’s, the frontier of contemporary 3D computer animation is the mapping of actual micro-muscular movements onto animated wire-frames. The most famous example of this so far has occurred in the movie Avatar, 2009, where actors, including Sam Worthington, wore head-rigs which filmed the movement of motion-tracking markers on their faces. This digital information was then ‘peeled’ off the actor’s face and re-applied to a 3D animation wire-frame model. The use of the same rigs on the actor Andy Serkis for the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011, finally placed the human face and its expressions in the realm as animals, as imagined by Lavater 230 years ago. Significantly, this technology has also become domesticated in on-line games such as Macdonald’s website Avartize Yourself. Other games take forensic ‘age progression’ software used by missing-persons bureaus, and turn them into games such as the iPhone app Hourface.

Facial Privatisation

Why is it worthwhile looking so closely at tabloid trash and trivial on-line games? Because they, as much as high-end cutting-edge research, are the symptoms of two new tendencies in the valency of the face. Firstly, we are all becoming celebrities, at least potentially. The velocity of our own faces can suddenly speed up when we least expect it. Secondly, our faces are all part of what NICTA calls a ‘virtually seamless multimedia environment’. This is not just analogical space, the bit-mapping and point-by-point comparison of appearances, but algorithmic space, where faces are vectorised and turned into equations that can instantly interact with a myriad of other equations. The pervasiveness of celebrity culture, combined with the explosion of algorithmic biometrics within merging media and data spaces, has had a profound effect upon the ways in which every one of us regards our own face. The face is congealing as a bastion from which to advance privacy rights and proclaim property rights.

 There has been a consistent and inexorable drift in legal opinion in Australia towards a tort of privacy — which we currently do not have — that is ultimately focussed on protecting the human face. Back in 2001 Justice John Dowd was able to confidently claim that a person ‘does not have a right not to be photographed’. But by 2003 Justice Michael Kirby was commenting that extending the law in Australia to protect the ‘honour, reputation and personal privacy of individuals’ would be consistent with international developments in human rights law. (Nemeth 2012)

 By 2008 Professor David Weisbot, president of the Australian Law Reform Commission, was saying that during their inquiry into privacy law, the ALRC had:

consistently heard strong support for the enactment of a statutory cause of action for serious invasion of privacy. While the debate overseas has focussed on the activities of paparazzi photographers, interestingly, most of the concerns expressed to the ALRC related more to the private sphere than the mainstream media — and to the protection of ordinary citizens rather than celebrities. People are extremely concerned about new technology and the ease with which their private personal images may be captured and disseminated. (Australian Law Reform Commission 2008)

 In their recommendations the ALRC called for: ‘a private cause of action where an individual has suffered a serious invasion of privacy, in circumstances in which the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy’. (2008) And in 2011 the NSW Law Reform Commission agreed, releasing draft laws that stated that an invasion of privacy should exist where a person ‘has a reasonable expectation of privacy’, which could potentially even include a public place. (New South Wales Law Reform Commission 2010; Marr 2009))

So, why this paradox? Why, when our personal information is flowing more freely than ever before, when 80% of people want CCTV cameras in their public spaces, and when the vast majority of Facebook users are happy to use its default settings where there is little or no privacy at all, why are we getting increasingly paranoid about our faces? I think it is because the face is caught up in a wider transformation. It is swimming against the tide that is pulling the private into the public because it is part of a stronger current, from signification to possession. Those of us feeling the effects of both celebrity culture and algorithmic data-media are regarding privacy less as a singular inherent right, and more as a fungible personal commodity which can be exchanged in a market place. For instance Nicole McCabe knew her participation in Facebook was not free, she knew she had ‘sold’ it some of her privacy in order to enjoy its benefits, but suddenly and unexpectedly she came to realize that perhaps she had ‘traded off’ too much of her privacy. This mercantile logic is also beginning to pervade other environments of facial interaction, such as public places. Within the politics of the face the receding sense of the private, in the sense of the ‘the discreet’, is being overtaken by an encroaching sense of the privatised, in the sense of ‘the owned’. We all increasingly agree implicitly with Nussenzweig’s lawyer: ‘why should this guy make money off of your face?’.

The abstraction, delamination and mobilization of the face has led to its reification. The face is closing down on the sense of openly mutual obligation that, in Levinas’s terms, once arose when one face faced another, and is replacing it with a sense of commercial enclosure. This reification is intensified by the way that all faces, even our own, can be peeled away from our bodies to enter new virtual and algorithmic spaces. Celebrities are merely at the vanguard of this transformation. Celebrities believe they are their own commodity. They believe that their face is the result of their labour and their talent. It is their capital, their brand, their corporate logo. The velocity with which their face travels through the neworks of the media is what determines their value as a celebrity. They believe they therefore have a proprietary right in it. In America their faces are even protected by a common law ‘right of publicity’ which grants them, in the words of one key judgement, ‘the exclusive right to control the commercial value and exploitation of [their] name, picture, likeness or personality.’ (Wikipedia, ‘Personality Rights’ 2013) And, just like them, we ordinary people also feel that our own faces are also becoming more monologic, less a window or an interface, and more a logo for ‘Brand Me’. That configuration of eyes, nose and mouth stuck to the front of our heads, which we call the face, is now not so much a portal to the inner self, or a species of physiognomic autobiography, or an interface to our fellow citizens, as much as a rebus of identity, or perhaps a corporate logo for the persona. It is clear that laws of privacy, photography and reproduction will eventually be changed to confirm for everybody what has already happened in facial valency to a select few. They will come to protect not only the integrity of the personal autonomy and public citzenship of the individaul as accessed through the face, but also the value of the face itself — as an individual’s property

 GALLERY OF ILLUSTRATIONS

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Bigdeli, A. & Lovell, B. & Mau, S (2011b), ‘Something to watch over me: policing our national bordersThe Conversation, 26 May, . http://theconversation.edu.au/>

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Iconoclasm at the National Portrait Gallery

Why are the medieval forces of iconoclasm gaining strength in a visual environment which is reportedly becoming increasingly virtual and digital? After the spate of Rolfoclasm, previously reported on twice in this blog, comes Angus Trumble’s decision to remove Widodo’s portrait from the National Portrait Prize even though they don’t own it, and against the wishes of the person who does (and has already paid the gallery the competition entry fee and freight charges for the privilege of being considered for the prize) — Adam Ferguson. Part of Trumble’s reason was to protect it from rogue iconoclasm; and yes, Diane Arbuses were once spat on in New York, and Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christ was once attacked with an axe in Melbourne, but even if the worst happened Ferguson need only press the Start button on his printer once more to get his print back. However part of Trumble’s reason also appears to be to indulge in a bit of iconoclasm of his own, to align the Canberra gallery, and the honorific power of its walls, with the general anti-Wididodo mood of the nation and its politicians. But Trumble’s remarkable action does make us look at Ferguson’s picture again, with its heavy-handed use of photoshop to give Widodo’s face a Yousuf Karshian makeover of Statesman like gravitas. Trumble should have let Ferguson’s portrait remain on the wall, and let its overblown digital-Pictorialism provide the irony.

Canberra Times, 1 May, 2015

Canberra Times, 1 May, 2015

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