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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Smith, D. (2011), ‘Why one look will put the fear of god into you’ June 11, Sydney Morning Herald, http://www.smh.com.au/national/why-one-look-will-put-the-fear-of-god-into-you-20110610-1fx30.html. Accessed 31 January 2013 <

Soltani, N. (2012), My Stolen Face: The Story of a Dramatic Mistake, Random House, Kailash.

Sydney Morning Herald , 2006, ‘Bingle bites back — sues men’s mag’, Stay in Touch, , 11 May, http://www.smh.com.au/news/stay-in-touch/bingle-bites-back–sues-mens mag/2006/05/10/1146940612505.html. Accessed 31 January 2013.

Sydney Morning Herald 2006, ‘Judge Backs Bingle on Zoo Smut’, 8 December, http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2006/12/08/1165081128065.html?from=rss. Accessed 31 January 2013.

The Daily Telegraph (2007), ‘Sonny Bill, Candice toilet Joke’, Sydney Confidential, 14 April, http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/sonny-bill-candice-toilet-joke/story-e6frewt0-1111113317469. Accessed 31 January 2013.

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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

IMG_1380

‘The Face in Digital Space’, The Photographic Threat, chapter illustrations

Lillie Langtry in Pears Soap advertisement. nd

Lillie Langtry in Pears Soap advertisement. nd

Lillie Langtry

Lillie Langtry

A newspaper report from 25 February, 2010 on the Israeli theft of Nicole McCabe’s identity

A newspaper report from 25 February, 2010 on the Israeli theft of Nicole McCabe’s identity

Screen grab of Daily Telegraph website. 12 April, 2007

Screen grab of Daily Telegraph website. 12 April, 2007

Widely circulated AP image of pro democracy demonstration in Paris, 25 July 2009

Widely circulated AP image of pro democracy demonstration in Paris, 25 July 2009

Digital post-production, the photographic document, and truth

Digital post-production, the photographic document, and truth

The Power of Images, Sir Peter Herbst seminars, 4 September, ANU. 

Earlier this year Paul Hansen’s image of two children killed by Israeli missiles, Gaza Burial, won the World Press Photo contest. The image attracted attention because it had a cinematic feel, as though an expert director of photography from films such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty had lit it with movie lights. A suspicious forensic image analyst called Neal Krawetz, asked to examine the submitted JPEG file, and tracked the history of the file’s Photoshop ‘saves’. He found that, on the day it was taken, 20 November 2012, a JPEG image had been converted from the original RAW file. (RAW is the format of the first readable image file written as the camera uses firmware algorithms to convert the various voltages generated by its CCD sensor into digital data. In the RAW file image information like contrast and colour is stored as separate metadata, rather than saved and compressed within the image itself as in a TIFF or JPEG file.) Then, about six weeks later, and two weeks before the competition’s submission date, a further two images were converted from RAW formats and added to the first JPEG file. This analysis led Krawetz to accuse Hansen of breaking the implied rules of the World Press Photo composition by collaging three different images together.

The photographer replied to this accusation by admitting that he had given the image a post-production treatment similar to a High Dynamic Range photograph, where three different camera exposures of the same scene are superimposed. The JPEG files, he explained, were each ‘save as’ from the one RAW file, giving maximum tonal range and different chromatic saturation in turn to the shadows, mid-tones and highlights, before being superimposed in Photoshop. This had the effect of modulating the otherwise harsh lighting across the whole image, de-saturating the distracting light on the walls, giving the skin of the subjects a smoother, more ‘inner’ glow, balancing the viewer’s attention equally between all of the men in the alley, and heightening the dramatic illumination on the faces and shrouds of the two dead children. The superimposition was then merged. Hansen submitted the original RAW file, which he had neglected to do when he originally entered the competition, to another image forensics analyst, Eduard de Kam, who declared: ‘all of the pixels are in exactly the same place’. So, Hansen claimed, rather than shifting pixels, he had merely modulated each pixel’s colour and intensity in situ, acceptable to World Press Photo rules. An analogy that springs to mind could be to a beauty pageant, which would allow entrants to use make-up to enhance their natural beauty, but not to undergo plastic surgery to artificially create beauty.

Krawetz was not deterred, however, and subjected the JPEG image to a further ‘Error Level Analysis’ that indicated which pixels had been altered to which degree. The outlines around all the figures showed the systematic operation of Photoshop’s sharpening algorithm but also, according to Krawetz, betrayed some localized pixel modification. Meanwhile, an original reproduction of the image, before its submission to high dynamic range post-processing, had surfaced and been brought into the argument, and Krawetz noticed that some pixels had in fact been shifted. For instance the bruise on the right hand corpse’s forehead had been shortened to emphasize the glow of light on her round forehead.

Fifty years ago Roland Barthes identified six different connotational procedures at work in the press photograph, which were working away to inflect the ‘natural’ denotation of the image with cultural meaning. One of these he called ‘photogenia’, defined as: ‘the image itself ‘embellished’ (which is to say in general sublimated) by techniques of lighting, exposure and printing.’ Hansen’s post-production was pure photogenia, sublimating the brutal facts of the Gaza funeral within the elevated cinematic aesthetic that could be called: ‘the universal tragedy of contemporary warfare’ or ‘the nobility of the oppressed Palestinian people’. At the conclusion of his discussion of photogenia Barthes suggests that perhaps in the press photograph ‘there is never art, but always meaning.’ (IMT 23-24) Perhaps if Hansen had used as his photogenic reference point not Hollywood movies but, say, the gritty black and white style of old school photojournalism with its historical connotations of ‘meaningful concern’, his image would have passed without notice — but perhaps, also, it wouldn’t have won.

The furor over this image, and the subsequent digital forensics of Krawetz and de Kam, indicates that my neat analogy of plastic surgery versus make-up just doesn’t hold up any more; and nor can Barthes’ fifty-year-old mutual exclusion between ‘art’ and ‘meaning’ in press photography be sustained either. There is no ‘original’ data, which is subsequently modified in a computer. Even before the image is extracted from a camera’s CCD sensor and turned into a RAW file, firmware algorithms have been at work, sharpening edges and interpolating colour. Programs such as Photoshop provide further semi-automatic modifications along the same line. In this environment there is no single point where pre become post production, where denotation become connotation. Clearly there is a point, somewhere, where the image we see in our newspapers or on-line, in which we may still be happy to invest belief as being ‘true’, becomes just another Photoshop job; but where is that point? Clearly there is also a point where the aestheticization of the image shifts a photograph from the genre of news or reportage, to the genre of personal universalized meditation on the state of contemporary war, from specific referential meaning to generalized aesthetic art; but where is that point?

This make it much harder for people such as myself to stay up on our high horses, looking down on the plebs below unable to appreciate the different valencies and experiential nuances of various photographs. We will have to perform prettier and prettier dances in the future to stay ahead.

Martyn Jolly

2.5D and the Photographic Document

‘2.5D and the Photographic Document’,

Visible Evidence Conference, Australian National University, 19-21 December 2012.

In this paper I want to attempt to analyse the visceral offence I take at seeing the CGI process know as 2.5D used in documentary films.

First of all, what is 2.5D? It is a relatively simple process — at least for experts — which is available through such popular software packages as Aftereffects and even Photoshop. It takes a scan of a still photograph and slices it up, cutting out individual picture elements and putting them on separate transparent layers. The background picture elements are then extended out beyond their initial edges by cloning the original pixels. Gaussian blur may be added to the background elements to increase the sensation of depth of field. The layers are then separated in virtual space, while a virtual camera tracks through them to create the feeling of motion parallax and to produce a stereographic visual sensation in the viewer. Sometimes animation is added to the picture elements — clouds can scud across the sky, arms and legs can pivot at their elbows or knees, smoke can rise from chimneys or cigarettes, and water can sparkle. Sometimes, even, final sound effects can be added.

The popular 2007 TV documentary Ten Pound Poms makes use of all of these effects to animate the personal family snapshots of the British migrant subjects of the show, who are also interviewed in a studio. These were then intercut with newsreel and home movie footage. From the point of view of the documentary filmmakers all of these effects only add to the photograph. They endow it with movement, time, spatiality, animation and even diegetic sound. All of these things can only enhance the experience for the viewer — to give them more sensation, to make them feel more like ‘they were really there’, and to integrate the boring old still photographs with the fabulous newsreel footage, staged re-enactments, emotional remembrances and talking heads which make up the rest of the film. They supplement for what the still photograph is so manifestly lacking, so what’s the problem? I think there is a problem.

However, I am not entirely a purist when it comes to the use of photographs in documentary films. I recognise the value of using still photographs in a variety of ways which enable the photograph to take part in the specifically filmic syntax of the documentary film.

Sometimes 2.5D is described as just a turbo-charged extension of the notorious Ken Burns effect, an effect so famous they named an iPhoto default setting after it.  The use of still photographs filmed on a rostrum camera had been growing steadily in documentary TV and film since the 1950s, and some docos of the 1980s used slow zooms and pans across the surface of historic photographs. But when, in the television series The Civil War which was about a historical period before cinema but at the height of the carte-de-visite craze, Ken Burns combined the extensive panning and zooming of his 16mm rostrum camera with soulful music, stentorian voiceovers, and long contemplative landscape shots over empty fields, the effect came in to its own. The Ken Burns effect narrativised the still photograph. Reframing, re-sizing and tracking slowly revealed faces and incidents that had been cropped out by the rostrum camera. By zooming, details were given emotional and dramatic emphasis. This is not dissimilar to the way an actual photograph is pored over by an avid viewer in real life, when perhaps small details initially unnoticed are delightedly pointed out, or perhaps a lover’s face is intently gazed into. Most importantly, from my point of view, the photograph remains in tact. After filming it is picked up of the rostrum table and returned to the archive, its ontological integrity respected.

Nor am I against the photograph being used as a collage element, or as a re-enactment trope. Still photographs offer the opportunity for expository collages which many doco filmmakers can’t resist. For instance this year’s television documentary on Australian suffragettes, Utopia Girls, makes extensive use of both photographs as documents, and photographs as expository tropes. The resultant phantasmagoria makes me squirm and cringe, but it doesn’t give me the visceral outrage of 2.5D. I’m used to naff anachronisms in documentaries —footage from fictional war films intercut with actual newsreel war footage; or film footage from the twentieth century used to illustrate events in the nineteenth century. And the producers of Utopia Girls take these anachronisms to new heights. Why, for instance, do they make a mock ‘slide show’ of Charles Bayliss’s famous and beautiful collodion glass-plate negatives of the gold fields, complete with added surface dirt and the clunk of a twentieth century slide projector, when to my knowledge they were never even used as lantern slides? Why do they embed twentieth century newsreel footage in the decorated pages of a nineteenth century photograph album? Why are the stained backdrops of the photographic studio, in which actors act out the written words of the historical characters, based on the Sydney underworld police photographs of the 1920s made famous by the recent book City of Shadows, rather than the middle-class studio portraiture conventions of the late nineteenth century, where the actual historical characters would have actually been photographed?  Why?

Nonetheless I understand and accept that perhaps these devices are there to try to make history ‘come alive’. They take the complex, disparate stories of Australian radicalism over a sixty-year period and turn it into a palatable piece of TV by recasting it as a single, self-contained, linear, racy detective story, with our historian as our own personal guide. In Utopia Girls, as well, these techniques, which essentially translate one less familiar media form into another more familiar media form, are used to explicitly link the past to the present — the young actors hired to play the protagonists, the film implies, only have their political rights because of the bravery of the women they are portraying.  All young women, therefore, should admire the pioneering Utopia Girls just as much as they admire the Spice Girls. Perhaps in these cases the loses of the specific artefactual quality of the documents which are being used — the smooth collodion of Bayliss’s glass plate negatives, for instance, are outweighed by the gains — the patience of the TV viewer at home which isn’t strained.

But I think that when it comes to the 2.5D even this isn’t the case. Why am I specifically against 2.5D? Because the photograph is ontologically different to film and 2.5D destroys that. The photograph has a particular relationship to time. Obviously it freezes time. It is a snapshot but it can also be, as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it in the 1950s, a ‘decisive moment’, a stilled action which nonetheless contains compacted into it a sense of the extended action from which it was extracted. Photographs are moments in which time is held. Roland Barthes even says they are ‘engorged’ with time (p91) and 2.5D deflates this engorgement. A documentary like this year’s Croker Island Exodus relies on the testimony of eye-witnesses to time. The memories of the young Aboriginal children are written on their faces when, as old ladies now, they are recounted directly to camera. These faces are intercut with acted out re-enactments of their epic walk across Australia. And again, as in Utopia Girls, those re-enactments which use young Aboriginal kids as actors connect past to present. However the historic photographs which are used to segue between testimony and re-enactment also given the 2.5D treatment, though admittedly not as extreme as in Ten Pound Poms. There is a little bit of motion parallax, and the addition of colour. But, if the women themselves can give their testimony through their own presence and in their own words, why aren’t photographs also allowed to give their testimony in their own way as well? Why must their still moments be given an alien filmic propulsion?

In Photography and Fetish, 1985, the film theorist Christian Metz defines the photograph as being fixed in the past, and therefore standing in for an absence. On the other hand, he said, film unfolds in time and orchestrates the viewer’s desire. The photographic theorist Roland Barthes agreed with this basic dichotomy. In his 1980 book Camera Lucida he said of the photograph:

‘…this very special image gives itself out as complete  — integral, we might say … The photographic image is full, crammed: no room, nothing can be added to it. In the cinema, whose raw material is photographic, the image does not, however, have this completeness (which is fortunate for the cinema). Why? Because the photograph, taken in [the] flux [of a film], is impelled, ceaselessly drawn toward other views; in the cinema, no doubt, there is always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not make a claim in favour of its reality, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a spectre. … in it, no protensity, whereas the cinema is protensive … Motionless, the Photograph flows back from presentation to retention.’ P89-90

I think this dichotomy is still very useful, despite changes in technology since then, when the photograph and video converged on the same digital platform. The experience of looking at a photograph is still very different to the experience of watching a film. We still don’t watch a photograph, and we still don’t gaze upon a film. The photograph still holds time, while the film still propels time.  The viewer still contemplates the photograph as an object, but enters the psychologically enveloping virtual space of the film.

For generations of photographic theorists such as Roland Barthes the photograph’s power came from it paradoxical relationship to time. From the point of view of the viewer’s experience the photograph is simultaneously both ‘here now’ and ‘there then’, however from the point of a viewer absorbed in a movie, filmic movement and montage has collapsed this paradox. The photographic image remains in the past while the moving and edited image creates its own present. Extrapolating further from this dichotomy, many writers have discussed the various ways in which the photograph is associated with the closure and distance of death, while film is associated with the flow and relentless becoming of life.

Of course this dichotomy is complex and entangled, and defined very much by the dominant social and historical uses of the twin technologies in the past: on the one hand the rise of the social habit of personal snapshot photography— which has tended to emphasise the mnemonic aspects of the photograph as an object; and on the other hand the rise of the movie industry— which has tended to emphasise the temporal compulsions of story and spectacle in movies which are experienced in cinemas. And you are all right now no doubt thinking of exceptions as well: the elegiac moments of a child waving from your grandfather’s Kodachrome standard 8 holiday film on the one hand, or the way that the various ‘decisive moments’ of news photographs were put together into the unfolding quasi-cinematic picture layouts of illustrated magazines like Life, on the other.

But nonetheless the fundamental ontologies of the dichotomy remain. Even within the filmic technology itself this distinction holds I think. In the 1890s early cinema exhibitors delighted their audiences by showing the first frame of the kinematograph frozen like a lantern slide, before suddenly cranking the projector forward into life. Since then countless fiction filmmakers have apotheosised their characters in a sudden freeze frame. Over the years millions of art school students have revelled in the uncanny temporality of Chris Marker’s 1964 film La Jetee, a film made up almost entirely of stills. And generations of video artists such as Douglas Gordon, Bill Viola or Gillian Wearing have made, and still make, work exploring the tension between stillness and movement.

But when, within the documentary genre, it comes to bringing together two related but distinct social practices — the photograph as documentary artefact, and the film as narrativized event; and two related and distinct recording technologies — snapping and filming, then I think this ontological dichotomy must be respected.

2.5D does a violence to the ontological integrity of the historic photograph, and it does a violence to the psychological power of the phenomenological experience of the photograph as historical object. The photograph does not need to be animated with CG effects because its unique power lies precisely in its lack of animation. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes describes the effect this power had on him.

In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it. So that is how I must name the attraction which makes it exist: an animation. The photograph itself is in no way animated (I do not believe in ‘lifelike’ photograph), but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure.’ (p20)

The photograph must retain its temporal retention over which this animation can reach. Even embedded in the syntax of the documentary, the stillness of the photograph, and its historical authority as document and artefact, can still create the precious feeling of mutual animation over a mysterious distance of time. It must continue to be allowed to.

Martyn Jolly

Present Tense: An Imagined Grammar of Portraiture in the Digital Age

‘Present Tense’, National Portrait Gallery, Real Time Media Arts, August, 2010

National Portrait Gallery Until 22 August

What has become of the genre of portraiture in the digital age? What actual works have artists made in response to that vague list of usual suspects we all automatically reel off whenever contemporary media technologies are mentioned: social networking sites, mobile phone cameras, 3D scanners, rapid prototypers, tomography, and on-line avatars? This show answers that question with a diverse collection of strong works by twenty-seven well-established Australian and international artists, which are installed with intelligence and wit. It’s good to see a show of photography and digital media which has been fully thought through and tightly selected by a proper curator, Michael Desmond, who has a broad knowledge and an international horizon. This show is a refreshing change from those loose surveys ‘around’ themes which appear to be chosen mainly for their convenience, or even worse, those ubiquitous but lazily conceived competitions which we get too often.

A good way of looking at the show as a whole is that it is about the interaction of new technologies with the traditional methods of portraiture — painting, sculpture and photography — which already have their own pre-established ‘grammars’. Thus we have Jonathan Nichols’ flat, though engaging, paintings of young girls, each with a slight air of ambiguous familiarity. But wait, these aren’t paintings of the girls themselves, but of their Facebook thumbnails. The tug we feel is not towards their offering of themselves to us as individual viewers, but the offering of themselves to the generalized gaze of the world wide social network.

In another breathtaking remodalization of an old technology, both Chuck Close and Aaron Seeto work with daguerreotypes, that primeval photographic process where all of photography’s uncanniness seems to manifest itself most magically. From the point of view the twenty-first century, Close’s daguerreotyped heads and bodies remind the viewer a bit of a holograms. And as viewers move their head from side to side to get the right angle, and the image wells up from the visual depths like a surfacing whale, that familiar tingle up the spine they get, that simultaneous feeling of proximity and distance, is no longer configured historically — back into the depths of the mid nineteenth-century — but existentially, from one human presence to another. In contrast, Aaron Seeto’s daguerreotype translations of right-click grabs from web reports of the 2005 Cronulla Riots make a more overt, even arch, point about the permanence and impermanence, the legibility and illegibility, of historical memory when it is entrusted to the oceanic swirls and currents of the internet.

The viewer has to do fair bit of head wiggling in this show. Installed across from the daguerreotypes there are two anamorphic skulls, both referring to the Holbein’s famous vanitas intervention at the bottom of his 1553 portrait of The Ambassadors.  In a diptych the painter Juan Ford bravely confronts an X-Ray of a skull. From our point of view, in front of the diptych, the skull is safely distorted and in another space. But, we realize, from his point of view within the diptych it would be restored to its correct, archetypal shape of warning and fear. The American Robert Lazzarini’s anamorphic skull is a life-size three-dimensional sculpture made of actual bone material embedded in resin. As we circle warily around, it fleetingly looms out of its anamorphic parallel universe and into our own.

In a similar way, the faces of Justine Khamara’s angry and surprised parents suddenly pop out at us when we stand directly in front of the bulging aluminium constructions on which their flat images have been printed. It is the viewer’s exact position at the apex of the constructions which animates them, seemingly jolting them out of some kind of two dimensional repose.

This show foregrounds the fundamental image-making actions which have now become proper to contemporary portraiture. No longer just the snap the of camera’s shutter or the incremental description of the painter’s brush, but now also the trundling progress of the flatbed scanner and the circular pan of the 3D scanner.

Stelarc, in classic techno-narcissist style, stretches the skin of his head across a flat acrylic table that measures 1.2 times 1.8 metres, to invite us to delectate on every one of his pores and bristles. The German artist Karin Sander makes exact, three dimensional, indexical sculptures of her subjects at one-fifth scale by using three-dimensional scanning and rapid prototyping technology. What are these mini-thems? Three-dimensional photos? Optical clones? Plastic avatars? Whatever they are, one isn’t enough. I found myself wanting the artist to be true to her namesake, August Sander, and methodically create an army of miniature German people.

In contrast to the indexical, technologically produced three dimensional portrait, the Korean artist Osang Gwon takes hundreds of small photographs of every inch of her young, punky, Korean subject, and glues them on to hand-carved life-sized Styrofoam figure in a loose collagistic style. This produces a strong but unstable sense of the physical presence of her subject, as if her skin and clothes, and indeed her whole persona, is on the verge of peeling away with nothing left beneath.

There are plenty of hits of humanist sympathy to be had from this show. In 2008 the Dutch artist Geert van Kesteren collected mobile phone shots SMSed out of Iraq and Syria. Enlarged, framed and gridded up the wall, these ephemeral and off-the-cuff of images become a monumental document of geo-political conflict where snapshots of happy family gatherings and friends at play, sit insouciantly beside shots taken out of the windows of moving cars of dead bodies by the road or the interiors of burnt out houses.

The masterful Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra provides the emotional centre of gravity for the show. Her simple nude photographs of startled young mothers clutching their newborn babies like bags of shopping about to burst remind us again of the power of the straight photo. But her stunning two-gun video installation, The Buzzclub, LiverpoolUK/Mysteryworld, Zaandam NL, also from the mid-nineties, confirms the pre-eminence of the video portrait. Dijkstra has, presumably, momentarily pulled young off-their-faces clubbers straight from the dance floors of the two clubs and put them in front of her video camera in a bare white space off to the side. But the laser lightshows and the duff duff are obviously still going on inside their skulls. As they continue to work their jaws and jig robotically we get full voyeuristic access to them and, even though their interior individualities have temporarily gone AWOL, we nonetheless feel an extraordinary tenderness welling up for them.

The theme of interior and exterior slowly emerges as a thread in this show. For instance Scott Redford videoed fellow artist Jeremy Hynes performing a private, improvised homage to Kurt Cobain by writing his name on a cigarette and inhaling its now transubstantiated smoke deep into his lungs, before sobbing with genuine loss and longing. In a sucker punch for the attentive reader of the catalogue we learn that Jeremy Hynes was himself killed in a road accident a few months after the video was shot. Across the way from this projection is Petrina Hicks’ Ghost in the Shell where we silently circle around a pure, innocent young girl — or perhaps she rotates before us? Then, ever so discreetly, ever so elegantly, a tendril of smoke or mist escapes from between her lips. Her spirit? Her soul? Just her ciggy smoke? She just continues to rotate without answer.

In the end this is a humanist show, about ghosts more than shells. It argues that despite all of the cold digital technology in the world portraits are still about the promise of finding the warm interior of a person via their exterior. The show’s inclusion of some three-dimensional ultrasound images of foetuses in the womb could have easily been over-the-top and obvious in its point about our intimate adoption of new imaging technologies. Until we see one intrauterine image of twins in which one foetus is caught sticking its toe into the eye of its sibling. A rivalry which, we think to ourselves, will no doubt continue for the rest of their lives.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is Head of Photography and Media Arts at the Australian National University School of Art.

Pixelation of People’s Faces

People’s faces are being pixelated more often in newspapers and on TV. It used to be that only the suspects of serious crime had their eyes obscured by the familiar black bar, but now lots of people we see on the news have their faces obscured by a circle of enlarged pixels. Even in Google Map’s new ‘Street View’ application the faces of people on the street are automatically blurred to protect their privacy. Privacy itself has also become an increasingly debated term recently, with more and more people claiming that they have a ‘right to privacy’, even when they are in public. In thinking about these issues I decided to experiment with a picture I had clipped from a newspaper. It was a school class portrait in which the newspaper had decided to pixelate the face of each student. I ‘deconstructed’ the conventional composition of this photograph by scanning small portions of the image, of only a few millimetres across, and then re-arranging them in various kinds of grids. With the original news context of the image stripped away, and each face isolated for comparison, I wondered if the viewer might experience the act of pixelation itself differently. What does it do to its subjects, besides preserving their privacy, does it turn them into criminals or victims?

The darkroom in the age of post-film photography

‘The darkroom in the age of post-film photography’, Artlink, Vol 25, No 1, 2005, pp 28 — 30.

We just don’t know how precipitously the drop off in the production of traditional photographic film will be. In both amateur and professional photography the few multinational corporations that control the industry have collectively marshalled their marketing strategies to capitalise on recent advances in digital technology. In the areas of image capture and image output they are busily creating new demand for digital photography as a contemporary fad, as well as shifting existing photographic demand to digital products. Film manufacturers are deleting specialist film types from their inventories at an accelerating rate, and a drop in demand for film of 15% per annum has led to the unceremonious closure of Kodak’s Australasian film manufacturing plant in Melbourne.

Of course there will always be a residual ‘niche’ of enthusiasts for film-based photography. But within the globally aggregated economies of scale of the photographic industry, any niche has to be a pretty big one to commercially justify continued production. Luckily for these die-hards, Kodak International is continuing to invest in film production to supply huge, but less readily manipulable, markets in China, India, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Customers in these markets don’t yet have the financial discretion to shift to digital, but their steadily growing wealth means that they are set to increase their appetite for film at double-digit rates for at least the next couple of years. One thing is certain though, a commitment to the range or diversity of the materials available for image production won’t be a factor as the manufacturers crunch the numbers, because it never has been.

But even if it remains possible for the foreseeable future to import film, paper and film cameras from those parts of the global economy assigned the role of late adopters, it is certain that in countries like Australia all photographic culture, will quickly become entirely digital. (Recently I was showing a prospective student around our darkrooms, and told him the number of enlargers we had, “what are they?” he asked.)

So every art school has to invest in as many digital cameras, video cameras, computers, scanners, inkjet printers and software applications as it possibly can. Every art school has to teach its student colour management so they can control their own data and communicate effectively with the technicians who will most probably be realizing their final output. At the same time every art school has to strive to embed it’s image-making in a broadening technological and media context. Why then should art schools also re-invest in expensive darkrooms, with all of their attendant costs of increased occupational health and safety standards for air circulation, silver recovery and chemical disposal?

For a while at least there was a certain logical flow in teaching from the darkroom to the computer lab, because software developers had reverse-engineered their user-friendly interfaces back to familiar darkroom concepts, such as burning and dodging. But these design conveniences are becoming increasingly attenuated, and often now serve to merely confuse the profound shift in the conceptualisation of, for example, colour space, that is required in thinking digitally. In addition students need to fundamentally rethink the still image not just as an updated version of the photographic print, but as one type of new media object continuous with many others, which might include different types of physical output, or different screen-based events.

But nonetheless, for many students, working in the darkroom remains an enriching and productive process, for all those ageless reasons: the alchemical magic as a latent image appears, the direct haptic control of the image as fingers and fists are used to mould and modulate the cone of light under the enlarger lens, and the instantaneous feedback as decisions made have an immediate impact on the image as it produces itself. Most importantly the quiet concentration of enlarger printing, shared either convivially in the communal darkroom, or in the intensity of the solitary late night printing session, is compelling for photographers who understand themselves to be working in a studio-based environment similar to other areas of their visual arts study. In the end there is something very satisfying for a student to be able to shoot film, develop it, and print it, all in one day, all relatively cheaply, and all knowing that they had physical control over every phase of the process.

It is this sense of a profoundly personal involvement with an intimate image making process that can continue to create a vital pedagogic role for darkrooms, beyond a mere nostalgia for traditional materials and techniques. In Photomedia at the ANU School of Art, for example, we designed our new darkroom complex to open out, via a skylit area, onto an informal, open space filled with computers for working with still and video digital images. In this shared communal space the digital and the darkroom invigorate each other, and our ink jet research facility is only a short walk up the corridor.

The distinction between film-based and non film-based photography is often shorthanded down to ‘analogue’ and ‘digital’, or ‘wet’ and ‘dry’. Perhaps the words wet and dry are the most compelling. The part of the darkroom process which is now becoming most interesting for many people isn’t the act of enlarger printing — the analogical projection of a field of tonality or colour from a negative matrix — but the chemical contagion of developers reacting with sensitised paper or film. It is the sense of chemicals physically trapping light that seems to be at the core of the widespread ‘post-photographic’ interest in alternative techniques, contact printing and photograms.

For instance handmade emulsions such as silver- bromide, cyanotype and vandyke, which have always been a marginal part of the art school photography repertoire, are gaining renewed vigour. And even more arcane emulsions, such as milk prints (made from the milk protein casein, dichromate and pigment) are also being researched. These emulsions are no longer simply an ‘alternative technique’ to the silver-gelatine norm. The photographers working with these techniques can now see how their materiality and processes can become integrated into meaning in new ways. The specific materiality of the emulsion itself, the manual process of hand coating, followed by the inexact exposure in the sun that is required to make the emulsion receive and tenuously hold onto an image, all become integral to the content of the print. F or instance, in the case of the milk prints of the ANU artist Denise Ferris, the emulsion, which is literally a ‘poisoned mix’ of milk and dichromate, is conceptually and materially linked to the lactic, liminal look of the images, which is also conceptually and materially linked to their subject matter — the tender but conflicted nature of maternal desire.

It is well known that digital photography desacralized the negative: it is no longer a single unchanging point of origin for the picture, but a mutable file of data.  And in contemporary contact printing, too, the inter-negative from which the image is printed under sunlight is also no longer a purely optical matrix. Some inter-negatives are now being inkjet printed, and digitally modified to bring the greatest tonal range out of that particular hand-made emulsion. For instance for Carolyn Young’s cyanotype take on the Kodachrome clichés of  ‘the great peaks of the world’, she digitally applied customised contrast curves separately to their high, mid-tones and shadows. The three layers were then merged down, reversed, and inkjet printed as an inter-negative. Other inter-negatives, such as Denise Ferris’s, are also digitally composited from a variety of sources.

Fundamental to the relationship between the digital inter-negative and handmade print is not only the power of contagion and touch in themselves, but the fact that their outcome is never exactly repeatable. Each time the process is performed something changes, and something happens for the first and only time — the emulsion is mixed slightly differently, the exposure is different, and so on. Each print is a unique outcome of a manual process. Each print is a physical object to be experienced in its own visual obduracy. This is not nostalgia for some lost artisanal past, or a desire for some auratic re-enthralment, it is a quite contemporary interest in seeing the results of human bodies, and human actions, directly and palpably working themselves out against images and things, both digital and analogue, wet and dry.

Experts with sophisticated and specialised colour management skills, and control of expensive printers, can now replicate the look of the traditional photographic print, and we should be training our students to be masters of that environment. But there is so much more that we could be doing with still images in the digital realm. Not only pushing the image into virtual data spheres, such as the web, but also bringing the image back into the haptic realm of the body.  The darkroom will continue to be a laboratory for this kind of visual arts research for some time to come.

Martyn Jolly

Head, Photomedia
ANU School of Art

Captions:

Denise Ferris, Home Decorum (Detail), 2003
Cassein contact print from digital negative

Carolyn Young, Almyer, 2003
Cyanotype contact print from digital inter-negative

Carolyn Young, The Matterhorn, 2003
Cyanotype contact print from digital inter-negative

Carolyn Young, Milford Sound, 2003
Cyanotype contact print from digital inter-negative

Carolyn Young, Paddock, 2003
Vandyke contact print from digital inter-negative

Shock Photographs, Monumental Photographs and Haptic Photographs

‘Shock Photographs, Monumental Photographs and Haptic Photographs’, The ANU National Institutes Public Lecture Series, 2003, National Museum of Australia

Introduction

As I stared more, at images of people in business suits, on picnics, in a taxi, I became frightened. I looked at the people sitting across from me in the subway car for reassurance, but they too began to seem unreal, as if they were also figments of someone’s imagination. It became difficult to choose who or what was ‘real’, and why people could exist but people looking just like them in photographs never did. I became very anxious, nervous, not wanting to depend upon my sight, questioning it. It was as if I were in a waking dream with no escape, feeling dislocated, unable to turn elsewhere, even to close my eyes, because I knew when I opened them there would be nowhere to look and be reassured—Fred Ritchin. 1990.[1]

This attack of ontological paranoia occurred to a New York Times Magazine picture editor called Fred Ritchin in 1990 after seeing his first digitally altered photograph. In his book In Our Own Image: The coming revolution in photography he goes on to worry, after this alarming introduction, that the seamless and undetectable computer manipulation of the photograph would erode a viewer’s faith in the inherent veracity of photography, and compromise the bond of trust photojournalists had historically built up with their audience.

Of course Ritchin’s apocalyptic vision of thirteen years ago now seems silly and hubristic. The digitisation of photojournalism hasn’t led to the deliquescence of reality itself. In fact, rather than dissolving as a distinct medium into generalised streams of digital data, as was commonly predicted a decade ago, photography now seems as distinct a medium as ever. And, I intend to argue, at least in some of its forms the photograph as an object now seems more solid, more substantial than it has been for over a hundred years.

Certainly, within the mass media at least, photography has left its media specificity long behind. We now learn about the world from live satellite video-feeds, rather than wired press photos. Even in our newspapers, most of our most exciting newsworthy images are frame grabs from video, rather than shots taken as stills. All photojournalism is now  nothing more than a temporary freeze-frame, a blip in the continuous flow of mutable data. But, on the other hand, rather than this leading to a loss of faith in photography as a whole, which Ritchin predicted, there seems to have been an increased faith in some photographs, and as well an increase in their specific gravity and artefactual density.

Many of photography’s great theorists, such as Walter Benjamin, held a special regard for the photographs from the first few years of it invention. The long exposure times of the early photographs of the 1840s, combined with the still relative rarity and specialness of the act itself gave them, for Benjamin writing in 1931 at the beginning of the age of the photographic duplication and dissemination, a special solidity which the later invention of the mass-reproduced snapshot destroyed. In his A Small History of Photography Benjamin wrote:

The first people to be reproduced entered the visual space of photography with their innocence intact … photography had not yet become a journalistic tool … The human countenance had a silence about it in which the gaze rested. In short, the portraiture of this period owes its effect to the absence of contact between actuality and photography. … The procedure itself caused the subject to focus his life in the moment rather than hurrying on past it; during the considerable period of the exposure, the subject as it were grew into the picture, with the sharpest contrast to appearances in the snapshot. … Everything about these early pictures was built to last.[2]

My argument in this talk will be that, with our current journalistic tools now no longer being still cameras as much as live video-crosses, and with actuality hurrying on past us now in the form of a tide of digital media rather than a avalanche of snapshots, some photographs are re-aspiring to the solidity and the density that Benjamin imagined he saw in the medium’s incunabula, it originary prelapsarian objects.

I’m going to do a skimming survey of the current state, not of photography as a medium, but of photographs as distinct things. I’m going to make large and abrupt leaps from one small group of photographs to another, to try to identify and explain why some of those photographs have a higher specific gravity than was formally the norm.

Photojournalism

Lets start with the digital mass media. The biggest media event this year has of course been the Second Gulf War, the US invasion of Iraq. The coverage bore all the usual hallmarks of postmodern, hyperreal media coverage: it was scheduled into network programming with a precise beginning and end that bore little relationship to the actual status of military operations on the ground; the coverage was treated as a special form of entertainment programming with its own titles, logos and correspondent/stars; journalists weren’t figured as reporters independently covering the action, but returned to the status they had in the first and second world wars of being an integral part of the army structure and therefore also of the army’s logic of military success and public morale; and images were used, as they had been in the first gulf war, ballistically, transmitted into each belligerent’s media space to inflict maximum propaganda and morale damage; and so on.

From where I was sitting there seemed to be a split in the coverage: the moving image TV coverage tended, in terms of its formal characteristics, towards the rawness of unmediated surveillance-camera footage, while still relying on an authoritative exegesis from the well established figure of the grisled war-correspondent. The still photographs in the broadsheet press and the news magazines went in the opposite direction. They were perfectly exposed, perfectly composed, and shot in the same carefully colour-graded palette of many recent war movies. They were generic objects: not grabbed action snapshots so much as finely crafted photo-art objects that quoted the glorious history of twentieth century combat photography — a history seemingly accessed not directly, but through the Hollywood war-movie translation of that body of imagery. There was something about their skillfullness and visual completeness that reminded me of updated academic history painting. These images looked made for the white mat and wooden frame of the gallery wall rather than the newspaper page. They were displayed on the front pages of our bellicose papers not as reportage, or even as spectacles of the new, but as easily recognisable, familiar looking trophies, affective images of our commitment to the coalition of the willing.

Only in a few instances did images break through this generic blanket. When a BBC video cameraman became collateral damage, the footage his camera continued to capture as he lay wounded was broadcast, and still frames were extracted from it and frequently reproduced — particularly one showing a drop of blood on the camera filter. But this seeming irruption of the viscera of reality into the world of the image was, for me, disappointing. It too, seemed generic. The cameras of other cameramen, for instance the Australian Neil Davies, had also kept on automatically filming as they died. The drop of blood seemed too arch after the Blair Witch Project, too much like the ultimate special effect.

Roland Barthes, in his famous article, Shock Photographs, complained that in too many photographs designed to shock the photographer made the mistake of substituting his own feelings into the image, reacting on the viewer’s behalf and thereby divesting the viewer of everything but the “simple right of intellectual acquiescence.” [3]   Now it might be ungrateful of me, but I feel the same about the poor BBC photographer’s sacrifice: ‘no thanks, ho hum, seen it all before.’ His blood on the camera lens immediately and inevitably became semiotic, quotational.

But one photograph did shock me during this period. It wasn’t taken in the official or ‘formal’ war itself (to use the felicitous Whitehouse phrase), but in the informal media warm-up, the ‘Countdown to War’. I opened my paper to find a double page spread. On the left-hand page were the usual generic, perfectly composed photographs I have already described: crazy arabs shouting slogans, and pious Americans getting a quick pre-battle baptism. But on the right-hand page was the image of an Israeli bulldozer which had just run over and killed a young protester as it was going about its business of demolishing Palestinian houses in a refugee camp. Here, to once again quote Barthes from Shock Photographs, was a photograph in which “the fact, surprised, explodes in all its stubbornness, its literality, the very obviousness of its obtuse nature.” This is an image which, again to quote Barthes, seemed “alien, almost calm, inferior to [its] legend.” [4]

The photograph is uncomposed, the bulldozer sits obdurately at the centre of the frame, its blade a dull blank face. But why I think this photograph is for me a shock photograph is because of the surface of the image — there is something like snow or rain across the face of the photograph. It can’t be snow, and it’s highly unlikely to be rain either since the picture taken moments before, also by an unnamed photographer, is in bright sunlight. It’s some kind of visual noise. Is this an old-fashioned film-based photograph, perhaps shot on a cheap disposable camera, which has been scanned for the picture agency which distributed it, Associated Press? Or is this an image snapped on an amateur digital camera at too low a resolution, or a video frame grab, or a jpeg thumbnail pulled down off the web and interpolated, unsharp-masked and anti-aliased up to size but beyond the capacity of the original file? Whatever it is, its surface indeterminacy paradoxically means that for me it is more than just a mere image, it is a document — an object or artefact from a singular point in space and time, with a physical weight or visual heft all its own, a picture with its origins outside the digital data-flows of the media.

Photograms

I’m going to use my fascination with the surface of this image, which is indeterminate, but nonetheless physical and palpable and dense, to make a huge leap in my survey of the current state of the photograph to the narrow, small little world of art photography. The world I live in.  And one can’t help noticing that within art photography there has been a return to surface, and more specifically to emulsion. For instance the National Gallery of Victoria held an exhibition earlier this year called First Impressions, which featured the work of twelve Australian artists who work in the medium of the photogram. One of the stars of that show was Anne Ferran. You all know her work. She completed a residency here at the Museum last year and she began working with the photogram as a medium in 1995 during a collaboration with the ANU School of art’s Anne Brennan at the Hyde Park Barracks.

Although I am going to be using the current photogram craze in Australia to illustrate qualities I think are present in some other photographs, in fact the photogram is a very different thing to the photograph. The photogram is not like an ordinary photo, it doesn’t consist of the snapping of an anterior scene, its technical assemblage is not one of a shutter-blade vertically slicing through a cone of light projected by a lens, and thereby excising an instant from time and space. It is rather a residue of an event — the optical and chemical event of an object touching photo-paper. The photogram has a different relationship to time and history than the photograph, it doesn’t grant the present information, knowledge, detail or anecdote about the past; rather it is a generalised presence of the past still physically present within the now. Crucially, the photogram isn’t a record of a separate object as a photograph is, it doesn’t even look much like the object that produced it, rather it is a record of a tactile event, and the event of object and shadow meeting on a sensitive surface persists in its record. The photogram is a physical performance which is perpetually taking place in the image.

Other photogram artists represented in the NGV show were Ruth Maddison, who was represented with her photogram self-portrait, and Simone Douglas, where again we get the sense that we are seeing an ongoing performance of light and chemistry rather than a record of someone’s physiognomy as it looked at a particular time.

In the catalogue to the show the curator of the exhibition Isobel Crombie, quotes Helen Ennis, from the School of Art’s  Theory Workshop, from a forward for a special issue of Photofile called ‘Traces’, which she edited on a similar theme. Isobel Crombie writes:

One notable feature of contemporary photograms is the fluid concept of time they embody. A dynamic understanding of what is past and what is present in these works questions our Western notions of linear time. Indeed what we find in Photograms is that the past has often become congruent with the present. As the photography writer Helen Ennis has noted recently: ‘No longer constructed in terms of a rupture between past and present or even fade-outs between the two, time is reconfigured as a continuum. And so, it becomes conceivable that objects, events and experiences from the past have a ‘living presence’.[5]

Contemporary Indigenous Photography

Something of the qualities of ‘living presence’, ‘tactility’, and ‘performance’ which attracts artists to the photogram, also attracts other artists to ‘perform’ images across or within a photographic surface — not a photographic surface conceived of as a slice of an optical pyramid excised from time and dislocated from space, but as a stretched membrane, a semi-conducting diaphragm.

Again, this shift allows the artist to figure time, history and memory very differently. Many contemporary indigenous artists have take part in this shift. Much recent indigenous photography has attempted to call the past forward to bear witness to the present. For instance Leah King-Smith, in an immensely popular exhibition Patterns of Connection from 1992 ‘performs’ two images together onto a single gelatinous surface: archival images of her ancestors which she has liberated from their imprisonment in the State Library of Victoria, and landscapes of her own land. This is an attempt to magically conjure the still living presence of her ancestors into the now. They fantasise that the Library portraits are not just historical images—dead, gone and in the past—but ghosts, still revenant and with agency in the present. As Clare Williamson has described it:

The figures are brought right to the picture plane, seemingly extending beyond the frame and checking our gaze with theirs.[6]

This is obviously a crucial move to make within the context of recent debates in Australia over reconciliation, the debate which raged in the mid 1990s between bleeding-heart black-armband history and bottom-line white-blindfold history about our responsibility to the past. As the indigenous curator Brenda Croft has written:

The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest. [7]

Brook Andrew invests the bodies of his nineteenth century subjects—who he releases from the closet of the past by copying their images from the archive of the nineteenth century postcard photographer Charles Kerry—not only with a libidinous body image re-inscribed within the terms of a contemporary ‘queer’ masculinity, but also with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous, 1996, I Split Your Gaze, 1997 and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr, [I see you], 1998. These works attempt to reverse the relationship of subject and object in the nineteenth century colonial portrait around the axis of the trajectory of the gaze, and to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from history itself. The image is turned into a reflective surface which bounces the historical objectifying gaze straight back to the present moment to be immediately re-inscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse.

Darren Siwes has more recently brought this idea of haunting to the fore in his performance photographs. Again, these images aren’t snapshots, but extended exposures where the photographer has exited the scene halfway during the exposure to perform himself as a spectral masculine presence laminated into contemporary Australia.

Monumental Photographs

Something about the way Siwes is standing to truculently surveille a contemporary Australia that seems too self absorbed to recognise him reminds me of all the Anzac memorial statues that similarly haunt Australia with their almost forgotten presence. And this allows me to make another leap to a set of photographs which have also been turned, literally, to stone.

To most theorists of photography the photograph could never be monumental. It was constructed out of time itself, and so can never transcend time. For instance in 1982 Barthes wrote:

Not only does [the photograph] commonly have the fate of paper (perishable), but even if it is attached to more lasting supports, it is still mortal: like a living organism, it is born on the level of the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment then ages … attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes; there is nothing left to do but throw it away. Earlier societies managed so that memory, the substitute for life, was eternal and that at least the thing which spoke death should be immortal: this was the monument. But by making the (mortal) Photograph into the general and somehow natural witness of ‘what has been’, modern society has renounced the monument. A paradox; the same century invented History and Photography. But history is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a pure intellectual discourse which abolishes mythic Time; and the photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony; so that everything, today, prepares our race for this impotence: to be no longer able to conceive duration, affectively or symbolically.[8]

But photographs are being eternalised today, to stand as affective, public monuments to duration. Photographs have long stood on mantelpieces in improvised household shrines to remembered dead and acknowledged ancestors, but now historic photographs also have the unprecedented privilege of being the centrepieces of virtually every official commemoration. In these public ceremonies official photographs are performing the same role for the nation, city or town, as the faded snapshot or sepia studio portrait does for the family.

For most of this century the photograph, as a form of media reportage, has traded on the fact that it was able to pluck a fleeting instant out of the rush of time. But in the case of the Kodachrome slide taken by the Australian army PR photographer Sergeant Mike Coleridge of B Company RAR, which was cropped, enlarged to cinematic size, and etched into granite for the Vietnam War Memorial, the evanescent instant captured by the army public relations photographer has been literally turned to eternal stone. Within this commemorative context the shutter blade’s slice of time acquires not only an architectonic presence, but becomes the locus for the same contemplative temporal dilation as a roll call of the dead, or a minute’s silence.

Monumental photographs perform the bodies of their viewers. They either tower over them and physically interpellate them in their nationalist ideological subjectivity, or they compel them to proceed past, or through them, in a spatialised memory/history experience.

Monumental photographs are hybrid objects, between the obduracy of the mute architectural obelisk, and the evanescence of the virtual photographic image. Transformations of scale and material are important to contemporary monumental photographs. They are transmuted into a historically eternalised set of elemental minerals: stone, glass and metal. This takes the organic, perishable, gelatinous emulsive flesh of the photograph and smelts it into the marmoreal, the vitreous, and the metallurgical. Both private memory and public history are equally grist to these civic memory mills—private snapshots are recuperated as avidly as archival record photographs. For instance joining the Vietnam memorial along Anzac Parade are private snapshots which are slumped into glass sheets in the nurses memorial, and a cinematic montage, a cavalcade of archival images full of wipes and dissolves, which is transmuted into a frieze in Robert Boynes’ Air Force memorial.

Haptic Photographs

From the beginning photographs have been used as public talismans of private memory. In the nineteenth century post mortem daguerreotypes were sometimes re-photographed, being cradled by grieving relatives. But lately this private performance has become a public one. Perhaps the aetiology of this public performance of the photograph as a talismanic witness to absence goes back to the Argentinean Grandmothers of May Square, who from 1976 stood in silent vigil with photographs of the Disappeared. In Australia I first noticed the practice with members of the Stolen Generations in the mid 1990s. But over the last couple of years what was initially an occasional semi-private ritual performed in the photographer’s studio, and then a brave public declaration, has become a bit of media stunt, performed at the behest of newspaper and magazine photographers again and again by anybody with a loss to declare. They are now routine public statements, ritualised declarations of loss or trauma. They are mute testimonies, where the intractable visual evidence of the photograph voices the silence of the witness.

Sometimes, as in the case of Australian Aborigines from the Stolen Generation, it is archival, government photographs which are held, re-personalising the public record and performing a grim parody of the anthropological photograph. Sometimes it is already published journalistic images which are cradled, connecting individual and public memory, direct and mediated experience.

The effectiveness of these media images depends on two gestures, two aspects of the way the private photograph is literally ‘performed’ in the public: the quality of touch between the sitter and the photograph they hold; and the expression on their face. Is the photograph cradled, clutched, formally perched alongside, or primly pinched between thumb and forefinger? Is it defiantly held out to the camera, or half hidden beneath encircling arms? Or does the sitter look wistful, lost in internal reverie, or defiant? Despite the clichéd reiteration of these types of images in our press the combination of gesture and expression still frequently produces an effective and moving image, which connects with our anxieties about the instability of contemporary memory and history. The indexical verity of the photographic image which they hold anchors the sitter in history and legitimates their memories. The photographic surface of the haptic photograph becomes a membrane which seals together two images from two times, the past and the present.

Touch, thingness and performance

I’m not the first person to identify the themes in photography that I have been trying to draw out here. A few years ago the photographic theorist Geoffrey Batchen gave a lecture in the Art School’s Art Forum program on vernacular photography, in which he identified the quality of touch as a key aspect of the popular relationship to photography which had been excluded, up until then, from its formal history. And a few months ago the visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards gave a talk at the National Library of Australia in which she identified the ‘thingness’ of photographs, their quality as objects and the marks of their use which they bear, as crucial to our full understanding of their meaning and power. As I hope by now is clear, ‘touch’ and ‘thingness’ are crucial to the increase in the specific gravity of some photographs which I have tried to describe here. But I think a third aspect is still waiting for full attention, and that is performance. As can be seen time and time again in the haptic photograph, photographs are also performed into meaning.

Touch and thingness belong firmly to the paradigm of the analogical photograph — a paper print chemically produced from an instantaneous snapshot. Those concepts do not easily map across to the digital paradigm, where, inherently, there is no ‘thing’ to touch. Yet clearly digital photographs will and do perform some of the same ritual functions as analogical photographs. Unlike touch and thingness, I think the concept of performance does map across to the digital. Think of the way you perform images in your computer, the family images you turn into your desktop background, and the downloaded net-porn you nest several folders down in an obscure corner of your hard disk. The net is full of e-mailed jpegs destined to be glanced at and either saved or deleted. The web is full of on-line albums and photo memorials. Notable on-line memorials include the archive of images of those killed on the Cambodian killing fields, and the Argentinean Wall of Memory commemorating the disappeared in Argentina.

A more hokey example of the on-line memorial was sponsored by Kodak and AOL to commemorate September the 11th. Called the Tribute to American Spirit Photoquilt, this corporate exercise deliberately drew on a previously sanctified form of American folk memory — the quilt — to produce, within the user’s computer, the effect of a monumental surface which seemed to stretch epically beyond the edges of the computer screen. The viewer could track across and zoom into this mosaic-like surface, or enter search-terms into a data-base. All the shibboleths of the corporately defined web are therefore combined: screen-space and data-space are conflated, and an on-line community consensus — in this case of grief and shock — seems to be instantaneously produced and confirmed.

Conclusion

I began this talk with two literary images. The first was the fantasised threat, thirteen years ago, of the end of the world as we know it brought about by the end of photography as we knew it. The second was Benjamin’s feeling of 1931 that there was an ontological split between the prelapsarian photo-documents of the 1840s and the mechanically reproducing images of the 1930s. I want to end with a third image drawn from the greatest book ever written about photography, Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes. Written whilst he was in the grim grip of grief for his mother the book is driven by Barthes’ obsession with a small group of dog-eared snapshots from his family’s past. In re-experiencing his mother’s death through these photographs Barthes tries to consolidate the intractable truth of his grief around his own few hidden photographs, and to jealously shelter these photographs, as precious, private artefacts, from the rest of photography and the media, what he calls the brash world of images.

I experience the photograph and the world in which it participates according to two regions: on the one side the Images, on the other my photographs; on the one side unconcern, shifting, noise, the inessential (even if I am abusively deafened by it), on the other the burning, the wounded.[9]

It seems to me that now, after unexpectedly surviving its own death, photography is automatically splitting along similar lines to those drawn by Benjamin and Barthes. Some photographs are now no longer about shutter blades irrevocably slicing up cones of light into decisive slivers of time and space, they are about image surfaces, dispersed fields of reflection or transmission, stretched membranes barely separating two worlds. These scarified skins allow us to transfer touch across time and space. Some photographs are no longer documentary images of elsewhere, but voodoo objects which co-occupy our lives with us. They are arenas in which, and talismans with which, we perform daily rituals, testimony and witness to memory and loss.

Martyn Jolly

August 2003


[1]  F. Ritchin, In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography, New York, Aperture Foundation, 1990.

[2] W. Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’, One Way Street and Other Writings, London, NLB, 1931, pp 244-245.

[3] Roland Barthes, ‘Shock Photographs’, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, Hill and Wang, 1979, p71.

[4] P73.

[5] Isobel Crombie, First Impressions: Contemporary Australian Phootgrams, National Gallery of Victoria, 2003.

[6]  Clare Williamson, ‘Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection’, Colonial Post Colonial, Melbourne, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, 1996, p46.

[7]  Brenda L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, Portraits of Oceania, Judy Annear, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997, p9 &  14.

[8] R. Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1982, p93.

[9] p98.