So I was sitting in my dentist’s waiting room, just paging through the latest Sports illustrated, and I came across this photo of The Masters. At first I started side-eyeing it since it felt kind of weird and HDR to me. But then I realized it was infrared instead and, while it still felt off to me, it also got a lot more interesting.
Since Kukkurovaca kind of fanboys about infrared but isn’t looking at anything sports-related, I flagged these with him on Twitter and we had a decent conversation about them while I was waiting to get my teeth drilled.
I’m not going to transcribe our conversation. But the basic premise involved discussing whether these felt off because they’re not the best infrared images* or because of the more interesting phenomenon that occurs when the content of an image does not match what we expect to find from the form of the image.
*There’s some weird contrast going on in many of them where parts feel way too high contrast HDR-like and other parts are still muddy. There’s also a lot of noise which suggests either ISO pushing or an unmodified digital camera where the hot mirror is causing the noise.
It was easy for me to file my initial reaction to these as a combination of “Ack, this isn’t the best IR I’ve seen.” or “Cool, I’ve not seen sports photography that looks like this.” But I had to step back and realize that neither of those was my actual first reaction. I didn’t recognize these as IR despite the glowing Wood Effect in the foliage.
And that’s because infrared just doesn’t look like this usually. My eyes expect infrared to be slow film landscapes or people caught from a “hidden” flash. And while infrared digital has much higher ISOs than film does, the digital work I’ve seen has been of the same look as the film work—which makes sense since moving to shooting digital IR is typically done because of a desire to emulate IR film.
I’m not used to seeing moving objects—let alone athletes and golf balls—get frozen.
I love that I misdiagnosed these though. Despite not liking the photos, I really like the idea of them. That we have the technical tools to apply a way of looking to situations where our eyes are not used to seeing that way is great. Any time our learned perspectives can be questioned and broken and our eyes trained to see more broadly is a wonderful experience.
As has become somewhat standard*, the San José Museum of Art put together a show featuring non-white modern artists in a way which works as both an introduction to another culture while being tremendously relevant to the existing San José community. In this case, it’s their Postdate show of Indian photography.
Walking through this show reminded me a lot of Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show in how it features a highly visual culture which is using and remixing old images into new artwork, creating pieces that not only reference the old meanings but also evolve the imagery into something that’s currently relevant. In this case, a lot of the old imagery references India’s colonial past and got me thinking a lot about photography as it applies post-colonial cultures dealing with the legacy of colonialism and colonial images.
Despite photography’s (correct) description as being a democratic medium, there’s also its history of tropes and power dynamics which still informs a lot of the way we approach and react to images. As point of view gathers historical momentum that it’s good or noteworthy, it becomes increasingly difficult to break away from it and see other points of view. This isn’t a function of copying as much as there’s momentum built up in the idea of “good” that most people can’t escape or don’t know how to break. It’s one thing to be able to represent yourself. It’s quite another to do so in a way which breaks free from all of what you’ve learned is the “correct” way to view yourself.*
Postdate breaks out of the traditional views. While none of the photos at San José explicitly reference The People of India, they reference similar works, or works which grew out of the stereotypes in there, or the stereotypes themselves which have become the face of India in the West. This isn’t just photography as self-representation, it’s reappropriation of non-representative works. Which is very cool to see.
Pushpamala N.’s photography in particular is relevant and notable here in how, similar to Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems, she’s actually performing a lot of the cultural baggage which she absorbed and grew up with. But these themes are in a lot of the photography on display. I especially liked Guari Gill’s work and how, in addition to addressing the representation issues in how India and Indians have been photographed by the west by showing non-trope images and collaborating with her subjects, a lot of her work is also evoking the physical history of photography by being printed on glass and becoming a physical object which feels more like an ambrotype or glass plate than a photographic print.
I also really liked Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya’s work of photographs of the National Instruments factory and how, while it looks like ruin porn, it explicitly looks at the history and infrastructure behind producing cameras made by, and made for, Indians.* It’s not just seductive aging textures. What was made here, who it was made for, and the implications of the manufacturing (and its cessation) matter. In this case, these photos ask what it means to produce your own tools of self-representation as well as what it means to no longer have those tools available in the modern globalized world. Does it matter where a camera is made?
*That the National 35 appears to actually be a King Regula Sprinty because National Instruments purchased the production equipment from the original German manufacturer adds a whole new layer of interesting complications and food for thought here.
I saved Annu Palakunnathu Matthew for last. Partly because her work was very funny. But mainly because she loops in Native Americans and tries to deal with what it means to be Indian in a culture which defaults to a very different image of what “Indian” means. Her reenactments of the Edward Curtis photos work on so many different levels. When displayed in an American museum, they remind us of our own colonial history while also calling out the falseness of the supposed truth in those images. They also draw parallels between how elements of both cultures are appropriated by progressive white Americans. And they capture the humor that results in trying to distinguish which kind of Indian we’re talking about.
One of the constant discussions in photography has been about the issues of surveillance and voyeurism and the appropriateness of observing and recording the lives of other people. Much of this discussion is as much about the identity of whoever’s doing the recording as much as it’s about the actual act itself. Some people get upset by government surveillance while others find individual photographers more threatening.
I’ve seen numerous projects over the years which push the issues with regard to individual photographers. Hidden cameras, infrared flash and film, telephoto lenses, anything really that allows you to take pictures of people in situations they wouldn’t want to be observed in. At their best, these kinds of photos make me think about the nature of photography and my practice of it. At their worst they end up being creepy and creepshotty. But the experience is always as much about the individual photographer and his technique in capturing people candidly as it is about the subjects themselves. Looking at the photos makes it easy to put ourselves in the photographer’s shoes; we see what he sees and our enjoyment of, or reaction to, the image often aligns itself with his intent.
Trevor Paglen though is one of the few photographers who addresses the other side of the discussion. Paglen investigates the pervasive surveillance by the state and its effect on all of us as subjects, or possible subjects, of that surveillance.* His show at the Altman Siegel gallery is small** but extremely thought-provoking in this regard.
*His Last Pictures project is sort of related in that it covers the infrastructure of surveillance but is a much different provocation in that it asks questions about what kinds of images and things humans will leave behind after our extinction.
**You can see everything in the show on the website.
It’s especially interesting in that rather than being angry or outraged, Paglen’s work is very quiet and contemplative. It’s easy to be upset about rights abuses and blame politicians for prioritizing immediate comfort over principles. It’s quite another thing to really think about the nature of how much we, as a society, have invested in watching ourselves and what it means to have that subtext lurking underneath everything.
The photos are pretty in a minimal, natural, elegant way. Which is exactly the point. Just underneath the quiet scene is a ton of infrastructure dedicated to watching and monitoring and controlling us. All of us. A few images are paired with maps that feature a lot more information* about the location and the nature of the infrastructure there. This information demonstrates the magnitude of the surveillance while also giving it a material presence. As clean and elegant as the photos may be, the maps show the messiness we’re not supposed to know about. They work really well together as diptychs and really increase the sense of wrongness and unease that I get when just looking at the photos.
Paglen’s photos are also especially noteworthy here because they’re photographs where the actual subject of the image isn’t just hidden but is actually incomprehensible without any of the provided context. This isn’t merely hard to do with photography, it’s not how photography is supposed to work at all. Yet Paglen manages to not only make it work but turns all the potential problems into features. How do you take photos of hidden infrastructure? Don’t show it at all and instead imply that it could be anywhere and everywhere.
Rather than showing what we think of when we think about surveillance—cities and security cameras and other places where physical crimes may be expected to occur—these quiet scenes tell us that we can’t get away from that eye. And that it’s not being watched physically that’s the really creepy part of the surveillance state.
What’s creepy is the sense that the surveillance is everywhere and watching everything. What’s creepy is that we’ve all bought into the system that supports this. What’s creepy is realizing that as much as this upsets me, there’s part of me that’s glad it’s there.
Which makes it nice that Autonomy Cube is also in the gallery. It’s always fun to have some artwork that you can interact with. And while this isn’t a major bit of interaction—just connecting to a Wireless Access Point which routes everything through Tor—it’s enough make me start to think about the alternatives. The idea that it’s part of an ostensibly private/anonymous internet is comforting. At the same time I also felt myself questioning whether or not I could trust it. Or whether anonymity is even all it’s cracked up to be.
As much as I may not trust the government, it is the devil that I know. Anonymousland meanwhile is unknowable. And the internet so far has not been particular good about demonstrating that anonymous cowards are any better.
Plus there’s the whole question about the wisdom of changing your behavior because you can’t trust the government to act responsibly.* I totally understand wanting to protect yourself. But this is also the first step toward victim blaming. The scale and scope of surveillance should prompt us to think about reining it in or providing proper guidelines about its application, not how each of us should protect ourselves better on an individual basis.