Reading – Joan Fontcuberta: I knew the Spice Girls (notes)

Fontcuberta - Pandora's Camera

In ‘I knew the Spice Girls’, Fontcuberta explores the differences, both practical and philosophical,  between analogue and digital photography using the analogy of a digital photo booth. This is a disarmingly simple conceit to use which helps make sense of the complex arguments made – the essay is enjoyably readable and the amusing anecdote of Fontcuberta using a digital photo booth to place himself alongside the Spice Girls in order to impress his daughter is both lighthearted and encourages the reader to identify with his point of view.

The central thesis of the paper is that the technological changes inherent in digital photography creates a whole new category of images that have to be regarded as ‘post-photographic’. Although the eye is unable to tell the difference between a digital and analogue image, the cultural values of photography such as objectivity, truth, identity, memory, document and observation are threatened by a new culture of the “virtual and speculative.” Analogue photography is described as being “inscribed”, of a mechanical nature that is apparently automatic and occurs without intervention – it reflects the real world (although this notion is a symptom of photographic theory around “documentary imperatives” rather than fact.)  Digital photography is “written”, that is it is composed in a way that is closer to the choices made by an artist/author when they are faced with a blank canvas/page. Despite this, digital imagery still simulates analogue culture:

“The paradox, however, is that although we agree that digital technology generically undermines the credibility of the photographic document, this is not really because it allows more or less astonishing, spectacular and seamless interventions in photographic images. The same effects, although more difficult to pull off, could be and were achieved with traditional manipulation techniques. The difference now is our degree of familiarity with these techniques and how easy they are to use.”

The widespread access and understanding of computers and software has demystified and defetishised photographs leading to a “new critical awareness in the viewer” and a “paradigm shift in our reception of images.”

Although digital photography is simpler to use, faster, more powerful, cheaper and cleaner than chemical photography, Fontcuberta ends with a warning that the elimination of chance and ability to correct errors could have the unforeseen side effect on the cameras gaze, particularly the “happy accident”, being neutralised by too much control and rationality. He ends:

“Every innovation obliges us to distinguish between benefits and losses. Of course we want the advantages significantly to outweigh the disadvantages, but since the former always appears at first as promises of happiness, only time and experience will reveal the collateral damage and let is see what we have lost.”

The lack of certainty about where photography and photographic theory is heading because of digital imaging is simultaneously reassuring and troubling. For ideas such as objectivity and realism to be questioned is healthy, but if this means we can no longer trust anything we see then surely this is a depressing state of affairs – something that we unfortunately appear to be heading towards in the age of ‘post truth’.

Bibliography:

Fontcuberta, J. (2014) ‘I knew the Spice Girls’ in pps. 56-63 Pandora’s camera: photogr@phy after photography. London: MACK

Exercise 1.1: The Layered Image

Using the list of artists given as inspiration, create a series of six to eight images using layering techniques. To accompany your final images, also produce a 500-word blog post on the work of one contemporary artist-photographer who uses layering techniques.

My approach to this project was to first come up with some ideas about how I might experiment with layering images before beginning my research into the artists cited in the course notes. I decided to attempt to produce a series of portraits by overlaying similar shots of the same sitter. Interestingly, the work I made was similar to that of Idris Khan and Corrine Vionnet – I suspect if I had followed my usual of system of conducting research before the exercise I would not have chosen to layer images the way I have here as I would have found the approach too derivative of these artists.

Notes on the artists cited in the course notes can be found here:

Alexa Wright

Idris Khan

Helen Sear

Nancy Burson

Esther Teichmann

Corinne Vionnet

I produced two variations on the same theme, the first, composite images of head and shoulders portraits of my children and the second, layered images of still shots from the film ‘Taxi Driver’.

Sixty Second Portraits:

One of the things I find intriguing about photography is the way that a still image can capture an individual at a particular moment and how portraits of the same person can sometimes appear totally different. Much has been considered about how to capture the essence of a person photographically. When the camera is pointed towards a subject it is likely the sitter will attempt to put up a barrier, be nervous and attempt to present a ‘preferred’ version of themselves – something that can appear false. One way to negate this is to shoot candidly without the subject being aware, although there are obvious ethical dilemmas involved with this approach. Another is to spend time with the person to put them at ease, and achieve a photograph that is authentic representation – that is assuming you believe it is possible to achieve authenticity at all in a photograph. I decided to photograph a sequence of images of my three children, the camera fixed on a tripod in front of them and the shutter set to trip every second for 1 minute. While the camera worked I spoke to each of them as a way of encouraging them to behave in a natural unguarded way. I was interested to see how the images differed from each other and how these would look when layered on top of each other – would the overlap between parts of the photograph that were the same, and the emphasis this would make on the overall image, provide some sort of truthful representation?

Firstly, I made a composite with the frames aligned exactly as they had been shot. I decided to convert the images to black and white in order to eliminate any differences in tonality and colour balance and emphasise form. I changed the opacity of the individual layers to 10% to allow each one to be seen. This gave a ghostly effect and surprisingly showed how much movement there was during the process.

Amy-composite 1

The resulting image was not as I had envisaged, so for my next attempt I realigned each image around the left eye of the sitter. I found this matched what I had previsualised much more closely, although I was still surprised by the results and not quite sure if I liked the effect:

Amy-composite 2

Thomas

Caitlin

The images are most closely reminiscent of the work of Idris Khan, particularly because they are black and white. In my research Khan states that he does not use every part of each image employing selection and masking techniques to accentuate or detract from particular elements. He does not go into detail on how he does this, but it appears to me to be the difference between his images and mine. However, if I made this choice for this set however it would go against my initial concept.

After conducting my research, I decided to experiment by making a Nancy Burson style composite of all three children put together, similar to her approach here and here. The resulting image is quite rough and ready as I have not spent a huge amount of time on it. The effect is quite off putting – perhaps emphasised by the fact that being my children I know the subjects well.

Caitlin-Thomas-Amy Composite

Taxi Driver Composites:

As film is literally a series of still images displayed in sequence to give the illusion of movement, I began to think about the possibility of showing an entire feature film as one image. (Jason Schulman is an artist I came across some time ago that experiments with this idea, although his approach is to make one exposure of the entire film rather than layer together individual stills. See article here, and Shulman’s version of ‘Taxi Driver’ here.)

‘Taxi Driver’ seemed to be an ideal subject for this approach as it is almost entirely a first person narrative shown from the point of view of the main protagonist Travis Bickle. I initially tried to take screen shots of the film on my computer but was thwarted by the anti piracy measures built into the streaming services I attempted this with. Next, I placed the camera on a tripod in front of the screen and set the interval timer to shoot every 1 minute – this would give me around two hundred individual shots to work with. My first attempt was to layer all of these images together which produced this effect:

Taxi Driver Composite.jpg

Next I tried masking individual parts of each image to concentrate attention:

Taxi Driver Composite 2.jpg

This has the effect of making individual parts of the image stand out more clearly, and, because there are less overlapping parts of the image in the composite, saturation and contrast are increased.

Next, I experimented with selecting images that just contained Travis and again, masked out parts of the image that were unnecessary. I also moved the layers around:

Travis composite 1 (20%)

Lastly, I tried the same technique again but with the layers arranged in different alignments:

Travis composite 2.jpg

At the time of completing these experiments I was more interested in the experimentation itself rather than the end result. Looking back, both approaches could have potential for further exploration, particularly the film approach.

Reading – Geoffrey Batchen: Ectoplasm: Photography in the digital age (notes)

In this paper, Batchen explores discourse around two apparent crises faced by photography that have the potential to threaten the ‘end’ of photography and the culture which it sustains:

Technological – the increasing prevalence of computer based imagery which can be so easily faked that the real can no longer be distinguished from the fake, meaning, the relationship between the photograph and objective truth is threatened.

Epistemological – which is concerned with broader changed in ethics, knowledge and culture, particularly the idea that the artificial nature of the digital image could lead to a time where it is no longer possible to tell the original from its simulation.

Following this, Batchen embarks on an interesting historical survey of the relationship between photography and death – a literal response to the prophesied death of photography by digital imaging. When he returns to directly address this question, the fact that the paper was written in 1994 becomes starkly apparent. Questions such as the value of the digital image over the physical photographic object and the concern about the authenticity of digital imaging have now been considered and accepted. The idea that digital images are closer in spirit to the creative process of art that the truth values of documentary is an interesting notion however. Discussion about photo illustration versus straight photography now seems quaint and the famous case studies of the 1982 National Geographic cover which moved the pyramids closer together (see article here) and the Time magazine cover featuring a digitally darkened mugshot of O.J. Simpson (see here) are historically important. I wonder however, if these images would receive the same attention today, and if not, does this mean we are more visually literate and able to understand the difference between straight photography and illustration, or, that an increased acceptance of changes to images mean that our ethical standards have become lowered?

Bibliography:

Batchen, G. (1994) Ectoplasm: photography in the digital age. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/journal-article/ph5dic-over-exposed [accessed 16th January 2019]

Goldberg, S. (2016) How we spot altered pictures. National Geographic, July 2016. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/07/editors-note-images-and-ethics/ [accessed 17th March 2019]

Reading – Geoffrey Batchen: Obedient numbers, soft delight (notes)

On page 19 of the course notes we are directed to read Chapter 8 of ‘Each Wild Idea’ by Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Obedient numbers, soft delight’. This essay explores the relationship between photography and computing which Batchen argues is incorrectly considered a new concern. Batchen demonstrates that in fact the invention of both technologies developed at the same time and that photography and computing innovators Henry Fox Talbot and Charles Babbage had a close relationship, shared interests and expertise and took a deep interest in each others work.

While the essay contains much interesting historical information, I am unconvinced by Batchen’s assertion that recent concerns about the impact of computing on photographic practice (such as the ability to manipulate and fabricate images) is misplaced because of their invention at a similar time. While early cameras are still recognisable as instruments that make photographs (and digital cameras are also recognisable as such), Babbage’s early computers cannot be compared with modern machines. However, the link made between the emergence of computing and photography from the cultural and social conditions of the nineteenth century is convincing and a strong reason why we should not be concerned about computers being a risk to the photograph. Indeed, technological advancements in computing and digital imaging develop side by side. Batchen concludes: “computing’s future, like photography’s, is already inscribed in its past. What is demanded from us is a new perception of the relationship between these three moments (past, present, future) – a new perception of history itself.”

Bibliography:

Batchen, G. (1998) Obedient numbers, soft delight. In: Each wild idea pp. 165-174. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/journal-article/ph5dic-each-wild-idea-obedient-numbers-soft-delight [accessed 16th January 2019]