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Photography’s move to abstraction in face of human rights violations

February 15, 2012 Comments off

Guardian Project (an application development organization dedicated to making smartphones more secure) and WITNESS (a video advocacy group based in New York), have developed an open source application called Obscuracam. By means of a facial detection technology, Obscuracam detects faces in the photographic frame and provides an option to “obscure” them. The user has the choice to redact, pixelate, or mask the faces of photographed subjects. This feature is developed to protect the anonymity of the photographed subjects, in face of police meta-surveillance of crowd sourced images online, or stored on hard drives and other devices. The software is developed in response to security crack-down on anti government protesters caught on the cameras of citizen journalists who, captured and distributed the images of public demonstrations and protests online. An article on the project on the Economist writes: “Compelling pictures from a traceable source may also prove to be a double-edged sword for protesters. Police can mine video files for hidden information (“metadata” in the jargon) that could help identify the camera’s owner, or use face-recognition software on the people being filmed.” No doubt images could be used by the police to identify protestors and activists and it could have extreme repercussions for them. A telling pre-digital example of police identifying the photographic subject is the cover of Economist in July 17th 1999.  The photograph showed an Iranian student holding a bloody shirt of a fellow protestor who was beaten by the police in the first public protest in country since the massive political crack-downs of the early 1980s. The image has all the requirements of an iconic photojournalistic image: a good-looking student, with long hair and a black ribbon tied to his bicep, a bloody t-shirt, two hands holding a newspaper in front of him with an image of a woman. The picture eventually sent Ahmad Batebi, the Iranian student to prison for ten years. This example (as numerous others) underlines the human rights concerns over the distribution of images of human rights violations.

protestobscura, guardianproject.info/apps/securecam/

As discussed in previous posts, history of photography, as opposed to painting’s, is one of a representational mediums move away from its claim to reality, what is known as photographic indexicality. The development of Obscuracam protects the identity of the photographed subjects, but it also questions the very ontology of photography while simultaneously depends on it: the photograph represents the event as it happened, even if digitally manipulated. It is within the assumption that the “obscured” image, somehow still carries with itself the buried photographic claim to reality, even if the image is a modification of what it claims to be. It invites the viewer to believe in what he is not seeing.

By obscuring the faces of the photographed subject, the Obscuracam effaces the subjects in the world of images, before the security forces efface them in the world outside. The image will be of faceless victims in face of human brutality who’s last vestiges of expression are erased from the picture plane.

February 15, 2012 Comments off

[continued] When will the photographic window open to the landscape of truth?[i] It is in a moment of danger that the indexicality of the photograph goes beyond form, the image becomes an index of death. It is this shadow of death, looming over the event, that binds the image maker and the subject in the instance that the camera shutter clicks. Every portrait, or rather, every image produced under such conditions, needs to be also an image of the self, a self-portrait. It is only when the photographer and the subject share the same position within (and not vis à vis) the event that the distance between spectatorship and participation would elapse and the picture taken will be also the picture of the photographer him/herself. The photographer is commonly known to bear witness to the event, but this act of witnessing carries with itself the now-forgotten meaning of the word witness: martyr. In Waiting for Tear Gas, referring to similar concerns Allen Sekula writes “The rule of thumb for this sort of anti-photojournalism: no flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence. ” The photographer becomes a part of the crowd, moves with the crowd and shares their position. The image and the event become parts of a single entity, not one the documentation of the other. The photograph becomes the event.

Henry Fox Talbot, "Latticed window in Lacock Abbey", 1835

The moment of danger, seized in the photographic frame, also severs the ties between the photograph and the history of photography. As such the image does not signify a canonic progression of a formal dialectic, it will be a primal image, stripped from ontology, an image (as Benjamin puts it) “identical with the historical object.” In the period between the invention of photography and the introduction of snapshot, photography appropriated painterly aesthetics and established its position regarding the history of art. It is within these aesthetic conditions that the notion of a defining image [of an event] was produced. This defining image lends itself to the established aesthetic categories and systems of evaluation that preside over art history.

It is only through a rupture between the photograph and its history that the historical moment could be seized and preserved in one unique image. This image, unburdened by the history of its medium becomes free from the chain of signification, the image ceases to be a text, and without the mediation of meaning, the subject and object will coincide in a “dialectical image.” Here, the photograph (technical image) becomes an image, as in the image before the era of art, an image emptied of words.

 


[i] Here I am not considering the indexicaliy of images of exchange, e.g. online shopping catalogues that provide an image of what the costumer receives in the mail.

Indexicality as form

February 14, 2012 Comments off

The first [surviving] photographic image is Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, while the first photographic negative is from Fox Talbot’s latticed window in Lacock Abbey. It seems more than a mere coincidence that the first images produced by the new representational medium pictured the 15th century architect, sculptor, painter, and theorist Leon Battista Alberti’s metaphor for painting: “…an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen” While the former show a grainy image of rooftops out side of the French chemist’s window, the latter brings to mind Albrecht Dürer’s glass frame with grids, the painter’s aid for accurately preserving the figure’s spatial relationships.

Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Window (1920), replica 1964

Alberti’s window was not one that opened to the real world out side, but rather its purpose was to produce a window-view of the painting’s subject for the spectator. Similar to fenestra caeli, the “window of heaven” where through figure of Mary the Lord’s light shines over the spectator,  standing in front of the painting from a fixed position, it will open to the historia (imaginative narrative paintings of great events and classical heroes) as an architectural window opens to the orange tree, or the parking lot outside. Until the invention of photography, painting’s technical progress was to deliver an image that seemed perceptually identical from the view through an open window. But the windows that Niépce and other pioneers of the new medium opened, let painting shut the blinds and walk outside of the camera lucida of appearances of the world outside. Painting stopped cross-dressing itself as a window, refused to serve as a decoy, a real-looking surrogate, painting stopped being a [hieroglyphic] text. A lie could now be a color, an impression a flat surface, a feeling an illusion of depth. Just as the Reformation freed the image from God and gave it to the word, photography untied painting from the appearance of the real.

Curiously, while painting’s history (until the invention of photography) is one of maximizing its representational quality to that of an open window, history of photography on the other hand is of a representational medium’s departure from reality. Painting progressed [technically] to render the imaginary real, photography the real as imaginary. Photography at its best claims to show that which is beyond representation, a window that opens to that which does not render itself visible. Therefore at its best, photography questioned its own indexicality and claimed to represent beyond the mere traces of light on the sensitive emulsion. But simultaneously it was through its very indexicality that photography could point beyond its semiotics. From the surrealists to the avant-garde, from propagandists to documentarists, all used this inherent tension of the photographic medium. Thus the photographic index became form, a vessel that carried a semiotic displacement. Colin Powel’s fraudulent presentation before the UN Security Council in support of the Iraq war is a telling contemporary example of this semiotic displacement. Images, aerial photographs and satellite images were used to show exactly what the images were not an index of, rather the representational quality was used as a rhetorical device in support of the administration’s argument that hinged on the existence of weapons of mass destruction storages and facilities. Here, the indexicality of the photograph transformed the contents of the target’s landscape to the desired constituents. But this rhetorical maneuvering is hardly unique to the Pentagon, from early years of snap-shots, people were expected to smile in photographs, here the landscape smiled for the aerial photos. Furthermore, before photographs made time stand still, photographed subjects had to stand still to be captured by the camera. Before cameras could capture the world, the world had to practice posing for the cameras, thus the technological advancement of photography from its outset carried a semblance of an index. Rather than the smoke rising from the chimney signifying the fire, it was the fire that burned to be signified. In Sistine Madonna, Raphael, alluding to the tradition of picture curtain—a curtain before the cult image which can conceal and reveal it as a ritual apparition—frames his painting with an open curtain.

Raphael, The Sistine Madonna (1513-14), Oil on canvas, 270 x 201 cm ,Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

“When the costly curtains were drawn back, the divine conception of the painting (the Iddea) appeared as if alive, being the divine person (iddio) in the ideal of beauty (idea), thus uniting religion and art in one.” The curtain is the only remaining residue of the material image, that curtain’s reincarnation is the photograph’s indexicality: it conceals as well at it reveals.

February 10, 2012 Comments off

b) Images concerning the truth, documentary images

The new image is not a manifestation of god in visual form, rather it is in the image that truth reveals and conceals itself. God’s presence manifested in the image provided a window to truth. However, an image could not contain all of the truth, and God did not [could not] reveal its totality in one image.

But every truth needs to be analyzed according to a politics of truth, a series of rules and conditions that determine its production. Using Foucault’s notion of govermentality “as a specific form of exercising power, which operates through the production of truth”, Hito Steyerl coins the term documentality for the visual productions under the corresponding conditions of truth production[i]. Documentality according to Steyerl “describes the permeation of a specific documentary politics of truth with superordinated political, social and epistemological formations.” An example of this form of documetality is Colin Powel’s presentation before the UN Security Council, in support of the invasion on Iraq. The presentation backed up its arguments with a set of visual material such as satellite photos and aerial surveillance pictures, provided evidence that pointed to existence of weapons of mass destruction developed under Saddam. Here photography’s indexicality was used as a vehicle to displace the very semiotic category that it operates under. The concept of the photograph in and of itself is used in a constellation of devices that constitute the desired results: indexicality as form. Photography’s claim to truth becomes rhetorical device similar to expression of feeling in rock music.

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Paramount Pictures, 1944

Writing on images of war, Judith Butler suggests the term field of representability, the state operates on in “order to control affect, and in anticipation of the way that affect informs and galvanizes political opposition to the war.”[ii] Similar to Steyerl’s notion of documentality this field is an active construction that delimits what can be represented, an operation of power (in Butler’s text the US government) that defines the frames of the visual. The photograph therefore not only represents the event, but it also perpetuates it. It becomes a part of the event itself. Any such operation of power [war] constitutes its field of representability and the construction of this field is an integral part of the operation itself. The kind of image that represents the reality of war therefore, is the image that documents the documentality, a photograph of the frame itself.

In order to transcend this impasse of human agency, and the possibility of functioning outside of the predefined frames of visibility, Steyerl via Benjamin’s notion of dialectic image—that “conveys the constructedness of every depiction together with the impossibility of relativizing truth that continues to persist despite this—proposes “moments of truth” and discusses the four only images of Auschwitz. What makes possible for an image inseparable from its production conditions to point to something beyond that is danger. Where danger becomes the very condition of production, the indexicality of the photograph goes beyond form, the image becomes an index of death.


[i] Steyerl, Hito. “Documentarism as Politics of Truth.” eipcp.net (2003).

[ii] Butler, Judith. “Torture and the ethics of photography.” Environment and Planning 25 (2007).

February 9, 2012 Comments off

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Since the invention of photography (the first technical image) in 19th century, there started a gradual shift in the relationship between art and images at large. Cameras soon became a household object, and remembrance freed itself from historical significance. Technical history of photography involves the acceleration of the time of production—from eight hours in Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826) to fragments of a second—and the shortening of the gap between the production and reception of the image. The shorter these two processes, the more ubiquitous technical images become.

The image, after being subsumed under art since the Reformation, freed itself from it. In the contemporary age of digital hyper realism, image regained some of the features it held “before the age of art”. Images are no longer guarded by the laws of aesthetics to be produced, evaluated, and distributed. Images of surveillance and science for instance, operate outside aesthetic categories. Before the Reformation, images had power over human beings: they could redeem, punish or praise them. Now in the age of technical image, they define possibilities of presentation, movement, and action. Seen from this perspective, in both of these instances, pre-Reformation and post-photography, affect human life.

a) Archetypical image, image as value

The new image is not a manifestation of god in visual form, as in the images before era of art, but rather, in the words of Vilem Flusser, images have become models for their receiver’s actions. Flusser argues that it would be a mistake to assume images are windows through which we can interpret the world outside. Rather, the process of signification is reversed and the world is becoming subordinate to the image. Flusser writes, “human beings forget they created the images in order to orientate themselves in the world. Since they are no longer able to decode them, their lives have become a function of their images; imagination has turned into hallucination.” His work is a plea for a philosophy of photography, where through visual literacy man once again manages to interrupt what he calls the “apparatus” (which camera is one example of) A philosophy of photography is necessary for raising photographic practice to the level of consciousness and this practice gives rise to a model of freedom in the post-industrial (where information becomes currency) context. But apocalyptic visual studies aside, through this type of image, visualization and valorization become one and the same. Economy and manifestation of culture become inseparable in a process of mutual validation. [02/09]

The image before [and after] the era of art

February 7, 2012 Comments off

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In Likeness and Presence, Art Historian Hans Belting, looks at the role of images in society before the era of art. According to Belting, the era of art begins when Reformation deprived the images from their religious function and the disempowered image, redefined itself in the category of art.

Luther announced that “the kingdom of God is a kingdom of hearing and not of seeing”, and urged his contemporaries to free themselves from the alleged power of images. The image which formerly represented the presence of god, now was emptied from his presence. The Reformation taught the domination of the word, and all images, signs, and symbols were suppressed under the power of the word, and became its servants. In the era of Gutenberg, the word became present everywhere as the tool of rational argument and reason. Intellectuals of the time, no longer trusted the surface appearance of the visual world, and the word became the refuge of the thinking subject. The humanists and the theologians emphasized that the painter can at best represent only their body, but their soul is expressed in words. With the iconoclast’s removal of the images from the churches, texts previously read in books took their place on the altar, and demanded the same kind of veneration. The humanist culture with the mind represented by the word, triumphed over matter and the “outward image.”

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1526), Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528) Engraving

Images, having lost their function in the church, took on a new role in representing art. Not even the Catholic church survived this upheaval of the word and not even there the holy image could escape its “metamorphosis into the work of art.” Belting writes: within the realm of art, images symbolize the new, secularized demands of culture and aesthetic experience. In this way a unified concept of the image was given up, but the loss was obscured by the label “art”, which now was generally applied. A general validity of an image independent of the idea of art became inadequate to the modern mind. Its abolition opened the way to an aesthetic redefinition in terms of the “rules of art.” Art, after becoming a discipline in itself, separated images from their previous functions, and recuperated them into its own narrative. This marked a beginning of art history, which later expanded itself beyond Medieval times (the last era before art) to the caves of Lascaux. It is from then on that a picture is no longer to be understood in the terms of its theme , but as a contribution to the development of art. Furthermore, images were ever since evaluated according to rules of aesthetics, a science that supported and explained the new formed discipline.

February 6, 2012 Comments off

***

The technical image,[1] that from its advent became an obsession with the time bygone, the time of the past, has now become an obsession with the present. It is a form of documentation of now, the documentation of the present for the present. Not a “having-been-there,”[2] but a “being here,” an assurance and reassurance of being present in time. The development of digital technologies of representation has shortened the gap between the production and reception of the image, and image production has become an instantaneous act. The camera is no longer only a device that would freeze a moment in time for the future, but a device that freezes every passing moment into fragments of now; it is almost as if time stands still. It is as if we are living and experiencing life with a short delay, the instant image is a visual echo of the present, of our presence. From dinner tables to mass demonstrations, through this visual echo of the livestreaming of life, we instantaneously review the living moments, or we live through the instantaneous broadcasting of life.[3]

This livestreaming of life has given the image some of the properties of speech. While before the kind of absence that the mechanically produced image represented was more similar to that of the text (that is if we only consider temporal categories of presence as absence and the formal properties that arise). The image that had already complicated the temporal relationships has now further complicated our relation to time, to being present in time. It could be said that we are becoming spectators of our presence as we live and watch simultaneously and constantly, as we document our togetherness and consume it at the moment, even though it sets a record for the future, a future that we continuously postpone as we are becoming more obsessed with now.


[1] I am not differentiating between still and moving images in this essay, instead the focus is on the incentive to make a record in any possible way.

[2] The type of consciousness the photograph involves is indeed truly unprecedented, since it establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing (which any copy could provoke) but an awareness of its having-been-there. What we have is a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then. (Roland Barthes, Rhetoric of the Image)

[3] In February 2011, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the protestors set up a screen and watched the projection of Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the Egyptian revolution. The images were broadcasted in real-time from the square to the square and the participants could see themselves as they formed the crowd.