I found this photograph stuffed into a fuel pump outside of Daytona Beach in August 2011.-Hunter
Somewhere along the line, photographs of others moved from empathetic to pathetic. [Name] Publication’s fascinating new archive of found images, Artist Unknown – The Free World, illustrates the shift from analog to digital photography, and with that, a sneaking cynicism regarding both our modes of seeing and living. There are many reasons for this dimming of the public eye, but the book, a collaboration between artists John D. Monteith and Oliver Wasow, nicely illustrates two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory trends:
1) It has become exponentially easier to take photographs. With this ease comes sloppiness and apathy. Moreover, the “mistakes” which lend early snapshots much of their serendipitous magic have largely disappeared with the ease of editing photographs. Any imperfection is met with a quick thumb to the delete button.
2) At the same time, the way which photographs spread is much more complex. One can mutter viral and be done with it, but to actually attempt to visualize the way photographs make their way through the world is quite simply nauseating. The original subject and photographer are almost immediately disenfranchised.
The book oscillates between two of photography’s most common applications. While Artist Unknown elegizes the family photo album, and all the authenticity, memories, and personal truth that it entails, the digital photos from The Free World represent the mediation and manipulation represented by photography’s ideological and consumerist applications. Ends that, as Walker Evans once said, testify to a “peculiar dishonesty of vision.”
In The Mass Ornament, Siegfried Kracauer writes that photographs, which reside in the fields of space and time, are fundamentally at odds with memory. Paradoxically, true appreciation of a photograph depends on the viewer being there when it was taken. As this memory image warps over time, the photograph splinters into a web of social constructions.
That said, our relationship to the photograph has changed quite a bit since Kracauer wrote that essay in 1927. One wonders what Kracauer, who made his reputation on a reading of the Tiller Girls, would make of Girls Gone Wild. The naturalization of photography, both in how we read our lives and the external, spectacular world, has dulled our appreciation of its murky semiotics. That said, there’s no arguing that once a photograph becomes unhinged from an experience (lived, intimately reported) something changes.
This change resides in a shifting subject matter and a darker reception. In his catalog essay Age. Sex. Location., John Monteith describes the move towards the melancholic. “These [digital] pictures are not memories to be stored in bound albums or shoe boxes in closets. They exist more as a transient glimpse into a life desirous of communication, connection, expression, and some degree of control.” The lack of control is the kicker. This past week, there were two viral instances of viral image diffusion that had serious repercussions for those involved.
After a moment of dispassionate consideration, neither of these images should remain shocking. I only bring them up to highlight the effects of viral diffusion. This is why you never post your face on casual encounters. The layout of Artist Unknown / The Free World seems to mourn for the linear unfolding of information. In both texts, the layout is choreographed. There is a page of tongue rings, then a page of middle fingers, then a page of Newports and Heinekens, etc. Thus, the book tries to assign linear narrative to an ultimately formless network of relations. This is a common devise on image blogs. The contemporary art site VVORK progresses in this manner, as do amateur porn blogs such as the NSFW Snusk. Both these suggest that sexuality, like art, aspires to teleological metanarrative.
Aspects of the photographs reveal specific trends in the American experience. In Artist Unknown, the photographs are almost all filled with several people. This community is further increased by the photographer behind the camera. With The Free World, we have instead a depleted photographic field. Usually one person looks back at us. I should rephrase that. There is no eye contact going on. When communicating via webcam, we instinctively make eye contact with the screen, not the camera slightly above the screen. The result is a breach of the seer/seen contract. We now have a jagged relationship of sideways glances and drooping eyelids, no doubt exacerbated by the shitty lighting. Photography means drawing with light. One shutters to think of how the medium would have evolved had William Henry Fox Talbot, lacking the sun, had attempted to draw Lake Como in a dim incandescent pallor.
A campaign plank of photography’s is how it democratizes the world. This takes many forms: the ennobling of the downtrodden, via Dorothea Lange and Eugene Smith; Burtynsky and Gursky’s distanced critique of global capitalism, even the beautiful sadism of Sebastião Salgado. And it holds true again. On webcams, we all look unaware, lonely and vulnerable.
Buy the book here.
Check out the exhibition here. (Through January 29th, 2012)