The Last Pictures

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul’s immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind, —
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a Master o’er a Slave,
A Presence which is not to be put by;
To whom the grave
Is but a lonely bed without the sense or sight
Of day or the warm light,
A place of thought where we in waiting lie;
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

Wordsworth

I’ve been looking over and mulling this work* for almost a month now. I think I’ve finally gotten my brain around it. First, while this is a book of photos (mostly) it is not a photobook. This is a collection of images and is simultaneously doing many things.

*Two links for this actually: Trevor Paglen’s page and Creative Time’s page.

First, some background. Paglen has selected 100 images to represent “modern history,” etched them into into silicon disc, encased that disc inside a gold-plated shell, and attached it to a satellite which is orbiting the Earth in a geostationary orbit. Since the satellite will stay in orbit essentially forever these 100 images, and the rest of the satellites up there, will outlast everything manmade on the earth’s surface.

The resulting project is both a time capsule as well as a critique of time capsules. It’s intended to be a failure so the main interest is the thought experiment about what images of ourselves are worth saving and whether this kind of task is even worth doing.

“There is a meta-gesture in the project—and the project is constantly struggling with that, how to create a meta-gesture that is in many ways a critique of meta-gestures?” The result is a rigorously considered set of ethics around the inherent responsibilities of presenting images selected from broad swaths of culture and history.

Christian L. Frock, KQED Arts

Inevitably, Paglen’s pictures become the stereotype they are trying to avoid, which isn’t necessarily his fault; the very premise of their selection imbues them with a potential they can never fully reach (which, cleverly, may also be part of the point).

Jillian Steinhauer, Hyperallergic

Paglen’s work is really a meditation on time and immortality and is a 21st-century perspective on the concept of ruinenwert—in this case, the ruins are designed to outlast even architecture. The time perspective is particularly interesting. He points out in his introduction how geologic time is already difficult to comprehend and that space time is even beyond that. In the case of the housing for this project, we’ve never even considered actually designing an object which would last as long as this is expected to last.

Bringing up geologic time also introduces our other legacy which will remain on Earth after we pass. Geology’s principle of uniformity no longer holds when human-influenced stratigraphy and processes are brought into play. We’ve moved more dirt in the past couple centuries than nature has. We don’t know how this record will look in millennia but we do know that it will be much different than the rest of the recorded geologic history. That Paglen includes many images of earth moving is a hat tip to this other monument.

This project is also highly evocative and manages to capture something in everyone’s imagination. There is still something about space which delights the latent inner child in all of us. It’s always undiscovered and unexperienced territory. One of my favorite spreads in the book is the one which couples an image of Greek and Armenian orphan refugees’ first experience with the sea with William Anders’s Earthrise photo. Two new experiences. One we can remember from childhood and one whose promise still excites and inspires us.

At the same time, the project also suggests both immortality and mortality. The spread above is my favorite in the book. On the left is a HeLa cell. On the right is Ebola. There are so many layers in the HeLa story but at a root level, it’s an amazing result where a specific cell line has achieved some level of immortality. Ebola meanwhile is explicitly a nod at our mortality and how, despite being at the top of the foodchain, we can be taken down by something so simple.

That both of these images—and many others—are not obvious, meaningwise, without background information proves that Paglen is indeed doing this project for us right now. We’re supposed to look at these images and think about what they say about us and our legacy. Some of them remind us of discovery and innocence. Others rely on our experience and knowledge. And we should discuss how they inform us of ourselves.

Also…

Despite not being a photo book, since this project involves images, meaning, and context, and uses mostly photographs in doing so, I’m treating this as a photo post. With that in mind, it is very interesting to think about this work in relation to the Doug Rickard-created existential crisis. So many photography fans freaked out about culling images from Google Street View. No one’s freaking out about this project. Maybe it’s because the project seems to have required a lot more work that just browsing Google. But I think more is going on.

There have been a number of art works in the past couple years which involve someone else editing an image archive.* The editing itself is an art and we’re moving more and more toward a world where “curating” or editing the massive archive of images available to us will actually be the true skill over the creation of an image.

*The Full Moon also involves space suggests that there’s something especially evocative about space.

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6 responses to “The Last Pictures

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