Category Archives: photography

Christopher Williams

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The third big exhibition at MoMA was the Christopher Williams show. This one was a mixed bag in terms of how I responded to it. On one hand, it was a bit of a fuck you to the audience since a lot of it felt like an in-joke that most people won’t get.* At the same time for me it felt like an exhibition which worked really well with Gober. Many of the photos were a little bit surreal or odd. And the whole show played with converting non-art objects to art objects.

*Not the biggest fuck you I’ve received in a Museum exhibition. That honor is still held by Santiago Sierra who, while I get what he was doing, still produced an exhibition that blew off anyone who attended it in favor of the statement that he was making.

In Williams’s case, he’s playing with the concepts behind stock and “professional” photography—bringing photographic muzak into the museum by suggesting alternate readings of the image and revealing some of the artifice in how it was produced. The alternate readings are obscure and stretched and, to my mind, not even that important. I’ve worked in printing, production, and design long enough to understand how everyone includes in-jokes in the process—the more obscure the joke the better so as no one else will notice. That we know he’s winking or enjoying a self-satisfied giggle here is enough for me even though I can totally understand how other people would be upset by this.

Revealing the artifice behind the stock photos is more interesting to me anyway. That so many of them feel a little off makes us question our expectations and points out how much of this photographic language we’ve absorbed even though this kind of photography is universally unmemorable.* Getting into and figuring out why they feel off though is almost impossible. They’re not off in a bad or incompetent way, they’re just somehow less commercial than we expect even while looking completely professional. Some of this is definitely because they’re in a museum rather than a magazine ad. But a lot of it is based on our collective snap judgements against a standard of professionalism that we can’t even articulate.

*It’s interesting to compare Williams to what people are currently calling Hipster Photography. Hipster photography appears to ape the unmemorable product consumption images only without being about the product. Williams makes the product more explicit but tweaks the delivery so it isn’t as unmemorable.

This isn’t “that’s not art” kind of art because it’s giant or made from expensive materials or being trangressive and saying “yes this is art.” Instead Williams directly triggers our “that’s not art” reflex only to have us immediately realize that we may jumped to that conclusion too quickly. I love this kind of category blurring.

I also love all his photos which intentionally include production elements in the frame. I’m a backstager by heart who tends to sympathize with all the unseen stuff that goes into making anything. It’s very easy to forget or be ignorant about all that process so any artist who tweaks the ideas of what belongs offstage* is okay by me.

*For example, Baz Luhrmann’s stage direction.

Halloween

Starting with the harvest/pumpkin festival and going through Halloween night.

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August Backlog

Continuing from July.

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Autopanopticon

Panopticon

Behavior is modified and shaped not only through being observed, but also through the shame of negative social feedback when video and stills of bad behavior are released on a national and local stage. This both corroborates the effectiveness of the Autopanopticon and proves the camera phone as an increasingly powerful tool for social control.

Fototazo

Right after I wrote my Tragedy of the Commons post, Fototazo posted a nice essay about the Autopanopticon which made me rethink everything. I intended to reply over the summer but have only just gotten around to finishing my post—helped in no small part by Model View Culture’s Surveillance theme last week.

There’s a lot of fear of cameras right now. Some people are petrified of people with cameras—mainly from the privacy infringement point of view. Other people are scared of the government acting as big brother and spying on all of us in the name of “security.” In both cases, it seems like people are rarely scared of both government and photographers. It’s usually one or the other and becomes very easy to ridicule their point of view by pointing out how they’re not troubled by all the other photography going on in public.

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I’ve mentioned previously that people are retreating from public space because we no longer trust it. That’s not exactly correct. I think we trust it to be itself; we just don’t agree with being monitored and letting someone else access and use our images and information. This is a legit fear. No one likes the idea of being monitored all the time, in part because no one really knows all the possible laws out there.

Heck, this is one reason why we have the 5th amendment and Miranda rights. It’s pretty easy to implicate yourself in something illegal if you don’t know all the ins and outs of the law. There’s also something intrusive and distrustful about someone monitoring you all the time. I wouldn’t want to be taped at my job and I don’t blame police officers for resisting it even though the events of this past summer have made it pretty clear that all cops should have cameras recording at all times.

Still, there’s too much benefit to government in having as many people photographing in public as possible—both in preventing crime and solving crime. As much as cops don’t like people filming them, they’ll be relying on those same videos as evidence when it helps their case.

There is even more benefit to big business—which is the interesting thing that fototazo doesn’t mention. His autopanopticon focuses on news and crime and media coverage rather than the more-likely personal data metrics trying to profile us and sell us more shit we don’t need.

The corporate side actually both scares and intrigues me more than the government side. Government’s interests are pretty obvious and center around behavioral control; there’s a reason why the Panopticon is a prison design. With businesses, it’s not always clear what the goal is. It might be trying to sell us things. It might be market research for new products. It might be market research about their competition. It might be part of an experiment in which we’re the subjects.

Lots of interesting angles. Most of them creepy. But I suspect all of them are going to be similar to the ways that we’re already tracked online.* Even with people retreating to things like Snapchat or tweeting and deleting or using search engines like DuckDuckGo, the web knows a ton about us. It’s not that privacy is dead but rather that being in a public space—which is what most of the web is—means you’re being surveilled by government and/or business.

*Full disclosure, I’ve stopped clearing my cookie information because the ads I get when I’m not being tracked online are creepier than the ones when I am being tracked.

From the photographer point of view, as much as we fear that our rights to photograph will be taken away as more people misbehave with cameras, perhaps we fear too much. Both government and business have reasons to encourage us to record each other as much as possible. And for us to share those recordings.

At the same time, while we photograph in public, it’s important to remember how to act like a grown up and be aware of who we’re photographing and the history of how that population has been surveilled in the past. A lot of the current anxiety about surveillance in the US is due to it being applied to populations which previously weren’t subject to this kind of thing.

The autopanopticon is a bigger change for the white middle class than it is for non-whites or the poor.

What we have decided to call surveillance is actually a constant interplay of various forms of monitoring that have existed and focused on black people, and specifically black women, long before cameras were around, let alone ubiquitous. Surveillance technology is a dissemination of cultural standards of monitoring. Our picture of surveillance needs to factor in not just tech developments, but the cultural standards that have bred surveillance, especially towards black culture, as part and parcel in our world.

Sydette Harry

It’s informative to realize how it’s been applied historically and the differing ways it’s still applied today. Especially since a lot of the tropes of photography buy into the surveillance of black culture and the treatment of blacks as spectacle*—both of which are key differences in how the general autopanopticon idea works. Where we expect the autopanopticon to be about specific people or events, a lot of surveillance is instead intended to generalize, appropriate, and commodify whatever is being monitored.**

*It’s worth reading all of Shit My Photography Professor Says here as a very blunt way of avoiding these tropes. Nuggets like this and this are the highlights.

**It’s also worth reading Dorothy Kim’s essay about how academia treats the digital public space. Lots of the same trends of appropriating non-white culture in that space.

As photographers, since we’re part of the monitoring machine, we have an opportunity to shape—even a little bit—the type of data being collected. Since we’re also being monitored, this is an opportunity to, in many cases, finally understand how it feels to be watched like this in public. Yes, it doesn’t feel good. But if it feels like a new concept, we’ve been lucky to have avoided it for this long.

And it’s something that should help us better sympathize with the ways people react to cameras the way they do.

If we’re disturbed by the fact that walking around with a camera results in us getting stereotyped as creepers or threats, we can either take a number and get in line behind everyone else who was there first or use our awareness of what it feels like to be stereotyped as a way realize what stereotypes we’re projecting on everyone else we see and photograph.

July Backlog

Past June and fully into summer.

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June Backlog

Picking up from May.

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Boardwalk

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What looks to be becoming our annual trip to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Unlike last year, I actually got to go on more than just kiddie rides.* But the evening was still mostly just letting the kids run riot in the kid ride sections. They’re both pretty fearless—except that for some reason the younger one only wants to ride on the benches on the Merry Go Round.

*The new spinning Undertow rollercoaster is pretty cool.
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