Continuing from July.
Category Archives: photography
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
I’ve never liked how photography is in its own distinct wing. I don’t even like considering it distinct from “the other arts” and much prefer seeing it in conversation with painting, sculpture, etc. This isn’t an “equal status” thing but instead recognizes how photography is a tool for communication. Fixating on what is or isn’t photography misses the greater point that these images exist and interbreed with other images, photographic or non.
My last museum trip of the summer was to the Oakland Museum. This was partly to get my Fenton’s fix but I was also interested in the Inspiration Points exhibition since it promised to mix photography, painting, and drawing in the galleries. One of my continuing interests with photography is how it can get out of the photography wing and be exhibited alongside, and in conversation with, other artworks. This doesn’t happen often* so I like to keep an eye out for those cases where it does and go see the show with an eye for how the show itself guides the conversation.
The Oakland museum show is a little bit of a mixed bag here. It breaks the concept of California Landscape Art into distinct views and themes, some of which end up being heavily biased toward specific media. So no conversations in those room although there is food for thought about why some themes may be tougher for certain media to handle.
Since each theme ends up being somewhat distinct in character, it makes sense to go through the themes. First, the themes which resulted in galleries which were mixed media.
While being mixed between paintings and photography, a lot of the works in this gallery were heavily biased toward pictorialism—or the paintings that those photos were trying to evoke. This isn’t a complaint as it’s quite nice to see those two concepts mixed together so we can actually see how they inform each other.
At the same time, it feels like a somewhat limited take on what mysticism can mean as it biases more toward early-20th-century concepts of myths and the “unspoiled” land in the west rather than looking at the different ways people have developed the landscape for spiritual reasons over the past century.
This theme is of course the flip side of the mystic landscapes. How California is full of natural resources for us to use or conquer is the real state mythology. Documenting the land as we impose out will on it is something everyone—from artists to corporations*— does here. In this case, the method of documentation doesn’t really matter. I don’t get the sense that these works are in conversation although it is interesting to see how commercial both photography and painting can go in terms of serving corporate needs.
What’s more interesting is how all these works can be read in multiple ways now. Many of the exploitation artworks originally glorify the men or companies which were taming nature. While this reading is still valid, that they’re now displayed under the heading “Exploitation” means we’re looking at them differently. What was originally optimistic is instead something we’re supposed to reflect on and think about how to change—both our actions with the landscape and our readings of corporate propaganda—moving forward.
Recreation and Tourism
It’s interesting that Recreation and Tourism is a distinct theme outside of exploitation. Not all of the exploitation of California’s resources is through using them up. Recreation and tourism is just as important a part of land management and just as important an industry to the state. Big trees. Big water. Big mountains. These are the landscapes which sell the California image as tourist destination for seeing and taking in and exploring nature.
These are also the landscapes that photographers and painters tend to consume and emulate the most. Where the exploitation artworks are clear what industry they’re depicting, many of the recreation ones end up pointing the finger back at the viewer and the artist and make me think about the fine line between how our desire to see and use these places both allows for their preservation as open space and risks degrading them through overuse.
There’s also a gallery dedicated to East Bay landscapes. This is nice to see because it’s local—both the views and the artists—and while the exhibition is about California, it’s also always nice to see items of specific local interest included too. There are a lot of stereotypical nice landscapes on the East Bay but I prefer seeing the depictions of things we typically don’t think of as being picturesque.
Locals have a tendency to undervalue what’s interesting about where they live even while being triggered with intense senses of home from things that non-locals won’t ever understand. It’s those local-specific details which I enjoy seeing the most.
Now, on to the themes which were heavily biased in favor of a specific medium.
This section was all paintings* and pretty much all a nostalgic** view of California as an agricultural paradise. Not really a style of painting I like though it is interesting that there weren’t any photographs present. It’s not like photography can’t do the nostalgia thing.***
*Except for one Edward Weston photo. Oddly enough.
**Making the Weston inclusion even odder.
Between how we also react to old photos as inherently historic and nostalgic documents and how so much of the current trends in photography have been centered around faking and mimicking nostalgia as a reaction to the ubiquity of images and our loss of our lazy-man’s editor, there’s plenty of opportunity for photographs here.
All that said, I think there’s an element of nostalgia which requires things to be kind of made up. Photography, while not real, trades on reality in a way that paintings do not. Looking at nostalgic paintings comes with the understanding that things don’t actually look like that in real life. Looking at photos, especially landscape photos, still comes from a place where we expect the photo to be real.
Urban vs. wild
Meanwhile this theme was all photos, many of which were New Topographics type work. And while this made some sense to me since one of photography’s specialties is highlighting incongruent elements such as this urban vs wild theme, it’s not like people stopped painting or drawing the California suburbs.
And the urban vs. wild theme is in many ways about “California style” developments* which are meant to bring the outside in or incorporate controlled wilderness in the midst of suburbia. This isn’t an exclusive to photography thing at all.**
*Something that I wasn’t fully aware of until I moved East and saw homes listed as “California style” which look nothing like anything I’ve seen in California but instead feature more open floor plans and bigger windows and try to seem like they’re closer to nature.
Still, as with the nostalgia images, the difference in how we approach paintings compared to photos I think is a major reason why this gallery is photo-biased. The fact that the photos are “real” makes the incongruity more believable here.
This was also all photos. Which, didn’t surprise me at all. The dystopia photos, more than anything else here, are treated as evidence of landscapes taken to illogical extremes. You could create images like these in paintings but something about finding these in the wild makes the point better.* These photos are often wry and funny just as often as they’re sad. They’re also the images I liked the most in the exhibition.
*Sandow Birk’s drawings are pretty dystopian but even when referencing specific things, they’re pretty clearly made up.
Many of the dystopian photos revolve around land use and the weird juxtapositions between private and public. Looking through the rest of the galleries in this show, it’s clear how this idea is a constant issue in all the different themes and as such is really the dominant concept in the California landscape.
So many of the images here are about what we’re doing to the landscape. And who in particular is doing it. It’s up to us to see these images and ask the questions about whether we’re doing the right things or if the right people are doing them, and if not, what the right things are and who the right people should be.