Category Archives: photography

“turning photography into a communication medium”

Nick Bilton’s Bits blog post is a provocative look at the increasing use of images as a substitute for words in everyday language and communication.

“This is a watershed time where we are moving away from photography as a way of recording and storing a past moment,” said Robin Kelsey, a professor of photography at Harvard, and we are “turning photography into a communication medium.”

Looks like Mitchell Stephens’ 1998 The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word is turning out to be very prescient.

…and cinematic photographs

image from the whale hunt by jonathan harrisTo make a trifecta of film posts for the day, I’ll point out Jonathan Harris’s The Whale Hunt. Properly speaking, this isn’t a film at all; rather, it’s a sequence of 3,214 photographs which Jonathan Harris took over a week’s trip to Alaska to observe a traditional whale hunt. Harris has date-stamped, captioned, and tagged (in three ways) each photograph. They appear in a Flash interface which displays the images in sequence: a very long slideshow. What’s interesting about Harris’s work – and which may merit his declaration that it’s “an experiment in human storytelling” is they way in which tags are used in the interface: if you click the whale that appears in the top center of each photographs, you can change the constraints on the sequence of photographs that you’re looking at. You can choose to see, for example, only photographs taken in Barrow, Alaska; only photographs featuring the first whale killed; only photographs that show children. Or you can choose a mixture of qualifications. One particularly interesting qualifier is the use of “cadence”: you can choose to see pictures that were taken close together in time – presumably when more interesting things were happening – or further apart – when, for example, the narrator is sleeping and has the camera set up to automatically photograph every five minutes.

My sense in playing with it for a bit is that using constraint in this manner isn’t a tremendously compelling method of storytelling. It is, however, a powerful way of drilling into an archive to see exactly what you want to see.

candida höfer: the library as museum

The photographs of libraries in “Portugal,” the current exhibition of Candida Höfer at Sonnabend, show libraries as venerable places where precious objects are stored.
The large format that characterizes Höfer’s photographs of public places, the absence of people, and the angle from which she composes them, invite the viewer “to enter” the rooms and observe. Photography is a silent medium and in Höfer’s libraries this is magnified, creating that feeling of “temple of learning” with which libraries have often been identified. On the other hand, the meticulous attention to detail, hand-painted porcelain markers, ornately carved bookcases, murals, stained glass windows, gilt moldings, and precious tomes are an eloquent representation of libraries as palaces of learning for the privileged. In spite of that, and ever since libraries became public spaces, anyone, in theory, has access to books and the concept of gain or monetary value rarely enters the user’s mind.
Libraries are a book lover’s paradise, a physical compilation of human knowledge in all its labyrinthine intricacy. With digitization, libraries gain storage capacity and readers gain accessibility, but they lose both silence and awe. Even though in the digital context, the basic concept of the library as a place for the preservation of memory remains, for many “enlightened” readers the realization that human memory and knowledge are handled by for-profit enterprises such as Google, produces a feeling of merchants in the temple, a sense that the public interest has fallen, one more time, into private hands.
As we well know, the truly interesting development in the shift from print to digital is the networked environment and its effects on reading and writing. If, as Umberto Eco says, books “are machines that provoke further thoughts” then the born-digital book is a step toward the open text, and the “library” that eventually will hold it, a bird of different feather.

ecclesiastical proust archive: starting a community

(Jeff Drouin is in the English Ph.D. Program at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York)
About three weeks ago I had lunch with Ben, Eddie, Dan, and Jesse to talk about starting a community with one of my projects, the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive. I heard of the Institute for the Future of the Book some time ago in a seminar meeting (I think) and began reading the blog regularly last Summer, when I noticed the archive was mentioned in a comment on Sarah Northmore’s post regarding Hurricane Katrina and print publishing infrastructure. The Institute is on the forefront of textual theory and criticism (among many other things), and if:book is a great model for the kind of discourse I want to happen at the Proust archive. When I finally started thinking about how to make my project collaborative I decided to contact the Institute, since we’re all in Brooklyn, to see if we could meet. I had an absolute blast and left their place swimming in ideas!
Saint-Lô, by Corot (1850-55)While my main interest was in starting a community, I had other ideas — about making the archive more editable by readers — that I thought would form a separate discussion. But once we started talking I was surprised by how intimately the two were bound together.
For those who might not know, The Ecclesiastical Proust Archive is an online tool for the analysis and discussion of à la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). It’s a searchable database pairing all 336 church-related passages in the (translated) novel with images depicting the original churches or related scenes. The search results also provide paratextual information about the pagination (it’s tied to a specific print edition), the story context (since the passages are violently decontextualized), and a set of associations (concepts, themes, important details, like tags in a blog) for each passage. My purpose in making it was to perform a meditation on the church motif in the Recherche as well as a study on the nature of narrative.
I think the archive could be a fertile space for collaborative discourse on Proust, narratology, technology, the future of the humanities, and other topics related to its mission. A brief example of that kind of discussion can be seen in this forum exchange on the classification of associations. Also, the church motif — which some might think too narrow — actually forms the central metaphor for the construction of the Recherche itself and has an almost universal valence within it. (More on that topic in this recent post on the archive blog).
Following the if:book model, the archive could also be a spawning pool for other scholars’ projects, where they can present and hone ideas in a concentrated, collaborative environment. Sort of like what the Institute did with Mitchell Stephens’ Without Gods and Holy of Holies, a move away from the ‘lone scholar in the archive’ model that still persists in academic humanities today.
One of the recurring points in our conversation at the Institute was that the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive, as currently constructed around the church motif, is “my reading” of Proust. It might be difficult to get others on board if their readings — on gender, phenomenology, synaesthesia, or whatever else — would have little impact on the archive itself (as opposed to the discussion spaces). This complex topic and its practical ramifications were treated more fully in this recent post on the archive blog.
I’m really struck by the notion of a “reading” as not just a private experience or a public writing about a text, but also the building of a dynamic thing. This is certainly an advantage offered by social software and networked media, and I think the humanities should be exploring this kind of research practice in earnest. Most digital archives in my field provide material but go no further. That’s a good thing, of course, because many of them are immensely useful and important, such as the Kolb-Proust Archive for Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Some archives — such as the NINES project — also allow readers to upload and tag content (subject to peer review). The Ecclesiastical Proust Archive differs from these in that it applies the archival model to perform criticism on a particular literary text, to document a single category of lexia for the experience and articulation of textuality.
American propaganda, WWI, depicting the destruction of Rheims CathedralIf the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive widens to enable readers to add passages according to their own readings (let’s pretend for the moment that copyright infringement doesn’t exist), to tag passages, add images, add video or music, and so on, it would eventually become a sprawling, unwieldy, and probably unbalanced mess. That is the very nature of an Archive. Fine. But then the original purpose of the project — doing focused literary criticism and a study of narrative — might be lost.
If the archive continues to be built along the church motif, there might be enough work to interest collaborators. The enhancements I currently envision include a French version of the search engine, the translation of some of the site into French, rewriting the search engine in PHP/MySQL, creating a folksonomic functionality for passages and images, and creating commentary space within the search results (and making that searchable). That’s some heavy work, and a grant would probably go a long way toward attracting collaborators.
So my sense is that the Proust archive could become one of two things, or two separate things. It could continue along its current ecclesiastical path as a focused and led project with more-or-less particular roles, which might be sufficient to allow collaborators a sense of ownership. Or it could become more encyclopedic (dare I say catholic?) like a wiki. Either way, the organizational and logistical practices would need to be carefully planned. Both ways offer different levels of open-endedness. And both ways dovetail with the very interesting discussion that has been happening around Ben’s recent post on the million penguins collaborative wiki-novel.
Right now I’m trying to get feedback on the archive in order to develop the best plan possible. I’ll be demonstrating it and raising similar questions at the Society for Textual Scholarship conference at NYU in mid-March. So please feel free to mention the archive to anyone who might be interested and encourage them to contact me at And please feel free to offer thoughts, comments, questions, criticism, etc. The discussion forum and blog are there to document the archive’s development as well.
Thanks for reading this very long post. It’s difficult to do anything small-scale with Proust!

on today’s publications

notbles190.jpg On November 27 the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that “newspapers may now submit a full array of online material-such as databases, interactive graphics, and streaming video-in nearly all of its journalism categories,” while the closest The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of the Year came to documenting any changes in the publishing world is one graphic memoir (Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.)
Only last year the Pulitzer Prize Board allowed for the first time some online content, but now, it will permit a broader, and much more current assortment of online elements, according to the different Pulitzer categories. The seemingly obvious restrictions are for photography, which permit still images only. They have decided to catch up with the times: “This board believes that its much fuller embrace of online journalism reflects the direction of newspapers in a rapidly changing media world,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. With its new rules for online submissions, the Pulitzer Board acknowledges that online elements such as a database, blog, interactive graphic, slide show, or video presentation count as items in the total number of elements, print or online, that can be considered worth a prize.
Even though the use of multimedia and computer technology has become ubiquitous not only in the media world but also in the performing arts, the book world seems absorbed in its own universe. The notion of “digital book” continues to mean digital copies of books and the consequent battle among those who want the lion’s share of the market (see “Yahoo Rebuffs Google on Digital Books”). And, when we talk about ebooks we mean devices for reading digital copies of books. Interestingly, most of the books published today are written, composed and set using electronic technology. So much of what we read online is full of distracting, sometimes quite interesting, advertising. On Black Friday, lots of people following the American tradition of shopping on that day did it online. It would seem that we are more than ready for real ebooks. I wonder how long it would take for one of them to hit the top lists of the year.

plato’s cave


HiddenHistory on Vimeo
Ben’s post last week on the darker side of flash shone like a light bulb. I’d spent the morning manipulating a scanned image of Ditr Roth, by taking this video clip from Vimeo and downloading the source quicktime (which Vimeo allows you to do) importing that into i-movie and exporting thirteen still images as jpegs to sequence into an animated gif. Then I started pulling wav. files off cds and layering tracks and looping them and turning them into mpegs. In other words, it was a day like any other, but when I read Social Powerpoint, I considered how many little media format borders I’d just crossed and how many times I cross those borders on any given day in any given post and how much I take that freedom for granted. So, is flash like that damn wall they keep threatening to build in Texas, or built once in Germany and before that in China (and as a bird, or a bowerbird knows….walls never really work if you can fly over them, or go around)?
I don’t know enough about flash coding, but I worry that these walls are all already there in the very way that people read different media. In the way that their eyeballs see them and their earballs hear them. A photograph and a drawing will both appear on a digital page as jpegs, but it still seems a little tricky to get people to look at them in relation to each other. In painting, you take two paintings and put them side by side: BANG, you have a diptych. It becomes a third thing. I thought that logic would translate very easily to a still image and a moving one, or a sound and word, but It seems that people like compartments. They like to have their still photos at flickr and their video on You tube and their music on i-tunes, and their book on tape as a podcast, etc. If things appear on a digital page together, they are meant to be surrounded by a trompe l’oeil metallic players just so that there’s no aesthetic miscegenation going on. It’s what we’re used to.
I tend to use a bunch of media sharing services for IT IN place both as a way to host media and as a way of advertising. One of the realities I’ve come to deal with is that many more people are going to see my work as discrete media objects on flickr and vimeo than will ever make it to the blog to read these things together in the way that I intended. People seem to get something out of the picutres and the videos as pictures and videos, etc., but I always feel they are missing half the point. I think of it as reading sentence fragments, or stanzas and never seeing the whole poem.
At this point, each media is like a different language and trying to put them all together into a single whole is a Wasteland exercise… and the wasteland is patrolled by Minutemen and snakes.
Maybe, in some ways throwing these fragments out into the digital desert is part of the poetry. Maybe the networked landscape offers the thrill of archeology for the reader, like digging up little photo, sound, and video tiles that lead the reader on to find the mosaic. Today someone left a comment on flickr:

“your pieces are like secret boxes.. when i click the link it’s like lifting a lid and inside there is always something surprisingly ‘other’ and beautiful..”

….I could tack a hundred paintings on a hundred walls and never get a such a nice sentence in return.
But then there is the voice of my mother and also the significant other saying, “So how do you make money?”
It’s important to point out that for me the nexus of meaning is in mark making (wether as writing, or drawing which I think are intimately and evolutionarily (?) cave connected). My practice always revolves around drawing… All the different media I use are like a series of mirrors that multiply all the possible ways to see and understand things, but as an art animal, my primary way of knowing where I stand in the funhouse is to make a mark and so I think my practice revolves around the drawings… they are the map, if you will. While not exactly having any sort of business model, I always figured digital media would lead people to want to see and maybe own the “original” drawings and paintings. Of course, I thought of it this way, because that’s just what people traditionally have done: they sell things to people who collect things. It’s what we’re used to.
Maybe the past few months of deciphering fluxus history (and it’s anti-art leanings) has put the zap on my head, but lately I’m a bit lost in a Labyrinth of my own creation. The blog has sort of become the work of art and none of it’s discrete parts (read media) are more or less important…not when I’m successful in a post. It may be Greek and Latin and French and German and English and Japanese, but it has to be read together if you want to get the jokes. I don’t know… maybe I’m speaking in tongues. I have a feeling the youtube generation will be malf blahming flah wast di blamspoontoop dang glover….
* addendum: as I wrote this, three people on flickr enquired about buying work.
my Flickr page
my Vimeo page

carbon and silver

180px-Allie_Mae_Burroughs.jpgCarbon and Silver is a small show of Walker Evans‘ 1935-36 photographs at the UBS gallery in New York. The purpose of this exhibit is to compare printing technologies. It focuses primarily on ink-jet prints in relation to gelatin silver prints, with a small sample of books side by side with their digitally printed counterparts, revealing how lithography literally pales next to the crispness of the digital.
The show invites meditations on the “authenticity” of reproductions, especially in a medium such as photography, in itself based upon printing technology. In this show it is quite difficult to discern the original from the copy, and one questions, as Baudrillard would have it, to which point the copy has come to replace the original.
walkerevans_americanphotographs.jpg Most of the prints exhibited at the UBS belong to Evans’ body of work documenting the effect of the Great Depression on rural families for the Farm Security Administration in 1935-36. As a photographer, he was not particularly interested in producing his own prints as his main interest was to record information. These photographs were originally printed by the FSA as visual evidence reinforcing the New Deal.
Evans’ own interpretation of them appeared in American Photographs, the book that accompanied his exhibition at the Museum of Modern art (the first one-man photography show ever mounted by a major museum.) John T. Hill says in this exhibition’s catalogue that Evans “scrupulously controlled corrections of the printing plates, and using this process as an extension of his darkroom became a habit.” The interesting thing is that he understood that the book has a permanence that the exhibition does not.
Evans’ photographs have such crispness that they lend themselves to reproduction, even when the print is less than perfect. As a master of his medium he was absolutely aware of the difficulties of rendering full tonal scale in a black and white print. The ink-jet prints in this show are so remarkably close to their gelatin silver sisters that the viewer has to go back and forth from print to print in order to discern any possible difference. Evans loved the detail that an enlarged print brings out and the enlarged digital prints in this exhibition certainly do that.
Hill sums up the advantages of technology without denigrating the magnificence of the original process:

All new media affect voice and timbre. A greater tonal scale and more precise control of values are the two most significant tools offered by digital technology. The information so difficult to maintain in the dark and light ends of the scale using gelatin silver materials is now printable. Gelatin silver has been replaced by carbon black pigments laid onto archival paper. The music is the same; certain subtle notes are now heard more clearly.

“i photograph to remember” moves to the ipod

Pedro Meyer, founder of ZoneZero, the pioneering photography site, just wrote to say that he’s working on an Ipod version of I Photograph to Remember, the cdrom he made in the early 90s. It’s a deeply moving portrait documenting the last years of his parents’ life. Pedro invites readers of if:book to download a beta version HERE. He’s hoping for feedback so please send comments.
I thought it might be interesting to describe the debut of IPTR at the Digital World Conference in Beverly Hills in 1991. To appreciate this you have to understand that at that time no one had ever really seen anything on a computer screen with emotional content. The audience consisted of hyperactive, mostly male, senior executives who normally couldn’t sit still or be quiet for five minutes. But for thirty-two minutes, from the moment the lights went down till the closing credits, there wasn’t even the sound of breathing. People were literally stunned as they suddenly realized that the number-crunching, text processing machine on their desk could convey complex, profound feelings.

what would susan sontag make of flickr?

This post takes a bit of a set-up. Six times over the past twelve years (including the last four) I’ve had the lucky opportunity to spend a bit of the summer on the northeast coast of Sardinia. The place is filled with contradictions. The landscape is arid, almost desert-like, yet it merges effortlessly with the sea. The gentle wind, lapping waters and sublime beauty disguise a harsh reality–the rocks on land and sea are sharp and unforgiving of error. The stone on the land is red granite but THE rock, the 2 mile long, nearly one-mile high island that dominates the seascape is uncharacteristically made of limestone. There is no electricity except in the kitchen and workshop. We live in concrete-floor huts down by the water. We are always aware of nature here — both its beauty and its danger. For reasons too complicated to go into now, I am also acutely aware of differences of class and race here. The overall effect of these contradictions is that I am extremely conscious of where I am and how lucky I am to be here.
The other day I read John Berger’s 1978 essay, “The Uses of Photography,” in which he reflects upon the ideas in Susan Sontag’s seminal book, On Photography.
Berger quotes Sontag:

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetize the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit the natural resource, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivise reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images.

Then he raises the question of whether there is a new way to conceive of the social purpose and practice of photography:

Her theory of the current use of photographs leads one to ask whether photography might serve a different function. Is there an alternative photographic practice? The question should not be answered naively. Today no alternative professional practice (if one thinks of the profession of photographer) is possible. The system can accommodate any photograph. Yet it may be possible to begin to use photographs according to a practice addressed to an alternative future.
. . . . For the photographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed [emphasis added]. The distinction is crucial.

The passage in bold above hit me like a ton of bricks. The midday meal here is the important one. The guests and staff eat together on a shaded platform looking out at the island described above (think Ayres Rock rising out of the water rather than planted in the desert). The recipes are local; the ingredients almost all grown on the property or caught in the sea at our doorstep. The result is about as perfect as a meal can be — completely in synch with time and place. I’ve made it a habit each day to photograph the food as it is laid out buffet style. I do this for myself but also for “foodie” friends back home. After reading Berger’s note above I realized how wrong-headed this “reportage” has been. My photographs of beautifully prepared food do not include any hint of the effort required to grow and prepare it, the sublime surroundings in which both staff and guests eat together, or the feelings of well-being that the experience engenders in us all. [I know that last sounds self-justifying or at the least absurdly naíve, but for now you’ll have to accept my sense that even the most well worked out social hierarchies, can under certain conditions and at certain moments turn into their opposite.]
Berger goes on to suggest that key to a new photographic practice is the construction of context:

The alternative use of photographs which already exist leads us back once more to the phenomenon and faculty of memory. The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images.

Photographs, at least those which intend to “report” preserve an instant in an ocean of time and therefore Berger contend they require context to give them meaning.
Which in turn brings me to the question of this post which I very much hope some of you will chime in on — what would Susan Sontag have made of Flickr? Originally, it seems, Flickr was conceived simply as a personal repository of images. In that sense it provides no antidote to the current practice of photography. However, as it begins to grow into a social network, where individuals begin to provide context and meaning to images, is it possible that Flickr could be a step to a new practice of photography. If so, what sorts of functionality need to be developed for Flickr and other related tools?