Good composition is ideologically fraught

Last weekend I was running a Photo School Composition Workshop for the first time, meaning I'd been immersing myself in "good" photography and thinking about what that means. On the morning of the class the story about Vanessa Nakate being cropped from a group photo of young climate activists at Davos broke and I almost brought it into the class because it's fascinating and important for a number of reasons.

The first fascinating thing that hits you is the excuse given by Associated Press of "good composition". The photo they were supplied was quickly made better by subtracting some elements. This is a total no brainer – photography is a subtractive art form. To create a good photo you reduce the elements and arrange them in a way that helps them act as one, allowing the viewer to "read" the image quickly and clearly.

So this image:

is much easer to read that this image:

Aesthetically, the cropped version is a better image, regardless of who or what is in it. The building, cited by Associated Press as the only reason for cropping, is distracting so removing that allows the mountains and trees to give the depth of the photo more coherence. The cropped version puts Greta Thunberg's signature hard stare on the intersection of the thirds while the other activists frame her without distracting from her.

But the building wasn't the only thing removed from the image to make it better. The editor also cropped Vanessa Nakate, the fifth young activist in the group who just so happened to be Ugandan and the only non-white member. But before we get into that, I think it's worth noting that for the fraction of a second captured in this photo she doesn't look as composed and serious as her compatriots. This is unfair as she looks totally composed and serious in other pics I've found. But in this moment she has this open grinning face and a big-old coat revealing that mess of colours, wavy lines and oversized lanyard. And that's because she's not a groomed celebrity – she's a nerdy kid who cares about the big stuff. They all are. Look at this shot a few seconds later where the mix of seriousness and "WTF is going on with these photographers" is much more evenly spread.

As a seasoned professional educator in this field, my informed diagnosis is that the photographer took a bad photo which could not be fixed in the edit. They did not deliver the image they were presumably tasked with getting. It is very hard to get five people without media training to pose well, especially when they're presumably walking to an event and not expecting to be photographed at that moment, but that's no excuse. It's clear from the other photo that they were a group, and the job is to photograph that group. Do your job. Don't submit bad work.

The editor should also have realised what they had and made a better call on using it. Presumably they were aware, or were able of being aware, that there were five people in the group, not four, and that they were cropping out a member of the group, not just some rando. Or maybe they didn't. Or maybe they didn't care about the group – they only cared about the click-generating Greta. Those nobodies around her were disposable. Greta at Davos is the only story.

Which is all to say it's possible to explain what happened and why it happened without bringing race in at all. But to not bring race in at all is to miss why this decision was a really really really bad one.

In her video about the photo Vanessa talks about being "erased" and, since she was a representative of Africa, of Africa being erased from the conversation about the climate crisis. She takes this personally, for sure, but sees it as a symptom of a much bigger issue of representation of non-white bodies and voices in the media. To slight me is rude and inconsiderate, but I can deal. To slight those who I represent, especially when those people have been slighted repeatedly throughout history, is a problem.

I don't pretend to have wise words to say about the representation of black bodies in Western media, and it's definitely not my place to try and have them, but it really brings home how blunt and cruel the act of photography can be. This form, which can highlight and pull things into sharp focus, gets its power from exclusion, from leaving things and people out of the frame.

Photography is not reality – it allows us to select elements of reality and shape them to form narratives. When we do this deliberately and with care we can produce wonderful images that can change the world. When we do it carelessly and without thought we will often reinforce the biases in society. And when those biases hurt people, lazy photography will hurt people.

Hell, this applies to all art forms, but photography is everywhere and, more problematically, is believed to be a truth teller. But it isn't. It's a selective storyteller, for good or for evil. Wield your composition with care.

Understanding Gilliam, and other men of a certain age

Oh, Terry Gilliam.

You were part of the counter-cultural movement that helped destroy the fusty hegemony of British society by laughing at it. You helped make the modern world a bit less shit. And now the modern world is not happy with you because you seem to have become the sort of reactionary, establishment prick you used to kick against.

For those who like Gilliam but also think he's so very wrong, it can be a bit confusing. But it's all quite simple really.

Terry Gilliam and his gang are, at heart, anti-establishment types. They came up in an era when "the establishment", in the UK at least, was fuelled by the legacy of Empire and British exceptionalism whilst being undermined by the death of said Empire and the creeping realisation that the British weren't that exceptional. That's Monty Python in a nutshell – kicking the post-war establishment as it fell.

This was, of course, a good thing. But for them it became the norm. Anything establishment is to be attacked, and anything that resembles groupthink or dogma is dangerous. (His generation's parents fought the Nazis too, don't forget.)

Fast forward to the 21st century and while economically it seems like the right wing won, a curious paradox is that Thatcher and Reaganomics heralded a significant liberalising of the culture. Attitudes on sex and race have progressed remarkably over my lifetime to the point where, in the culture industries where Gilliam works, the status quo looks radically different to the 60s.

In Gilliam's defence he has always had to fight for his work. Partly because he's an insufferable prick, I'm sure, but also because his work never fits. He exists in that troublesome position of having just enough popularity that his films are worth funding, but not quite enough popular appeal for them to be funded effectively. He has a platform, but he's still fighting for scraps, and consistently biting the hands that do feed him.

But that's not an excuse. I think he's wrong to be attacking "the #metoo movement" but I do kinda understand where he's coming from. Rightly or wrongly he sees himself, and his peers, as outsiders fighting against the establishment. When the establishment declares progressive ideas around equality to be the ethical standard but still won't support his work, he's going to see those ideas as the problem.

It's sad because people from Gilliam's generation, especially those who haven't gone to the dark side, do have a lot to offer today's progressives. The veterans of the post-war counterculture may be scarred and twitchy but they fought the power and they know where it lies. It'd be lovely to think the generations could come together and learn from each other. Sadly, I can't see that happening while everything is mediated by the commercial internet.

In 2013 I went to see the flawed but underrated The Zero Theorem with Jez and Tom. I had the distinct feeling we were seeing the modern world through Gilliam's eyes. In some ways it was a parody of what an old man thinks of young people (the party scene lit exclusively by iPad screens was genius) but beyond the bluster and rage were messages and arguments I think today's progressive counterculture warriors would find useful. Sadly I doubt any of them will give him the time of day…

The danger of meaning

I would comfortably say that I'm often searching for meaning in things. This feels like a good thing to do, to not accept face values but to prod and question and figure out what's actually going on. And upon finding meaning I'm happy and satisfied. My work is done. I can move on.

So I was intrigued, on starting to watch Examined Life – a series of interviews with contemporary philosophers, to come across Avital Ronell's rejection of meaning.

(Sidebar: I know Ronell is apparently what we might call a "controversial" figure and a pretty horrible person, by some accounts, but I'm just interested in this idea of Heidegger's she articulates here.)

It's worth watching, but in essence, meaning makes things satisfying, so we are prone to accept meanings without questioning them because they feel good. But many things don't lend themselves to simple meaning, and that's when we have to work harder, to pay attention to our actions and question the easy but empty meanings that are attached to such things.

I found myself thinking of traffic lights and the language of road signage. It is easy for motorists to read the signage and apply that meaning to the road environment to the exclusion of any messier information that might be around. A green light means go, so we go. We are slaves to meaning.

An intriguing, but rarely implemented, method of traffic calming is to remove as much signage as possible, along with curbs, road markings, crossings, etc. This shared space idea makes driving full of uncertainty because you don't know what anything means. There's no handy light telling you to go and a sign saying at what speed. You have to move your car through this space and anything can happen.


pic via

Ronell seems to be saying we should approach the world like a shared space road, removing all the signage erected by those who control and influence society's rules and moving carefully because anything can happen.

Of course this could lead to paralysis, but I think it's more about being aware that the meaning we assign to something or someone is, by necessity, a massively simplification. They are evil, they can be trusted, they deserve their fate. These simplifications let us get past the issue nice and quickly, but that does not make using them the right thing to do. Nuance is important.

Plenty to ponder.

Examined Life is on Prime at the moment.

Pretty Trauma

With some trepidation I watched the first episode of season two of The Handmaids Tale the other night. The first season had been very good but I'd heard the next was a bit all-out brutal horrorshow and, oddly enough, I didn't find myself needing that of an evening.

That first episode is pretty brutal and presumably sets the tone for some outright misery. Usually I'm OK with that, but I'm wondering to what end this is all for. The first season mirrored the book and therefore had a coherent arc. There was a point. This next wave is, what, world building? Where's it going?

Obviously that will become clear over time, but there was something about the presentation that slightly unnerved me. It was quite beautiful.

There's a whole thing in film theory (I believe – this is definitely not my area) about the perils of presenting horrifying scenes that you want the viewer to engage with but in doing so make the horrifying thing exciting and alluring. Film, like all visual art, gets its power by showing an abstracted, unreal or hyperreal version of the world using tropes and styles that can detach us as much as involve us. Or something. Maybe an example will help.

In this first episode of Handmaids season 2 the women are forced to stand in a courtyard in the rain holding a rock at arms length as an ongoing punishment for the denouement of season 1. It's basically a torture scene, but it's filmed beautifully. The women are perfectly arranged in a circle and frequently filmed from above, their bright red and white costumes contrasting with the dark bricks.

It is a visually beautiful scene, perfectly staged, cleanly shot. Prior to this was a flashback to the pre-fascist days which is all soft lights and handheld cameras. A contrast is being made, but I'm uneasy about how gorgeous the nightmare looks. How it draws me in. Maybe that's the point? I'm not sure.

I filed all that away in my mind, but then we watched I, Tonya last night, a biopic about ice skater Tonya Harding, which was excellent in many many ways. I particularly liked how the tone threw me off guard. The trailer sets up a light-hearted comic romp about white-trash idiots and the film itself pretty much delivers that sort of film, except it doesn't because this is a story about an abused woman, emotionally by her mother and physically by her husband, ultimately punished by society for something she (probably) didn't do. I'm sitting there thinking, am I supposed to be laughing at this? It's been set up as a funny, there are some genuinely funny bits, but this story is not funny at all. It's a genuine tragedy.

I think I, Tonya plays a bait and switch, promising you a Goodfellas or Logan Lucky and then betraying that with something much darker. The Founder did a similar thing with Michael Keaton's character who you initially root for and by the end feel terrible for ever liking. It's a subtle and tricky thing, to subvert the viewer's experience like that, and it's all the more powerful when it works.

Handmaids doesn't feel like it's doing anything subtle here. It seems to be simply saying "This world is awful. Look how awful it is. Look at it." But to make sure we look they make this awful world look beautiful even when it's supposed to be ugly and brutal. Especially when it's ugly and brutal. And I'm not sure that works in the way they intended.

Sunday Reads

A currently biweekly digest of longer-form writings and the occasional video I would like to commend to you for a lazy Sunday morning.

The Shape of Space

This extensive look at the geometry of living in environments where up and down don't make sense is packed full of quite wonderful things. Buckminster Fuller made a big deal of us living on "Spaceship Earth" and encouraged shifts in language to reorient ourself as riding on a planet moving through space, but our evolutionary experience is stubbornly locked to a gravity model. Even astronauts on the International Space Station, that great experiment in post-planetary living, orient themselves as if "they are in a very tall building with all the intermediate floors removed." Also of note is an intelligent and detailed look at those 1970s cylindrical space habitats that haunted my childhood.

Russian Cosmism Versus Interstellar Bosses: Reclaiming Full-Throttle Luxury Space Communism

Cosmism is a new term to me and I'm enjoying discovering it. Like many ideas that came from inter-war Europe and post-revolutionary Russia, it's unrealistic and bonkers but highly alluring. And the parallels with the fringe ideologies of our algorithm-weilding masters is quite striking, albeit more optimistic, maybe? Does the left need to "seize back crazed utopic ideas from fascists and Silicon Valley" in order to save the world from Trump? It's certainly worth considering.

How to be human: the man who was raised by wolves

A long-read on Marcos Rodríguez who was abandoned as a child in poverty-stricken Spain and grew up without human contact. But that's just the preamble. The story really happens when he is brought back to civilisation but doesn't have any of the social tools to deal with a culture coming out of Fascism.

It may be no accident that Rodríguez's case was, for half a century, rather less celebrated: he emerged from the mountains into a country scared to investigate itself for fear of what it might find. There was little appetite for reopening debates about poverty and neglect, or the sale of children into labour, even in the 1970s. It was not until much later, 35 years after Franco had died, in a democracy mature enough to confront its past, that the details and significance of his story were finally embraced.

What does a nuclear bomb blast feel like?

The headline here is soldiers at nuclear bomb tests seeing the bones in their hands as they covered their faces, but the real kick in the guts for me is that they were forced into secrecy for decades and never compensated for being there at all. Oh, these are British soldiers, by the way, dying of leukaemia and fathering deformed babies. This bloody country…

Chamberlain Clock

On a number of Birmingham's traffic islands you'll find these iron clocks painted green. They're total heritage but because they often have no pedestrian access it's tricky to see them up close. While doing a reccy for my Jewellery Quarter walks this month I crossed over to read the inscription on the clock there and took a photo because it's quite specific.

Joseph Chamberlain is one of the Big Names in this city. Not to be confused with his son Neville of "peace in our time" fame, Chamberlain's mayorship in the 1870s saw one of the great Victorian programmes of municipal socialism, clearing the slums and reducing the blight of poverty, fighting hard against the Conservative establishment to bring about real reform. He was, in short, a local hero, so it's unsurprising that there are countless monuments and memorials to him, not least a public square of equal stature to Victoria's next door.

But he was also a massive Imperialist. Having sorted out Birmingham he went Westminster and became Colonial Secretary in Salisbury's government and brought his paternalist reforming ideas with him.

"I believe that the British race is the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen… It is not enough to occupy great spaces of the world's surface unless you can make the best of them. It is the duty of a landlord to develop his estate."

Nice.

And then there were the Boer Wars which he oversaw, including the delightful invention of the concentration camp. These were won and the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed in May 1902.

The plaque on the clock is about a two month tour of South Africa from over the Winter of 1902-3, a bridge building, conciliation effort to bring everyone back under the umbrella of the British Empire. Everyone with white skin, that is. Apartheid might not have become official policy until 1948 but it was there in all but name. Blacks were a resource, like the land, and the Boer Wars were effectively about who would control that resource.

The quote on the clock reads: "We have shown that we can be strong and resolute in war; it is equally important to show that we can be strong and resolute in peace." Within a decade white South Africans had negotiated nominal independence and were fully sovereign by 1931.

Chamberlain seems like a massively complicated figure but he marks an interesting moment in the history of progressiveness in the UK. He was in some ways ahead of his time in Birmingham, recognising that the city was only as strong and healthy as its inhabitants and that industry alone could not provide the necessary levels of infrastructure. He, and many others across the country, laid the foundations for the welfare state, and for that we must be grateful.

But he was behind the times when it came to the rest of the world. He believed the hubris of Britain's divine right to rule the waves and their superiority over other races. The 20th century would prove him as wrong as it would prove his civic ideas right.

In Birmingham I think we like to remember the young Chamberlain over the old, just as the English as a whole prefer the old Churchill to the more problematic pre-war version. It makes us feel better about our place in history to concentrate on the good stuff. But we should probably remember the bad stuff too. Birmingham's connection to the evils of empire is less clear cut than, say, Bristol and Liverpool where the slave trade looms large. But it's there, clearly written on the lovingly preserved heritage clocks on the traffic islands.

Ars Electronic 2017

Ars Electronica is a large media arts festival and as such it functions like most large industry gatherings, albeit with a less rapaciously commercial imperative. It takes place in the city of Linz, the third largest in Austria, roughly 2/3rds the size of Wolverhampton, give or take.

Ars Electronica (commonly shortened to Ars, which makes smutty British people snigger at your visiting Arse) was founded in 1979 and is based around the Ars Electronica Centre, a science museum for future technology manifesting as a glowing cube of flashing lights on the banks of the Danube. It appears to house very little art, which is a bit confusing when visiting during the festival, but uses what you might call a cultural mindset to frame the exhibits on show. There's also a strong emphasis on pixels and screens. Lots of VR goggles at the moment alongside their much vaunted "8K Deep Space" room where multiple high definition projectors fill the wall and floor like a slightly more immersive IMAX. Like most "big telly" spaces in cultural institutions, the challenge seems to be figuring out what it's for. Maybe it's just a big telly.

This "future technology" thing sometimes makes the place feel old fashioned, a problem futurism has bumped into in recent years. As we fumble our way through the end days of neoliberalism it's harder and harder to imagine a future that isn't part of our tattered reality tunnel, so futures that wish to avoid doomed dystopic nihilism have to remix the past, only smaller and faster and with more pixels. Ars gamely tries to bring earnest social concern to their tech evangelism but to these jaded eyes it feels a bit naive. Still, it's refreshing to see a European take on what has become dominated by The Californian Ideology.

While the centre runs all year, the festival takes place for a week in September, and in recent years has completely separated from the mothership, occupying Postcity which is not a new space for exploring post-city ideologies and is actually an empty disused post office sorting depot. This is oddly refreshing, like discovered something called an Innovation Centre was actually used for innovation, which never happens.

The space is vast, covering three massive floors, some still kitted out with conveyor belts and mail sorting chutes, down to the ominously named Bunker complex which feels like a cold-war installation. It's on a scale with a convention centre, but without any of the facilities. Ars brings it to life once a year, filling it with industrial fittings to create stalls, booths and workshops while decorating the concrete with potted long grasses. The end result evokes a post-industrial takeover by a tribe of techno-futurists, especially when all the Media Artists arrive with their fashion cliches and quirks.

You enter at the top floor via a sweeping service road built for lorries and collect your badge, although this is not technically needed for the top floor which is open to all. This floor is roughly divided into two areas. First is what I call the Tech Demos, works by artists that show their workings more than their meanings and which might lead to greater things in time, and demonstrations of cool technologies with no pretensions of artistry.

The former included most of the Artificial Intelligence which, to my mind, still hasn't produced a great work yet. They're using an artistic approach to poke at this relatively new technology and reveal some of its weirdness, and that's great, but I doubt any of the artists involved are satisfied yet. There's more work to be done. The later reflects the main Ars centre. Lots of mind-control headsets, lots of robot arms, all very wow but of very little substance. But that's fine. We don't always have much wow in our lives. Often wow is enough.

Downstairs is what you might call the real art. Threaded through the maze of tunnels are installations and curated exhibitions, some commissioned by the festival along with a collections from commercial galleries across Europe. Developing the market for digital art, often by definition intangible, is one of the the strands at Ars.

The art on show was on a very high standard. I was particularly impressed the following:

If the upstairs was a fun-house of excitement the downstairs more that made up for that with plenty of space for contemplation.

Of course, one man's impression of a massive event like this is going to be subjective and informed by my state of mind. While I had the eye of a practitioner I also had the attitude of a tourist, so I was interested in how the locals felt about this whale of a festival landing on their town.

Last year I was in Linz for a residency run by qujOchÖ, a collective of local artists that's been working in the city since 2001. When I said I would be returning for Ars, one of the founder members, Thomas Philipp aka Fipps graciously said I could stay with him. This, coupled with my introvert approach to mingling, meant I followed qujOchÖ members around like a lost puppy, giving me something of a grass roots view of the whole affair.

Austrians, it turns out, are famously cynical and grumpy (their term "sudern" is hard to define but is rather like a Gaelic shrug soaked in nihilistic disappointment) so it wasn't too much of a surprise to hear the local artists bitching in the bars late at night about programme changes and managerial incompetence. And I'm sure you'd hear that in any city – big events are hard and toes will be trodden on.

But I was surprised as the lack of impact on the local scene. I would have thought this would be their tentpole event, a chance to show off local work to a visiting global audience (and Ars is truly a global affair). But the impact was negligible. A lot of people got technical work, of course, and one of the shows at the main art museum was by a dystopian docklands by local collective Time's Up (which had an oddly English vibe I felt), but this was an anomaly and where the Linz scenes were represented it was on the unofficial fringe where business was as usual.

Maybe the effect of Ars happened years ago and the city is now sustainable without it, allowing the festival to become a transnational entity, bringing inspiration in rather than exporting it. The local artists are complacent about it because it's normal. Surely every city has a massive, international, popular, thoughtful and, most importantly, competently run arts festival? Sadly, they don't.

If Birmingham had the equivalent of Ars Electronica (ignoring for the moment that this city is currently financially, ideologically and structurally incapable of such a feat) it would change everything for the artists working here. Not just from the sense of having an infrastructure or an income but from shifting our horizons and giving us a global perspective on our work.

Interestingly, a couple of months after Ars, Coventry had it's first Biennial centred on an exhibition of contemporary art in an empty newspaper print-works. Despite the grand name (Biennials make one think of Venice) it was a totally grass-roots, shoestring budget affair, utterly hooked into the local art scenes. It was fired not by routine or remit but by a passion that, fuck it, this needs to happen and we can make it happen. The Coventry Biennial, should it continue and grow, will bring stability and continuity to a community of artists that will raise their game. And should it succeed beyond their wildest dreams, those same artists will kick against it, sneering at its conservatism and conformity, at its inability to react and embrace what's happening in the city it helped to transform.

And that's exactly the way it should be.

My new camera is a laser

I recently bought myself a laser, which, as childhood ambitions go, was a rather thrilling experience. Not a laser pointer but an actual scientific instrument for measuring things. It's a LiDAR module (as in Light raDAR) which shoots out beams in a 270 degrees arc 10 times a second and measures the time it takes for them to bounce back. It converts this into distance and spits a torrent of numbers down a USB cable to my Mac. These numbers can be turned into a graphical representation of what in front of the LiDAR, or something else entirely.

LiDARs mounted on planes measure topographic detail with astonishing accuracy and cost silly money. Mine cost a grand, has a range of about 6 metres, is usually used in robotics for autonomous navigation and it's accurate enough to be used for 3D scanning of rooms and objects. But I bought it to use as a camera.

Using a LiDAR to make art is not a new thing. There was a nice piece by ScanLAB at London's Photographer's Gallery on their big screen last year and Radiohead did that video way back in 2008, so it's been around a bit. But if I were to point this small 10cm cube at you, you probably wouldn't think you were being photographed. You probably wouldn't think anything was happening at all.

What it means to make a "photograph" has undergone such a seismic disruption over the last couple of decades that the term is almost meaningless. We can say that a camera is a chamber into which reflected light is allowed to enter under controlled conditions (lens focus, aperture size, shutter time), but after that pretty much everything is up for grabs. How the light is recorded and in what format, how that information (analogue or digital) is processed and how the resulting image is distributed and displayed – all these choices have grown exponentially as computing power and access to technology has expanded our ability to make and consume images. You might even say you don't need a camera at all.

As such I'm not really sure what a photograph is anymore. Maybe photography is just the initial capture of light in a place and time, supplying the raw material for what we might call "image production" or "visual data manipulation". Or maybe there are photographs but they don't exist in isolation. They're part of the "stream", juxtaposed thoughtfully, algorithmically or randomly with each other and the surrounding world.

When I think about visual culture it's this mass of images, and how we might process them, which comes to mind: visual art as data, zeros and ones which can be churned by a computer. This is where the power lies.

Photoshop, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, can seem like magic, especially when using newer functions like Content Aware Fill, but behind the skeuomorphic analogies of the interface it's just maths. Each pixel of a photo has a number assigned to it representing its colour. By selectively applying mathematics to those numbers, the manner in which the photograph represents reality is changed.

While Photoshop is mostly managed by a human operator, we're starting to see this editing of reality being automated. My favourite example from last year was Google introducing a new feature where multiple photos of the same scene are merged into images where everyone is smiling with their eyes open, even though that moment never happened. You don't pose for the photo – Google's robot poses you.

More recently, neural networks (complex computer algorithms that mimic some basic brain functions), like Tom White's @smilevector, have been employed to literally turn that frown upside down creating authentic looking smiles in grumpy photos.  This is achieved by processing thousands of smiles into mathematical expressions which can be applied to a miserable digital photograph. The maths is complicated and requires a lot of computing power, but computing power is always increasing. It's said the time-to-Snapchat-filter for advanced image manipulation techniques is probably down to 6 months so soon we'll all be able to alter the mood of our precious moments with a tap.

The speed by which this stuff is moving threatens to be shocking, but I feel complacency is more likely. It's common knowledge that UK cities are the most surveilled in the world with cameras on every corner and we've mostly accepted this as a culture. But the implications of ubiquitous surveillance plus massive computing power are so huge as to seem fantastical. Every so often it crops up in the movies, such as the "satellites and gunships" algorithm-drone analogy of Captain America's Project Insight, or the "hack all the cellphones and find anyone" God's Eye of Fast & Furious 7, but the execution is understandably absurd, so any useful discussion of the ideas behind them is commuted. Still, more "realistic" depictions in the likes of Bourne or Mr Robot suffer from a credulity gap, which is odd given some of the ridiculous things the flickering screen has convinced us are real.

Maybe this is because it's not very visually interesting. A curious phenomena of computer vision is that is doesn't really produce visuals. Those films you may have seen of how self-driving cars "see" the road are really visualisations to help the programmers debug. The computer doesn't see anything – it just churns the data and moves the car accordingly.

For me, this contradiction is at the heart of thinking about modern photography. We think cameras are for capturing images and making visual representations and get righteously indignant at perceived abuses of these representations of ourselves (witness John Oliver only managing to get a reaction to the Snowden leaks when he told people the government could see their more intimate dick-pics). But the visual output of cameras is increasingly a byproduct. The networked surveillance machine doesn't care about aesthetics. It just cares about where your image fit in its mathematical representation of reality. And your image is just another data point alongside your browsing history, credit rating, loyalty cards, mobile phone location, fitness data, social media activity, and so on.

When our persons are abstracted to such an extreme degree, particularly when the greatest threat appears to be adverts, is it possible for us to care? Are we calmly drifting into an Orwellian nightmare? Or are the privacy campaigners over-reacting?

As artists our most basic job is to represent the world in a way that encourages people to consider their place in it. As photographers we select the reflected light in a specific time and place and present it as a two-dimensional field of shades to provoke a reaction in the viewer. This selection is the key as it gives agency to the human pressing the shutter and makes the image a subjective representation of reality.

But the profiles generated from our data are presented as an objective truth, and if it's wrong then it's completely wrong. There's no room for nuance in the world of zeroes and ones, where the struggle seems less about finding beauty than to analyse and replicate it. This makes being an artist who works with data an interesting challenge.

Any artist who works with computers is a data artist, and in the last 20 years that has come to include photographers. When processing their images many will hit "Auto" or chose a fancy filter, some will push their RAW files through the prescribed algorithms of Adobe Lightroom, while others write custom code in openFrameworks or Processing to interrogate the camera's output. But all are working with data and maths.

Photography has always been the best example of the intersection of art and technology. Photographs can be great art and can change our perception of the world. But they are always co-authored to some degree by machines, and this puts photographers in the perfect position to consider and critique our new data-driven reality.

Because the manner in which Facebook and Google and the NSA and GCHQ are capturing, processing and presenting the world to us is not that different to the work of a photographer capturing, processing and presenting an image. We know all too well the power and limitations of mechanical representation through years of struggling to get that "perfect" photo. We know that the so-called objective reality of data holds both truth and fiction, is both pure and flawed, and most importantly is completely open to interpretation.

I feel like photography in the 2010s is at the stage painting was in the late 19th century. Painting was employed to accurately represent visual reality and the rise of photography freed it from this responsibility and allowed the riot of the 20th century to occur. In the last two decades photography, defined as single moments captured and rendered as single objects, has been superseded by something we might call Computational Datavizography, though I pray we think of a better name soon. This frees photography to go crazy but it also gives us the right, maybe the duty, to apply our knowledge and wisdom to critiquing these new capture devices and processes as they attempt to tell us about our world.

And that is why my new camera is a laser.


Footnotes.

Originally published here.