The Mistake in Photography: Patrick Pound, Jackson Eaton and the Paradoxical Self Image

Daniel Palmer

According to a recent book on snapshot photography, there ‘are now no more “mistakes” in the image archive’.[i] Apparently, digital habits of viewing, deleting and retaking are driving images towards a kind of inhuman perfection. But fortunately, human behaviour remains unpredictable and even digital cameras make mistakes. The other day, for instance, I accidentally pressed the shutter-release button on my digital SLR while the lens cap was still on (I realise my use of this antiquated device already tells you something). The camera, not quite intelligent enough to recognise the lens cap itself, correctly sensed that the light level was exceptionally low and kept the shutter open for several long seconds. As a result of my all-too-human failure, the digital sensor scrambled to register any vestigial photons to turn into electronic pulses and digital image data. Eventually, the mirror descended with what seemed an unusually loud and empty clack. However, viewing the resulting ‘image’, I saw a more or less regular, striated field of fuzzy pink and purple pixels [fig. 1]—as if I had closed my eyes while staring at the sun. Evidently, the algorithms inside the camera were confused. But it made me wonder. Is this hallucinogenic image what photography has become in the age of code? Is this the dark truth of digital light?[ii]

Whether or not my purple haze is an indexical image is surely no longer an interesting question. The pixels represent a complex relationship between technology, algorithms and light far beyond the scope of my current concerns. My interest here—the nature of the mistake in photography—is far less technical and more concerned with human errors and aesthetic conventions. Think, for instance, of all those books around ‘good’ composition that proliferated in the post-war years, famously parodied by John Baldessari in his 1967 photo-canvas Wrong, which shows him standing with a palm tree coming out of his head and a single capitalised word below it that says ‘WRONG’. I am interested in how the possibilities for such untutored mistakes in photography are progressively being removed by the various automations that now facilitate image making. My argument is that these automations inevitably change what it means to photograph. As digital cameras become more and more sophisticated they increasingly remove decision making from the photographer—even, in some cases, making them completely unnecessary to the basic process.[iii] As we know, more and more photography today does not involve human operators (think red-light cameras, security cameras, robotic cameras, etc.). At the same time, everyone with a mobile phone is a photographer now, and, as if in resistance to their obsolescence, many of these people regularly take pictures of themselves.

The process of deskilling the photographer gained pace with Kodak in the 1880s, epitomised by their brilliant marketing slogan ‘you press the button we do the rest’. However, Kodak—whose success was based on a consumer- friendly method of pre-loaded roll film—simply shifted adjustments in exposure to the printing stage (‘the rest’). The first camera to feature automatic exposure appeared in 1938, but it was prohibitively expensive, and auto-focus cameras did not appear until the late 1970s. By the 1980s, almost no skilled work was required of a human operator of an instamatic or SLR to produce sharp and correctly exposed negatives. Writing about this development in the mid-1990s, at the precipice of the digital era, Julian Stallabrass romanticised the erstwhile skilled amateur photographer’s activities as a zone of compromised but nevertheless non-alienated activity, and bemoaned their demise into instrumentalised gadgetry.[iv]

In the new century, digital cameras have taken automation to a completely new level. For instance, in-built smile recognition software tells us when people look happy, removing the need to ask subjects to say ‘cheese’. Optical image stabilisation removes the need for a photographer to remain still when taking a picture. Recognising that the time-consuming decision-making labour of photography now lies primarily in the editing rather than the taking, Google even pioneered automatic editing on its social media site Google Plus, promising to privilege photos of people recognised to be in a user’s closest Google circles.[v] Similarly, Apple’s iPhone 6 features a ‘burst’ mode that takes 10 photos in a single second (a feature perfect for ‘burst selfies’, according to Apple marketing head Phil Schiller[vi]). Crucially, the task of selecting the image(s) to keep can be outsourced to the software, for blink and smile detection in burst mode ‘allows the camera to recommend the most appropriate shot from the series’.[vii]

We are now accustomed to being recommended things by computers, which is to say by (often networked) software. Amazon’s ‘recommendation engine’ has helped to make it the most successful bookstore in the world. You buy one book, it recommends another based on an aggregated history of user choices. YouTube recommends videos to watch based on how your demonstrated tastes align with others. However, the idea of the camera recommending the most ‘appropriate’ image seems a little unnerving—perhaps because of the intimate association between photography and memory. And yet, the technology of the camera is simply following its own black-box logic. As Vilém Flusser famously argued, the camera is a programmable apparatus that paradoxically programs the photographers who use it.[viii] In Flusser’s terms—contrary to the marketing myth— photographers are functionaries to a technical program, rather than creative visionaries. Undoubtedly, like the emergence of photography itself in the early nineteenth century, automations express broader cultural and political imperatives.[ix] Most obviously, aside from minimising mistakes, automations are designed to reduce labour time. In this sense, automation represents an inherent distrust of human agency. As networked software becomes increasingly ‘intelligent’, the technical program of photography remains the reproduction of visual clichés, but becomes more of a communicative act in the present rather than a way of recording memories. The ephemeral photographic messages of Snapchat exemplify this new logic.

Within this intense visual present, life is consumed and the self is performed.  All of this underlies why the ‘selfie’ has become the watchword of photographers. Oxford Dictionaries named selfie as its word of the year in 2013. The Guardian described 2013 as ‘the year that the selfie reached saturation point’ in an article featuring the year’s so-called ‘best, worst and most revealing’, including celebrities (Kim Kardashian posing in the mirror) and politicians (Barack Obama with other world leaders at the funeral of Nelson Mandela).[x] The same article complained of the surfeit of ‘faux-sociological rationalisation pieces about selfies’ that have appeared in the past few years in newspapers (and, we might add, art and academic journals). Selfies appear to be the ideal symbol of our hyper-vanity; narcissism perfected as a popular distraction. The reality star Kim Kardashian is perfectly attuned to this moment, photographing herself obsessively for her Instagram feed, and then compiling a collection of these images in a book, sardonically titled Selfish (2014)—inspired by a similar collection she originally gave to her husband.[xi]

Selfies clearly belong to photography’s long and intimate relationship with narcissism and celebrity. Such tendencies were already identified in Charles Baudelaire’s brilliant 1859 essay ‘The Modern Public and Photography’. In that essay, Baudelaire took the Daguerreotype’s mirrored surface as proof that photography makes narcissists of us all. Baudelaire’s critique—in which photography breeds and reproduces self-absorption—was based on the rapid success of portrait photography. He was responding to the cultural success of the Daguerreotype as a medium that enabled the mid-nineteenth century bourgeois to look at its own ‘trivial image’.[xii] Baudelaire detected in the ardent desire of the masses for conformity a deceptive equality of social representation.

Even if deceptively democratic, photography is a ‘generous medium’, as the photographer Lee Friedlander once put it. When you think you are photographing one thing, you are inevitably also photographing a whole lot of other stuff as well.[xiii] In the nineteenth century, it was the camera’s indiscriminate recording of all detail, the seeming incapacity of the operator to select one detail over another, which rendered the photograph outside the boundaries of art. Later, precisely the same quality became one of its defining features of modernist art photography, not to mention an important part of its theorisation by Roland Barthes.[xiv] The mistake in photography, like the punctum, is a particular result of photography’s indiscriminate and contingent record of whatever is in front of the lens (even if that happens to be a lens cap). Walter Benjamin famously described this quality as ‘the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject’.[xv]

Indexical mistakes in photography have preoccupied Melbourne-based artist Patrick Pound. Pound is obsessively interested in collecting, which he views as a way of cataloguing the world. Found photographs feature prominently within his collections, and the act of photography itself often becomes a way of categorising these images. For instance, Pound has meticulously collected images of people holding cameras, and another set of people holding photographs. He has amassed a collection of photographs of amateur models, but not just any kind: Pound only collects images of models in which the imprint of a waistband or sockline is visible on their skin.

For one of his best-known collage works, The Photographer’s Shadow (2012), Pound collected photo- graphs of amateur photographer’s shadows: dark figures looming towards or behind the intended subject of the image, hands up, caught in the act of photography. Pound gives his overall collection of such images—parts of which have also been exhibited as prints—the general title The Photographers (1990–) [fig. 2]. Indeed, in their accumulation, these unintentional self-images become a portrait of the twentieth-century amateur photographer.[xvi] To the extent that their charm lies in their apparent innocence, they can be read as the opposite to the calcu- lated pose of the selfie. There is also a gender shift: the self-effacing father figure of Pound’s Kodak-era images has long since given way to the self-conscious young woman with a camera phone.[xvii]

In a related vein, Pound has a large collection of photographs where photographer’s fingers or thumb appear in the frame. Some of these he exhibited as enlarged scanned images under the title The Photographer’s Hand (2011) [fig. 3]. The result is a kind of homage to what is perhaps the amateur photographer’s most common mistake.[xviii] Sometimes, to Pound’s obvious delight, a thumb and shadow appear in the same photograph. In a perceptive review of an exhibition that included these two tributes to ‘crimes of photography’, Anna Newbold speculates that it is as if ‘the people on the other end of these cameras haven’t quite succumbed to the notion that they can’t be in the photo’.[xix] Both forms of mistake can be viewed as accidental portraits of the photographer, in which they are both present and absent. They are more than that, of course: Pound’s use of found photographs operate as icons of loss on multiple levels. However, it is hard not to read them in terms of our culture’s insistent, now digital, drive to create the perfect image. Photographer’s shadows and fingers in photographs are, of course, precisely the kind of thing that digital software encourages us to immediately delete.

And yet, digital software doesn’t only delete. Sometimes, it can be additive, as when the High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode on cameras stitches together several frames. But just as the web is littered with examples of ‘Photoshop fails’, auto-HDR mode often produces accidentally uncanny results—as when moving subjects appear as morphing spectres. For the Melbourne-based artist Jackson Eaton, the ready-made archive of Google Images represents a particularly rich source of imagery to work with in an additive fashion. Long concerned with the peculiar relationship of the self to others, and the restless quality of our self image, Eaton has made various bodies of work involving his own libidinal self image, including ironic images of himself on t-shirts. In his ongoing series Melfies 2 (2014) [fig. 4], Eaton has plugged images of his body parts and clothing into Google, sampled from selfies taken in various mirrors. The process is simple: Eaton spots a mirror (usually in a bathroom or clothing store), takes an image of himself, then cuts up his body in Photoshop into geometric parts and uses these images to do a reverse Google image search. Google’s image-analysing algorithms struggle to find an accurate match to the images submitted due to their always contingent backgrounds, and generate bizarre and seemingly random associations. As Eaton described it to me, the resulting surrealist collages mask ‘the “biological self ” with technologically-matched yet erroneous images that are usually saleable commodities and criminal faces’.

Eaton is interested in Lacan’s notion of the narcissist’s frustration with the self as projected object. Just as narcissism, for Lacan, is based on the child’s misrecognition of its self-image, Eaton relishes Google’s misrecognition of his body sections. His ‘becoming other’ speaks to the obvious point that the popularity of selfies is at once because they seem to empower individuals to control their own representation, but also represent a symptom of networked isolation—of geographically fragmented individuals desiring connection through little screens. And since self-presentation is fundamentally always in doubt, since in order to conform and ‘blend in’ to established stereotypes we invariably perform an act of mimicry, the act of self-representation must be constantly repeated. Moreover, if selfies, following Baudelaire, represent a pseudo-democracy of appearances, Eaton’s work also speaks to the commodification of the self in online networks that are designed to monetise the expression of desire. Concentrated on corporate networks as Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, selfies are fundamentally linked to consumer culture.[xx] Every day, users post about 130 million photos on Tumblr, and starting in 2014, the Yahoo-owned media brand began to analyse all those images for clues to users’ brand affiliations. Eaton’s work makes a mockery of this process. When even the ideal self-image can now be determined by software, Melfies can be interpreted as both a critique of demands for self-representation online and a parody of aesthetic outsourcing to algorithms.

Pound and Eaton are meta-photographers. Where Pound redeems the photographer’s mistake, Eaton exploits Google’s mistakes to reintroduce randomness and chance into the contemporary self-portrait. Pound collects unique, unintended traces of photographers, while Eaton works with the overload of generic images online to see how his own digital self-image mingles with millions of others. Where Pound collects photographs precisely as they have become obsolete and available for sale as decontextualised objects on eBay, Eaton’s work suggests that the online self—the selfie—is already determined by its relation to objects of commerce. In both cases, the photographer’s self-image, their residual trace, can be read as some kind of resistance to their own redundancy in the face of ever increasing automation. Automation, as we have seen, seeks to homogenise image making. Its illusions of control and efficiency are like the operating principle of contemporary capitalism, seeking to eradicate chance from our lives while simultaneously fetishising spontaneity. Nevertheless, mistakes still happen. Recently, a rare glitch in my iPhoto software saw all the thousands of images I had ever deleted suddenly return to my library. Once I had recovered from the initial horror, I discovered that some of the images I had carefully deleted turn out to be more interesting than those I had originally decided to keep. In photography, like life, perfection is illusory and temporary, always haunted by the underappreciated mistake awaiting a second life.

 

Figures:

1  Daniel Palmer, Untitled (Mistake), 2014. Digital image file.

2  Patrick Pound, installation  view from The Photographer’s Shadow, 2012. 1200 × 2580mm, inkjet print on archival paper. Courtesy the artist.

3  Patrick Pound, detail view from The Photographer’s Shadow, 2012. 1200 × 2580mm, inkjet print on archival paper. Courtesy the artist.

4  Patrick Pound, detail from The Photographer’s Hand, 2011. Courtesy the artist.

5  Jackson Eaton, Untitled from the series Melfies 2, 2014. Courtesy the artist

 

Notes:

[i] Catherine Zuromskis, Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images (Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 2013), 315.

[ii] If I had left the lens cap on a film camera, the negative would have been equally hungry to draw light, but the resulting ‘thin’ negative would have resulted in a solidly dark positive or print.

[iii] I have written about this topic elsewhere. See Daniel Palmer, ‘Redundant Photographs: Cameras, Software and Human Obsolescence’ in Rubinstein D., Golding J., and Fisher A. (eds.) On the Verge of Photography: Imaging Beyond Representation (Birmingham: ARTicle Press, 2013), 49–67.

[iv] Julian Stallabrass, ‘Sixty billion sunsets’, in Julian Stallabrass, Gargantua: Manufactured Mass Culture (London: Verso, 1996), 13–39.

[v] See Daniel Palmer, ‘Lights, Camera, Algorithm: Digital Photography’s Algorithmic Conditions’ in Sean Cubitt, Daniel Palmer & Nate Tkacz (eds.), Digital Light (London: Fibreculture Book Series, Open Humanities Press, 2015), 144–162.

[vi] Victor Luckerson,  ‘The iPhone 6 Will Have Apple’s Most Advanced iPhone Camera Yet’, Time, 9 September 2014, accessed 16 September 2014, http://time.com/topic/iphone-6.

[vii] ‘Apple iPhone 6 Camera Brings Low-Light and Focus Improvements’, Forbes, 9 September 2014, accessed 12 September 2014, www.forbes. com/sites/amadoudiallo/2014/09/09/

[viii] Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, trans. Anthony Matthews, (London: Reaktion Books, 2000).

[ix] See Geoffrey Batchen. Burning with Desire: The Conception  of Photography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997)

[x] Stuart Heritage, Selfies of 2013—the best, worst and most revealing, The Guardian, 12 December 2013, accessed 16 December 2014, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/11/selfies-2013-the-best-worst-most-revealing.

[xi] I thank Jackson Eaton for alerting me to this illuminating detail.

[xii] In Baudelaire’s inimitable words, ‘our loathsome society rushed, like Narcissus, to contemplate its trivial image on the metallic plate’. See Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Modern Public and Photography’ in Alan Trachtenberg (ed.), Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), 86–7. On Baudelaire’s motivations, see Pierre Taminiaux, The Paradox of Photography (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009), 49.

[xiii] ‘I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on the fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.’ Lee Friedlander, ‘An Excess of Fact’ in The Desert Seen (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1996), 104.

[xiv] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (London: Fontana, 1984).

[xv] Walter Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’ [1931] In One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcot and Kingsley Shorter (London: Verso, 1979), 243.

[xvi]Where Lee Friedlander had intentionally produced a series of playful photographs of his own shadows and reflections in the 1960s—a self-reflexive deconstruction of the medium of photography published as Self Portrait (1970)—Pound simply collects the readymade archive of amateur versions.

[xvii]A recent study of selfies around the world has confirmed that women take significantly more selfies than men, and that most are taken by people under the age of 25. See Selfiecity, accessed 10 September 2014, www.selfiecity.net.

[xviii]I discovered, researching this essay, that the prolific Dutch designer, publisher and artist Erik Kessels has recently devoted Volume 13 of his ongoing self-published series In Almost Every Picture to this same theme of fingers obscuring their subject. The 2014 book is subtitled Attack of the Giant Fingers. See www.kesselskramerpublishing.com

[xix] Anna Newbold, ‘Patrick Pound’s Collected Works: Telling Tales’, Inkblot, 14 October 2011, accessed 10 September, 2014, www.inkblotreview.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/dad-jokes-of-patrick- pound.html.

[xx] See Marco Bohr, ‘Deconstructing the Selfie’, Visual Culture Blog, 30 March 2014, accessed 1 April 2014, www.visualcultureblog. com/2014/03/deconstructing-the-selfie.

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