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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Invisible Photographers

Over break, some people pointed me towards some interesting photography online. First, some images rescued from the past:

These were taken by Vivian Maier -- who, as far as anyone can tell, kept them to herself. She died in 2009, leaving behind hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film; her work has been brought to light by John Maloof, an "eBay entrepreneur and real estate agent," who bought a box of negatives being auctioned off from a storage-locker whose owner had stopped payment. There's more on the story here:

And Maloof's blog, featuring more examples of Maier's work, is here:

Her talent is clear; and of course you begin to wonder why, after recording these moments -- many of them intimate, many with a sort of an aura of corner-of-the-eye privacy -- she chose to keep them private. Recorded but private. She must have been a quite circumspect voyeur. Towards the end of her life, what did she remember of her captured moments -- and did she suspect that some day, they would belong improbably to the world?

Photography had always had a stain (or an electric charge) of voyeurism. John Rafman's collection of photos from Google street view embrace voyeurism with the icy rapture of a predator drone lens. Some of the pictures arrest you with the helpless enthrallment of disaster just passed, or disaster immanent (and yet also passed, just passed invisibly). You'll have to click on the second one here to get a better view of it, to see why it's so terrible:

Although I shouldn't oversell the more dramatic images -- they amount to only a portion of the total work. Some of the views are simply beautifully (if accidentally) composed. And of course the accidental nature of their composition is part of their allure. I'm particularly drawn to the images of animals that show up. The animal is incapable of realizing its image is being recorded, and that image is being shot by a camera that is taking a picture outside of any pictorial intentionality (the picture is being taken to record a space on a map, not to really frame and take a "picture"). There's a mutual blankness of subject and perpetrator that amounts to a an almost perfect clarity -- something so clear it seems to dispense with the neccessity of a human eye to see it.

(The effect also has something to do with Victoria's post below, with the animals in the hotel rooms)

This work is quintessential postmodernism -- creating art by curating other peoples' images. Except in this case the images weren't really taken by another person -- they were taken by a machine, an automated camera attached to the top of a car. Postmodernism is partly a reaction to the endless proliferation of images in current culture; that profusion has long ago reached a point of metastasis. No one has to take the images, the images take themselves. This collection of Google street views holds forth the ideal of a disembodied photographer -- one who is everywhere and nowhere. A photographer whose physical safety is never at risk -- but whose punishment is that he's never there to see the outcome of any of his collected moments.

The idea of an artist's artist is familiar; Rafman is perhaps the voyeur's voyeur. And maybe he's simply a conduit for the camera's camera.

An interesting essay by Rafman on his work can be found here:

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