Wednesday, January 30, 2008

One Morning at Winning's

I am sitting at a long, wooden table in Winning's Coffee Shop on Harvard, near UNM, in Albuquerque. It’s a Wednesday morning. The room is packed with an eclectic mix of students, ghetto-dwellers and, like myself, visitors from across town.

It is a cold, overcast day outside; the diffuse light offers a glowing softness through the front face of windows and hanging ferns.

Bradley is standing near the corner, adjacent to the coffee roaster, selling his books. Bradley comes here several days every week and, with an assistant, unloads piles of book boxes from his old vehicle, carefully opening and arranging them in rows along the angled counter.

A young man stands near the left end, sporting a brown pull-over knit cap and hoodie jacket, thumbing through the bargain books set up on the bar stools. A young woman, probably his girl friend, is along side. Bradley offers short quips of advice, relevant to whatever book is being looked at. “That’s a classic. There’s a first edition up here, too.”

At the other end of the angled counter are two men in coats and hats. They’ve been intent on several boxes of books, and now they’re engaged in a seemingly intellectual discussion with Bradley.

The older man stands listening, thumbing a paperback. The younger man can’t decide between several books he’s selected. Bradley wears a carabineer of keys, clipped to the front collar of his sweater.

At the other end of the long, wooden table that I’m seat at are three college-aged people – two guys and a gal – who are discussing, among other subjects, what they have planned for the weekend. The girl needs a bed moved; Nick’s van may be available. “The A-Team van,” the other two jest. There’s a discussion about going to the new Rambo movie. And talk about some friend who plays in a band at Winning's in the evening.

Meanwhile, the two men at the book counter finish their conversation with Bradley. The younger one has purchased two books, while the older has one. Bradley makes change from a red and black Velcro wallet whose color matches the “Bradley’s Books” banner hung on the window behind the counter. The older man neatly folds the bills and inserts them, end-wise, into a compact, leather, squeeze-open wallet, the kind one would find in a Land’s End catalog.

There is a collection of student art, photo-collages, along the gallery wall. Some pieces are neatly framed behind glass, while others are crudely wrapped in what appears to be plastic wrap on white foam core board. You can tell who has a scholarship.

One of the restaurant staff busses the tables. “Is this yours,” she asks, pointing to a soggy plate of what appears to be scrambled eggs with green chile.

“No, I’m not that hungry” I retort, pointing to my scone and coffee.

I feel stilted, not comfortable enough to pull the X-370 Minolta up to my face, adjust the aperture and focus, and squeeze off a shot. Like I haven’t earned the right to somehow invade the space of an adjacent customer’s table. Which is a strange thought in retrospect, considering how much of my fellow customer’s privacy I’ve already invaded with these off-the-cuff latent observations. As if I’ve already taken their picture – a word picture – whose image is formed in the camera obscura of the mind.

I’m ready to leave. I’ll go somewhere where there are fewer people, and make landscape images and street shots. It’s been a good morning.

Outside on the curb I turn around and take a shot of a smoker seated at the sidewalk tables. “Are you a Fed,” he asks?

“Yes” I reply jesting, and smile.

He mumbles incoherently.

I drive off.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Democracy of Choice

I continue to be amazed at the level of interest shown in film cameras, and photography using film cameras, especially black and white film, given that electronic image making is now the de facto standard. This is not mere mawkish sentimentalism; a harking back to a bygone day when we were young and strong and the best of life was yet before us. The popularity of B & W film photography would suggest a stronger, more vibrant base of adherents than would the few aficionados of vacuum-tube television technology, for instance.

Man, the toolmaker, has always been in love with his handiwork, even the outmoded constructs of yesterday. There are entire organizations dedicated to preserving the memory of bygone technology: British steam-propelled farm machinery; antique radios; mechanical computational devices; the manual typewriter; the abacus; the fountain pen; Fisher-Price Pixelvision video cameras; the Sinclair ZX-81; spring and gravity powered clockworks; the Spirit Duplicator. As specific products of our technological society transition from ‘The Latest Fad’, to ‘The Common Implement’, to ‘The Recently Obsolescent Artifact’, each will begin to attract newfound interest, no doubt spurred on by the recent cultural history attached to the object.

There may also be some specific product features that came to be secretly appreciated by the product’s fan base – the core group of devotees – which, being unrecognized by the manufacturer, were eliminated or irreparably altered on the product’s next refresh cycle. We have seen this especially in the world of camera technology, where the convergence of automated photographic process with the large scale integration and miniaturization of consumer electronics has resulted in products that conform to the economies of automated assembly, rather than conforming to the ergonomics of the human hand. What used to be simple mechanical controls that interfaced well with the structure of the human body has given way to a bewildering complexity of user choices, promising to eliminate all possibility of error by removing the option of manual control, or at least embedding those controls within the structure of a software menu, thus rendering their real utility moot.

It is this element of total control that we find of interest. The products we acquire seem to come to us preprogrammed for specific usage modes, with the possibility for any ad hoc use purposefully minimized. This process is so endemic that we only recognize the significance of a product’s ad hoc usage when it becomes a popularized fad. Like when MP-3 players began to be used as a file-sharing protocol. Or when instant messaging became a de facto replacement for email.

Observers of culture have also noted how the very process of democracy itself seems to have become a manufactured product, with predetermined usage modes. Candidates will arrive prepackaged in one of several popularly available issues, through the aegis of one of two available political parties. Said candidates will stick to one of several predetermined themes, and must raise funds from a predetermined list of corporate donors, to be channeled into a predetermined selection of media filters, who in turn will provide a service to the electorate by the recommendations provided through statistically manipulated pollings. The end result seems to be uncannily like what one would find available at any large retail establishment: a manufactured product ill-suited to fit the real needs of real humans.

When an appreciation for obsoleted technology achieves a specific critical mass then will the corporate sector pay notice by manufacturing new products designed to map specific attributes of the genuine artifact. In the automotive world we have seen this process play itself out in the product life cycles of the PT Cruiser and the Mini Cooper, while in the photography world we have seen the introduction of the Leica M8 digital rangefinder. In the realm of the political the analogy seems to be a plethora of preprogrammed political discussion that masquerades as real democracy, but is absent the key ingredient of actual choice.

Manufactured Democracy, like all other products of a corporate-controlled world, are designed to possess an intrinsic superficial resemblance to the genuine artifact in certain specific areas – like substituting prefabricated argument for actual public discourse, for instance – but when placed in hand next to the genuine item the superficial resemblance fades in comparison.

The ad hoc tool user purposefully short-circuits the element of control implied by the product’s large-scale industrial manufacture. New usage modes are found which are entirely original and outside the experience of using previous versions of the same product. For example, instant playback, via LCD screen, has offered an entirely original purpose for the digital camera: visual data recorder. People are now photographing their parking spot at the Mall, as an aid in finding their way back after the shopping spree has been exhausted. And they are recording images of consumer products at the store prior to purchase, then playing them back in their home setting as a way of judging product compatibility.

These unexpected uses for new technology belie the element of choice intrinsic to a democracy. In the corporate paradigm choice must be planned, programmed, scheduled. The unexpected is anathema. Meanwhile in the real world of subjective human experience choice represents the opportunity for both mistaken error and an entirely original level of success. The two are inseparable. The risk of democracy is failure and success intertwined.

Those who would manufacture consent (as Noam Chomsky reminds us) are unwilling to accept the risk of the unexpected that real democracy implies. Instead, we are offered a safer, manicured, instantly microwaveable version, simultaneously greater tasting and less filling.

Ultimately what satisfies me most about being technologically multiliterate is the opportunity of choice that it offers me. Specific to photography, I can both process an image digitally and dodge and burn in the darkroom. I can mix channels and mix developer concoctions from instant coffee crystals and swimming pool powder. I refuse the propaganda that would obsolete some tools and processes over others because of the strategies of mass marketing and planned obsolescence. I remain ready and willing to use all, to be open to all, to ignore none. That is the democracy of choice.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Photography and Surveillance

Those who are regular visitors to the online photography-related discussion forum may be aware of a recent topic being frequently discussed, one which seems to have exploded in significance since September of 2001. I am referring to the growing trend of the suppression of public photographic activity by both publicly and privately employed security personnel.

In some sense this trend represents nothing new at all; we may recall Walker Evans’ concealed camera project on the New York subways in the years preceding WWII. Although the ostensible reason for concealment was to capture the subway rider unawares, there were in affect at the time regulations prohibiting such activity without police permission. We also may know of publicly accessible private property, such as shopping malls which, being private property, retain the right to regulate or restrict any such activity what the management deems to be incompatible with the mall’s primary function of retail commerce.

Since we see precedent for the restriction of photographic activities within the confines of private property, and also specifically regulated public arenas such as mass transit, then why all the fuss?

We may recall that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 there were many reports of the hijackers’ planning and preparations to have included photographic reconnaissance and surreptitious surveillance of their intended targets, by posing as tourists with cameras. There were at the time widely distributed warnings, for both law enforcement and the general public, to “be on the lookout” for any similar such activity. We were reminded that it was our civic duty to remain in an extraordinary level of heightened awareness, that the possibility of new attacks was ever-present; that we were in a permanent state of endless war.

Two other observations merit mention: first, we live in a technologically saturated culture where the presence of miniaturized, ‘embedded’ photographic devices, such as in cellular telephones, is endemic. It can be assumed as a given that in any shopping mall in America today over half of all those present will have the capability to perform surreptitious photographic activity of the mall’s private property, and then will be capable of emailing those images immediately to whomever they wish. Meanwhile simultaneously, photography using obviously camera-like equipment remains in an elevated level of concern. Secondly, we live in a culture that is under an unprecedented level of public and private sector surveillance, to include not only visual surveillance of the physical space of the built environment, but also surveillance of the virtual space of telecommunications and the Internet. Thus it becomes necessary for us to posit whether these phenomena are, somehow, interrelated.

Perhaps the presence of overt innocuous photographic activity compromises the ongoing covert surveillance establishment. One data point that suggests an interrelationship between surveillance and a general suppression of public image making is the value of the image as cultural currency. We may recall the video footage, taken by a nearby resident, of the beating of Rodney King by members of the LAPD, and the subsequent rioting that ensued when the police officers involved were exonerated of all charges. We may view this particular example as a watershed moment in media history, where freelance, amateur, ‘non-embedded’ media proved to be a direct threat to those in positions of authority. Such amateur media proves to be a recognizable threat because it bypasses the symbiotic relationship that exists between corporate media and government. The consequences of such footage being widely disseminated are entirely unpredictable, as evidenced by the violent aftermath in Los Angeles.

We suspect that some measure of control over the volatile nature of amateur media has since been established, first by a tendency of many TV news organizations to no longer accept unsolicited amateur footage; second by the diluting effects of the plethora of videos available from Internet-based media outlets such as You Tube; third by the marginalization of amateur video by such cutesy television programs as ABC’s “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

Meanwhile, there remains a small but dedicated cadre of traditional, film-based photographers, whose field of operations can include the populated, urban environment – the so-called ‘street photographer’ – as well as the built, architectural environment of the urban landscape – the large format photographer.

We can understand the opposition to handheld, candid street photography, even though there is no assumed right of privacy within a public venue; suppression of such activity plays into the public’s fears and insecurities resulting from existing within a surveilled culture. Explaining the suppression of public, tripod-mounted, large format photography is a bit more complex, however. Rationally, no one could seriously expect a real terrorist to be performing target recon activity using a tripod-mounted field camera and a stack of sheet film holders. For that matter, with the existence of Google Earth and other Internet image banks it becomes possible to surveill a potential target without leaving the comfort of one’s easy chair or Afghan cave, since the photographic data base is already in existence, waiting to be downloaded and studied. One possible explanation is that security personnel are, frankly, uninformed and paranoid; naturally suspicious of any activity appearing out of the ordinary, or that isn’t commonly understood. One must also suspect that the tripod itself plays a significant role in garnering suspicion. Or perhaps it’s the tripod minus the significance of an attached major corporate media logo.

It remains to be seen how large a part the act of photography itself plays in this phenomenon. One wonders if public, plein-air painting, for instance, or sketching, would attract the same amount of negative attention, even though we can imagine paper-and-pencil note taking might serve as a practical planning tool for the fledgling terrorist.

Whatever the reasons involved, there is little doubt that the suppression of public photography has less to do with security matters and more to do with the role that media plays in our culture.