This is a response to chapter 2 of Fred Ritchin’s wonderful book After Photography.
One of my favorite pieces of video art is Beefsteak (Resurrection), by Daniel Spoerri and Tony Morgan, from 1968. It takes a bit of time to understand what’s happening upon first watching this 8 minute black and white film. It begins with human defecation and then moves in reverse: a person un-eats a steak bite by bite, the steak is un-cooked sizzle by sizzle, the cow is un-slaughtered, it un-eats a meal, and finally the cow itself un-defecates. At the end, you finally see the beginning.
I love this video. Among many other things: it questions our understanding of time, reveals our lack of relationship with the animals we may eat, and questions the nature of death itself. The footage was made in the 60s, and looks simple and uncontrived, yet the video creates a new version of reality and bends the rule of time and nature in the process. Spoerri and Morgan took the photographic image and strung it together within a context that created a new message and a new story.
A still from Beefsteak (Resurrection)
The problem is, this video hinges on reality. We have to believe that there is a cow, there is a cooking facility, and there is a steak and a fork, before we can grasp the meaning of those things within an altered framework of time. The good news is, at least within the world of this video, the alteration that has been made to reality is completely obvious.
The alteration itself as fundamental point of the process of alteration happens with regularity only in the art world. In most cases, we are surrounded by altered images that hide rather than announce their manipulations.
The world of advertising is an obvious example. As Ritchin says, “Each image exists to make me want to find out something that is probably useless, to purchase the product described no matter how unnecessary, or to brand it so it will seem familiar each time I see the image or name again. There is no relationship for me, the viewer, with an actuality that exists independently of the intended transaction.”
The use of the photo as pointed message, a message that gains power from its proposed relationship to reality, is certainly not new. However, the photo as transaction is an idea worth exploring in further depth. Ritchin addresses it regarding advertising imagery, but what about the more personal transactions we have with our own photos?
In sharing our digital images on social networks, we ourselves become a face-recognized, demographic-mapped, socially-situated human product to be sold to advertisers as a direct outcome of a photo transaction. In this case, the “actuality that exists independently of the intended transaction” becomes the focus of our attention, while the intended transaction remains hidden! What Ritchen missed is that Pixels and Paradox extends past the bounds of the image frame.
This is an image that I altered using Instagram. Facebook, through Instagram, knows who I tagged in this image, who liked it, who else took this image at this time, and where it was taken. Which of those facts is a more disturbing or paradoxical outcome of this photo?
Ritchin says, “The photograph, no longer automatically a recording mechanism, is not as able to “appropriate the thing photographed” as much as to simulate it. In the age of image, the relation to the world it offers may not be knowledge or power but something like conceit.”
I suggest it’s this very conceit that prevents us from seeing not just the manipulations to the digital image, but also the manipulations that digital images are causing in our lives. We want to see versions of our selves, our friends, and our world that are engaging, digestible, and as visually appealing as possible. In the process, we are creating a new world without noticing what it is.
Ritchin is not wrong in stating, “As in the sciences, the very act of observing can fundamentally change an outcome, and so can also fundamentally change us.” But what we aren’t observing can change us, too. I suspect that we’ll understand those changes in hindsight, and will only really see the beginning at the end.