Sometimes Photography — Darkrooms and Black-Boxes

Will Meier
May 31, 2018 · 6 min read

Photography’s origins are in magic. Capturing perfectly and (archival issues aside) permanently the moment; the soul. ‘It’ll take a year off your life’, kind of thing. Melquiades’ daguerrotype wizardry in One Hundred Years of Solitude, kind of thing.

But history churns without remorse for its displacement of magics by other magics, and now we see, conservatively, probably thousands of images a day in the first-world — almost all of them annoyingly banal or propagandistic, and ultimately very forgettable.

Yet the ones that are our very own still hold some of that magic. That they contain the substance of memory. I’ve got a folder on my computer called ‘iPhone caches’ with over 13k images — weirdly hard to send to the trash folder when my hard drive starts needing space. Which is to say nothing of actual physical photographs. How many images do you personally have actually printed out? On display?

This is a weird schism. That a photograph is often valuable to its taker, their loved ones, and almost no one else. Okay, maybe it’s not that weird, it’s kind of obvious. But given this, the fact that photography has any value at all in the art world is something that’s fascinated me for a long time. It’s certainly only through the agency of its status as a rare, editioned object that this is possible, which begs the question of the intrinsic value of an image at all. Or at least where that value comes from, if it is indeed intrinsic. I’ve written before about the ways I see this fascination manifest — in the case of the trend in contemporary photography of the medium seeming to become more about its own physical reality than the image contained within.

And so we arrive at maybe the most perplexing pivot-point of this thought-journey, because there’s a weird teleology to ‘the medium of photography’. Meaning that the phrase, as far as I understand it, really only refers to the process of making the thing before it becomes an image. What is ‘the medium of the photograph’ — meaning, that of its physical ontology? Not collage, which involves juxtaposition, recontextualization. More referring to, like, a self-contained use of the medium as its stuff-ness, the image arrived upon it already as a surface, a texture, a matter-of-fact.

And how much can be done in this vein before we’re no longer really looking at a photograph anymore? And if we’re looking at something that’s transcended its original causality and become something else, if we see not just into, but past, the image of the photograph, what is it?

Since painting is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, then I’d be inclined to steer in that direction. But that’s an easy answer, and frankly, the conversation is played af, so I’m gonna refrain from the comfort of that train of thought. A thing aware of its context, its neighbors, its place in history, is an installation — which the work this writing addresses is, most definitely — each work pressurized on every edge by those around it, the whole room pressurized by the inflation of these resonances in the air. But that’s also a quick, typical conversation, so let’s move on.

I think, in the end, to assign any familiar taxonomy to the phenomenon is less than useful. So let’s not name it. Let’s just look at the real world through some weird-colored glasses instead.

Sometimes Photography, a recent 808 Projects show by George P Perez and John Barnabas Lake, is what has me thinking all of this stuff. I regret that this will be published after the show closes, and so rather than describe the exhibition, which you either already saw or didn’t, dear reader, I just want to take a dramatic hard left here down a rabbit hole.

*deep breath*

In the world of code (which I spend virtually all my time thinking about now, so bear with me) — specifically cryptography — there’s a concept called hashing, where a complex series of transformations are applied to a chunk of information, anything from a single letter to the entire Library of Congress, and what’s pooped out the other side of the ‘black box’ of the algorithmic function is something that entirely and uniquely pertains to that original piece of information alone. No matter how many times you run that same chunk of information through the hashing algorithm, it will produce the same series of letters and numbers (32 of them in the case of ‘32-bit-encryption’) and if you changed a single punctuation mark in the Library of Congress, that would produce an entirely different hash.

It is not possible to reverse-derive the original source information from a hash. It’s produced through a destructive process of transformation. And what’s interesting in this analogy is that while the second piece of data maintains no likeness to its original pre-hashed source material, they’re inextricably connected. The information, although perhaps meaningless on its own, ‘contains’ the original in its entirety. A side note — this is the primary simple machine underneath how cryptocurrency works.

Aesthetics are sort of a currency in their own right. And maybe it’s just possible that if the original information from the photographs were contained within them, the integrity of the system of appreciating their formal qualities would be compromised, or at best, insecure. It’s one thing to photoshop an image. We live in the Age of Memes. It’s another entirely to physically, irreparably transform an image-as-its-object into something new.

The idea of using an art process as a ‘function’ (which is basically any block of code that performs operations on a set of source data) is extremely interesting to me. In a function, the data always matters. But it’s only through making use of useful functions that data is ever actually useful itself. That’s what ‘coding’ is, at least in the functional programming school of thought. This is a weird lens to use, I know, but since we started in the place of magic, maybe it’s useful to use our current era’s magic to reinstate a more dynamic framework for viewing images.

If it seems like I have some chip on my shoulder about photography, I don’t. There are undoubtedly countless contemporary artists working straightforwardly within the medium, including some of my closest friends, whose work I respect dearly. And while I do find the Klein-bottle conversation of images-as-objects-as-images folding back in on their own states of reality to be ultimately probably more interesting — at the end of the day, you always do try to ‘see into’ an image, no matter how much manipulation has been applied to it. And even through an images’ algorithmic transformation, it retains some of that original essence, that thing that made it special in the first place.

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