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Co-creating in the Networks: A Reply to “What is 21st Century Photography?”
New WritingPhotography Science and Technology

Co-creating in the Networks: A Reply to “What is 21st Century Photography?”

n this new essay, writer and researcher Andrew Dewdney responds to Daniel Rubinstein’s essay What is 21st Century Photography? published by The Photographers’ Gallery in July 2015. 


Daniel Rubinstein has initiated a timely debate on the future of 21st century photography, which needs to be continued and I hope this critical rejoinder is read with this in mind. The essay conjures a complex and convincing vision of how photography now serves a new ‘unknown and invisible puppet master’ and I am with Daniel one hundred percent in the idea that we need to think very, very differently about what we now take to be the photographic image. But (there always is one), in time honoured critical fashion, agreeing with the point of an essay doesn’t mean agreeing fully with its argument.

In summary the essay says that the knowledge paradigm of the European Enlightenment and its representational logic in photography is unravelling. This, it is argued, is a consequence of the new conditions of global neo-liberal production allied to the new technological apparatuses of computing. Analogue photography is seen as a product of Industrial Capitalism and its mechanical technology, expressed as representation. Algorithmic photography is an outcome of the post-industrial, global mode of production, expressed by computational networks.  The essay’s conclusion to this state of affairs is twofold. Firstly that 21st century photography is freed from the burden of representation, which can no longer contain the conditions of the real. Secondly, that 21st century photography names a new immersive economy of the human subject in which the real world is to be understood as nothing more than ‘randomised information in a chaotic conflation of bodies and machines’.

This is a decidedly pessimistic, yet intoxicating position to land us all in and is the inevitable outcome of treating photography in equal measure as technology and as philosophy. Such a theoretical approach creates a strong impression but makes light of historical specificity and the complexity of human agency.

Photographic histories

Photography never has been a single technical entity nor a unified philosophic vision. What we have taken as photography thus far is a hybrid of related technical apparatuses, social values, cultural codes, media forms and contexts of reception. Yes, 20th century photography as it came to be organised played a central part in industrial capitalism’s dominant and ideological modes of reproduction. But, equally, 20th century photography was an ascending art medium taken up by the modernist artist and given exchange value in the art market. It is crucial to take account of the interrelationships and contradictions of art and reproduction if photography in the 21st century is to be better understood. Art is no more an autonomous realm of freedom than photography is a slave to representation.

Historically photography functioned to technically register the visible in the photographic index (one of the much derided horsemen of the apocalypse in Rubinstein’s essay) and control the ways in which the visible could be recognised through the cultural codes of visuality (the other three damned semiotic horseman). Photography in the 19th and 20th century was tied to representation as part of the preeminent field of vision, but it was also entailed in countervailing visual strategies, expressed by a modernist avant-garde as well as sporadically in political agitprop. On the one hand photography was made to function as part of industrial capitalism’s necessary mode of reproduction of the relations of production and on the other, it was regarded by a liberal artistic elite as a formal aesthetic medium.

In effect photography was divided into scientific, political and aesthetic knowledge domains and further separated across the practices of private, public and professional life. This set of divisions of knowledge, labour and the human self, formed the structure of modernist culture, in which the newly emancipated individual was at the centre. It is this order of modernism which is now unravelling in the face of global computational networks and which demands new understandings.

The politics of photography

The problem with this modern settlement, in which the individual became the centre of cultural meaning, was that it involved a deceit of epic historical proportions being played out upon the labouring classes and social reality. The emancipation of the individual and the creation of modern class society, that the engine of capitalism demanded, came at the cost of the collective human condition. The exploitation of the industrial working classes by the system of private ownership of the means of production, the profit principle and wage labour, institutionalised inequality. Yet in a rising democracy that structural inequality had to be made to appear natural and inevitable. Less than fifty yeas after Niépce, Talbot and Daguerre fixed the photographic image, photography was shackled to the worldview of capital rather than to the cause of the emancipation of labour. As Benjamin pointed out the revolutionary aspect of photography and later film was to bring the masses closer to reality, whereas for capital it was crucial to keep the organised working class ignorant of its own reality and photography was enlisted to play its part. In photography this political slight of hand was performed paradoxically by aligning photography with representation and objective truth, whilst at the same time giving to photography the status of an aesthetic medium of subjective expression. In late 19th century photography the working classes were surveyed, documented and classified by an objectifying camera. Conversely an aesthetic lens explored individual subjectivity in the space and time made possible by the exploitation of labour. Only with rising wages and relative affluence of the mid twentieth century did workers en-masse get to photograph themselves through the industrialised and semi-automated snapshot.

Yes, photography in the 19th and 20th centuries was structured by the new institutions of social reform and made to serve as the official mode of democratic and scientific representation. But, to make the point again, the necessary corollary to this was that the technical apparatus necessary to photography’s objectifying role as representation, was simultaneously the medium of interior and individualist subjectivity in formalist photography.

What we now call fine art photography was inaugurated, practised and consumed by an educated class fraction and their photographic output has been accepted selectively as the historical canon of photography. The photographic canon was fashioned in the image of modernity and its formalist rhetoric. In essence the European/North American photographic canon was shaped by and expresses a historical aesthetic and consciousness defined by modernism.

The standard history of photography does not examine this contradiction, in which photography is flipped back and forth appearing here as an apparatus of transparent and mechanical reproduction and there as an aesthetic mode for the exploration of interiority. Really we should see photography, then as now as the paradoxical sum of its technological apparatuses and cultural organisation, rather than simply the ascendency of representation.

Aesthetic Modernism and the Avant-Garde

Aesthetic modernism was founded upon a rejection of the language of neo-classicism, rooted in the academies and based upon universal notions of beauty. Aesthetic modernism rewrote the rules of representation in order to explore an authenticity aligned to subjective intuition and unique vision. Aesthetic modernism promoted the artist rather than artisan, art rather than craft as the means to explore modern individual consciousness, whether in painting, sculpture, literature or photography. The exploration of the psychology of social life was left to the dynamic of the time based-mediums of film and video and their public forms in cinema and television.

“ Currently there is a deep chasm between the computational code of software and the cultural codes of visuality in which very little is known.”

Rubinstein’s essay, What is 21st Century Photography, which so clearly identifies the current moment of radical rupture, formulates its response to this situation in terms of an earlier moment of modernist infatuation with machines and technologies. The idea that 21st century photography names ‘an immersive economy that offers an entirely new way to inhabit materiality and its relationship to bodies, machines and brains’ is strongly echoed in the Futurist manifesto of 1909. Here Marinetti asserted, ‘We stand on the last promontory of the centuries! Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed’.

The comparison between the essay and the Futurist manifesto goes further when considering what the immersive economy of the algorithm will reveal. In the essay we are told  ‘we come to understand that the “ real world” is nothing more than so much information plucked out of chaos: the randomised and chaotic conflation of bits of matters, strands of DNA sub-atomic particles and computer code.’ In the Futurist manifesto there was a similar recognition of giving oneself up to the absurd: ‘Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!’

How does this avant-garde embrace of chaos in a photography, defined as a new form of consciousness, stand up alongside the more analytical and political idea that this same photography is  ‘the exploration of the labor practices that shape this world through mass-production, computation, self-replication and pattern recognition’. What kind of exploration is this and what form might it take? Currently there is a deep chasm between the computational code of software and the cultural codes of visuality in which very little is known.  Clearly the aim of practical criticism is to develop new understandings of precisely how computation is constitutive of meaning and moreover how the power of the new ‘puppet master’ of the algorithmic image is wielded. Essentially the task of unmasking power focuses upon the new means of reproduction involving the modes of production, the movement of capital, organised labour, military and political institutions. There is an organised, hierarchical social world out there in which art and photography are politically and ideologically entailed and yes, whilst the world is chaotic it is also structured and inequality stalks the world like never before. The investigation of Google, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram, for starters, would seem to be a good point of departure for a progressive investigative practice of photography.

Network cultures

Modernism as the aesthetic and historical logic of progressive time is now confronted by the Internet as the default of knowledge and communication. Modernism as a rationale of contemporary art has reached its critical limit because it has no means of engaging with the decentred nature of networks and data.  Hollowed out by commodification, modernism is recycled as heritage in the global art market, property development, designer interiors, new art museums and affordable art fairs. Knowledge and agency, however, now travel along hybrid network lines, challenging the received authority of the cultural institutions of contemporary art and photography.

The “ networked image” gives us a new historic opportunity to grasp photography as part of capital and labour’s system of reproduction, which is to say part of a system of power. The politics of the historic analogue photographic mode of production were contradictory and opaque enough and those of the algorithmic image are doubly so. Not only is the field of representation still operative and in crisis, but in addition networked computers now have agency to read, sort and circulate images. In the simulation of the photographic image in computational systems the representational image still disciplines and excludes meaning, but in more complex ways than its mechanical predecessor. We are indeed stuck in a general intellectual crisis of representational systems, which the essay What is 21st Century Photography tries to move us beyond. However, this global condition of the algorithmic image continues to function within the field of representation, precisely because it remains as yet the humanly understandable surface of communication operating within common sense.

It is not the stark choice between the past and the future we are presented with but a new complex moment of recycling the past and inventing possible futures. In a time where the future horizon has shrunk to that of the present and the past is endlessly memorialised, it is not a choice between a photographic past of representation and a future of immersive subjectivities. In the paradoxical present representations, data and code all multiply equally and exponentially.

The new conditions of accelerated capitalism and its computational logic does demand that we un-think photography as it has been known. This requires new research strategies, which go beyond enquiries by single academic knowledge disciplines or the individual practices of photography and art. A transdisciplinary approach to understanding the interface between mathematical and cultural coding is needed in order to engage productively with the flat topology of the computer screen. A complete rethink of the boundaries between art, media, society and technology is needed. Art as photography and photography as art is a busted flush trumped by the Internet and its networks. The job now is for the cultural institutions of modernism, galleries, museums and universities to seriously plug into the network and its users. Artists, photographers, curators, students and academics have a great opportunity before then to collaborate and co-create with network users and groups, in order not only to make the networks of power visible but to create new publics based upon equality of knowledge, access and experience.

What is 21st Century Photography?
New WritingPhotography Science and Technology

What is 21st Century Photography?

In this newly commissioned essay, Daniel Rubinstein answers one of photography’s most complicated questions. In our contemporary image-world of computers and algorithms, what are the key philosophical questions proposed by the medium of photography today?

Fifty years before photography was officially unleashed unto the world, in answering the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1784), Immanuel Kant wrote: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’. Kant was writing this at a time when a thousand years of Feudalism were ending, and he strived to define the emerging world order based on scientific method rather than religion, representational democracy rather than autocracy and market economy rather than bartering.

Enlightenment meant a clean break from the dark ages and a resounding turn towards reason, logic, and rationality. This rupture with the past and the launch of a new era of science, capitalism and democracy, was summarised by Kant in the motto ‘Sapere Aude!’ – ‘have courage to use your own understanding!’ The invention of photography that flowed from this scientific revolution cemented the final break with the medieval iconography of saints and cherubs.

The photo-graphic image combined some of the key attributes of the Enlightenment: rational method capable of producing identical results under controlled conditions, industrial processes that replaced physical labour with mechanised production, and the delirium of mass-replication that mimics the infinite circulation of commodities in a capitalist market. In other words, the technical image captured the key scientific, political and ethical tendencies of industrial capitalism and presented them to the eye as an image, inaugurating along the way the age of aesthetic modernism.

The reason photography was the most suitable visual form to reflect on the changing face of society, as it was reshaped by industrialisation, is that it itself is a product of the same industrial processes that replaced human and animal muscles with motors and pistons, accelerated movement to ultrasonic speeds and exchanged craftsmanship with mass-production. Photography emerged out of this melting pot of bodies, energies and machines as the visual figuration of a social order that made representation and subjectivity the cornerstone of its scientific, political and economic activities. A photograph of a cat represents a real cat according to the same logic that maintains that paper money represents gold bullion (gold standard), a member of parliament represents her constituents and H2O represents water.

Image: Zhanna Bobrakova

Image: Zhanna Bobrakova

However, in the 21st Century this representational world order – inaugurated by Newton’s laws of motion, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and parliamentary (representational) democracy – the “ photographic camera” has already come to the end of its life. Even if some parts of this form of photography are still visible, they are in a state of advanced decay; maintaining a holding pattern, while simultaneously being transformed by a new set of forces. The ‘Age of Information’ is characterised by the emergence of another kind of machine, one that replicates the activities and the processes not of the human body, but of the brain.

Just as during the previous ‘Industrial Age’, machines replaced physical labour not by copying animal locomotion (airplanes don’t flap their wings like birds) but by utilising different sources of energy (petroleum) and different processes (internal combustion), the new machines that we refer to as ‘computers’ do not operate within the categories of human reason, such as, for example, dialectics, subjectivity, or representation. Quantum physics did not obliterate Newton’s laws, but showed that these laws apply only to a narrow segment of reality. Quantitative easing did not obliterate paper money, but annulled any possibility of money representing gold bullion or any real assets. The Arab Spring did not obliterate representational democracy, but exposed a connection between the democratic vote and fundamentalism, and computers did not obliterate reason and representation, but augmented them with fuzzy logic, undecidability, artificial intelligence and the paradoxes of Turing machines.

In this new age of thinking machines, algorithmic processing, and vast computational speeds, a dramatic change is happening to the visual field. The industrial age was an age of universal visibility – as Foucault demonstrated by offering the examples of the school, the factory, the hospital and the barracks, which operated in the same visual order of perspectival hierarchy. Photography had a clear-cut role in this optical regime, as Susan Sontag noticed: ‘cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the working of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for the masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers)’.

The only thing that remained unrepresentable under the Western eye was, in Marx’s phrase ‘the hidden abode of production’: the secret of profit-making remained classified. Even photography was unable to shine the disinfecting power of sunlight onto this secret, because the process that produces capital is also the very process by which photography itself is produced, for as we have seen, photography and capital operate by means of technology, mass delirium, reproduction and infinite exchange.

Image: Hengxi Li

Image: Hengxi Li

The demise of the industrial age is curtains for the spectacle of representation: visual surveillance is replaced with predictive policing, industrial processes replaced with trading algorithms, armies replaced with remote controlled killer robots and perspectival geometry replaced with the flat topology of the computer screen.

These changes do not mean that suddenly, what we see in front of our eyes does not matter, but that many more things that matter are outside our human field of view. The question is, what becomes of photography when the locus of power shifts from the optical nerve to the fibre-optic cable? What becomes of the public space – the heart of any European city – when it is invisibly but relentlessly morphed by multinational capital into privately owned space with public access, and when sovereignty, citizenship and autonomy find themselves under threat from multi-national corporations and when, as Andrea Philips wrote, the changing concept of the public (space) reconfigures how we understand the performance of truth, judgement and rights?

Sadly, the answer has to be ‘not much has changed’. As a recent visit to a graduate photography exhibition confirms, photography is still, above all else, the universal face of representation. To this day photography’s carte-de-visite proudly proclaims that it can take any aspect of the world and present it to the eye as an image. Indeed, is there anything that cannot be shown in a photograph? The surface of a comet? Check. Someone’s pale ass reflected in the bathroom mirror? Check. A puddle of urine under a hospital bed in a shantytown? Check. Teenagers on the beach looking wistfully into the distance? Triple check!

Image: Hana Vojackova

Image: Hana Vojackova

But this is not all, identical images also press upon us from bus stops, magazines, mobile phones, notice boards, tablets and bags of cat food, to such an extent that it is often hard to know if you are looking at a gallery wall, or at the shop window of Primark. The astonishing diversity of subjects, events and situations that photography is able to attend to, suggests at first sight that its scope is unlimited and its reach universal. And yet, these ostensibly Technicolor riches hide their own dark secrets, perhaps best summarised by drawing an analogy to Henry Ford’s remark ‘you can have the Ford T in any colour as long as it’s black’. In the context of photography, this means that you can have any photography you like, on any device, topic or subject, as long as it is a representation of some thing or other.

The problem is that in a post-Fordist society the locus of political agency and of cultural relevance has shifted from the object – as visually arresting as it might be – to the processes that (re)produce and distribute the object. Processes, however, by their own nature, are less visible and less representational than objects. For that reason, it seems to me that if photography mainly concerns itself with representations of objects in space, it is losing its relevance in a world in which speed, acceleration, distribution and self-replication acquire a significance that overshadows the visual appearance of spaces.

In the 20th Century photography existed on a printed page, mimicking in the perspectival organisation of its elements the hierarchical organisation of a centrally governed society, with its focal point located in the subjectivity of the observer. In the 21st Century this arrangement is just as quaint as piecemeal production in the age of conveyer belt assembly. The photographic print disappeared everywhere apart from some galleries and nostalgic photography departments. In its place there is now a luminous screen that has one of its sides facing the human, bathing her in blue light, and its other side remotely plugged into an unimaginably large stream of data, constantly worked and reworked by algorithms that are written and re-written by invisible and unknown puppet masters – our real rulers.

From time to time these algorithms pluck a few data packages out of this interminable stream and give them a visual form that resembles what we used to call ‘a photograph’. But this resemblance is superficial to say the least. The four horsemen of the photographic apocalypse: Index, Punctum, Document, and Representation can no more account for this process than a printed page can explain the operation of a computer screen. This is not to suggest that the algorithmic image is somehow immaterial or inhuman, but rather to propose that both materiality and humanity must be re-evaluated in the light of these bio-techno-political developments.

And yet, there is still an image, and the image can be of something or other, for example a cat, a politician or a beheading, and this image can still be fascinating as we know many images to be. But in a meta-critical sense – a sense beyond the manner in which we normally consider and criticise images – this fascination appears to be the defining quality of photography, precisely because the word ‘photography’ today names not another visual form of representation, but an immersive economy that offers an entirely new way to inhabit materiality and its relation to bodies, machines and brains. Johnny Golding christened this new materiality ‘Ana-materialism’. We can also simply call it ‘The Now’.

Image: Dario Srbic

Image: Dario Srbic

Image: William Augustus Webster

Image: William Augustus Webster

Within this absorbing ‘always on’ and ‘everywhere at the same time’ ana-materiality, the world does not come before the image, nor is it produced by the image. Rather, photography is the visual figuration of a new layer of consciousness – in which new relationships to space and time, and therefore new categories of thought, play, art, and agency are emerging.

It would be hasty therefore to dismiss photography as a heritage practice from the industrial age. Above all else, photography, as the visual incarnation of the algorithm, is shaping our world everywhere, and from time to time we can even glimpse the workings of this process in the images that it throws up. But just like the pebbles scattered by an ocean wave, these images are simply the by-products of a crushing force that acts according to a logic of its own. There is, however, no need to read too much into the shapes created by these pebbles, but instead consider that the urgent task is to learn how to surf this wave. As Gilles Deleuze said: ‘There is no need for fear or hope, only to look for new weapons’.

21st Century photography is this wave, characterised as a continuous process of re-shaping visual forms out of data. It has little in common with prints in black frames – these coffins of photography. It will not be found in the ‘sixty inches from the floor to the centre of the image’ rule that still passes for curating in some circles, nor in the ‘eye level’ arrangement of images on walls, that reinforces the rhetorical tropes of perspectival painting inherited from the Renaissance.

And 21st Century photography has nothing in common with the hypocritical moralism of the post-colonial document, that relies on the same representational paradigm that made colonialism possible. In short, 21st Century Photography is not the representation of the world, but the exploration of the labor practices that shape this world through mass-production, computation, self-replication and pattern recognition. Through it we come to understand that the ‘real world’ is nothing more than so much information plucked out of chaos: the randomised and chaotic conflation of bits of matter, strands of DNA, sub-atomic particles and computer code.

In photography one can glimpse how the accidental meetings of these forces are capable of producing temporary, meaningful assemblages that we call ‘images’. In the 21st Century, photography is not a stale sight for sore eyes, but the inquiry into what makes something an image. As such, photography is the most essential task of art in the current time.

Dr Daniel Rubinstein is the course leader of MA Photography at Central Saint Martins and editor of the Journal Philosophy of Photography.

Texture and Timbre: Photography and Sound in Halfway to White
Photography Science and TechnologyQuestion and AnswerThe Photobook

Texture and Timbre: Photography and Sound in Halfway to White

Joséphine Michel is a French Photographer, who has recently collaborated with the Finnish electroacoustic composer Mika Vainio to produce the book and audio CD, Halfway to White.

As John Cage would have it, the spaces between the notes are equally as important as the notes themselves in creating the sonic texture of a piece of music. In Joséphine Michel’s photographs many of the recognisable, or one might say figurative, details are virtually bleached out, remaining only as pallid traces and, as a result, many of the details that were formerly incidental or peripheral, take on a new, albeit abstract, significance. In these images, as newly empowered voids realign with the surrounding forms, reality becomes re-invented. The ephemeral has, in effect, been elevated, creating a new set of parameters for our visual perception of those scenes. Through the sampling, processing and filtering of everyday sounds Mika Vainio likewise offers us aural experiences that sit outside those soundscapes that are part of our everyday world. Together Michel and Vainio challenge our often-jaded perceptual habits and patterns, offering a whole new palette of experiences, both visual and aural.

Freelance art critic and curator Roy Exley interviewed Joséphine Michel about her recent work.

Roy ExleyIn your recent project leading to the publication of Halfway to White, how closely did you collaborate with Mika Vainio, did the visual inspire the aural, or vice-versa, or was the dialogue more symbiotic than that? What inspired your collaboration with Mika, had you worked with him previously?

Joséphine Michel: It is a circular process. I was listening continuously to Black Telephone of Matter and Heijastuva (which means ‘light reflected’ in Finnish) when I started making the first images of Halfway to White, which began as an exclusively photographic series. Jon Wozencroft (the co-director of Touch, who published the book) chose one of my photographs for the cover of Fe 3O4 – Magnetite, knowing I was a keen admirer of his work. Having heard through the grapevine that Vainio liked the cover, I wrote to him saying I would be delighted to nurture further collaborations with him. He proposed to create five pieces of music for Halfway to White. So his music inspired my photographs in the first place, which led, as in a loop, to the creation of music.

REHave you considered exhibiting your work in a gallery context where viewers would be encouraged to listen to Mika’s, may I call them ‘sound pictures’, to compliment the viewing of your work?

JM: Last year, in 2014, I was invited by Jorge Villacorta to show Halfway to White at Wu Galeria in Peru, during the Biennale de Fotografia de Lima. Mika Vainio had just composed his pieces, which, he himself admits, were intense and could be extremely abrasive for the persons working in the gallery. We decided in the first instance not to install them. However, after an evening of public presentation where we let the music flow in the rooms, we realised how the viewer/listener’s experience was heightened. In this immersive photographic and musical installation, the degree and the quality of attention towards the photographs were different. Vainio’s music, instead of distracting people from the photographs, intensified their experience, creating a sort of ‘vibratory static’. We therefore decided to let the music remain for the rest of the exhibition. Potential exhibitions are arising – and yes, the music will be experienced alongside the photographs.

Halfway to White book spread. Image courtesy Joséphine Michel

Halfway to White book spread. Image courtesy Joséphine Michel

REI don’t know whether re-configuring or de-configuring is the right word to describe how you process and manipulate your images, but what interests me is whether this is a progressive process, where you move gradually, through a sequence of adjustments to the image that feels right?

JM: My photographs derive from straight photography: they are the way they are by simple adjustment of the exposures at the moment of shooting. I don’t process them, and employ a minimal use of post-production. I use a digital camcorder to create my images, which affects the quality of the overexposure, allowing certain colours and contrasts to resist, whereas when you overexpose with a photographic camera, every part of the image tends to fade. There is no pre-meditation in my method of working, just an improvised, visual reaction to a noise field. I never know beforehand what I am going to photograph, nor, as in the case of Halfway to White, the amount of overexposure I am going to use. There’s a multiplicity of whites in Halfway to White, tones being in concordance or contrasting – they are basically variations around what was initially an accident, the excess of light in the image.

REDoes the amount of visual obfuscation that you employ vary with the pictorial content of an image, for instance if it is an archetypal, instantly recognisable scene, would you use more obfuscation and, perhaps, less, where the scene is more peripheral and ambivalent?

JM: Ambiguity is important – I am interested in what comes to light when the representational facet of a photograph approaches erasure. My criteria for the lightening of the image is based on an intuitive response to the way aspects of the image recede or advance, to create a new conjunction of forms or significances. It’s interesting that you speak about obfuscation when it comes to overexposure, which is, strictly, a lightening of the images. This is a less normative and value-laden way of speaking about them.

Halfway to White book spread. Image courtesy Joséphine Michel

Halfway to White book spread. Image courtesy Joséphine Michel

REThe visual threshold between abstraction and figuration in an image can be extremely fine and ill-defined, endlessly mutable, does this challenge, the principle of uncertainty, attract you to this mode of working? If that is not the case, then what is the main motivating force that drives your work forward?

JM: Perhaps more than the threshold between abstraction and figuration, the energetic tension between concreteness and abstraction is one of the central issues at stake in my work. Some things might not be figurative, but are nonetheless concrete. I was very interested in what could be called ‘pre-sounds’ or ‘quasi-sounds’ in Vainio’s music – some micro-sounds, close to silence, which you feel are concrete without being able to source them.

Reciprocally, where photographic abstraction is typically an effect of framing, I settle abstraction within the framing, rather than by it. In Halfway to White, the framings might be sometimes frontal and rectilinear, but the lightening renders the image abstract by stripping the forms of their spatial position or orientation, so that, for example, forms on different planes interact or combine in disorientating ways.

REHow do you perceive the correlation between the wide-ranging textural timbres of Mika’s sonic world and the intricate pictorial textures in your images – is this principally about textures, a sculptural bridging of the aural and the visual so to speak, or is this phenomenon merely one aspect of your collaborative work?

JM: Textures, for sure, are crucial to the relationship between Mika Vainio’s music and my photographs. I have also been deeply attracted by the way Mika conveys a multiplicity of moods, from violent to delicate, in a very minimal but moving way. I like the notion that moods could be textural: it implies a ‘sculptural bridge’ as you call it, between something mental and something material that echoes the terms suggesting correspondences between the sonic and the visual; reverberation, tone, etc. in an interconnected sensorium.

Halfway to White is available for preorder through Touch.

Joséphine Michel is a photographic artist born in Paris and currently living in London. She studied philosophy at the Université Paris-Sorbonne and photography at the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie in Arles. She subsequently undertook a research project (MPhil), titled ‘The Sonic Photograph’ at the Royal College of Art. Her work focuses on the impact of sound on photography, in terms of reverberation, texture, tonality and interferences. She published her first book Lude, Filigranes Editions, in 2007; her second book, Halfway to White, in collaboration with the musician Mika Vainio, is published by Touch.

Roy Exley is a freelance art critic and curator. He has written for many art magazines and journals and is currently a regular contributor to the contemporary photography web magazine Photomonitor. He has curated eleven exhibitions of contemporary art in London and Paris since 2000.

Photography, Sound, Modern Conflict
Photography Science and Technology

Photography, Sound, Modern Conflict

Installation view, Staging Disorder, London College of Communication. Image: Studio Hato

Installation view, Staging Disorder, London College of Communication. Image: Studio Hato

Staging Disorder, a new exhibition and book considering the relationship between photography, sound art and modern conflict launched recently at London College of Communication.

Although ostensibly documentary images, the exhibited photographs capture something rather less palpable, which, as curators Christopher Stewart and Esther Teichmann state in the foreword to the exhibition booklet, consists of ‘something real that has in itself been artfully staged to mimic a disordered reality’.

Staged not by the photographers themselves, but by the military, whole fake towns, aircraft and houses are constructed and used as training facilities for soldiers in order to prepare for future conflict. The photographers in the exhibition have investigated the status of these spaces – physically, architecturally and conceptually – in order to understand something about their relationship to what we might consider truthful, real or imaginary, in photography and in war.

Excitingly, the exhibition also extends its concept to cover sound art and writing’s ability to conjure sound and images and relate them to the psychological and environmental affects of modern conflict. Courtesy of staff in the Creative Research into Sounds Arts Practice research centre at LCC, three works by Angus Carlyle & Rupert Cox, Peter Cusack and Cathy Lane, and a text by David Toop, are displayed alongside photographs by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Geissler/Sann, Claudio Hils, An-My Lê, Richard Mosse, Sarah Pickering and Christopher Stewart. In the following interview, Daniel C. Blight speaks to the curators about the exhibition and its ideas.

Installation view, Staging Disorder, London College of Communication. Image: Studio Hato

Installation view, Staging Disorder, London College of Communication. Image: Studio Hato

Daniel C. Blight: The relationship between photography and sound is an interesting one — what does this exhibition hope to draw out from these two forms of practice? Is the word “ disorder”, which features in the exhibition title, key to this relationship in any way?

Christopher Stewart & Esther Teichmann: At the core of the exhibition are seven photographic series that document architectural spaces in different parts of the world, that have been utilised to prepare security forces for conflict. There is a temporal element here, in that the photographic works show mock domestic rooms, aircraft, houses and streets which are anticipatory spaces as opposed to the often ubiquitous depiction of the aftermath of war, found in much contemporary photographic practice. During our initial dialogue at London College of Communication (the venue for the exhibition) it became clear that there was a thematic resonance with a number of sound artists from the University’s Creative Research Into Sound Arts Practice research group (CRiSAP). However, the resonance here also encompassed a contrast in that the sound works ultimately made for the exhibition are more clearly about the echoes and aftermath of conflict and trauma, and we thought that this made an intriguing accompaniment to the photographic works which are mostly depopulated and are in that sense quite silent.

DCB: The photographic works often document already staged or fictional scenes, and as viewers we are asked to question the reality of those images, in their relationship to war and conflict. What does such an approach, existing in some sense within the realm of the fictional, say about the undeniable reality of war and conflict in the twenty-first century? Is this where certain forms of photographic representation play a crucial role in deconstructing the logic of, or perhaps criticising, war?

CS: The idea of the ‘readymade’ is inescapable here – in both a Duchampian and non-Duchampian sense. In contrast to studio constructed tableaux photography, that has been so central to the critical discourse of photography and the deconstruction of the photographic document for the last three decades, these spaces are not fabricated by the artists at all but are, rather, ‘found’ spaces that have then been documented. This is documentary photography of another person or agency’s notion of constructed and disordered reality – something which has been staged by others. The artists have of course recognised an interesting phenomenon here and one that we can link to the idea of modern conflict as something that is readymade in a more anticipatory manner. Baudrillard of course articulated the problem of this within his writings about the first Gulf War – a televisual war where the representation or war, its packaging and anticipation appeared to be divorced from its actuality. Of course, there is something very neat about war resembling a computer game but it masks the fact that wars are about real things – political, ideological, religious or territorial and that they result in real death and real destruction.

Richard Mosse’s Airside, 2006-08. Image: Studio Hato

Richard Mosse’s Airside, 2006-08. Image: Studio Hato

DCB: The sound works in the exhibition continue the themes of real and imagined future conflicts. For example artist Cathy Lane directly addresses this with the title of her work Preparations for an Imaginary Conflict. What is the relationship between photography and sound at play in this and other works?

CS: Cathy Lane’s work is very relevant here as the fragments of the voices in the sound element of her installation and the text on the wall both allude to a conflict to come – in this instance the sense of impending nuclear catastrophe and the attendant paranoia that accompanied the Cold War era. Her appropriation of politicians’ voices and the almost identical political language of fear down the decades, irrespective of any apparent political divide, highlights how over-determined the language of fear has become. Alongside this are the appropriated texts of government published brochures on surviving a nuclear war, that demonstrate how banal and normalised something like nuclear Armageddon could be made to sound. I think this sense of the domestication of conflict is also at the heart of the photographic elements of the exhibition. With the other two sound pieces – Rupert Cox and Angus Carlyle’s The Cave Mouth and The Giant Voice – a personal reminiscence of the bombardment of Japan, and Peter Cusack’s Sounds from Dangerous Places, which includes photographs and personal narratives from Chernobyl, we hear about the reality of war and disaster and how it has affected real lives. I think the way that the artists using sound have responded to the themes of the exhibition adds something more personal and intimate that, by the very nature of the subject matter, may be absent in the photographs.

Cathy Lane’s Preparations For an Imaginary Conflict, 2015. Image: Studio Hato

Cathy Lane’s Preparations For an Imaginary Conflict, 2015. Image: Studio Hato

DCB: Finally, David Toop concludes the exhibition booklet with a piece of text, and Rupert Cox and Angus Carlyle also contributed one, therefore completing a triangle of sorts: photography, sound and writing come together to present something more sensorially tangible, perhaps even complete, in the way we might consider the exhibition’s key themes of “ the real”, architecture and modern conflict. Can you perhaps make a comment on the relationship of writing to photography and conflict, and indeed sound?

CS & ET: Martha Rosler summed up the limitations of autonomous representation in the title of her work The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems in 1974/5, where she was referring to both the photographic image and writing. Within a short space of time we also saw the publication of Sontag’s On Photography and Craig Owens’ two part essay The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism and really all these critical texts were deconstructing the notion of the autonomy of the work of art and more pointedly the humanist documentary photograph.

“ …sound, however, added the necessary element of violence, the sharp reminder that appointments must be kept, responsibilities must be fulfilled and the observations of ritual will prevail” – David Toop

Whilst we’re not as weighed down with those questions in the way that we perhaps once were, there is quite a nice relationship that emerged in putting the exhibition together between photography, sound and writing and how they allow each other to be what they are – sometimes more objective and then sometimes more of a personal narrative, particularly with the texts. Ultimately all representation is inadequate in terms of its relationship to the real experience of conflict but in dialogue the works here come at the themes in different ways, hopefully without overly compromising each other.


Curated by Christopher Stewart and Esther Teichmann, the exhibition was supported by Karin Askham, Dean of the School of Media, London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. The exhibition, designed by Studio Hato, took place alongside the release of a new book, Staging Disorder, through Black Dog Publishing, which contains writing by Christopher Stewart, Alexandra Stara, David Campany, Jennifer Good, Adam Jasper, Howard Caygill and Esther Teichmann, alongside work by the exhibiting photographers.

Seamless Transitions: An Interview with James Bridle
Digital ProgrammePhotography Science and TechnologyThe Digital ImageVideo

Seamless Transitions: An Interview with James Bridle

Seamless Transitions is a new commission by London based artist, writer and technologist James Bridle, currently exhibiting as part of The Photographers’ Gallery digital programme.

Bridle’s work engages with the invisible yet pervasive technologies that we encounter every day. Utilising a variety of platforms from software to social media, photography and installations, Bridle explores how technology both affects culture and reproduces and shapes political power.

“ …just as these image-making technologies structure our perception of the world, they can also allow us to see inside places and processes that would otherwise remain invisible.”

The Guardian

Deep-sky imaging from the New Forest Observatory
Photography Science and Technology

Deep-sky imaging from the New Forest Observatory

Sword of Orion ©Greg Parker. Photographed from the New Forest Observatory, Brockenhurst, England.

Sword of Orion ©Greg Parker. Photographed from the New Forest Observatory, Brockenhurst, England.

Photography has an inseparable connection to science and technology. Camera technology is often used in scientific investigations to document research findings and produce images that illustrate natural phenomena. From time to time – and perhaps more regularly than we might realise – such research yields strange and beautiful pictures. Emeritus Professor of Photonics Greg Parker’s deep-sky images are an inspiring example of this. Since retiring from the University of Southampton in 2010, Parker set up two observatory domes to photograph galaxies and nebulae from his New Forest Observatory in Brockenhurst, England.

Parker’s career has been in research and development since graduating from Sussex University in 1978 with a 1st Class Honours Degree in Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. A common factor throughout his research has always been light, including lasers and optical instruments and optical devices. For over twenty-three years he researched into optical components called Photonic Crystals at the University of Southampton, together with Optical Biomimetics, looking at how Nature had come up with elegant solutions to optical problems.

“ The tracking has to exactly follow the motion of the stars in the region being imaged or we will get unwanted star trailing – perfect tracking will show all stars, right across the frame, as perfectly round balls of light.”

In September 2004 Greg first started taking deep-sky images from his observatory using a new device called a Hyperstar. Since then he has also constructed a second observatory housing his “ mini-WASP” array – a multiple refractor, multiple imager, parallel imaging array so that 4-hours worth of data can be downloaded in just one-hour, very useful given the British climate.

Professor Parker explains the technology and theory of his process

In order to take deep-sky images we need to accurately track an astronomical CCD camera at the focus of a telescope for the duration of the sub-exposure time. The tracking has to exactly follow the motion of the stars in the region being imaged or we will get unwanted star trailing – perfect tracking will show all stars, right across the frame, as perfectly round balls of light. Tracking is often carried out using a second telescope, usually a small aperture refractor and a small guide camera. The guide camera sends its image to a computer which controls the motion of the (equatorial) mount which carries the main imaging scope and camera. A star is chosen on the guide camera image and the guiding software makes sure that the chosen star remains in the same position to within a fraction of a pixel on the guide camera by “ nudging” the mount to the appropriate degree. In this way, the main imaging camera can take the very long sub-exposures which are required to acquire the faintest objects, without any obtrusive star-trailing.

During an imaging session as many sub-exposures as possible are taken to improve the quality of the final image. In practice the individual sub-exposures are added together, using software packages created specifically for the purpose, so that the final image has an improved signal to noise ratio proportional to the square root of the number of sub-exposures. In plain English this means that nine sub-exposures can be combined using the software to give a resulting image that looks three times better than a single sub-exposure. In addition the software can also remove annoying “ hot pixels” produced by the imaging camera during long sub-exposures, even though the image camera itself is cooled to reduce the number of hot pixels present.

Horsehead Nebulae ©Greg Parker. Photographed from the New Forest Observatory, Brockenhurst, England.

Very faint objects require long sub-exposures to capture the faint detail, and lots of sub-exposures are required to give a “ clean” noise-free image. So it is clear that the most demanding (of time) deep-sky imaging is the capture of faint deep-sky objects, usually nebulae. Stars being intensely bright point sources of light require much shorter sub-exposure times to create a nice looking image, so star field imaging is much less time-consuming than imaging nebulae. As a rough approximation, a high quality star field image will require sub-exposure times of around five minutes and a total exposure time of three to four hours. A medium brightness nebula may require ten to twenty minute sub-exposures with a total imaging time of at least eight hours. These figures hold reasonably well for both f#2 and f#4.5 imagers for reasons that are too technical to go into in any detail.

The second observatory dome at the New Forest Observatory (the North dome) houses the mini-WASP array. This is an array of four refractors each working at f#4.5 which all image the same object at the same time. Why do this? The main reason is that working at f#4.5 means that we are operating 5 times slower than the Hyperstar system working at f#2, so by using 4 refractors in parallel we are nearly as “ fast” as the Hyperstar system. So why bother using refractors at all? There are several reasons, including much better image contrast using refractors rather than reflectors, and the ability to image very bright stars without bad “ ghost” flaring – something that cannot be done using the Hyperstar.

How to photograph a galaxy

Galaxies are “ island universes” – great masses of stars all grouped together in what we call a galaxy, and what used to be called a nebula before it was realised what galaxies actually were. Our nearest galaxy is M31, the Great Andromeda Galaxy which is a mere 2.5-million light years away. Because M31 is so close to us (galaxy-wise) it actually appears quite large in a telescope, much larger than most people think. The Andromeda galaxy measures over 4-degrees across at its widest part, and the full Moon in the sky is only half a degree across, so the Andromeda galaxy has the width of 8 full Moons! M31 contains around a trillion (a million million) stars, whereas our own galaxy, the Milky Way contains only around 200-400 billion (thousand million) stars. Galaxies generally are very much smaller than M31 so they require long focal length telescopes to image them to give sufficient magnification. However, there are a sufficient number of “ large” galaxies (M33, M101, M81/M82) that the Hyperstar and mini-WASP arrays can capture them at a reasonable image scale to give a pleasing result.

Emission nebula IC1396 in Cepheus ©Greg Parker. Photographed from the New Forest Observatory, Brockenhurst, England.

Emission nebula IC1396 in Cepheus ©Greg Parker. Photographed from the New Forest Observatory, Brockenhurst, England.

How to photograph nebulae

Most nebulae, such as the Great Nebula in Orion – M42 – are regions of ionised gas that emit light in the red part of the spectrum. If you ionise the gas Neon in a Neon sign by passing an electric current through it you get the usual red colour. In the case of emission nebulae (like M42) the gas is Hydrogen and rather than an electric current it is a nearby very bright star that ionises the gas. Ionised Hydrogen, like Neon, emits light in the red part of the spectrum. There are however other types of nebula. In “ dark” nebulae the nebula appears like a smoke cloud cutting out the light from the stars behind it as can be seen in the clouds surrounding the Iris nebula. A dark nebula does not have a nearby bright star to ionise it, so it acts just like a light absorber and absorbs the light from more distant stars.

A reflection nebula, like the blue reflection nebulosity around the Pleiades, is a region of dust, where the dust has the consistency of cigarette smoke particles. Such particles scatter short wavelength light (blue) much more efficiently than long wavelength (red) light – and this is why reflection nebulae look blue.

The other colours that may be present in emission nebulae are blue, from another ionisation state in Hydrogen, very deep-red, from ionised Sulphur and blue-green from ionised Oxygen. The inner region of the Rosette nebula has a different colour to the outer region, mostly due to the presence of ionised Oxygen. The deep-red nebula to the left of the Jellyfish nebula is mostly light emission from ionised Sulphur.

Photography Science and TechnologyReviews

Black Diamond – Mishka Henner

Mishka Henner, Black Diamond, Installation photograph, Carroll/Fletcher, London. ©Carroll/Fletcher

Mishka Henner, Black Diamond, Installation photograph, Carroll/Fletcher, London. ©Carroll/Fletcher

In The Right to Look: A Counter History of Visuality (2011) Nicholas Mirzoeff traces the original deployment of the word visuality from its usage in war zones. Visuality expressed the ability of the General to oversee the conflict from an elevated position and strategise far from the action. It was the capacity to look without being seen, and the primary weapon of power is the ability to control visibility; the panoptic gaze is one that can’t be returned. Mirzoeff’s formulation of the counter-visual can be summed up as the response to the command: “ there is nothing to see here, please move on” with “ let me see for myself.”

Mishka Henner’s first solo exhibition in London, Black Diamond at Carroll/Fletcher, interrogates the potential of the counter-visual. In Henner’s most famous work, made in 2009, he appropriated Robert Frank’s iconic book The Americans, cutting out parts of it so that elements of the original photographs floated on white backgrounds. It was a neat conceptual gesture that inverted the impetus of social photography. Documentary discourse has been historically allied to the democratic project – visual representation is tied to political recognition. Henner’s iconoclasm inscribes his own subjectivity over the canonical work, asserting his own historical conditions. Henner replaces the shutter for the screen grab, a camera for the laptop – he doesn’t make images but sources them – navigating and editing what is already available.

‘If we extend the persistent allusions to the Internet as a type of liquid expanse, then the spammer is a type of pirate that occupies the semi-legible spaces between international jurisdictions.’

Mishka Henner, Cedar Point Oil Field, Archival pigment print mounted to aluminium in tray frame, 149 x 258 cm, 2013-14. ©The artist. Image courtesy Carroll/Fletcher.

Mishka Henner, Cedar Point Oil Field, Archival pigment print mounted to aluminium in tray frame, 149 x 258 cm, 2013-14. ©The artist. Image courtesy Carroll/Fletcher.

The series Feedlots and Oil Fields (2013-14) are representative of his practice. The large-scale photographs, installed over the first two galleries of the exhibition, present the two most in-demand commodities in America – beef and oil. The photographs are uniformly sourced from Google Maps and printed at scale with evident high-production values. The drone-like images feel ominous. Cows, houses, people and cars start to look the same, each becoming a component of a much larger abstract system. The expanses depicted are the manufacturing sites of global capital and the cheap fuel and food that sustain our economic conditions. Like Dorothea Lange’s images of displaced agricultural migrants during the American Depression, Henner’s work depicts, with affective immediacy, an economic system that resists visual representation.

Mishka Henner, Black Diamond, Installation photograph, Carroll/Fletcher, London. ©Carroll/Fletcher

Mishka Henner, Black Diamond, Installation photograph, Carroll/Fletcher, London. ©Carroll/Fletcher

In the third gallery Fifty-One Military Outposts (2010) Henner displays images on top of plinths. The photographs present Google Map images of American military bases around the world. We hover over the image, inverting the surveillance-like gaze – the watched become observers. The project shifts the public documentarism articulated by Frank and Lange towards the unseen spaces of private finance and security. The co-ordinates of the sites were sourced from WikiLeaks and public domain ‘loop holes’. The ability to navigate and edit data provides new conditions of political accountability in an era of information as capital. Henner’s work recalls Eyal Weizman’s reading of the politics of verticality in relation to the Israel occupation of Palestine. For Weizman, power is structured around a vertical axis by asserting sovereignty over the land (through archeology) and surveillance (by controlling the elevated spaces and skyline). Henner’s images of military sites  dramatise this verticality by inviting the spectator to look down at things shot from above.

Downstairs Henner presents Scam Baiters (2013 – present), a new body of work that explores the strategy of Internet vigilantes who feign receptivity to email scammers in order to publicly expose them. The project brings together email correspondence, signs and photographs made by the scammers in a process that remains slightly oblique. If we extend the persistent allusions to the Internet as a type of liquid expanse, then the spammer is a type of pirate that occupies the semi-legible spaces between international jurisdictions. Through his presentation Henner attempts to re-embody these virtual figures that normally remain out-of-sight. One can also see the scammer offering another in-demand, if non-existent, commodity – easy money.

Similarly to the larger photographic work seen upstairs, Henner formulates representative conditions for places and people that would prefer to remain hidden. Whether it is agricultural, virtual or military topologies, Henner’s work is engaged in a complex and experimental relationship with the documentary tradition of photography. His practice is pervaded by the notion of the counter-visual, and taken collectively, his images offer new opportunities for the development and understanding of documentary practice.

Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field
Artist ProfilePhotography Science and Technology

Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field

In 2012 Sophy Rickett began working as Associate Artist at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge. She began an ongoing, cross-disciplinary project initially inspired by some old analogue negatives of the night sky, and her encounters with the scientist who produced them, Dr. Roderick Willstrop, retired fellow of the IoA, and inventor of the Three Mirror Telescope. This camera telescope produced black-and-white negatives of space by using three mirrors instead of the previously practiced use of one or two in other telescopes, to widen the optical path of light entering the lens and therefore increase the detail with which an image can be configured and captured. Rickett has re-visited negatives from 1990/1, the short period during which the telescope exposed analogue negatives before being converted to a device for digital capture, and produced new prints that develop the tonal and wider aesthetic qualities of the images. For another part of the project Rickett wrote a text, which, with kind permission of the artist, we reproduce here in accompaniment to the pictures. The artist combines a personal account of time spent at the institute – incorporating scientific and vernacular language – with other memories and narrative voices, to give a vivid sense of her experience while considering the nature of collaboration, obsolescent technologies and our relationship to space.

Installation view, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 2013

Installation view, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 2013

Objects in the Field

The machine in the corner of the consulting room is on wheels. There is a chinrest with a pad of disposable paper strips, so that my skin won’t have to make contact with the same surface that someone else’s has.

I might put my chin on the rest and it might get warm, and the paper strips might buckle.

‘Put your chin on the rest’

I don’t want to put my chin on the rest.

‘Put your chin on the rest’

I put my chin on the rest and it feels unnatural, my neck strains.

‘Put your hands down’

I do as he says. I look forward and stare into a tiny point of light that wafts up, down, to the left, to the right. Freshly shaven, his face inches closer, hidden by the moving point of light. I adjust my focus and there he is, this unfamiliar person, receding into the dark.

‘Don’t look at me, look at the light’

I feel uncomfortable with the intimacy of the exchange, the unbalance of him looking deep into my eye.

I must have needed to wear glasses for a while. I don’t know what prompted the examination, whether I was showing signs of not being able to see, how clear it was to others that the world was shrinking around me. We lived by the sea, it was rural, not much light pollution, but still I would have not, until that point ever seen the stars, barely even, the moon.

We went to the hospital for my eye appointments. My mum seemed not to move as we waited. I looked up at her from my place, examining the side of her face, the set of her jaw. The sweet trolley would appear at the end of the corridor pushed by a struggling tea lady in a gingham smock. She was nice, reassuring.

‘Can I have some sweets?’

And two minutes after that, the sweets would be gone, and the trolley would be making its way away down the long corridor, its black rubber wheels spinning inefficiently over the polished floor tiles, scuffing them as it went.

Eventually my eyes would be tested in that corridor, sitting in a big black chair, with the card to read from hung on the opposite wall. The nurse put a heavy frame on me and I felt the weight of it bearing down on my nose. The lenses were in a wooden tray on a table between us, each stored, in order of thickness, in its own felt lined compartment. She’d choose a lens, and carefully place it into the frame and the letters became clearer, but still, I would rather not have been sitting there, people walking past.

Back at home I put on my new glasses and for the first time I can see clearly beyond the middle distance. The tree I am looking at is alive, each and every leaf a separate, distinct entity. A movement of wind causes boughs to bend. They move and shake separately and also as one. It is all connected, one organism, but made up of a million shades of colour, inflections of movement.

Years later on my way to Asia, my backpack freezing in the hold, I open my eyes as I drift awake. The cabin lights are dimmed and all around my fellow passengers sleep. Outside through the curved frame of the cabin window, the sky is bristling with stars, and below I can see the line of the horizon, backlit by the rising sun, a perfect line of brilliant pink light stretching away, far out into the distance.

I waited for him in the library. It wasn’t the first time we’d met but it was the first time I had any clear sense of what I wanted to see. We’d spoken before about the Three Mirror Telescope and at a table in his office the first time we’d met, he’d shown me the working prototype. He talked me through its internal mechanisms, hesitantly at first, as if the details, its idiosyncrasies were coming back to him as he spoke, remembering with his hands. I hadn’t been sure what I was looking at. I’d felt confused, bereft of knowledge, with a sense that my understanding only seemed to converge with his on the subject of photography, and also I realised later, optics.

‘Who are you waiting for?’


‘He might not be in until later – he often comes in during the afternoon as he still makes his observations every night’

I hadn’t realised that…


‘Well, three nights a week…’

I picture him at dusk making his way down the path to the telescope.

When he arrives in the library, I ask if he still makes his observations. He doesn’t – it turns out that he used to make them every night. Well, three nights a week.

‘Did you do it alone?’



‘I suppose I didn’t think it would be fair, asking a research student to sit with me all through the night. I didn’t really need anyone else.’

I imagine him at work. Each negative had to be prepared individually, the film sensitized and customised to fit the carrier by a specially constructed device that punched a circle of exactly the right dimensions into a sheet of 5×4 film. He’d make up to four exposures a night, and during each one would watch the telescope shifting its position as he had programmed it to do, compensating for the movement of the stars it was photographing as they tracked across the sky.

‘And when did you stop?’

‘Oh, when I retired, about ten years ago’

The 125 negatives he made during the first two years of the twelve that the telescope was functional are stored in his office. It was completed in 1989, and in 1991 the machine was adapted to record digital images, which transformed the exposure time from 40 minutes to 90 seconds. He flicks through the negatives, each one in its own envelope, marked with the date, the length of exposure, the co-ordinates of the field of view, other technical details. One of the first negatives he shows me is of a comet. He hands it to me and as I hold it up to the light, I can see the distinctive shape of a comet. I’m struck that it is a proper photograph – full of its own subject. Later on I think about the chronology, and about how that one of the comet must have been made years after the telescope was modified to record images digitally.

‘What will happen to the negatives eventually?’

‘I will deposit them with the museum archive.’

‘If I print them, will the prints be of scientific interest?’

‘No, these were taken twenty years ago, and not properly calibrated. A few of the nearest stars move slightly against the background of the others, and any planets will have gone around their orbits four or five times. These are a record of the skies as they were twenty years ago.’

He leads the way outside, and we walk towards the wooden building which houses the telescope. The day is bright and blustery, spots of rain in the sky. The exterior paintwork of the building is peeling, the little padlock stiff with rust, and inside, the black painted metalwork of the telescope is dusty, insect wings hang off threads of cobweb in the corners. The telescope is set in the middle of the room, on an equatorial mounting, I have read. Its design is based on the principles of light reflection, and he explains how it enables very clear images to be made of a much larger field of view than had previously been possible with a reflecting telescope.

There is a notice board with a display of images produced by the telescope, which seems to have been prepared for an open day held several years before. The prints are attached to the board with drawing pins at each corner, while the explanatory texts, brittle with age, flap in the wind. I look at the photographs critically, thinking only of aesthetics, no real idea what I’m looking at, and despite the captions, much understanding of their significance. But still they are photographs, and I can’t help myself judging them on that basis.

‘This must have been one of the last telescopes to be made that used film – I mean before everything went digital…’

‘Oh’. He pauses and thinks… ‘I wouldn’t go that far.’

‘Are you going to make more prints?’

‘The darkrooms are all gone now.’

I think about printing them myself. I think about the dialogue between us – we have the photographic process in common, but some of the language we use to think about our work is not shared. Later we look through the box of negatives, and make a note of which ones I take. The next day in the darkroom, circles of the night sky darken in the safelight as the developer gently softens the surface of the paper.

‘Will it be used for observations again?’

‘Probably not – it has fallen into disrepair. The mirrors are corroded.’

‘Why did you stop?’

‘Well, I became chair of the Libraries Committee. So I had all sorts of other duties. But I did say to Martin Rees at the time, that if any money became available to make a Three Mirror Telescope with a larger aperture, then I would like to be involved.’

I try to find more information. I can’t believe that’s the end of the story. I can only find fragments, the tail-end of a scientific dispute, where the author describes the Three Mirror Telescope as ‘arguably the most significant advance in astronomical optics in recent decades’.

I read that a proposal to build a bigger version of the Three Mirror Telescope was rejected by the Science and Engineering Research Council in 1987. This was just after Roderick’s working prototype was completed, and two years before the Three Mirror Telescope was to become fully functional in 1989. And I read that in 2000, a team of scientists in Arizona won approval to build a telescope of this type, slightly modified to allow the use of many CCDs, with an 8 metre aperture.

I think of him when I read these details, and wonder how many more I have missed.

I am on a train as it pulls out of a small seaside station.

Two boys are standing on the sea wall, framed by an expanse of sea and sky, a shallower paddling pool in front of them. They are different ages. The younger of the two is waving at the train, a big smile on his face, full of childish enthusiasm. The older boy, I notice, as he raises it high above his head, is holding a boulder. But the younger boy has not seen it – it is as if his whole being is taken up with the wave.

So the older boy is holding this boulder above his head, while the younger boy is waving manically, and just for a moment they are frozen like that, in a kind of muted hiatus. And then the boulder is slammed, whoosh, into the water and it soaks the younger boy with a splash. And at once the waving stops, and he sees he is all wet, but there is a hesitation before it seems to dawn what has happened.

Through the double glass window of the moving train, I am transfixed.

I see the younger boy begin to take the long slow turn to face his friend.

I see just the beginning of what is to pass between them, a fragment of story as it begins to unfold.

And the train speeds up and then I have gone.

Objects in the field, 2013

Objects in the field, 2013

Observation 111, 1991/2013

Observation 123, 1991/2013

Observation 123, 1991/2013

Sophy Rickett will be in conversation with Martin Caiger-Smith on Thursday 20 March, 7-8pm, at Two Temple Place, London WC2R 3BD. Tickets to the talk, titled The Encounter Between Art and Science are available for £5. Caiger-Smith is head of the MA programme in Curating the Art Museum at the Courtauld Institute and former Head of Exhibitions and Acting Director of the Hayward Gallery.

Sophy Rickett is a visual artist based in London, working with photography, video and sound installation. She is represented by Camilla Grimaldi.