For some time I have been thinking about the surrealist qualities of ordinary snapshot photographs. Recently I have been examining ultra-high resolution photographs, particularly the building and landscape images made by Ben Blackwell, Principal Photographer at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. These thoughts are meant to stimulate discussion on the nature of photographic documents and the ways in which new photographic modalities may influence the nature of engagement with photos.
For Surrealists, photographs were full of meanings that resulted from the intersection of unexpected happenings, and the artist’s objective was to stimulate the emotions with the element of surprise.
Weston Naef. The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Photographs Collections, p. 188
Kertesz called himself a “naturalist Surrealist” because of his skill at recording a scene as he found it.
Weston Naef. The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Photographs Collections, p. 173
The removal of an everyday object from its expected context was a favorite strategy of the Surrealist art practiced by Rene Magritte.
Weston Naef. The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Photographs Collections, p. 153
Breton describes Surrealism, in part, as: …transmutation of those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality, so to speak.
Andre Breton, “What is Surrealism?” lecture given in 1934
Surrealism as a movement sought to break down the distinction between the rational and trained engagements with ideas and the world and other modes of engagement; it sought integration of more ways of modeling human relationships with the environment in its largest sense. Efforts to achieve a surrealistic state often involved surprise or unexpected combinations of elements.
We might look to Naef’s comment on Magritte and suggest that almost any photograph “remove[s] an everyday object from its expected context.” Digital photos go in both directions – making the photo itself an everyday object AND an expected context on the one hand (cell phone) and a data set far more rich than that provided by most objects in their everyday context (Better Light.)
If I pick up a photograph of my son while I am sitting at my keyboard, I have in my hand a representation ripped from its temporal and spatial context. My son is more than one foot tall; he operates within at least three dimensions; he has a scent about him; he ages. In the photograph in my hand, he never ages; the stimuli striking my eyes re-engage the same neural pathways that his body did several years ago. This photograph is not a window on the world, so much as it is a two-dimensional projection of a three-dimensional moment in time. At the moment of my seeing the photograph, my son is not on the cross-country race course, he does not have blonde hair, his smile is no longer so youthful.
Perhaps the snapshot is for us so ordinary, so abundant that it no longer seems to embody an unexpected event. In the case of the photograph of my son, it is one of hundreds or even thousands of photographs made of him in his 23 years. Yet, upon reflection, it is surely unexpected, in at least some senses, that my 17 year old son is now in my office beaming a radiant smile; at the same time, my rational self “knows” that he 2,000 miles away living a life often quite separate from me.
Blackwell’s photographs of buildings are, at first, striking because they look so like snapshots; indeed, they often appear to be snapshots of rather prosaic buildings or odd little buildings that serve prosaic functions. In the ice cream shop photo, a building crafted to resemble an ice cream cone is presented dead center, in violation of ordinary rules of composition. There are no people, no intriguing event takes place, no dramatic clouds draw the eye upward. Just an odd little building set right in the middle with a vertical utility pole and a horizontal red curbing adding to the rectilinear, snapshot character of the image.
However, the three elements of centrality, rectilinear framing, and lack of drama begin to take this image beyond even the posited surreality of the snapshot. The horizontal curb line is consciously placed just above the bottom frame line, not simply an unnoticed element in front of the lens of someone recording just the cute building. While many snapshots have a centrality – perhaps because of auto-focusing mechanisms normally operating in the center of the frame; perhaps because snapshooters simply care to make sure their primary object is shown full – Blackwell’s image is so perfectly centered that it gives the impression of being perfectly balanced, solid.
This combines the seeming ordinary nature of the snapshot with careful craft and, ultimately, a surrealist artistry. The application of years of technical training and many thousands of dollars worth of equipment is at odds with the ordinary experience of snapping a picture as one walks or drives by an ordinary scene. The very precision of the composition and technique behind the making of the image bespeaks a lack of spontaneity of a snapshot – often indicated by tilted framing, not-quite-centered subject, family or friends standing in front.
It might be suggested that another element is causes an unexpected reaction. The centrality and the secondary framing of the utility pole and curbing invite or compel repeated viewing both in and of themselves and in the “not-quite-rightness” of a snapshot that does not stimulate in the manner of a snapshot. In addition, the exposure is “perfect” – it has more dynamic range than the typical snapshot. There is detail in shadows at the same time that highlights are not “blown out.” Human eyes can span a large dynamic range, but not in a single view without adjustment over time. In that sense, the viewer is presented with a representation of a single slice of time that could not be seen by a human eye in that same small slice of time. This would be more “obvious” in a time exposure of automobile headlights at night, or in an Ansel Adams image of mountains and clouds – an image in a place out of the ordinary with a good deal of technical manipulation. The “uncommon” subject and lighting signal themselves and, so, do not present themselves as the “intersection of unexpected happenings.” The highly crafted snapshot, precisely by not announcing its specialness, presents us with a discord that bespeaks an intersection – subtle yet still an intersection.
Surreality could be argued on the basis of composition and craft alone, but another characteristic of the ultra-high resolution recording medium brings about different, heightened form of “removal of an everyday object from its expected context.” In the process of making unmediated views of the world we are quite capable of and accustomed to seeing the large “picture” and the details; however, this ordinarily requires some change of perspective, such as walking closer. That is, there is a conscious engagement and temporal component. The ultra-high resolution image presents the big picture and the details all at once. This is not to say that all can be attended without some form of engagement or change of engagement; however, the amount of distance and the length of the time component are (potentially) significantly reduced. Instead of having to stand across the street to see the large image of the ice cream shop and then walk across the street to read the prices, the viewer of the photograph need only turn his/her eyes or head or, perhaps walk one or two steps to one side or the other. Again, this is a subtle intersection of the unexpected.
We must remember that it is not at all unusual to see prints of photographs that are measured in feet rather than inches. What we are talking about in the work of Ben Blackwell is the intersection of imaging technology capable of producing large prints with extraordinary detail – much more than in the typical advertising poster, for example – with an extraordinary sense for representing the extraordinary, the surreal, in the ordinary.
In one small study of viewer engagement with ultra-high resolution photographs, we asked Blackwell to photograph one of the walls in my office – variously described as high entropy or messy. The resulting image is shown above in three instantiations: a fragment with someone viewing; a “standard” size print, and a longer view of the entire image in scale to the person in the image. The image required approximately two hours of set up time for composition, lighting (natural window light controlled by blinds and fluorescent tubes, all balanced by software manipulation,) lens selection, and other arcane of the craft.
We conducted some formal experiments with the image to determine how people would look at the images – given a choice, they would stand 10 feet back, then walk up and spend a long time looking at details; how much they would remember – more than those who saw the “standard” size print; and how they “felt” about the viewing experience – “entranced” by the detail and by having a “whole collection of images” in one print. Of course, habituation to such high resolution images would like reduce the “entranced” sense; but the sense of having multiple images within one print would likely remain.
More relevant to the concept of surreality was a set of observations of two dozen doctoral level information scientists crawling around on their hands and knees to examine a set of Blackwell images of various buildings. We needed a large impromptu venue, so we put the images on the floor outside a conference meeting room in a hotel. The anecdotal evidence was for a fascination with what looked like snapshots or “mere records” that just “were off” – this was evidently a technical term for the intersection of unexpected happenings. A few of the images did have people or other moving elements that cause interesting effects in the images because the digital technology requires long exposure times rather more like those of the photography of the 19th century. So discussion did, at times, turn to calculations of 4-dimensional attributes, with time being the fourth dimension. Yet, over the course of an hour, the primary engagement by the vast majority of scientists was a fascination with the unexpected combination of the snapshot appearance with color, light, and resolution characteristics orders of magnitude different from snapshots.
So, we might posit that the notions of composition, dynamic range, and compression of time and distance into a high resolution image present to the viewer an intersection, a removal from the ordinary, a recording of the scene “as found” but not merely through a window give Blackwell’s photographs a surreal quality made all the more compelling by its surface level lack of artifice combined with characteristics at odds with that lack of artifice. That naïve viewers and information scientists, as many of them said, could not take their eyes off the images, lend credence to the thesis. Blackwell achieves the disruption, the intersection, the removal of context (often of the viewer rather than the viewed) with a subtlety and engagement in the best (most provocative) manner of the surrealists.
to see more of Ben Blackwell's work visit www.benblackwell.com