Ok I’ll admit upfront, I have no idea if what I’m about to write will make any sense whatsoever. I’ve had a mishmash of ‘stuff’ stewing in my brain for ages now, courtesy of ‘Photography Changes Everything’, and currently ‘Bending The Frame’ which I’m easing my way through. But it’s competing with a whirl of other stuff to do with Google Glass, privacy, surveillance, history, time, and a whole raft of other bits and bobs that I’m not entirely sure I’ve yet got a handle on. Anyway…….

“When you walk into your kitchen, what do you see? A table, a refrigerator, a microwave, an oven; a frying pan, maybe a bowl of fruit. An assemblage of objects, in short — some useful, some indifferent, depending on your present wishes and state of mind…….

How would you perceive a kitchen that greets you by name, offers congratulations on a big meeting at work, projects photos from your recent vacation on tables and walls, and reminds you not to burn the casserole? Would you feel yourself to be in a space composed of the same indifferent collection of inanimate objects? Or would you perceive something closer to a holistic, integrated environment — a place with a spirit, almost, a soul?”

This somewhat disturbing, some might even say dystopian, description of the incursion of technology into our lives, is from a recent piece in Wired by Ilya Gelfenbeyn, entitled ‘How New Technologies Return us to Our Roots’. (Quote: “Ilya Gelfenbeyn is the co-founder and CEO of Speaktoit, which develops human-computer interaction applications and platforms.”)

I imagine that biometrics will play a huge role in this kitchen ‘knowing’ it is actually me that is present, and images/facial recognition may play a significant role in enabling this. Now, given the recent revelations of widespread acquisition of networked digital personal data by US and UK governments, I’d be very very wary. If my digital percolator knows where I am, and that I might like sugar in my coffee, you can be sure several other people, somewhere, will know that too. And some of these individuals may be of the type who are inclined to withhold the sugar.

Your kitchen is watching you.....© John MacPherson
Your kitchen is watching you…..© John MacPherson

Clayton Cubitt writing in an article on Petapixel provocatively titled ‘The Decisive Moment is Dead. Long Live the Constant Moment.’ argues:

“We exist on a treadmill of forgetting and anticipating. We labor to preserve what we treasure of our past, even while the present shotguns us with a thousand new options, one of which must become our future. One of which we must choose.

In this maelstrom of time it is hard to be calm; to understand what warrants attention, and what can be ignored. This state of tranquility and presence has been the essence of the modern photographic act, best characterized in the popular mind by Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the “Decisive Moment.”

The notion that a large part of the creativity of the medium was the ability to recognize and capture moments in real-time was the central conceit of the Decisive Moment. But in fact, much of what Cartier-Bresson describes is not about the art, but mainly about the tools that he had access to: the portable rangefinder camera and increasingly fast films, which enabled him to roam and grab action from the air as it unfolded before him, in ways previous eras of artists could not….

….Imagine an always-recording 360 degree HD wearable networked video camera. Google Glass is merely an ungainly first step towards this. With a constant feed of all that she might see, the photographer is freed from instant reaction to the Decisive Moment, and then only faced with the Decisive Area to be in, and perhaps the Decisive Angle with which to view it.

Already we’ve arrived at the Continuous Moment, but only an early, primitive version.

Evolve this further into a networked grid of such cameras, and the photographer is freed from these constraints as well, and is then truly a curator of reality after the fact.

Call me a Luddite if you want but I’m not buying into this proposition either. Setting aside the multiplicity of possibilities that are created by the ‘Decisive Area’ and the ‘Decisive Angle’ which Cubitt conveniently skims over, but which most photographers will know more familiarly as ‘being in the wrong place at the wrong time’, we are still left with some problems. One that both authors seem to have missed, and something Lewis Bush underlines in his recent piece ‘Photography and Non-Compliance’  is that many people resent such intrusions in to their everyday lives by recording devices, and will do whatever they can to subvert their ever-watchful eye. The notion that ‘privacy’ itself is a hugely important concept in our daily lives, and one that is constantly being challenged, and in many cases ‘eroded’ by this technological incursion, is given scant consideration by both authors.

Technology tempts us..... © John MacPherson
Temptation © John MacPherson

But what is ‘privacy’ in the digital age, one of constant CCTV surveillance, drones, biometrics, face recognition technology, and social networks? We tacitly accept cctv recording of our lives as we go about our daily business, and we happily share with strangers our intimate moments through Facebook and Instagram, apparently uncaring of who is witness to them. But if someone else, say an ‘artist’ or ‘street photographer’ appropriates some images of us, apparently ‘invading’ the sphere of what we perceive as ‘our personal lives’ we sometimes react with indignation, labeling the ‘photographer’ an intruder:

“It’s just plain creepy!” “This guy should be arrested.” “He’s a peeping Tom with a camera”. “These people had an expectation of privacy in their own home that was invaded by the perv, I mean photographer.”

…these are just some of the comments made in response to The Neighbors, a body of work by Arne Svenson, who created candid images of the residents of a neighbouring apartment block, capturing them unnoticed from his own adjacent apartment by the use of a long lens. In a recent article by Jonny Weeks on The Guardian website on the court victory by Arne Svenson under his First Amendment Rights: ‘The art of peeping: photography at the limits of privacy’  Weeks notes:

“Svenson says the verdict was “a great victory for the rights of all artists” and, although he remains wary of discussing the project, stresses that his motivation was only to observe the nuances of human existence. “I find the unrehearsed, unconscious aspects of life the most beautiful to photograph, as they are most open to interpretation, to a narrative,” he explains. “A dramatic moment has the single power of action, but tiny, linked moments are how we mark time on this earth – I am much more interested in recording the breath between words than I am the actual words themselves.””

I’ll admit I really like Svenson’s images, for a variety of reasons, certainly artistically, many are very evocative; but also conceptually in the way they explore the notion of ‘privacy’ and raise questions of ‘ownership’. The thought-provoking idea that light can ‘enter’ an apartment, reflect from a subject, leave the apartment and, by passing through the legitimate ‘boundary’ of that intimate space – the glass window – be captured by an outside observer in their own ‘private’ space. Raising the question: who owns that light, and the latent ‘image’ it carries and may create? The subject reflecting it? Or the observer (and potential ‘curator’) of the light?

Your neighbours are watching you..... © John  MacPherson
Your neighbours are watching you….. © John MacPherson

And I’m interested also in the role of both ‘time’ and ‘anonymity’ in this process, and the ways both seem to influence our perception of such imagery. The passage of time in some instances somehow making an image of a subject that may currently be unpublishable, somehow more acceptable. Most would find it totally unacceptable if Svenson had shown candid images of something overtly ‘sexual’ and ‘revealing’, yet such an image from a bygone era seems to be ‘more’ acceptable. The image’s status now one of ‘a documentary record’, and consideration of the ‘dignity’ of the subjects portrayed within it somehow subsumed by the passage of time and the imperative of knowing something of our shared history. And this aided by anonymity, as demonstrated by the work of Mishka Henner, and his ‘curation’ of Google Streetview images of alleged prostitutes, where the blurring out of the subjects features removes both the identity of the individual, thus ‘protecting’ them, but in so doing ‘enables’ what some have argued is a different sort of exploitation by their inclusion in a body of work that has as its only criteria for selection their gender and proximity to places where prostitution has previously taken place.

But is the work of Svenson and Henner any different from these: the wealth of ‘found photos’ that have been unearthed in junk shops and flea markets, and which now have a new life in the digital age, shared widely and publicly, and pored over, wondered at and often celebrated?

I’ve personally enjoyed Gene M’s growing collection of ‘found’ images for some time now, and was intrigued by an article by Jeffrey Zuckerman ‘Why We Find Found Photos So Captivating’ in which he cites the influence on him of Found magazine which collates and reproduces ‘found’ images, and in which he remarks:

“At the flea market, I know nothing about where these photographs came from. Were they all taken by the same person or cobbled together from different estate sales? I couldn’t tell if a picture of a weeping willow was in Louisiana or Indonesia. In the photograph above (salvaged by book cover designer John Gall and collected in one of his many blog posts on found photography), are the two men waving or blocking the sun in their eyes? There is something beautiful about this lack of context. Each new photograph feels as serendipitous as the next song that comes up in an old jukebox at an unfamiliar bar.”

And notes with some curiosity and delight:

“The man who keeps FOUND’s gears turning, Al McWilliams, shares with me the magazine’s most infamous photograph: an old woman walking obliviously past a naked man in bed. [NSFW]

“This is a photograph though, implying with a fair amount of certainty that there is also a photographer,” McWilliams explained. “It’s that extrapolation that I believe makes FOUND items so catchy and doubly so with the photographs. There’s a balance between information and imagination that allows you to actually interact with the truth (which is really weird and rare).”

On the back of the photograph, “come into our world” had been written. But even that shred of information isn’t enough to complete the imagined story.

“That’s when you sit down with your friends and try with great joy and eventual frustration to figure out what the fuck was going on in that gramma pic.” “

These little vignettes, brief insights into some fleeting and unknowable narrative, seem to gain their magic precisely because they are orphans, abandoned fragments of others’ lives finding newly imagined histories in the narrative of a modern beholder. Is our dissemination of these somehow less of an invasion of the subject’s privacy? And if so, is it simply because they are anonymous subjects? Or is it that the passage of time somehow makes such ‘use’ acceptable? If so how? Why?

And are they more, or less, ‘intrusive’ into the lives of others than Svenson’s or Henner’s work? Svenson deliberately does not identify individuals, and Google obscures the faces of Henner’s images, whereas the majority of ‘found’ images have no such censorship. They flaunt their content for all to see. What moral or legal obligations does this place on ‘curators’ of such images? I really don’t know.

Who am I?  © John MacPherson
How many people know who I am…..? © John MacPherson

Clayton Cubitt obliquely acknowledges the role of the ‘curator’, remarking:

“…I enjoyed the vitality of the 20th Century photographic hunt, the way it forced me into the world to seek out that which illuminated hidden places in my mind. And like Cartier-Bresson I’ve enjoyed the synaptic electrical pulse of discovery, as the forms in front of me seemed to arrange themselves out of chaos into an order that meant something about the way life felt there and then.

The Constant Moment doesn’t end any of that. All it does is capture the billion missed Decisive Moments that previously slipped through our fingers, by expanding the available window of temporal curation from “here and now” to “anywhere and anytime.”

The Constant Moment eliminates dumb luck from photography. It minimizes, as much as anything ever can, the Hawthorne Effect caused by a lifeless camera between our interactions. It continues the photographic tradition of artistic democratization by flattening limits of time, of geography, of access.”

Dumb luck? I dont think so. Most good photographers, and certainly street photographers, pj’s and documentary workers, are not ‘in the right place, at the right time’ only as a consequence of luck (although it often plays a part). They research, they anticipate, they watch the visual narrative unfold and choose their moment.

But, for me, looking beyond all Cubitt’s hyperbole, there is one reality – the time required to divine the magic from within the unimaginable slew of images that constitute the “billion missed Decisive Moments” he talks of. We don’t each have endless amounts of time to spend on this hunt, and in truth the ‘decisive moment’ is not negated by the advent of Google Glass and other recording devices, all of which (so far) have a finite frame rate leaving ‘gaps in time’  between the frames, gaps through which the decisive moment may slip. And surely will.

No, if these devices do eventually record everything that transpires in front of their all-seeing eyes, the task of actually defining a ‘decisive moment’ – and divining it from the endless stream of movement – will be a task simply postponed until some later moment when it may be ‘discovered’ by others who care to look, and have the time to. And who don’t blink, those ‘gaps’ between seeing we all experience, through which our awareness often ‘slips’. Of necessity finding that fleeting ‘moment’ requires each frame to be frozen, isolated and considered. A task that I personally don’t think ‘automation’ will ever achieve.

The found image of ‘gramma’, underlines that finding such a moment requires the interaction of a human, to be there, at the precise instant that the image pops up, whether in the flesh at a junk sale, or on the viewing device of your choice as you peel through endless billions of frames, and for the viewer to recognize in it…..well….something, something that has ‘story’, that possesses ’emotional power’ and ‘intrigue’ and is ‘relevant’ in some perhaps abstractly conceptual way that transcends the abilities of even the most ‘thoughtful’ artificial intelligence that could be used to automatically sift through such images for us.

And it seems also that as time erodes the notion of ‘privacy’, that images of incredibly intimate moments such as ‘gramma’, once set free of their contemporary anchor and the story of their creators, become objects of supposition, and of mystery, digital currency in a barter of wonderment.

Reaching across time © John MacPherson
Reaching across time © John MacPherson

This debate will run and run, I’ve got more questions about all of it than I have answers, and there’s loads and loads more to digest on the subject, and if Ilya Gelfenbeyn’s interactive coffee percolator becomes a reality, never mind the implications of people using, and talking to, Google Glass there could even be a great deal more of this.

But I’ll let Clayton Cubitt have the penultimate quote:

So the Decisive Moment itself was merely a form of performance art that the limits of technology forced photographers to engage in. One photographer. One lens. One camera. One angle. One moment. Once you miss it, it is gone forever.

Future generations will lament all the decisive moments we lost to these limitations, just as we lament the absence of photographs from pre-photographic eras. But these limitations (the missed moments) were never central to what makes photography an art (the curation of time), and as the evolution of technology created them, so too is it on the verge of liberating us from them.

Not me. I mourn nothing. I could care less about the unknowable fragments that were “lost to these limitations”. I simply celebrate that which we have: the astonishing images that define our last few generations with all our imperfections, and the wonderful paintings that interpret the landscapes of place and face, all made before film; and ‘images’ on rock stretching back through the ages daubed on kopjes, on outcrops beside billabongs, and inside the caves at Lascaux, all before we had proper linen ‘canvas’.

And what we have in this digital age is truly wonderful, the limitless possibility of creativity and sharing. What the growing collections of ‘found’ images demonstrates is that, never mind the present, or even the future, there are huge riches out there from our past still to be unearthed, curated, sequenced, wondered over, and simply enjoyed. They were created by people like us, and reflect our glorious diversity, and today, many decades after their making, they still have the power to prompt two of the most wonderful abilities we possess: curiosity and imagination. Just as our images, created today and tomorrow and ‘curated’ by social media, and shorn of their metadata, may prompt our descendents to wonder at them, and about them, in the distant future.

One for the future to ponder over © John MacPherson
One for the future to ponder over © John MacPherson

The ‘Decisive Moment’? It’s the magic that happens in the gap between video frames, the thing we miss when we blink, and is perhaps what Svenson lyrically describes as “the breath between words” :

“….tiny, linked moments are how we mark time on this earth – I am much more interested in recording the breath between words than I am the actual words themselves.”

And there’s a Decisive Moment about to occur for me….and if you could see what I’m doing, you’d witness it happening right now….

….and out of the “thousand new options, one of which must become our future. One of which we must choose..”  after writing this lot, that choice is simple: a cup of tea. You see I don’t like coffee.

And I don’t take sugar.

  • Nice piece John. My only thought is it’s often funny how people refer to new technology as either dystopian or utopian, rarely acknowledging most new tech can very easily be both simultaneously. Even in the very worse dystopia (say 1984) there’s usually someone at the top for whom it probably looks the opposite 😉

    • Yes I know. It’s a point not lost on me. I’ve just this last two weeks had an ongoing and ‘interesting’ discussion with some environmental folks over Augmented Reality and its role in reconnecting people with nature, or ‘revealing’ through technology in real time the hidden stories of a place, for those who lack the skills or aptitude, or even experience, to be able to do so without such technological ‘assistance’. The contentious point being whether such ‘aids’ actually distance people from the experience rather than bring them closer to understanding it.

      Many of the respondents were hugely skeptical, bordering on the totally averse, not quite grasping the fact that for many people technology is not ‘something out there’ to adopt or not, but a reality within their everyday lives and one they accept, but what it provides (from an environmental educators POV) is an access point through which people can be made aware, and perhaps mobilized for a cause.

      It works both ways.

  • hiraya

    saw this stuff on tv on why our brains let us perceive faces on inanimate objects. it has something to w/ humans’ hunter/gatherer origins. we detect faces immediately because it’s part of our brain’s defense mechanism to detect enemies in the dark.

    • Thanks for commenting Hiraya. Yes I’ve read a wee bit about it too. It’s fascinating, and accounts for us noticing the faces of Christ in pieces of breakfast cereal, in paint patterns on walls and in a lot of other places, all of which are a consequence of our pattern recognition ability.

  • Freak the 360 technology that is neither here nor there, what ticks me off most are all the decisive moments that get away each and every damn day not because of the limits of even the most primitive of image capturing technologies, but because of the mind numbing actions I must perform most days to guarantee I can afford and reserve the very smallest allotments of time necessary for their pursuit.

    • Stan – thanks, as ever. And for responding with what has to be the most philosophical observation on why the decisive moment is such an ephemeral thing, and only rarely encountered in the wild.

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog’s hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

More articles from John Macpherson