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The Photo Issue 2014

Trompe L’Oeil

What do photographs want from us? Why won’t they leave us alone? We create them, and they surround us, hold us captive, demand and extract psychic ransom. We allow ourselves to be overtaken by them and then wonder why we can’t stop taking them, or look...

This essay originally appeared in the 2014 VICE photo issue.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ohio Theater, Ohio, 1980, gelatin silver print, 47 x 58.75 inches, 119.4 x 149.2 cm, edition of five. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

What do photographs want from us? Why won’t they leave us alone? We create them, and they surround us, hold us captive, demand and extract psychic ransom. We allow ourselves to be overtaken by them and then wonder why we can’t stop taking them, or look away. Is it because photography itself is a compulsion to repeat? With photography, we try to grasp what’s ephemeral and beyond our reach, the world in all its vastness and elasticity. But why do we expect photographs to capture anything real? To yield a true reflection of what we saw, of who we were? More accurately, of what was. Because in the hazy blur of what’s lost, truth inevitably comes into greater focus in the past tense.


Animated life is already gone when we blink or click the shutter. Graven yet paper-thin, this is the mythic status of photographs: They somehow allow us to hold on to time—imprinted as an image. But if the myth itself could be fixed as an image, what might come into view? We would only have to scratch its filmy emulsion to find beneath… endless centuries of encrusted emulsion, as if at the edge of our eyelids, nearly sealed while we slept.

Maybe consciousness is a waking dream after all, and photographs are so many fragments of a map. Such a map, if pieced together—an all but impossible task—would account for every arrival and departure, a visual record of the passengers in transit. Although this may sound like science fiction, in terms of imaginative writing and its unintended predictions, we are never very far from its fraternal twin, science fact. In this respect we have to ask, if the whole world is a laboratory and life its ongoing experiment, are we so unsure of what we apprehend with our senses that we need further proof? Any examination of history involves a form of time travel, and science too demands that we go back—to run the experiments again, to compare and interpret data. The interpretation of dreams is important in this respect, not only because the unconscious is the one place where we are truly honest with ourselves but because we come to realize that the dream itself is the interpretation—of waking life. The surrealists willingly traversed these coordinates and accrued a billion frequent-flier miles on our behalf—as revealed by art today that defamiliarizes and makes strange what we know, or thought we knew. Pictorial representation that aims to examine and represent the little movies of our own making, the ones that play and loop in our heads night after night, inevitably deposits us on an ever-turning carousel, revolving simultaneously forward and back. What sort of fragments may then be added to a map whose purpose is, at the same time, to orient and disorient? There is, at present, no means to faithfully account for the overlay of routes and detours that allow us to become pleasurably lost. There are far too many of us for that.


Courtesy of Everett Collection

The conceptual artist Douglas Huebler, with his 1971 project Variable Piece #70 (In Process) Global, stated:

Editions of this work will be periodically issued in a variety of topical modes: “100,000 people,” “1,000,000 people,” “10,000,000 people,” “people personally known by the artist,” “look-alikes,” “over-laps,” etc.

Throughout the remainder of the artist’s lifetime he will photographically document, to the extent of his capacity, the existence of everyone alive in order to produce the most authentic and inclusive representation of the human species that may be assembled in that manner.

Over the next 25 years Huebler would go on to take pictures of crowded city streets, of cowboys at a Texas prison rodeo, of people who might resemble a man from an old FBI Wanted poster, of places in and around the former concentration camp at Dachau, and of children holding a sign that reads: “One Person Who Is Not Afraid of Life.” Until he passed away, in 1997, Huebler pursued his project to photograph “everyone alive”—a monumental, and monumentally absurd, endeavor—and you could say that he died trying. Maybe we’re continuing his project, with or without a camera, as we walk in the street from day to day and observe one another.

What exactly are pictures able to prove that we ourselves cannot? Are we merely marking our presence and passage? Easier for tourists to have taken thousands of photos of the pyramids and the Sphinx than to have piled up all those blocks of limestone, riddled with time and mortality. Unconsciously contemplating the afterlife, they pile up images instead, for a new kind of monument, but to what exactly? We still see names inscribed and hands imprinted in the wet cement of the sidewalk—the hieroglyphs of our time—as we alternately come forward and recede with messages similarly encrypted, or reduced to pictographic form. Everyone grows up with phones that enable the taking of photos, an activity that’s become second nature, to some degree mundane and required, so routinely entwined within the everyday that photography may not be able to retain any connection to magic. Endless pictures are taken and never printed. One walks around with a portable archive of photos, moments either saved or removed, of “everyone alive” or deleted. But is the storage and sharing of images a compression or an expansion of experience? And even though we know that technology is a drug, we have barely begun to address its side effects. An entire generation is now so accustomed to its voracious prosthetic eye, one that seemingly cannot be fooled, that it’s unable to look away. While it’s been said that the camera believes everything, should we?


We return, as always, to the scene of the crime, and in criminology, it’s well known that eyewitness accounts are often unreliable. Three people witness an incident and describe the perpetrator to a police sketch artist, whose final drawing is usually a composite of their differing descriptions, a viable rendering only possible in the overlap between them. And what of mystic or religious visions, and of those who testify on similarly shaky though firmly held ground? If logic insists that seeing is believing, faith may be defined in terms of its inverse—believing is seeing. In another century, one that was only just becoming acquainted with the camera and its supposed veracity, the novelist Émile Zola proposed: “In my opinion, you cannot say you have thoroughly seen anything until you have a photograph of it.” This observation is entirely accurate, for a photo inevitably compresses space in a way that makes a perceived view more readily grasped, as if an object is held in the hand and palpable—the world not only apprehended but at our very fingertips. This is the little black mirror of our day. Zola’s time, the mid to late 19th century, allowed for the sort of relationship to invention and to a sense of wonder that ours can no longer sustain. Spirit photography, for example, was popularized in that era. Photographs of apparitions, spectral figures, haunted places. These captured the public’s imagination in the 1850s. While inventions most often hold some sort of promise for the future, this aspect of photography points to how the medium is, in fact, a medium, a means to communicate with the past. Every photo suggests a séance, a way to make visible the invasion of reality, to prove that there are such incursions, to reveal what’s otherwise unseen by the naked eye. Although we know that spirit photography was very often staged, and Zola’s proposition doesn’t account for trickery, these pictures may not have been intended to deceive as much as to entertain, to instill wonder.


Douglas Huebler, 19/ Variable Piece #70: 1971, 1977

The great writer of speculative fiction J. G. Ballard once asked, “Does the future have a future? […] I think the future is about to die on us, actually. I think it may have died a few years ago. I think we are living in the present. We theme-parked the future just as we theme-park everything.” Ballard said this nearly 20 years ago, and his fear, as was often the case, turned out to be true. The future is a thing of the past, and in some sense hasn’t this always been so? A hundred years after all those photos of ghosts, the spirit photography of modern life would be defined by pictures of UFOs, ushering in a whole host of so-called special effects that don’t seem particularly special anymore. For moviegoers who have seen it all, we might as well be thrown back to the 1950s, to that quaint, outdated future, only without the funny glasses. Today, the fact that it costs more to see a movie shot in 3-D is yet another reminder of the higher price we pay for the illusion of reality. Curiously enough, a retooled version of the silver screen from the early years of cinema, which was interwoven with reflective aluminum or contained actual particles of silver dust, is being used once again for polarized 3-D projection. But then technology has always been a matter of futures and pasts, and of anticipating the inevitable, its own built-in obsolescence, rather than competing in a futile race to catch up with itself. Filmmakers today have begun to shoot on what’s called future-proof stock, which is meant to be compatible with advanced systems that have yet to be invented. This raises a question no one could have expected a century ago: Which came first, the film or the projector? Nowadays, as audiences expect increasingly higher definition, even the recent past will appear unacceptably out of focus, accustomed as they are to screens mere inches from their faces, in the palms of their hands, a more shallow depth of field.

Back in the gilded age of the movie palace, in the 1930s and 40s, when people would escape to a double feature, the show began even before the lights were dimmed. Far above them, amid the fantasy architecture of a Moorish castle, a Mayan temple, or an Egyptian tomb, the ceiling was painted in trompe l’oeil, offering what appeared to be a giant dome of an aquamarine sky. Realistic clouds were projected, drifting and subtly shifting as if they were actually passing overhead. The theater would darken, and the sky would become star-filled, celestial, as if one were inside a planetarium. The painted stars formed constellations, illuminated by actual bulbs that twinkled softly, transporting the audience from the grim reality of the Great Depression and the war years that followed, which saved and obliterated them. The performers in these movies, their stars, would seemingly defy gravity and dance across the walls. Now they simply float off into space. Escapism was here at its apex—before the exploratory use of mind-expanding drugs, with their own internally generated trompe l’oeil, the heightened visual sensitivity we refer to as hallucination. The term trompe l’oeil translates as “trick the eye,” an illusionistic form of painting that predates photography by hundreds of years. Through deftly orchestrated effects, an otherwise 2-D surface appears to have depth of field, naturalistic clarity, and vanishing perspective. Hollywood in this period was commonly referred to as the “Dream Factory,” and if the movies they produced were meant to be conveyors of the unconscious, then the extravagantly stylized theaters in which these dreams were projected would themselves be time machines, designed as if they were meant to serve as the sets of period films, sending audiences back to another dimension. Although trompe l’oeil deceives in its realistic illusions, we have to acknowledge that deception itself is also real and has its own value.

In an increasingly image-saturated world, some believe that every picture has been taken and the endgame of photography is represented by pictures of pictures, the compulsion to repeat as repetition. In vernacular picture making, the photos taken by you and me and everyone we know might as well be copies struck from dusty negatives and glass plates we thought had been shattered long ago. Since every picture has materialized an infinite number of times—and there is surely no end in sight—does each cancel out its double in a kind of accumulation void, from which there appears no way out? Should photographs document or recreate reality, or picture what’s only visible in the mind’s eye? Ultimately, the ongoing erosion of magic requires much more than a bigger rabbit pulled from a bigger hat. You would have to wave a wand and extract an elephant, and even then, after conjuring it once or twice, you’d be faced with a rather grim reality: What’s breathtaking today may be a yawn tomorrow, and laughed at the day after. Every new image is already dated, even if from a mere five minutes ago—an eternity just the same. If today there is almost no compelling reason to take another photograph, this, then, has become the elephant in the room. And yet it doesn’t in any way signal the end of photography. It only means that the elephant is ready for its close-up. And in greater proximity to one’s subject, something otherwise unnoticed is sure to be revealed.

As we question the act of picture making, we come to realize how photography in our time asserts itself as the one art form, in parallel to moving pictures, in which a philosophy of being and of passing is continually examined. In the larger, darker sense, there is probably no photograph that cannot be seen as in some way morbid, or at least bittersweet. You live and you die, and photographs, these thin pieces of paper—at least in their traditional or soon-to-be forgotten form—establish points of entry, occupation, and departure. While photography’s reflection may prove unreliable, this is its advantage rather than its limitation, since so much of our culture goes unquestioned. And it’s not a matter of blind acceptance. It’s simply that photography has an inherently reflexive quality that allows us to enter and be implicated in this contested space. We all take and occupy photographs. The same cannot be said of painting, nor even of performance, which is all too often a sort of theater that falsely claims to erase the space between art and life. (And when performance is staged as nothing more than a staring contest, how is it that so many are so easily reduced to tears?) Of a particular annoyance in being stared at, most often leveled by women toward men, and understandably so, the saying goes: “Take a picture—it’ll last longer.” Quite unlikely that anyone has ever articulated the invasive act with the challenge “Paint a picture—it’ll last longer.” In terms of history as pure revision, and of photography as the medium through which we negotiate our belief and disbelief systems and navigate the ever-shifting surface and depths of reality, we might propose: “Fake a picture—it’ll last longer.” Or, better yet: “Fake a picture—it’s more real.” © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York—, courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York