5 Mind-Blowing Pieces From A Cutting Edge Photo Exhibition

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Rob Walker
Yahoo! News
Mishka Henner's Dutch Landscapes
"The Dutch method of censorship [of Google Maps] is notable for its stylistic intervention compared to other countries" - Mishka Henner

by Rob Walker | @YahooTech

What does the digital revolution mean to photography?

The question can be — or rather, has already been — answered in myriad ways. The most recent high-profile excuse to wrestle with the issue: The Chicago Sun-Times’ decision to do away with its photo staff. One of the affected photojournalists reacted to being “replaced by a reporter with an iPhone” by … starting a Tumblr. Laidofffromthesuntimes.tumblr.com, created by Rob Hart, promptly attracted a swarm of online attention.

So is that a story about a digital threat — or a digital opportunity? Or both?

Just as I was chewing over this question, I had a chance to check out “A Different Kind of Order,” the International Center of Photography’s fourth triennial exhibition aiming to offer a picture of the most compelling contemporary photo work.

While I’d stopped by out of idle curiosity, what I got was a major jolt to my thinking about technology and the making (and consuming) of images today.

Sure, the smartphone revolution has extended the long history of photography’s democratization. But “A Different Kind of Order” repeatedly reminded me that there are photographers, artists, photojournalists and other image-makers whose work rises far above the crowd. The best of this work both uses and critiques technology in ways that disturb, inspire awe, and generally blow your mind.

Here are five of my favorite pieces from from the show:

1. A chilling piece by Rabih Mouré collects images and videos made with mobile devices in war-torn Syria. In one, a shaky video settles on a hiding soldier. Suddenly this blurry figure seems to notice the camera-holder, and raises his rifle. The image spins to the ground. Has this citizen documentarian just been shot? There is no way of knowing for sure: a grim reminder of how the explosion of visual information still resolves in maddening uncertainty.

2. Trevor Paglen’s large prints resemble pleasing abstractions or luscious sksyscapes. But study them very closely and you will see a tiny blemish here or there — and that speck is a Predator or Reaper military drone, flying over a test site that of course a non-military photographer cannot get near. Apart from forcing the viewer to stare intently, searching a large physical image for its subject (the pictures wouldn’t translate well to a computer screen), Paglen’s approach comments on the conundrum of these hulking and influential weapons that are, by design, invisible to their victims — and to most of the rest of us, too.

3. A.K. Burns’ “Touch Parade” addresses something I had never heard of: “highly specialized fetish videos found on YouTube.” How specialized? Evidently these videos depict such actions as crushing vegetables with one’s foot, or inflating a balloon until it pops. To most people, of course, such a video would just seem pointless and strange — but to some small community they read as “erotic.” Burns “reenacts” five examples, which run simultaneously on five TVs. Apart from being freaky and creepy, the videos offer a vivid example of subversive imagery that hides in plain sight — and a jarring variation of the familiar clichés about connecting over shared interests online. If YouTube understood what such videos were about, would it force them off the platform? And what does it mean to watch something that switches from inexplicable to disturbing once you understand its intent?

4. Mishka Henner’s images are documentation of counter-documentation. The satellite imagery on Google Maps turns out to include some interesting anomalies: governments demand that certain territories of military or other significance be kept obscured. As it happens, the Dutch “method of censorship” entails aesthetically engaging abstractions, plopped right into satellite pictures. In a sense these are “found” images — but found in the digital world rather than the physical. Interestingly, while I’d seen these pictures previously, online, they looked terrific in the form of physical prints.

5. Finally, there’s “Touching Reality,” by Thomas Hirschorn. This meta-examination of the way we consume images now is short but incredibly affecting: A video shows a hand swiping and pinching an iPad, viewing a series of extremely graphic photos of war casualties. Such gory evidence of violence would likely be kept off the front page or evening news, but is now routinely documented by “citizen photojournalists” with camera phones, and easily found online. The hand flicks through these images, pausing now and again to zoom in on some horrifying detail. The viewer empathizes (this way of taking in pictures is now familiar) yet feels frustrated by the lack of control — and vaguely judgmental of the hand, even while consuming exactly the same images its owner is consuming. It’s disorienting. And for me, it was actually just too gruesome to watch all the way through. But with that warning in mind, you can see a short excerpt of the piece below.

None of this makes me think any less of services like Instagram and Flickr and the exploding range of work, from the casual to the serious, that emerges there. But “A Different Kind of Order” is a powerful reminder that the far edges of image-making are still being explored, with rewarding results. If you have a chance to see this show in person, do it. It will change the way you see.