A number of themes absolutely central to photography meet in this wonderful series of pictures by the artist Jos Jansen. He calls them Battlefields. As often enough, I come to them late. They were published in an award-winning book in September 2015. Jansen is interested in technology and specifically in the question of whether technology now controls us or whether we still manage to control it. That seems a pretty central question right off the bat, to photography as to so much else. It touches environmental issues, policy, corporate business. ‘Big’ external things like those. But it also touches ‘little’ internal things, like how we bring up our children, what we believe and what we believe in. You know, little things.
It’s patently a good question to investigate in photographs, because photography is one of the technologies that changed the way we reach the world and the world reaches us. One can make arguments for the importance of all sorts of technologies, from the hand-axe to the jacquard loom, and from the rifle to the pulley. It’s not a competition; all I need say is that photography has had a completely revolutionary effect on the way we interact. And advances in photography are always to a greater or lesser extent based upon advances in technology.
Not everybody recognizes what they see in these pictures. They are clever views of the surfaces of phones, with traces on them of all those swiping, pinching gestures that have so quickly become second nature.
It is one of many nicely layered ironies that the blind, blank screens we’re looking at are normally alive with light and bursting with jostling, urgent images.
They weren’t easy to photograph. Jansen had to get his own camera out of the reflection, had to make oblique light that picked up grease furrows no more than a tenth or a hundredth of a millimetre high. It was worth the trouble.
Photography has always been a tool for expanding vision as much as freezing it. The very stillness of photographs is in fact an expansion if you consider that by taking as much time as you need to examine a scene or a view, you always find things in it that you could have never have seen at natural speed. From the very earliest days, photographers were attaching cameras to microscopes and telescopes to look at things too small or too vast for the eye and the brain to process without help. Fox Talbot was doing that kind of thing within months of having a workable process. Time-lapse and other sequences, comparative photography of various kinds, photography as a tool of memory more accurate than memory itself…in all these ways and many more, photography has been a tool of expanded awareness. Photography bends perception. You only really notice that when you look at extreme versions. The photo-finish camera, for example, a wonderfully absurd thing that distorts the very things it purports to see, sacrificing straight vision itself to the difference between the winner and the loser, the only thing that betters care about.
Photography has been a tool of expanded identity, too. The selfie attracts a lot of attention today, but photography has always given people the chance to identify themselves as they want to be or propose to become rather than as they are. Selfies do that, but so did the Victorian photography studio in which you could borrow the accoutrements of a class that you did not (yet) belong to, to pose for a second as what you wanted one day to become. The self-portrait has become a plaintively existentialist revision of Descartes. I am in a photograph, therefore I am. What I have been and what I will be are unknown, but at least right now, I’m in a photograph.
We’re a long way from the tracks left by questing fingers on smartphone glass, but not too far. Jansen’s technology is maybe doing no more than was already hinted at in the earlier versions that prefigured it.
Photography has always been used to seize traces, too. The idea that what was evanescent is captured or taken in a picture is central. The fleeting, the beneath notice, the so ordinary it isn’t seen, all these things are the territory of photography. Here’s another layer. Jansen photographs actual, physical traces. They’re made by sweaty fingers, urgently running down the information superhighway. We talk about the indexicality of photography (or at least we do if we like a certain kind of jargon). It comes from the Latin for a finger: it means that photography points at things. Jansen takes that back from theoretical talk: these are quite literally index marks, fingerprints. We think of fingerprints as specifically static, where the policewoman forcibly holds your finger down on the pad to make a still image, a print. That’s nineteenth century technology, like photography itself. Jos Jansen shows that it isn’t always so. His fingerprints dance like the marks a pianist might make or a typist. Some of them actually are the marks of typing, the new grandchild of the hunt-and-peck we used to do on giant manual personal typewriters.
The very literal object he’s found allows him to make a metaphor for a subject so huge it couldn’t be photographed. Our dependence on these little phones is the big subject, as big as the Horse-Head Nebula. But Jansen finds it by looking at sweaty marks. Truly, the universe in a grain of sand. Are we somehow infected through those marks, damaged? Or are they more like footprints, showing where we’ve been in case somebody has to come along behind to rescue us later?
Jansen’s marks are wonderfully brusque. They do look a little like galaxies. Or maps or huge enlargements of we know not what. Clearly, they have some kind of order, but none that we can read. They’re certainly painterly, but they were formed by the most robotic of automatic writing. Twitch, twitch, next screen, next impression, next existence. They look panic-stricken, these marks. Look at the intensity of your fellow commuters next time you’re on a train or a bus. Commuters are pacified, numbed to the harsh rigours of urban life. We think of the ‘digital revolution’ as allowing for vast change, targeted advertising at car fanciers, that kind of thing. But it also means people don’t complain when their Tube runs seven minutes late. Dead time, swipe, pinch. It may only be a gossip feed or a game, but there’s a grimness about the haste with which we all dismiss the last message to get to the next. It’s always the next message that will change our lives, quick, swipe – out of my way !
How clever of Jansen to have put the light (the energy, that is to say, the heat and drive) into the gestures and to have taken it away from the things being gestured over. Daguerreotypes used to be called the ‘mirror with a memory’. They had a shiny surface, you see, but the picture was frozen within it. Phones really do have memory built into them, masses of it nowadays; but they don’t have a memory for all that we swipe off them. Twitch, swipe ! out of my way.
There’s an irony there, too. Can we call them the mirror with no memory? We used to deal with bits of information. We still refer to an individual news article as a ‘piece’. That’s gone. We’re all in ‘flows’ of data now, and the Pre-Socratics knew what to make of that. In a flow, you can never catch the same piece again. It has moved on, and so have you. Ordinary pictures of digital screens almost always have them lit, blazing with the beams of purportedly life-enhancing energy going through them. But Jansen’s right. It’s we who blaze, with panic at what we might miss if we don’t get to the next screen fast enough. The screens themselves are dark.
I’m aware that these pictures continue a sort of theme that has attracted me for some time. I wrote about the marks in the dirt on the back of van doors, in clever photographs by James Newton ( http://bit.ly/1sSCZSI ). I wrote more recently about Alejandro Guijarro’s quantum blackboards ( http://bit.ly/1OR4wYT ). I’ve written about mark-making more generally ( http://bit.ly/1OR4mAH ). It isn’t the only theme, that’s for sure. But one thing leads to another, and I make no apology for finding I’m still interested in these things as I become aware of each next one. There’s something rather wonderful about photography – so literal a medium in its more common guises – being pushed to the very edge of abstraction only for us to find that it carries even more rich meanings and even more complex readings there.
Battlefields, by Jos Jansen,was published in 2015 by The Eriskay Connection. ISBN: 978–94–92051–14–1