The new photo shows lack vision

Detail from Aarati Akkapedi’s project “A-kin”

For almost two centuries photography has been at the cutting edge of art and life: documenting change, surveilling populations, advancing science and being the preferred medium for some of our greatest image makers.

Now – amidst renewed institutional attention in London – our focus has turned again to photography in its purely artistic form. But as governments and companies increasingly rely on image datasets, artificial intelligence and algorithms to organise and control society, this feels like a misstep; we need instead to foreground the image-makers who are helping us to understand how the world is changing.

Near the start of her peerless 1977 book, On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote “[W]hat is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like painting and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.”

But the proliferation of doctored images and videos (also called computational photography), alongside the widespread circulation of photorealistic AI-generated images has rendered Sontag’s claim outdated. Questioning an image’s veracity has become part of our collective process of consuming digital media. In April 2023, a Californian judge ordered Elon Musk to be interviewed under oath about whether he made certain widely-circulated video statements about Tesla’s Autopilot, after his lawyer questioned their authenticity, claiming Musk is a “target for deep fakes”.

Elsewhere, the supremacy of the photographic image is being overtaken by the mainstream adoption of virtual reality (VR). It had an undeniably rocky start, from people feeling ill wearing headsets to Mark Zuckerberg’s creepy, cartoonish avatar. With typical bravado, however, Apple reversed this by whipping up widespread excitement around its VR headset, the Apple Vision Pro. What stood out for me was how users take video calls: your colleagues see a digital avatar that mimics your facial expression in real-time, rather than a live video. The virtual surpasses the real.

We need to foreground the image-makers who are helping us understand how the world is changing

Surprisingly, these cultural changes aren’t in evidence in London exhibitions right now, even though photography has never had so much institutional attention: there are the new photography venues, such as the Centre for British Photography, the reopened galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum and National Portrait Gallery, which show more photos than ever before, and Tate Modern’s current Capturing The Moment, which examines how twentieth-century painting and photography influenced each other.

Still life of blooming flowers by Adolph Braun

The V&A’s newly opened Photography Centre – now the largest space in the UK for a permanent photography collection – is testament to museums investing heavily in the genre, albeit in a retro-looking way. The first two galleries focus on “energy”, signifying their understanding of photography as a historic documenter, in which we move from Adolph Braun’s dynamic still life of blooming flowers and William Henry Fox Talbot’s exquisite portrayals of leaves and ferns, to the eerie sciagraphs of reptiles captured by James Green and James H Gardiner in 1897, shortly after the discovery of X-ray. Many of these early photographs are inextricably bound up with the technologies they were documenting: technologies that had profound consequences for our understanding of reality.

The same is true of the recently reopened National Portrait Gallery, which has far more photos on view than when it was last open three years ago. Notably, there is a “wall of fame” dedicated to carte-de-visites. New technologies developed in the 1850s were responsible for the frenzy around collecting these, referred to as “cartomania”. Unlike its precursor, the daguerreotype, made on a silver-coated plate, carte-de-visites were printed on albumen paper in sunlight and required no protective frame.

By contrast, Capturing The Moment looks into the dynamic relationship between painting and photography by presenting a variety of iconic examples of both. Many of the works on display signal a notable change in photographic practice since the 1970s, in which there has been a transition from intimate, small-scale prints or book formats towards a more public and explicitly artistic approach. Artists in the exhibition such as Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer exemplify this shift. They employ what critic Jean-Francois Chevrier refers to as the “tableau form”, creating photographs intended for display on walls, printed at a larger scale and designed specifically for a gallery setting. This approach is also reflected by artists in the later rooms of the V&A: a monumental photographic sculpture by Noémie Goudal, for example, is just that – a work of conceptual art.

“A Sudden Gust of Wind” (after Hokusai, 1993, by Jeff Wall

Photography once occupied a twin role as both technology and artistic medium, caught somewhere between advancing our understanding of the world while reflecting on it. Now, it just appears to do the latter. The works at Tate Modern all make clear this discernible shift – take Jeff Wall’s A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993, which is a staged photo based on a Hokusai woodcut. The act of taking and looking at photographs is no longer a way of making sense of the present, only the past.

Sontag wrote that “[S]tarting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871, photographs become a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations.” While states still use photography as a data source, the process of using “computer vision” (the way computers look at pictures to identify what’s there) based on large image databases, signals a fundamental shift in the way photographic images are used. In surveillance, for example, this translates to facial recognition technology.

Museums and galleries have a chance to display artists working innovatively in new media, rather than the “art photographers” that dominate recent exhibitions and permanent displays. Art should inform and educate: it should help us grasp the hidden systems that rule our lives.

One institution taking that educational role seriously is The Photographers Gallery in Soho. Their presentation earlier this year of Aarati Akkapeddi’s project A·kin highlighted issues in understanding diverse histories and cultures when photographs are considered as mere data points. The display was made up of two sources: Akkapeddi’s family photo album from the south Indian state Tamil Nadu, and images from the Studies in Tamil Studio Archives and Society Archive (stars.archive), a collection that investigates the history of South Indian studio photography between the 1880s and the 1980s.

The artwork adopts the form of a Kolam, a traditional design made with rice flour at the entrance of homes. Here, the Kolam is created using clusters of photographs arranged in a grid pattern by an image classification algorithm. Akkapeddi’s artistic intervention is then to bring these clusters together. Each group is represented by a central image, which is a composite (ie algorithmically generated) that averages all the images within the cluster.

It works because it is both personal and totally impersonal; it contrasts individual histories with what a computer would imagine these to be, foregrounding the classifying mistakes that it makes throughout the process and therefore the implications of technologies such as facial recognition. These works may not be crowd-pleasers like Jeff Wall, but their educational potential is huge.

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

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Arts & Culture, Horizon Line, July 2023

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