Signal and Noise: Notes on a Visual Practice

While I maintain a broad visual practice, including drawing, mapping, collaging, and diagramming, I will focus these remarks on my photographic work.  I am particularly interested in how photography can pry open the urban moment--the tiny, crystalline, yet ephemeral increments that unfold within intimate urban spaces. To track these moments I search the interstitial spaces, fragile ground, odd corridors, and recombinant environs that best reveal something of the urban. Ultimately, since the city is an uncanny cipher, I look for it through signals, noise, layers, jagged edges, soft wares, connective tissues, ghosts, hoaxes, fetishes, archives, dreams, and buried treasures.  

Tools

 

Having studied photography and printmaking in college in the 1980s, I have long been at home in the world of analogue production: the nervous red safelight, the film canister, the trays of acetic acid and ammonium thiosulphate, the contrast filters, the big metal timer clock, the improvised burning and dodging wands.  I have also experimented with large format photography, xerography, scanography, camera obscura, and cyantotype.  However, in 2007 I made the leap to digital photography, with all the losses and gains that come with such a move.  

 

In making images these days, I use a variety of tools and techniques.  I shoot most of my work in RAW format with a Cannon Mark 5DII using prime and adjustable lenses and playing with focal lengths, apertures, exposure times, orientations and framing conventions.  While I prefer the control afforded by manual focus, a degenerative eye disease (kerataconus) requires that I use auto-focus.  To compose images, I draw on several production tools and techniques, including photogrammetry, stitching, collage, tilt-shifting, layering and ghosting.  For post-exposure work, I use Archview/GIS for maps, InDesign and Sketchup for layout projects, and Photoshop for color correction, tone mapping, white balance, and sharpness gradients.  I am particularly interested in the algorithms that govern signal process operations, because "systemic inequality can haunt machine intelligence." 

 

Approach

Since my visual practice is geared toward the city as both object and muse, it is necessarily part part social research and part creative endeavor.  While I work within the traditions of architectural and documentary photography, my upbringing in the industrial Midwest has profoundly shaped how I approach this work, disposing me toward the ordinary, the quotidian, and the banal.  For example, I deploy the techniques of architectural photography not to lionize elite or iconic buildings, but to explore the mundane spaces and ordinary urban landscapes that surround us from day to day.  And unlike most documentarians, I use photography not to construct fixed narratives of individuals or groups or places, but instead to explore contingent relationships between people and cities in a wide variety of locations.

I am particularly interested in serial photography, whether thematic, sequential capture, or databasing.  Here, digital photography holds a clear advantage, since one can make multiple exposures without the expense and environmental consequences that come from printing hundreds of images.  Taking a thematic approach, I use photography as a tool for inquiry-driven research, going out into the field for photo shoots with a clear agenda of what I want to gather.  With a sequential capture approach, I select an particular location for documentation, making images in a linear spatial progression--down a street, or along a boundary for example.  And through a databasing approach, I gather large numbers of images, either taken by me or from a photographic archive, in order to draw conclusions about visual, spatial, or social patterns.  For example, I am currently working with google earth images to study urban morphologies of Mexico City.

 

The Visual Document

Documentary photography enjoys a longstanding, if troubled, relationship with social research.  Progressive-Era reformers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Dominique Darbois, and Alice Seeley Harris used photographs to depict 'social ills' of tenements, factories, and colonialism respectively.  They inspired a generation of sociologists, planners, and activists to deploy photography as a tool of urban documentation and social reform.

 

In the 1930s, the U.S. Federal Government hired a group of leading photographers to document work by the Farm Security Administration, sending into the field such experts as Dorthea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Marion Post Wolcott.  Perhaps the apogee of classic documentary photography used in social research came with the 1945 publication of The Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, which used illustrations taken by New Deal photographers Russell Lee, John Vachon, Jack Delano, and others.   Meanwhile, artists such as Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, and the hitherto-unknown Vivian Maier used photography to experiment with the formal language of images and to push the instrumental tolerances of the camera toward new modes of seeing and visioning.  

Beginning in the 1960s, critiques of documentary photography arose both from social theorists and photographers.  Many were influenced by photographer Robert Frank's 1959 book The Americans, in which mundane, claustrophobically composed personal scenes greatly redacted the narrative scope and documentary license of the photograph.  In the 1970s and 1980s, theorists such as Allan Sekula and Susan Sontag began to unravel the status of photography's truth claims, seeing instead a medium intersected and shaped by multiple discourses.  Artists such as Martha Rosler, Carrie Mae Weems, and Gary Winogrand experimented with a range of visual approaches that destabilized the photograph as a privileged document, opening space for contingent meanings, destabilized subjectivities, and a preference for surfaces over depth.

New Directions

However, since the 1990s an emerging body of work by photographers has carved out space for a theoretically informed documentary practice.  Photographers such as Manuel Rivera-Ortiz, Albrecht Tübke, Deirdre O'Callaghan, Tina Barney, Camillo Jose Vergara, Chris Wainwright, and Kevin WY Lee have re-engaged with major social issues such as globalization, human rights, poverty, and climate change. 

 

And yet, influenced by the work of Joel Meyerowitz and William Eggleston, this recent generation uses the exposure not to define social realities, but rather to explore contingent relations, liminal spaces, shifting identities, and alternate meanings.  Rather than the classic humanist approach that assumes photography to be a transparent instrument of truth-telling, as in the work of Jacob Riis or Lewis Hine, or a mode of access to depth and interiority, as in the work of Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank, contemporary documentary exposure seeks meaning in the unstable relations between the photographer, subject, image, and viewer.

Other artists and critics have shifted emphasis away from making new images to plumbing the archive for existing ones. Deploying curatorial methods, they have pried open the photographic archive, emphasizing the serial nature, democratized access, and mechanical reproducibility of images.  Some arrange images in traditional forms, while others use bricolage, détournement, re-appropriation, and taxonomic scrambling to shift existing images to new purposes. Shawn Smith crops, redacts, and recombines mundane family snapshots in order to draw out pattern languages of gender, race, and labor in the construction of family identity and community life.  Sara Maneiro's project "Berenice's Grimace" displays dental records of people massacred and dumped in mass graves during the violence that rocked Venezuela in the 1980s.  Louis Takacs compiles thousands of thumbnail photographs found in the archive of passport applications made to U.S. consulates in multiple countries as a way to contemplate diaspora, migration flows, and transnational worlds.  

Toward a Visual Practice

In my own visual practice, then, I am interested in photography not merely as illustration, but as method. The images that I make collaborate with, and sometimes contradict, other forms of social evidence, such as migration and resettlement patterns, shifting gender and class relations, civic and political formation, architectural program, urban spatial patterns, commerce and exchange, and the narrated experiences of people in motion.  In documenting social phenomenon through photography, I am engaging in a conversation with people and places.  And while the images necessarily emerge from a point of view, it is (hopefully) an informed point of view, one that weaves together visual, textual, and experiential forms of evidence to produce new understanding about the urban world.

  

 

My visual practice is oriented to the exploration of cities and city life.  I begin with the premise that the city is greater than the sum of its parts, but that it is ultimately an unattainable whole.  Because the whole of the city is unknowable, we tend to fill in the gaps with our own desires, phantasms, and imaginaries.  Thus, my work seeks to uncover the varied ways that we construct and inhabit our urban world, how the past haunts the city through its imprint on the present, and the ways in which human creativity contests and reshapes the landscapes that surround us. 

 

 

© 2016 Joseph Heathcott