By now it is clear that we are witnessing a massive transformation in how photographic imagery is produced, disseminated, and viewed. Increasingly, photographs are being made not by individual photographers (a.k.a., people) but rather by machines — by automated networks of sensory equipment that gather disparate images into vast data sets to be used for mapping, surveillance, research, and myriad other uses benign and nefarious. And lately a growing number of artists are exploiting the capabilities of networked surveillance and imaging platforms in order to explore the shifting connections between the built and virtual worlds.
It’s easy to let these technologies colonize our daily lives without thinking much about their implications. It’s simple to check out a destination on Google Street View, or watch wildlife in real time via webcam, or tour the globe courtesy of Google Earth. But aren’t these strange ways to encounter the world? Consider the oddness of the vantage point: instead of the viewpoint of the individual photographer, there is the infinitely faceted, disembodied omniscience of machines. Is that Google Maps Camera Car a descendant of the predatory HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the latest agent of Big Brother? Or simply a useful tool that is enabling us to better know our world? But even if we trust that Google is not evil and that the National Security Agency is a guardian of freedom, there is something irredeemably creepy about the pervasive gaze of ubiquitous machines. We live in a diffuse panopticon, and we are at once the watchers and the watched.
The panopticon comes to mind when contemplating “The New Town,” a recent series by Andrew Hammerand, a photographer in Boston. Hammerand, who has become obsessed with the voyeuristic impulse of his medium, found that he could electronically access and control a webcam located on a cellular tower atop a church in a planned community in the Midwest. For a year he kept virtual watch, snapping screen-shot photos of the daily lives of residents — people walking their dogs, kids playing a field. The unnamed development appears to be a brochure-perfect example of New Urbanism, designed to evoke a neighborly small town . But it is late in the day for such nostalgia. Hammerand quotes from the developer’s promotional materials: “Whether it’s a walk around town or a trip to the mailroom, it is common to be greeted with a simple wave, smile or quick conversation by other residents.” But then the pitch continues: “Social takes on a whole different meaning with today’s advanced technology.”
We live in a diffuse panopticon, at once the watchers and the watched.
Hammerand’s images prompt conflicting sensations. On the one hand, they exploit contemporary paranoia — the uneasy feeling that an amorphous threat is lurking in ordinary-seeming places. Young mothers watch over their minivans and toy-filled garages; strange men peer from behind trees and fences; children playing in a grassy park are caught in contorted positions, falling to the ground or laying splayed, as if the victims of a shooting spree. The artifacts of the low-resolution webcam heighten the atmosphere of menace, with digital glitches chopping off heads or dissolving bodies into a pixelated haze or coating the town in an ominous red glow.
But on the other hand, the images also put us in a position of power: we are the watchers. If there is a sniper, it is us. In one extended sequence, “New Town” tracks the movements of a woman who lives in an apartment near the camera tower. We see her coming and going, getting mail, walking her dog, talking on the phone. The webcam is publicly accessible, its existence evident to the town. Yet the woman’s vulnerability can feel palpable. In fact Hammerand has been careful about where these images are shown, and we are including a limited selection here, in order not to reveal too much information about the location of her dwelling.
Mishka Henner, an artist based in the United Kingdom, is also using public imaging systems as his camera. Like “New Town,” Henner’s “No Man’s Land” underscores that networked systems often embody an oppressive power dynamic; in this case the gaze of the machine has become a permutation of the male gaze. For this recent series of photographs, Henner used Google Street View to search out and capture images of known areas of prostitution in Spain and Italy — mostly trash-strewn stretches of exurban or country highways. Each view is populated by a single woman or a group of women. Some are displaying themselves for passers-by, some lounge in cheap plastic chairs, some stay half-hidden in the limited shelter offered by clumps of scrubby trees. One image catches a car in mid u-turn, its driver presumably coming back to hire one of the women — a reminder that we are not the only ones looking at these young women in skimpy clothes selling sexual services on a lonely road.
Henner’s images are portraits, of a sort; they concentrate on the presence of people within the vast, continuous landscape of Google Street View. Yet the images strip the women of both individuality and agency. Partly this is due to the blurring of their features by facial recognition software (a kindness, surely); but partly it is due to the elevated perspective of the Street View platform. This dynamic is evident in a short video Henner made from series of consecutive Street View stills. The angle of the approaching car appears at first to be the familiar view from the driver’s seat; but as the car and its camera turn, capturing images of each woman, we register the elevated, ungrounded viewpoint of the camera, mounted on the roof of the car. And so we look down on the scene, and the women — like Millet’s famous Gleaners — seem subsumed into the landscape. Then the camera moves on, even as we sense that the driver of the next car will want something more palpable than an image of the women.