Tate Show

I went to the Tate Modern recently to see the new photography based show there: Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveilance and the Camera. While I felt not all the work leant itself to this idea of surveilance, that we as photographers are the vouyers into the world that is our pray, there was a wide array of work there.  Some that I had read about or seen in magazines or in book form but had yet to see prints on display in person.  There were a few pieces there that really blew me away.  I’ll look at one of those today:

Trevor Paglen‘s work.

© Trevor Paglen, "Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground, Dugway UT", Distance 42 miles, 10:51 a.m. (Source: Trevor Paglen)

The above photograph hangs in the exhibit at the Tate.  It’s an interesting abstract at face value.  But once you get inside of it, the meaning of the photograph gets clear”er”.

Paglen uses super telephoto lenses, anywhere from 1300mm to 7000mm in order to make his work.  The above photograph, I imagine is on the longer end of the scale when you take into account he is 43 miles away from his subject.  Basically, Paglen has adapted telescopes and placed a camera on the back end of it.

Paglen in front of the monster lens.

Instead of pointing this extremely long lens into the night sky, like many normal astronomy buffs would with a telescope, Paglen points his telescopic array along the surface of the earth.  This allows for atmospheric abstraction.  Instead of the lens penetrating the dense nitrogen/oxygen based atmosphere of approximately 5 miles straight up, we see the result of Paglen’s lens murkily finding it’s way through 43 miles of a dense, dusty, hot atmosphere.  The result is the abstraction of heat waves coming up from a desert floor and all sorts of smog and thick gas that, when compressed by this monster lens, blurs the view of what we look at.

It is in this aspect that his subjects, classifies U.S. military bases and installations, are presented.  The haze that shrouds these views that are normally not available to the public makes the work feel rather unsettling.  When I saw this in person I was struck by how little information is actually present on the photograph.  In many ways, it resembles a Rothko.  A swath of grain, texture and color that represents a mood or feeling.  However, the subtext beneath reveals the hidden layers, that which we can’t see, which solidifies the initial feeling of unease that comes about from trying to make something out of the abstraction presented to us.

Paglen just recently released a book of his work on this subject, titled Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes.  I came away from the exhibit with a new found respect for his work and it was solely because I viewed the actual print face to face.  What I found so interesting about the exhibit was here is a wide swath of material I have read about but rarely seen in the actual photographic sense of a true print.  When I came away from the exhibit it wasn’t just Paglen’s work I had a new respect for, it was several of the artists.  This left me thinking that no matter how much we look at a selection of work in the context of a book or online, it isn’t until we see the real thing hanging on the wall or in a print box that we receive and are able to interpret the full impact of the work.  So in this context is a digital photograph, making itself up of purely ones and zeros even relevant?  A discussion for another day I think.


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