Photography Is the new universal language, and it’s changing everything

by Pet Brook 08.20.13/ Photo: Alex Welsh/WIRED

For his book Photography Changes Everything, Marvin Heiferman spoke to experts in 3-D graphics, neurobiology, online dating, the commercial flower industry, global terrorism, giant pandas, and snowflake structure to understand the infinite ways imagery affects our everyday lives. John Waters and Hugh Hefner contributed essays for the book, as well as a 10-year-old child.

The book synthesizes the obvious yet subconscious truth that photography has leapt up several meta levels from its traditional definition as a hobby or career. It’s a universal language. And there’s no better authority to make this reveal than Heiferman. He cut his photo-teeth in the early ’70s as assistant director of LIGHT Gallery — the first gallery dedicated to contemporary photography in New York City — working with Callahan, Gowin, Hosoe, Kertesz, Mapplethorpe, and other big-hitters.

Over the past forty-odd years, Heiferman has curated global photography shows about genetics, celebrity, street photography, and humanitarian crises. He’s helped raise millions toward early AIDS research through Photographers+Friends United Against AIDS. Among the many photobooks he has edited is The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) by Nan Goldin, one of the most important photo books of the 20th century. He even edited a book on the art of The X-Files.

Thinker, writer, curator, editor, blogger, and currently a Contributing Editor for Art in America and on the faculty at ICP-Bard College and the School of Visual Arts, Heiferman has watched the photography market explode and the acquisition policies of galleries and museums adapt accordingly. The art market is a one-percenter game, and Heiferman thinks it distracts us from the uses of images in our everyday lives. Photography is all around us and used in ways we don’t even consider. Raw File spoke to Heiferman about surveillance, facial recognition, the obsolescence of future technologies and why Midwest newspapers are so good at reporting the weird stuff about image use.

Wired: The title of your book is Photography Changes Everything. Are we really talking about photography or are we talking about imaging?

Marvin Heiferman (MH): It’s about photographic imaging. The book is mostly about still images but it is a problem now to try to wall off still photography from video or video stills. My interest in this project came from working at the Smithsonian with access to the 14 million photographs and the keepers of the photography collections. I began to understand that the medium worked so differently for different people. It was time to explore the medium itself from multiple vantage points instead of the perspective you get when you are looking at photography in art museums.

Wired: What is the thrust of the book?

MH: People talk about photography being a universal language but really it’s not; it’s multiple languages. The dialogues you can have with neuroscientists about photographic images are as interesting and as provocative as the dialogues you can have with artists. People have wildly different contexts in which they use photographs — different criteria for assessing them, reasons for taking them, priorities when looking at and evaluating them. It creates incredible possibilities for dialogue when you realize the medium is so flexible and so useful.

Wired: What discussion stood out as you compiled the book?

MHJonathan A. Coddington, Curator of Arachnids and Myriapods at the Smithsonian who is a great, eccentric and lively scientist. I asked, ‘How does photography change what you do?’ He thought about it for a while and realized that it had. You cannot study spiders and understand spider behavior without the study of webs. Webs could not be photographed adequately until the 1960s. [Before then] people would try to take webs indoors and ruin the architecture, or spritz them with water which would distort the architecture. One researcher’s grandmother told the entomologists to sprinkle webs with cornstarch.

Wired: Did any essayists change your own views on photography?

MH: Those who profoundly changed my thinking were visual anthropologists. They talked about the materiality of photographs; as things! As opposed to people who spoke about how the functions of photographs are changing with the digitization of imaging.

I followed how photography worked for all sorts of people. People who were doing photographs for people for dating websites. I came across a story about the head of adoption services for the state of New Mexico who was having trouble placing teens who were aging out of the system, or siblings that needed to be adopted jointly — they were not the cute little babies that people preferred to adopt. The head of the adoption service came up with the idea to have local photographers make portraits of these children and mount an exhibition at one of the preeminent galleries in Santa Fe. All of a sudden people started adopting children who had not been adopted before. The idea grew and spread to 40 other states.

Photography Changes Everything is a project to start to raise the issue of photography’s central role in our culture, in our thinking and in our perception which is not something that is talked about or explored much, even in museums that do photography shows.

Wired: When you were talking to neuroscientists, were you making inquiries about their use of imaging for diagnoses or about how our brains perceive visual information and photographs?

MH: People can now look at what happens in your brain when you look at a photograph. Medical imaging — and people’s understanding of what perception is — has got much more sophisticated. I asked neurobiologists what, perception-wise, is the difference between looking at a thing and looking at a photograph of that same thing. They said, ‘No one ever asked me that question. I think we need to know.’ Why is a photograph powerful besides just recognizing in the image, what neurologically connects this thing you look at on paper or on screen to what’s in your head. Those are really big issues when trying to figure out photography’s power. What is the power of images in terms of our psychological response to them? What images make you want to buy something, fuck something, vote for something?

Wired: Many of the essays relate to images that are – for want of better terms – authorless or photographerless. As operators of cameras and consumers of images, we exist in a world where images are happening all the time. Daily, do we see images made by professional photographers or images made by governments, corporations, entire populations?

MH: Well, everyone is looking right? The sheer number of images being generated is part of what people are trying to figure out. The numbers keep changing, but the last figure I saw was that 1.2 billion photographs are made per day. Half-a-trillion per year. Everyone is watching and feels these images have some sort of life. I think one needs to understand this volume of imagery just to navigate the world. We trust so many pictures, we distrust so many pictures that we need to take a step back from the taking of and looking at of photos and think more of how it works in the broadest possible way.

Wired: Do you anticipate a moment where all of these (digital) images may feed into, or fall into, a single online repository? Freely accessible to all? I’m not suggesting this in a conspiratorial or science fiction type of way, I mean as an extension of the business of the Internet. After all, big companies want information to be shared as freely as the can convince their users to share. The internet has been persistently described as a democratic tool in the same way that photography has been described as a democratic medium.

MH: I don’t know what will happen. I was doing research 20 years ago in the Bettmann archives, which at that time was one of the largest photographic archives in the world. Corbis bought it. I remember the presence of teams who were deciding which half a million – of the 13 millions of images in the collection – they were going to digitize. I asked, ‘What happens to the rest of these pictures?’ and they said they were going to be under a mountain somewhere out West. I was freaked out by it; I was looking at these beautiful objects; prints with captions on the back of them each with their own histories attached to them. A friend and museum curator of the time said, “You can’t save everything.” At first, I thought how horrible but it is probably the case. I’ve seen at the Smithsonian the vast amount of work involved in archiving images and having to constantly revisit the format in which images are saved. It’s impossible. I don’t think the images are all going to end up in one place because I can’t even imagine what that one place would be.

Could everything disappear? Yes, at some point, which is a really interesting thing to think about.

Wired: The assumption is that digital formats — jpgs., TIFFs, RAW files — are in some way more robust that the floppy disc but it they’ll be obsolete eventually too.

MH: I am sure they will and then what happens? Even if you could save everything to an eternal format what happens to all those files? Do we even need them?

Wired: What are your general thoughts about surveillance?

MH: Don’t you ever wonder just walking around on the street how many times your movements are followed by CCTV? Sequence those images and you’d be followed from morning to night.

Wired: Where has the widespread use of surveillance come from? Is it a safety net or is it an act of aggression?

MH: It depends on who’s watching and where.

I got thrown out of my last loft in an apartment building because my landlord had a video camera the size of a postage stamp in the lighting fixture right above my door. He was monitoring my comings and goings. It was extraordinary.

Surveillance is a complicated thing. Do we get used to it or not and what you can do about it? Surveillance is kind of inescapable at this point. Choice is gone The airport gives you the choice of the backscatter or a full body pat-down. Whenever I visit anywhere new, I look around to find the cameras.

Surveillance has changed. With digital technology it is much easier to go through archives and find the images you need rather than real time surveillance that used to be on videotape.

WiredBruce Hoffman‘s piece in the book about the CCTV images of the London 7/7 bombers is gripping.

MH: The issues surrounding surveillance need to be understood by everyone … and how those images can be used.

Wired: Facial recognition technology is here. Only legal complications right now prevent facial recognition being plugged into any given surveillance system.

MH: That’s frightening. It’s what we were talking about earlier in terms of going to the Olympics or to a concert or simply walking on the street, and then appearing on somebody’s Facebook when you don’t want to be.

Wired: You met a CIA analyst in the early stages of Photography Changes Everything.

MH: A CIA information analyst who was using thermographic images came to a luncheon. She analyzed aerial photos of parking lots to determine when drug dealers had turned their engines off. It was a fascinating discussion. And then when I tried to find her for a chapter in the book, I couldn’t find her! I have no idea how she ended up at that meeting in the first place!

Wired: Is there still a place for pretty pictures of flowers and still lives and pet dogs?

MH: Yes! Look at Flickr. Look at what people do. It is fascinating to look at what people are taking pictures of, as we all take more and more pictures. I spoke with a guy named Steve Hoffenberg who worked for Lyra Research [now owned by Photizo] and is one of the go-to-guys when you want to find out how many people are taking pictures any given day. Steve talked about how the availability of cell phones cameras has changed the way we make images.

In the past, it was more conventional; we had to have reason to make a picture and it was usually to document something specific. Whereas now people are now take pictures because the camera is there [in their hand]. It has got to the point where sometimes if you ask people why they take pictures they can’t even say. I think people are using images in a completely different way and as a communicative tool.

Wired: There’s a reason Instagram has grown so massively. People were using snaps to communicate. As far as status updates are concerned, the image is replacing text.

MH: With people more actively using images, visual literacy becomes an important thing to talk about. Everybody pays a lot of lip service to visual literacy but very few schools teach it. There’s not a lot of discussion about what photography is. What’s a photograph? How does it work? Photographs are useful to you in different ways than they are useful to me.

Wired: Stephen Mayes says photography is less about recording a document and more about an experiential engagement with imagery. It’s about streaming images. Mayes says people are taking more and more pictures of details: coffee, signs, painted nails, plates of food. Granted, Parr has taken photos of food and Siskind took photos of marked walls, but the intention of those close-up photographs are different to our cellphone snaps. The point is, cell phone photography doesn’t serve landscapes. Does it?

MH: Not yet, but if you have Photosynth or similar programs that will stitch together your cell phone pictures and make the big panorama of the Grand Canyon that you find yourself standing in then maybe it’ll make the difference.

Philippe Kahn, who invented the cell phone camera wrote a piece for the book. It was a case of need and boredom! His wife was giving birth and he was sitting around with a cell phone and some camera stuff and ran out to Radioshack and bought what he needed and cobbled together this camera that changed the way the world communicates.

Wired: If we are all image creators, what effect does that have on visual literacy? How do we educate ourselves educate about motives, truths or facts lie behind images? Or, can technology help; is there a way to plug in reliability into the networks?

MH: I spoke Hany Farid at Dartmouth College. He is “Mr. Digital Forensics.” We spoke about the manipulation of images. I think everybody knows that images are manipulable and vulnerable. Do you overlook that the same way you overlook the fact that people are complicated yet you believe them too?!

Wired: What did Farid say?

MH: He’s one of a number of people who is setting up software that can analyze digital images and tell how they’ve been pieced together. On a pixel by pixel basis, he can track changes in light sources! The signal gets noise, so when noise shifts you realize the image includes something extraneous, or the original image has been added to. Fared’s website includes a history of the manipulated image. Faking It, the exhibition about the pre-photoshop manipulation of imagery at the Metropolitan is his.

There’s so much image manipulation available to people that what is a photograph? Is it a photograph when you say it is?

Wired: Your Twitter account is a wide-eyed, varied, and in someways irreverent feed of links to weird stories that involve imagery and its uses. It pointed me to a story about a man who’d been accused of a sexual offense but the image was unreliable. Your Twitter handle is @whywelook, so why do we look?

MHPhotography Changes Everythingoriginated online when I was writing a the —- blog for the Smithsonian about graphic images and visual culture. I started realizing you could communicate with people on this level. If institutions weren’t looking at photography this way, then I could. When my consultancy with the Smithsonian was done, I thought well how am I going to get this idea out there. This is not the type of idea that art museums are going to sponsor. I was speaking with David Friend of Vanity Fair and he just said, Start Twittering.’ So I just scanned stories from news-feeds to find interesting, funny and curious examples of who and why people are using and making images. I usually send out three tweets a day. The stories run the gamut from surveillance to porn; from art to politics. It’s very interesting to see who tracks stories. New Zealand newspapers are right on it. Midwest newspapers are right on it.

Wired: Is photography a democratic medium?

MH: Yes, I feel so. It was sold as such in the late 19th century. It was a great marketing ploy; the genius of Kodak to say, ‘Hey, you mister, and lady and you little kid can spend a buck and go buy a camera to make pictures.’ Now, there is no materiality to it; there’s no film so it’s not like you are making prints. It is estimated that one third of the people in the world have a camera or access to a camera and that’s never been the case. If you can send and share images with people then yes, it is more democratic than it has ever been.

It is non-democratic in the sense that the kind of images we make are always at the whims of manufacturers we make them with but still it’s pretty extraordinary if we think of the power it puts in peoples hands – look at citizen journalism. It’s totally changed the way we operate.

Wired: Is this mass use of images in anyway undermining the market for photography?

MH: The market for photographs is a 1%er game where people are paying millions of dollars for images which you can see on a postcard or see online if you want to. The change in notions toward the materiality of photography is where the shift is. Look at the price of vintage snapshots. You used to be able to buy them for 50 cents and now online or other places snapshots are $50 dollars. I think museums are starting to catch up to that too. The materiality in the marketplace is one kind of object that gets manufactured – it’s the luxury market and it’s a different one to the one people using cell phones and exchanging images.

Wired: On a weekend in New York, if you want to go see some amazing images, do you go to venues in the city or do you go online?

MH: I go online [laughs].

Wired: What about a great flea market just a couple of blocks from your front door. Would you still go online?

MH: More and more, yes. And I am a guy who used to spend days and weeks in archives! A lot of my early work is from archival imagery that you’d have to literally flip through tens of thousands of images to get to. More and more, my searches are online.

Wired: What do we need to look at more?

MH: We need, culturally and institutionally, to look at the medium in a fuller way. While museums that show photography can do fantastic projects, there’s blinders on as to what type of images they’re willing to show. We need to figure out how to have a broader discussion of imaging in culture and not necessarily prioritize one type of image over another. You can have your $3 million Gursky, which is fine, but that’s not the picture that is going to save your life. The one that will save you life is the one that got made at the doctor’s office that, well, who knows what that one would cost?

It’s understanding the different kinds of roles an devalues that images have and not necessarily saying that one’s better than the other but I think the dialogue got to shift away from the centre it has now. Galleries and museums have spent the last 30 or 40 years trying to say this is art. Yes it is, but on a bigger level it’s life. Photography is all about life. You can have a philosophical conversation about a red light photograph that you got a parking ticket for as much as you can over something you see in a museum. We need a broader appreciation of photography as it comes to play a more central role in our lives; it shapes our imagination; it shapes our values; it shapes our activities. We have to understand that better.

Wired: Which is interesting because you come from a gallery background and then – in a consulting capacity – a museum background. Are you suggesting that the push will be driven by people and not by galleries and museums?

MH: Cultural institutions have a vested interest in looking at, and collecting, what they do. Photography Changes Everything was so important to me because it is basically proved we have to open up the discussion.


Scroll up