Essays About the Photographs, Part One (Tour of My Book)

  • Post category:Art / Books

Most of my photobook, Computational Photography, is made up of photographs. Shocker, I know! There are sixteen photo projects and along with each project is an essay. But not your normal essays, though they started out familiar enough.

The original idea for the texts was that I would write a few paragraphs, no more than a page, to share with the reader technical tidbits about the images and to try and articulate why I made them. Simple, simple, but when I sat down to write the texts a funny thing happened. They blossomed and morphed into something entirely different, essays far more difficult for the viewer who might have been expecting a guiding hand holding gently around theirs, who might have been expecting essays that rephrased the pictures as words, in some way.

What they got instead were stories about watching war, live on CNN and a recounting of the journey and observations of ibn Fadlān, as he travels north from Baghdad in the year 921, meeting up with all manner of peoples, including Vikings. There’s a fear of flying clinic and the story of Giotto and the red circle, Timothy O’Sullivan writing in the third person, and cryptography and the aftermath of a hurricane in Maryland. Everything is related to the photographs, indeed, marking out part of the emotional frame of each project, although the connections aren’t always immediately obvious.

I won’t repeat all of the essays here–they are in the book!–but I thought it might be fun to rewind the clock and write the introductions that I had intended to write, those short, introductory paragraphs. Just a few words, plainly written.

Let’s try. The photo projects are divided into three sections: War, Art, and Technology. I’ll post on the War projects here, then the others in subsequent posts

Shock and Awe

During the Iraq War, I camped out on the couch and recorded all of the live broadcasts from the various news shows. I had piles of VHS tapes all around, with I later copied over to digital. From there I cut out all of the advertisements and then converted the remaining footage to individual frames. I did the conversion the hard way–camera on a tripod in front of the television screen, shooting still images non-stop as the videos played.

For some reason, I end up doing projects where at some point in the process I suffer. I don’t know why. In this case, I had to dredge through tens of thousands of frames to pick out something like four thousand pictures (one for each of the US casualties at the time). Those were then randomly combined with other frames from those same 4000-ish images, and the results strung together into a looping video (today I would create it as a never-ending computer program).

The images in Computational Photography are still images from those videos. So, live television broadcast to video recording to still image to video to still image. Something like that.

21 Days

The war in Iraq started with a long campaign of aerial attacks. When the ground war started it was over very quickly, the United States forces racing by towns and strong points instead of attacking them, reaching Baghdad in three weeks. I was fascinated by these events and I saved the front pages of the New York Times from those days, bringing them with me as we moved from Maryland to California. I tried to make a photography project out of them several times before I taped them to my living room window and placed a large softbox and studio flash outside in the yard, me inside with my Nikon and 300mm lens, shooting nine images in a grid (which I would later stitch into one high-resolution image) to copy both the front and backlighted rear of the sheets.

There are lots of weird juxtapositions of front and back text and images hiding on each of them, unintentional meanings supplied by the viewer and by luck.

The Bomb

I made two projects at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, in Dayton Ohio. For this one, I photographed all manner of nuclear bombs and missiles, real in the sense of being parts of actual weapons but obviously with the insides removed.

The Dayton Air Force Museum, as we called it during the years I lived in Ohio, contains astonishments and is worth a trip from anywhere. There are four large hangers filled with aircraft, beautifully maintained and displayed.

There are more different kinds of nuclear weapons than you might realize and all serve a different purpose and utilize different methods of delivery. From large city-destroying bombs and space-going missiles to smaller ones, designed to be dropped or fired upon advancing armies or dug-in enemies.

Nuclear weapons will, of course, be our end, though these inert ones seem so quiet as they rest in the museum, the apocalypse remote despite its very sword displayed in front of you.

19 Airplanes

Some projects develop in a linear fashion, some change abruptly, sometimes in response to world events. In August of 2001, I was shooting videos of passenger jets high in the sky in Maryland. The flight paths for three airports crossed above my house. Mostly the planes were so far up it was a struggle to see them, let alone hear them, but sometimes they would come closer, and when I heard the rumble starting up I would rush outside to my driveway, shooting upwards with my little Sony Digital8 Handicam, tracking the planes as they passed through my field of view, zooming gently and surprisingly smoothly, to keep the plane’s image within the frame. The neighbors, as always, thought me a little odd.

After 9-11, after a few days of silence in the air when the planes starting flying again, there were new aircraft to watch and film. Fighter jets were in the sky day and night, sometimes up with the stars on dark nights, their red exhaust gliding above me, sometimes a hundred feet above the house, forcing down a wayward helicopter or small-engine plane at our local airstrip, one fighter jet circling back to check me and my camera out, tipping its wings in greeting, the pilot clearly visible to the naked eye. I filmed with one hand and waved with the other.

I made a video out of this footage, an early effort called “From Cowslip’s Warren,” painfully low-resolution when viewed today. I then took still frames–nineteen of them, one for each hijacker–and made the images seen in the book. I also used the images in an iPad app, also called 19 Airplanes, made when the first iPad came out. It wasn’t a portfolio display but a new work of art, one that interacted with the viewer as they shook or spun the device and which had as an audio track a mix of emergency-response recordings from the morning of September 11th. The coding was all done by programmer John Clark and we put together what may have been the first “art app” on the iPad.


This is the second project I made at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The “airheads” are, of course literally mannequins but also the term “airhead” is, in the military dictionary, perhaps even in actual use, akin to a beachhead, though supplied from the air.

It’s the fancy fighter jets and gargantuan bombers the grab attention at the museum but it was the mannequins that caught my eye, so detailed and expressive, some unnamed and unrecognized artist toiling away, their vision shared with a million people a year.

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