In 2004, the National Gallery of Victoria used “Satan in the Smoke” to bring digital technology to the forefront and show how photography can be perceived in different ways.
All photographs tell us things. But if we are living in “fictitious times,’ as American documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has said, then our ability to read and understand the layers of information in photographs becomes all the more important. We have also become accustomed to questioning the truth of photographic images, especially in light of digital technology and its use by the media, which makes us more likely to look for potential fictions.
In one extraordinary photograph of the flaming World Trade Center towers, New York, taken on 11 September 2001, some claimed to see the face of Satan in the billowing smoke (fig. 1).
Indeed, looking closely it is easy to see horns, eyes, a nose and mouth. But could they have really been there? And why do we even think about camera images as duplicating the world around us? Whenever we look at a photograph, we engage in a relationship of seeing and reading which relates as much to what we know and believe, as to the subject of the photograph itself. In the 9/11 photograph it is possible to see the meaning of the image drift from what is first observed – fire, smoke, buildings – to the subtle expression of multiple ideas and agendas. In this dramatic example we might wonder about the uncanny ability of photography to capture the complexity of a particular moment and the act of interpreting images at all.
The idea of ‘good looking’ is one way of seeing that encapsulates the fact that photographs are not simply a mirror to the world but one of the most complex and, at times, problematic forms of visual representation.
The exhibition, Good Looking: Narrative Photographs Past and Present, brings together images from the National Gallery of Victoria’s permanent collection that invite us to project fictions. Some of these photographic stories have a plot or a cast of characters. Others use serial images, or create a highly suggested scenario, as a way to structure information; although it may only be implied, we instinctively insert narrative into these photographs. What binds this group together is their consideration of photographic contingency. Through the inclusion of seemingly incidental or unforeseen visual information, these photographs seduce us into looking longer and more thoroughly. In this respect, the role of interpretation (to see how something is what it is) becomes an act open to us in excess of what may be intended by the artist.
Figure 1: The photograph was taken with a digital camera, by Mark D. Phillips for Associated Press on 11 September 2001. To verify the photograph’s authenticity, Phillips sent the original file to the camera manufacturer to confirm it was untouched.