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ThemesPhoto/ByteTime in the Image
Rethinking Image Arrangements: Podium discussion between Jörg Sasse, Dieter Daniels and Susanne Holschbach (transcript)
Jörg Sasse

Time in the Image

Holschbach: In the realm of science, dealing with the immense reservoir of private photographic images is still a desiderate, something no one really dares to tackle; and, above all, the aspect of visual structures has hardly been dealt with so far. In reference to your collection of amateur photographs, you speak of ‹Zeitschichten› (time layers). Do you mean here that the type of image, type of photographing, or techniques differ? In this context an intermediate step in your work would interest me: Can you say what realizations you arrived at while working with amateur photographs? Can you define time layers?

Sasse: The question of realizations is good…When I began this work, it wasn’t clear to me that I would be occupied for such a long period. It wasn’t planned that way. For me, what came about was a perspective that led to further work, and to an incredible amount of fun! My mood might have been entirely different had I been in my younger years, devoted to a conceptual framework, and working my way through a themebound to be completed at some stage. It would have become boring for me; I would have felt compelled to concentrate on something new. Until, sooner or later, that was finished too. From the standpoint of the one producing, the most important question is: Why do I do this and can I grow old with it? Or: does it last only a couple days? For me, my work has so many perspectives, I can always discover new elements in it. So much for that peculiar term ‹realizations›. The question regarding time layers is harder to answer; as the amount of material increases, what stands out for me are differences between the 1960s and 1970s, for example regarding color. I never approached the matter like an analyst; instead, I simply registered the differences while working with the images. One feels tempted to formulate an idea like: «The color sense of this decade is probably unlike that of the other.» Then one quickly sees how this color sense also depends on the way it is stored and on the used materials, and that images of the same period can appear totally different from one another. Or material from a different cultural sphere: something impossible for me to classify on the basis of superficial criteria – the clothing is completely strange to me, no cars are left parked in the open, I don’t understand the printed characters. One has to be very careful with such allocations. Perhaps I can say something after seeing another 50,000 images, but I haven’t a clue. In my sketches, the time factor is therefore the connectedness to an originating or development-related time, often the present though. I find that very good. History is always the enrollment of selected things that occur in a particular time. And this enrollment usually happens for two reasons: either to earn money, or it involves power-political interests of some kind. This means history is never enrolled at the level of banality. Nowadays when some people engage in time research, for instance on the 1970s, they reach for «Stern» magazine or watch films of that period, and, based on these productions, they extract whatever can be researched. And they actually believe that, in this way, they acquire a knowledge of how things really were then. But those who consciously experienced that other time can’t believe their eyes – because often nothing about the research feels or sits right. I call this a very questionable route. Assumingthe largest portion of our life on this planet is made up of peaceful and muted banalities, the historical is rather underrepresented. But possibly a portion of that lies in these tons of totally banal, clicked photographs. In 2002, in Germany, circa 5,3 billion paper prints were produced, which is like saying that circa 168 images were made every second, day and night. That was before the market collapsed and far more digital amateur cameras than analog cameras were sold. Today if one estimated the number of photographs taken every second, with every breath, the amount would be rather insane. I am not an art historian or scientist trying to subsume amateur photography, or transport it into a work. But I do tell myself: There must be something here! So many millions of people can’t be wrong! There’s something to it! Of course, on the other hand, you have the disappointment: an image never depicts what happens on the other side of the camera – yet something else must be at work here; if you’re disappointed anew every time, you wouldn’t just try it again and again, would you?!

Daniels: In the future, image production for amateur photography as well will be stored on hard disks or CDROMs. Will that complicate the assigning of time and the material-related factors? And how do you find the material that you work with? Do you buy collections complied on CD-ROMs or hard disks, or is it always found photographic material, which, regardless of being digital or analog productions, still have a trace of plasticity. As for the everyday digital practice, which once had an avant-garde status, hasn’t this been somewhat overtaken and integrated now into the overall digital image production?

Sasse: In 1995, I exhibited processed images for the first time. [1] I had already worked with the technique for two years. What I feared most then was having this perceived from outside. Now he made somthing by computer. For me, a totally boring aspect: the computer is simply the tool that I always work with. I busy myself with it, without thinking about it. But this really is very good: I no longer have to work out for myself all the implications that happen inside it. I also like the step of going from the sketches in the computer to the wall again. The sketches can not be printed, because they never exist as photographs; theybecome totally reworked digitally. Therefore I use a digital exposure. This is going to be normal ten years from now, since the customary methods for exposing photographs will no longer exist, or only be done at great expense by specialists. The analog-digital debate is as heated as ever; in my opinion, this is about a shift that merely takes place on a technical plain. I’m not excluding the fact that each and every technical change has an enormous influence on the production of images. But I don’t think that, if something like the essential or indescribable exists in photography, or that point where photography becomes what it really is – I don’t think any of this will be fundamentally effected by the analog-digital area of conflict.

Daniels: What I really meant was that, with image data, something like an aging process in the colors, perhaps caused by storing conditions, would no longer be possible.

Sasse: Yes it would! Don’t underestimate technology! I bought my first digital camera in 1997. It did as much as today’s photo-mobile, and its color range was very limited. This was the result of a combination of inferior optical conditions and the digital transfer. That’s a lot different now. Two years ago, I began dealing with standardization practices and color spaces. I defined my lab a clear color space and began working with a wide range of exposure possibilities. There are two types of exposures: the cathode ray exposure used in the mass market for producing inexpensive prints of digital images, and the laser exposure used by professionals. And there are only two manufacturers: the firm of Durst, which produces the Lambdas, and OCE responsible for the Lightjets. Technically, these are relatively similar and differ only in their finer details: one of the two achieves more clarity because it works closer to the paper with the laser. One no longer has exposure differences between the greatly blown-up and the very small – which, with analog devices, always meant the light became more diffused the greater the distance, and therefore the print was flatter. This never happens with the laser. Recording and exposing techniques, adjoining chemical processes with their imposed limitations on color range, and their special features are changing. I would assume that, in ten years, we’ll be able to say with relative certainty: ”That must havebeen an exposure made in the early twenty-first century.”

Daniels: We have discussed the theory regarding amateur practices becoming changed by digital practices. There could possibly be more images, perhaps even better ones, from the photographer’s standpoint, since the results are more readily controlled. But does this make itself noticeable in your analysis or basic equipment?

Sasse: I’m certain the quality will improve. The early to mid-1970s witnessed a low point, with the invention of the pocket camera: working 9 by 13 guaranteed blurred pictures. That was truly a qualitative low point – at the same time, however, the educated Hippie generation ventured into the world with backpacks. And from that period we have sophisticated amateur photographs from all parts of the globe. People took along expensive reflex cameras on their trips, and they made pictures that exist now in archives. That’s why the prejudiced attitude towards «amateur photography» has to be viewed with discrimination. Regarding the question of the digital, one should never overlook the Internet: this not only gives you the possibility to directly control the images; in the Web you also have so-called photo-communities [cf the article by Kathrin Peters: Sofortbilder, the chapter »cameraphone canada car cat« (flickr.)], which mutually assess and discuss their images. That brings us back to the question of the good picture! In the media or in museums, whenever something emerges from the spectrum of photography this is also reflected in the area of the amateur. People develop a sense of what a good picture can be.

Working on the Image

Daniels: Where does working on the image take place for you? [2] You already described, for example, how when working with the large format camera, working on the image is carried out through correcting the perspective. With the digital picture, working on the image is carried out on an already existing image. This shifts the world-camera interface to working now with the purely image-intrinsic. And that puts you on a level like the one that painting has always existed on.

Sasse: I don’t know if it’s really helpful to ask: But isn’t this like painting anyway, and don’t painterlyaspects exist in the production process? Such work surpasses the classic, media terms and makes more alliances. This naturally plays a role when viewed from the standpoint of the production process; that much is clear to us today. No sooner I’m in the situation of inventing something with my pen-attachment on the monitor, this takes place in the sense of illusionist or realistic painting. But asked differently: Just how much of this is sculpture? I have material and I remove something from it. And this intervention happens repeatedly. I cut something out. Then I have to reinvent it, in order to close up the hole again. Perhaps that has something to do with painting. But I arrive at results that deal with fundamental artistic questions. The time needed for processing and working differs from image to image. Some can be finished in three days. That’s a short amount of time. I make 10 to 12 works a year, and each work is preceded by looking over as many as 1000 amateur images. Completing a longer work can last up to three years. I don’t turn sketches into panels just like that – it involves a long work process. The sketches [3] are made during course of the actual work, and it was after I had accumulated a large number of them that I first realize they might function as more than just preparations. So when I begin a sketch, I always think there might be more to pull from it. That’s how the process starts. Either I don’t understand what’s inside of it, get stuck, and throw it out at some stage; or I reach a point where I don’t know what to do, abandon the image I started, and go back to it again a year later – which has happened before. Or: I find a form for it, something perfectly compatible with what the image expresses, but a form not exactly too promising. The coincidental, the spontaneous, and the inverted – none of these aspects are actually removed from the images. Even with the tableaus, a few of the works are based on the photographic coincidence existing a few levels above or below the surface at some stage. Because my decisions really are based on the visual, it’s hard for me to say much about them. Naturally, I’m also influenced by the already seen and by previous knowledge; but even so, I try to make decisions in the purely visual realm. The finished image is no more than a claim, and perhaps even when compared to the earlier works, which were certainly more didactic.

Authorship and Storage

Daniels: Different modes of authorship exist in your work: from the images that you photograph yourself, where the authorship is obvious, to the further processing of found or bought images, creating an overlapping of authorship – does that play a role for you?

Sasse: That, of course, recalls that question: Who actually designed Duchamp's fountain? I don’t really know what to say. I’m of the opinion that –

Daniels: Do you see yourself as the author of all the works?

Sasse: Well, the others were reluctant to come along this trip – they were never asked and I don’t know them – but I really wanted to bring them all with me! Maybe I can tell you an anecdote here: For a firm in Frankfurt, I once completed a work on location. I wrote to all the employees on the same floor, and explained to them that I worked with amateur photography and had an interest in the photographs that they made. Twelve of twenty-five people really showed up. One brought along three photographs and another twothousand photographs or, in any case, an incredible number of them. Each person had a specific idea of what art was. And, of course, all their ideas were different. I was in the position to win their trust, now that they trusted me enough to share their images with me. Then I made my revisions. In the end, this led to maybe one or two usable works. Nevertheless, in agreement with the employees, all the images were shown, and after my minimal revisions, it often happened that they no longer recognized their photographs. By removing or changing the references, for example, the original relation to the image was no longer possible. This form of claimed truth, inherent in every photograph, is no more than a rather concrete guideline of a projection surface. None of the employees felt corrected or used in any way – or nothing negative reached my ears. I can keep a fine distance, because over the last years I’ve worked almost exclusively with the slides I purchased. Seen in that way, someone would first have to show me the original image. My originals are produced in editions which nevertheless differ from one another. That’s not at all good. For instance, it happened once that a forklift collided with a shipping crate filled with#an image, and it was destroyed. I wasn’t able to reproduce it because Kodak had changed its paper quality by then, and I couldn’t get what I needed visually. The paper was too hard.

Holschbach: As an artist, how do you go about dealing with the problem of technical transitoriness? How do you store your stock of images?

Sasse: I store intermediate versions of my images. For the first time in many years of working on the computer, I deleted my folder of processed images (3 gigabytes of data) by mistake. Since then I attach more importance to making backups. I have a redundant data storage space not located near the other data. But, at some point, doesn’t one lose the data when the works are transmitted? The majority of the photographs, in analog exposures now, are also lost at some stage, and the next time the hard disk crashes, many of the digital images will be gone too.

Holschbach: I had another question regarding the databank complex. It’s great that we can see your images in the Web, and arrange them according to certain categories – but the categories create a problem, don’t they? [4] The images can only be found under categories already established in advance. There have been attempts at making images retrievable by purely visual criteria, without language. Have you ever concerned yourself with that?

Sasse: When I was still convinced my sketches had to be in the Internet, I experimented with assessing how images related. In order to do that, I had two images appear on the display and then requested that each tester assess them, and decide whether the images worked together or not. This functioned on a purely visual level, without language. Amazing, though, was that, while evaluating the data – I compiled 4000 to 5000 assessments – what became visible was a kind of ‹common sense›, or at least a tendency, inspired by totally different people. Had this idea been developed, at some point it could have led to the conclusion of there being a collective visual sense that unites us all as comrades.

Holschbach: Have you ever thought of applying an interactive intervention to your categories? So that viewers can create their own compilations or form new categories?

Sasse: Technically, that wouldn’t be a problem.But, for me, these categories are meanwhile a sly game played with terms and not meant to expoit my work. One could expand on them, though, and observe in which area hierarchies establish themselves; or which categories are abstract, purely visual, or descriptive, and so on. When one speaks about photography, one nears an incredibly huge trap: speaking about what exists before the camera, and not about what one sees in the photograph, what exists before a viewer. And these are worlds apart.

© Media Art Net 2004