#28 ‘Committed to Memory’ by Niall Griffiths



This photograph is a work of fiction. The young man in the white jacket is not a strangler; the older man in the darker coat and glasses is not his victim. The truth, in fact, is the opposite of the depiction; the younger man was the victim. He is the one in pain. The empty expression on his face does not indicate the affectless, anhedonic emotional vacuum of the psychopath, but the broken, stupefied, resigned condition of the tortured. His name is – or was – Kristjan Vidarsson, although, at the moment of the photograph, he probably couldn’t recall, with any conviction, even that.


On the night of 26 January 1974, the wild Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland was battered by storms. Gudmundur Einarsson, an 18-year-old labourer, had been partying in a harbour town south of Reykjavik, six miles from the home to which he never returned. The search for his body was called off after a few weeks; disappearances are not that uncommon in the more untameable parts of Iceland. 10 months later, in November, Geirfinnur Einarsson (no relation to Gudmundur), received a phone call summoning him to a harbour cafe. He never returned home either, and an extensive search of the harbour uncovered no body.

And no evidence, nor no witnesses. The two men seemed slurped into a black hole. Rumours, as they often do, abounded, concerning a small-time crook who had been arrested for smuggling cannabis from Denmark called Saevar Ciesielski. In December 1975, he and his girlfriend, Erla Bolladottir, were arrested for an unrelated minor crime and the police, for reasons unclear, asked Erla questions about the disappearance of Gudmundur and Geirfinnur. She recalled the night that the former had vanished; she remembered the fierce storm and the peculiar nightmare she’d had in which Saevar and his friends were whispering in low, conspiratorial voices outside her bedroom window. The head of the investigation, on hearing this, told her: ‘we are going to help you recall everything and you will not be able to leave here until you tell us what happened to Gudmundur.’

Consider, now, this scene, of which no photographic record exists: Erla alone in her cell, sleepless. Erla fretting over her 11-week-old daughter. Erla in an interview lasting 10 hours during which dreams and memories and cravings to return to her normal life intermingled. Maybe she could recall a body wrapped in a sheet. Saevar in solitary. Saevar, under interrogation, mentioning three friends: Kristjan and Tryggvi: both arrested and isolated and endlessly questioned. And Albert, a gentler figure than the other two and whom the isolation and the interogations quickly broke. He admitted to hiding Gudmundur’s body in the lava fields. Could Geirfunnur be there too?

Enter phantasms, fanciful imaginative flights, chimeras from hysteria: perhaps Iceland had its own Mansonesque death-cult. Its own underground psychopathic separatists, with Saevar as their Charlie. Erla, again under interrogation. Geirfinnur fell off a boat and drowned; no, he didn’t, he was murdered on the boat then thrown overboard. No, no, he was killed on the dockside after he failed to deliver promised booze. His body was burned in the lava fields, that mad dreamscape where sprites and goblins made the laws. The suspects, whose foggy and piecemeal recollections gave the police such stories had, by this time, been in solitary confinement for six months.

But evidence – the police required evidence. They brought Karl Schutz over from Germany, who had recently cracked the Baader-Meinhof gang. He set to ferreting out the ‘foreigner’ that Saevar and Kristjan, in their ramblings, had mentioned, and found Gudjon Skarphedinsson, Saevar’s accomplice in cannabis smuggling; an Icelander, yes, but of swarthy complexion: in such ways does the carcerally bureaucratic mind, in a fervid search for corroboration, find its own facts. In solitary confinement, Gudjon was given relaxants and sleeping pills. He was the second to break, after Erla. Over a period of two years, the suspects were taken out to the lava fields 60 times. 60. Even without evidential proof, Schutz branded them as ruthless, merciless, rapacious people. Capable of killing. He had – because he needed to have – his perps. Later, they withdrew their confessions, but the verdicts were found and the sentences delivered: life imprisonment for Saevar, three years for Erla, 12 for the others. Redress for crimes to which they confessed but which they could not remember committing. The mind finds its own facts.


Gisli Gudjonsson, an ex-detective, is now a forensic psychologist and a leading authority on False Memory – or, as he preferrs to call it, Memory Distrust Syndrome. He points out its main triggers: isolation, persuasive interrogation, false evidence, high emotional intensity and the external insistence on the futility of continued denial. Concerning the false evidence, there’d been rumours of a set of photographs, kept in Iceland’s national archives, one of which showed Kristjan strangling a policeman playing the part of Geirfinnur. Another showed Kristjan standing next to a dummy playing the part of a corpse. Gisli: ‘once you have enacted something, it then becomes more of a reality.’

See Erla in isolation for 105 days, away from her infant daughter. See her being interviewed over 100 times, only on three occasions with a lawyer present; often these interviews went on for over 12 hours. There are no photographs of this. Now see Saevar with his head held in a bucket; effectively being water-boarded. See him and the other suspects deprived of sleep, company, air. There are no photographs of this. See Tryggvi in solitary confinement for 655 days. Doped with Diazepam and Mogadon. See him, along with all the other accused, cleared, in 2011, after an 18-month inquiry. Says Erla: ‘the case is a body that keeps rising out of the grave.’ Gudjun, now a retired Lutheran minister, expresses bafflement that he confessed to a killing he had no memory of carrying out. And he also, still, in his broken English and in his broken voice, expresses doubts: ‘if you have been telling someone where he has been, what he has done, telling him that other people were involved, in the end you can say him to be in the same position as you want to have him. He does not have any more his memory or the power to say no.’ And Tryggvi and Saevar? They’re saying nothing. Tryggvi died in 2009, at 58. Saevar died in Copenhagen, homeless, two years later. He was 56.


Korsakoff’s syndrome is a type of dementia associated with excessive alcohol consumption and which generally causes deficits in declarative memory. Sufferers find problematic, if not impossible, the processing of contextual information, which is an essential component of accurate recollection, resulting in gaps of memory which are plugged with confabulation. I’ve seen this at work; alcoholics asking me if I remember the long weekend we spent at a zoo, or in Toronto, or whatever – invented memories, fictions, necessitated, in part, by the need to arrest the dissolution of identity, crucial to which is the recall of individual experience. Deeply saddening to witness.

As this is an era of manufactured need, so too is it an era of manufactured illness. Are we suffering from Korsakoff’s too? Is our collective memory full of holes? For instance; did we really see that photograph of the Bullingdon Club, the epitome of unearned privilege? David Cameron and Boris Johnson have forbidden its reproduction, this we know, but in their airbrushing of their own histories is the undermining of our own. How well do we recollect that image? Did we even see it at all? And what The Sun blatantly and imperiously demands us to accept as ‘THE TRUTH’, well, it has taken a quarter of a century for the Hillsborough Commission to prove that the headline would better have read ‘THE LIES’. That image of the crouching fan with his hand in the pocket of the prone and unconscious figure, he was not seeking valuables, as we are told; he was looking for a way to identify the dead, to contact the next of kin. And those sodden corpses; yes, they were drenched in urine, not because the living wished to vilely desecrate the dead, but because human beings, whilst being crushed to death, have a tendency to piss themselves in agony and terror.

This is Korsakoff’s syndrome foisted on the non-alcoholic and the sane. This is dementia imposed from without. It is a lover scissoring the ex out of the photograph of happier times in a fit of jealous rage and insisting she was never there in the first place. Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, wrote that ‘one of the characteristics of modernity is that people like to feel they can anticipate their own experience.’ How possible is that if we cannot remember our own experiences with any conviction or confidence?

The contemporary human is unanchored, unmoored, adrift on a sea of ostensible experiential corroboration, none of which can be trusted. Spectacularisation – or one aspect of it, namely the external concretisation of shared experience and data – to Debord, was illusion, and to Baudrillard, it was all hoax. Sontag has a more positive spin: ‘There is still a reality that exists independent of the attempts to weaken its authority. The argument is in fact a defence of reality and the imperiled standards of responding more fully to it.’ Yet even such a concept as ‘reality’, in this context of tangible proof, of irrefragability, becomes unreliable, or, rather has been made so. This is not Photoshopping, or CGI on Youtube; this is the powerful making insubstantial and untrustworthy of the living bedrock. This is, in effect, allowing reality to be constructed by self-serving arbiters. The world is what we are told it is, not what we perceive it to be, and the ontological reinforcements of physical record and artefact are themselves fictitious. So Gudjun still feels, three decades on, that he ‘does not have any more his memory or the power to say no.’ Look, here’s Kristjan frozen forever in the act of murder. Memory is elusive and slippery; hard images are not. What will you trust?

And how we wish we could dismiss as false certain images that we know to be more or less objective truths. As a child, searching through bundles of damp-swollen and half-rotten books and periodicals in a relative’s garage, I came across a copy of Ernst Friedrich’s War Against War!. How I wished then, still wish now, and will forever, that the mounds of mutilated corpses displayed on its pages were just mannequins, or that those appallingly shattered faces were due to make-up and prosthetics. That they were just particularly gruesome Hallowe’en masks. And I am reminded of the recent campaign in Liverpool to re-christen those streets to which slavers gave their names; an understandable impulse, yes, but we have the history we have, not the one we would like to have. Unless, of course, the power is available to edit one’s own history, to transmogrify truth into lies and lies into truth, eroding the quiddity of such concepts in the action.

I wonder about Kristjan, and whether he was sure – as much as anyone can be – of who he was as he lived rough in Copenhagen; whether he really knew that he was not a killer of other human beings. Whether his innocence in that matter was felt as a fact in his heart, and in that part of his brain where certain self-knowledge resides. Whether, at the moment just before hypothermia wiped everything white, he yearned for forgiveness or craved redress; or whether his sense of self had been so steadily and systematically dismantled that even the wellspring from which such longings should sprout had been filled in, occluded. Choked. I hope he knew, at the last, that the only truism attached to his story – and the wider world which it metonymises – is this: do not trust what you are ordered to trust. Whatever you are told is true might be a lie.


Niall Griffiths is an English author of novels and short stories, set predominantly in Wales.


#27 ‘Self-ish’ by Marina Benjamin


‘It just bit into me, like am I dreaming’, said Ferdinand Puentes, of surviving this plane crash off Kalaupapa, on Hawaii’s Molokai island in January 2014. It’s a curiously poetic way to explain it. Less ambiguous, is his selfie to mark the occasion.

The modern phenomenon of photographing one’s self with a handheld camera, or mobile device, and then airing the results on social media – the selfie – is now part of the hall of mirrors of digital culture, endlessly refracted across our electronic landscape, as selfies are posted, tweeted, emailed and shared. From MailOnline to Tinder, the selfie rules.

But are selfies self-portraits? Only in the loosest sense of the term, in being both of you and by you. But it is more accurate, I think, to see the selfie as the ‘anti-self-portrait’. Photos like Puentes’ – the ‘I have to make a visual record of this so that I know, and you know, it wasn’t a dream’ selfie – are just one fragment of the phenomenon; albeit a kind of cousin to the pervasive ‘I’m standing with my face pressed against a celebrity’s face’ kind of selfie. An unstated rule is that the selfie-maker must strive to have it appear uncomposed, instant, casual, spontaneous and true – though, in actual fact, selfies lack any of these attributes. Selfies are representations that resist the very idea of representation – which is an idea that sits at the heart of what it means to be painterly.

Selfies are now so much a part of the wallpaper of contemporary culture that lately I’ve found myself becoming blind to them; I just don’t see them any more. It’s as if their very ubiquity – their teeming and intrusive banality – has effected a vanishing act, melding them into a solid wall of ever-present non-signification.

I’m trying to recall when selfies first impinged on my consciousness. In 2000, my husband travelled to Devon Island, a rocky and desolate place on the far Arctic reaches of human habitation. He was there to research a bunch of people trying to simulate living on Mars. Largely alone, and desperate for a record of having visited such inhospitable lands, he turned his camera on himself – though no one thought to call it a selfie at that time. He looked tired but wired, and 10 days unwashed. For a long while – years – he used that picture as his Facebook profile shot.

The next time I would register selfies, there had been a gear-change. It was when celebrities on holiday began digitally sharing pictures of their legs and lower torsos, snapped as they reclined on beach-beds in exotic parts of the world. Quite what the viewer was meant to take away from this new-fangled so-and-so woz ‘ere (and supine) phenomenon is unclear. That the subjects were rich? Pampered? Thin? Tanned? Had a nice pair of pins and an up-to-the minute bikini? Banality, you might say, was there from the start. But the novelty of selfies bought a measure of time for this trend in visual tagging to play itself out.

And so the floodgates opened. The selfie, of course, is now also employed on a massive scale by the non-celebrity, civilian population, and to similar effect: to give the appearance of giving yourself away, without actually doing so. To pepper your electronic universe with stand-ins. To perform your very own burlesque – a teasing visual striptease that says now you see me, now you don’t.

In taxonomic terms, we’ve got mugging, gurning and general tomfoolery; belfies, group-selfies and look-whom-I’m-with selfies; dress-up selfies, dress-down selfies and look-what-I’m-doing selfies; make-up free selfies (posing, if you please, as activism), filtered selfies, selfies with pets, Oscar 2014 selfies and political selfies. I don’t know about you, but I grew exhausted somewhere near the beginning of this lengthy list.

Then, in spring 2014, came the death of Peaches Geldof – not so much the poster girl for attachment parenting as the ‘posted’ girl, pinned to her social media niche like a butterfly fixed behind glass. Here was a life documented daily, and in near-hourly detail, on Twitter and Instagram, where her tagline – ‘Waging a never-ending war against dirty nappies’ – was a paramount exemplar of banality chic. Everything Peaches Geldof wished to promote – from her commitment to mothering, to the clothes brands she represented, to the food her baby boys ate and the bibs she used to mop them up with – was here, in an endless succession of uploaded mobile snaps and videos. Ostensibly, the message was ‘here’s a bit of my private life that I’d like to share with you’. But given how much we now know about what Peaches Geldof wasn’t sharing, perhaps the real take-away is how striking was the dissonance between her lived life and the life she projected.

Of course, all (self)-portraits lie. But the thing about selfies is that by virtue of manifesting an up-to-the-minute rolling reportage on the person they stand in for, they function as avatars. What makes avatars interesting in the world of signs and semaphores is that traditionally an avatar is spirit incarnate, a physical representative of the soul’s true self. There is no better vehicle, you might say, for self-idealisation.

I am hardly the first person to comment on the minor tragedy of Peaches Geldof’s death by accidental suicide. Or on the desperate efforts of a young woman battling her demons in private while trying to persuade the wider world, and probably herself too, that she was a model mother – and losing on both counts. But I do wonder at the extent to which the selfie was an accessory to the crime: an unwitting accomplice to the unraveling of this woman’s stable sense of identity. In being co-opted to serve an ideal of impossible perfection, wasn’t the selfie, ultimately, a force of fragmentation, alienation and explosion?

Thinking about the far shores of ‘death by selfie’ puts me in mind of another photographic suicide: Francesca Woodman’s. Before she took her own life in 1981, at the age of just 22, by jumping from the window of a New York loft, Woodman produced a substantial oeuvre that obsessively worked and re-worked the self-portrait. But with a crucial twist: in Woodman’s work, the subject self evades capture. We glimpse her fleetingly in mirrors, or she lurks half-hidden in the shadows of doorways. At other times Woodman ‘denies her face to the camera’ [her words], or conceals herself behind her hair or her arm, a swathe of gauzy fabric, a roll of cellophane. This is work in which the materiality of personhood is deliberately smudged, and the very notion of the sovereign self questioned.

Woodman liked to work in series. In a group of pictures taken in Providence, Rhode Island, in the late 1970s, she produced a set of stark and nervy images in which, owing to their long exposure times, she is blurred into a wisp-like silhouette against a bleached out empty room. These pictures are almost abstracts, fuzzily balletic, and strikingly beautiful.  Yet at the same time there’s a kind of electric quality to them, a marked tension. Woodman appears to be on the move, crouching, arms swinging down to the ground, like an animal on all fours. It is as if she is avid to escape the frame, avoid exposure, give us the slip and just disappear. The viewer feels implicated. He or she is not just a passive voyeur, but a hunter of prey.

In another group of equally unsettling images, taken in the kind of semi-derelict room she favoured using as a set – empty of furniture, its plasterwork crumbling – Woodman is naked, pressed up against a wall, desperate to blend herself into the wallpaper but only half succeeding, so that you see her and you don’t see her. You see a bit of leg, a bit of tummy, some hair. The rest is covered. The images are all somewhat blurred, ghostly. As with her exposures that use mirrors and doorways, Woodman positions herself with great care in these shots, so that she is expertly poised between absence and presence.

Woodman’s work makes for uncomfortable viewing. And that is intended. She wished to disrupt the taken-for-granted laziness of the viewing gaze, to question its entitlement. At the same time, by making us keenly aware of the viewer, effectively ‘outing’ them as the unnamed presence in her pictures, Woodman evokes a certain creepiness. There’s a whiff of suspicion that she is being watched. Perhaps by a Peeping Tom? Certainly by someone who delights in proximity and in peering into another person’s private world – someone illicit, hidden, who revels in the secret delight of watching without being seen.

This sense of the creepy encapsulates how I’ve felt when I’ve surfed the selfie scene; a little compromised and a little besmirched – tainted by my own consumption.

But then selfies stir up such feelings in the viewer by deliberate design; by blurring the lines between private and public, between access-granting and access-denying, insider and outsider.  They promise one thing, openness, and deliver another: surface. Their stark message is that you can get close up, but you cannot get personal.

Yet if selfies frustrate the viewer, they are a boon to those who wish to expose themselves without actually baring any soul. Thanks to the selfie, celebs can pap themselves, parade their drunken antics and kiss-and-tell indiscretions, and share behind-the-scenes confidences and tawdry confessions directly with fans, without in fact giving anything away at all. It is all surface. All wallpaper.

Perhaps, had she lived, Francesca Woodman would have deplored selfie culture for its phoniness – for being untrue to the idea of exposure. Would she have tweeted, I wonder? Or had an Instagram account? Would she have shared her life on Facebook and her smart phone? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I doubt she’d have fallen foul of mistaking the faux-realist surface of the selfie for the stuff of life that lies beneath.

A line of thought that perhaps did not consume the eerily calm Puentes, as he bobbed along on the plane wreckage-littered waves.


Marina Benjamin is a writer and journalist. Her books include Rocket Dreams (2004) and Last Days in Babylon (2007). She is a senior editor at Aeon Magazine. She tweets as @marinab52.

#26 ‘Reticulation’ by Simon Fleury





⁃ A pattern or arrangement of interlacing lines resembling a net.

⁃ Overall random pattern/network of cracks and/or fissures that may occur in the photographic emulsion/ binder/ coated layer.

In doubt

In 1865, Richard Redgrave, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s first curator, and the Science and Art Department’s Inspector General for Art, took up his pen to annotate a photograph. Redgrave’s inscriptions, inked across the albumen paper surface, mark in meticulous detail the object under study. In so doing, he created one of the first photo-based condition reports. Aside from being a fascinating example of early photography itself, it represents one of the earliest and most ambitious uses of the photograph in a museum, to document the condition of a work of art. It is testament to Redgrave’s groundbreaking work that the conventions he employed in his painstaking symptomatology – the use of large format photographs, a systematic lexicon, and key to describe material condition – are easily recognisable; many are still used today by museum conservators throughout the world.

The entwining of museum, where I work as a conservator, and photography has long fascinated me; a preoccupation perhaps not unsurprising for someone responsible for the care of the museum’s photographs. Not only is the V&A home to the national collection of the art of photography, but it was also one of the first museums to have an in-house photographic studio. It was the new institution’s first director, Henry Cole, who set in motion the dual function of the photograph – both as a means of producing information, and as an object of high art – at the heart of his museum project. Redgrave, although keen to embrace the descriptive acuity of the photograph, particularly for documenting object condition, was less than happy with Cole’s insistence on the artistic merits of the new medium.

Redgrave was in doubt. He was tasked, at the time of the proposed move of the Raphael Tapestry Cartoons from their home at Hampton Court Palace to the South Kensington museum, with assessing the condition and suitability of moving these fragile works of art. The commission to photograph the cartoons (detailed in correspondence held in the V&A’s archive) must surely have been a major undertaking for Henry Cole and his team. The main challenge was the lack of sufficient natural light in the gallery at Hampton Court Palace. The architect and inventor, Francis Fowke – another of the museum’s founding milieu – devised an ingenious solution. On days of fine weather the cartoons were lowered, by a team of Fowke’s sappers, through a gallery window into the court below, where they could be photographed. One of Fowke’s main contributions to the project was the design and manufacture of a camera of mammoth proportions, to fit a lens bought specifically for the task the previous year in Paris.

Cole’s visionary conjunction was to persist. The instrumental use of the photograph was applied to a wide range of roles at the museum. Photographs were predominantly made of the objects in the collections for purposes of classification: as a pedagogical aid for distribution to schools of art, and for the commercial sale of prints to the public. Ever since those early days of the museum, and the advent of a revolutionary new medium, the materials and technology of the photograph have been worked into its fabric. The making of photographs, perhaps not unsurprising given the ubiquity of the image, remains essential to the functioning of the institution.

Little has changed since Redgrave’s proto-conservation reports. Today’s condition report remains a curious amalgam of photograph and text. The latest incarnation (tablet based), continues to rely on the representative potential of the photograph, now digital of course. Recently I have been preparing one of Redgrave’s annotated prints of the cartoons for display. The images that I’ve taken are essential to that process. I can only wonder at how Redgrave would have felt knowing that his utilitarian report will soon be displayed in the V&A’s ‘A History of Photography’ gallery. His inked inscriptions have taken well to the albumen print surface. The symptoms and evidence of the cartoon’s past life are mapped in the photograph’s fine detail, and Redgrave’s descriptive lexicon. There is an inherent tension in the condition report’s conjunction of text and image. Everyone sees something different. However fascinating it is to witness this disparity between image and text, the written word, for the purposes of describing material condition, is currently deemed too subjective, compared to the representational qualities of the photographic image. The complex structure of the object under study is clearly visible: particularly the numerous paper layers and the vertical joints where the cartoons were cut into strips for the weavers. It’s easy to overlook that – although now considered some of the finest surviving examples of Renaissance art – the cartoons were also once perfunctory – integral to the process of making tapestries. Redgrave’s print is also showing signs of its past instrumental life. As such, it requires minor treatment, which includes surface cleaning and several small repairs, before it can be mounted for display.

With so much of what I know of the photograph conditioned by working at the V&A, it’s hard not to be affected by this complex mixing-up of materials, practice(s) and place. Entangled, implicated along with others, I’m  intrigued by the way in which the technical photograph mediates the space of interaction between objects. This reticular activity has, over time, coalesced into a complex net of relations between objects and the technologies of their capture. It is as if the museum, through this process of recursive activity, is largely conditioned by, and conditional on, the photograph. The museum would be unrecognisable without this process of technical inscription.

The photograph, as no doubt you are aware, for a large part of its history was defined by the two stage negative/positive process. The making of photographs at the V&A, until the relatively recent digital incursion, has relied mainly on the genius of William Henry Fox-Talbot’s positive/negative process. As such, to be true to process, I should really have begun, not with Redgrave’s annotated prints, but the negatives from which they were made.

Collection Store: 15.5 0c, 31% RH

In one of the V&A’s climate controlled stores are the twelve remaining wet collodion-on-glass-negatives, made in 1858 by Charles Thurston Thompson to document the Raphael Tapestry Cartoons. Richard Redgrave’s annotated prints were made from these negatives. On entering the storeroom there is a marked difference in temperature from the corridor, and the reassuring hum of the chiller unit. The nearest OCEAN (Object Centred Environmental Analysis Network) monitor suggests a temperature of 15.5 0c and a relative humidity of 31%. Photographs are complex chemical balancing acts, largely contingent on process and material stability. The preservation of these objects can be greatly extended by reduced temperature storage and the dark.

Opening one of the drawers of the cabinet, one is immediately struck by the size and materiality of these early photographs. The twelve glass plates are a staggering metre square and a mere 10mm thick. This particular negative depicts the cartoon The Conversion of the Proconsul, Elymas Struck Blind. There are numerous fingerprints, scuff marks and accretions to the plate/emulsion surface. Even in the store’s relatively low-light conditions (without the illumination of transmitted light: so central to the negative) a faint image is visible in the light brown fug of the collodion emulsion – details of the artwork; an arrangement of figures: traces of the details of the cartoons complex construction; the cockled paper-layers. There are minor planar distortions and reticulation. The light-sensitive mutable skin (binder) has a granular structure, a plasticity that clumps and swells through the process of exposure and development. There are numerous (minor/major) losses and scratches to the emulsion. Many of the scratches have been retouched with black dye/ink. On closer inspection (using a torch to throw a raking light) : a micro landscape is discernible. The central area of the negative depicting the cartoon (the focus of Redgrave’s reports) is masked by tape. The tape is lifting in places and has pencil annotations, top-right. Telescoped in a territory of excess information – outside the taped-off sweet spot of the negative – a scenography is evoked: a work of art, a cartoon momentarily removed from the gallery, arranged outside, and secured on a platform support; a rolled cloth arranged on the grass below the object, and visible above the plane of the cartoon, are windows and the building of the Fountain Court. The edges of the glass-plates are chipped and cracked and there is a larger area of loss at the top-right corner. The transparency and stability of glass make it an ideal support for the photographic emulsion. This first conjunction of a glass substrate and binder was a major advance in the technology of the photograph – importantly reducing exposure times and producing a more detailed image. The untreated (beyond the emulsion) edges of the glass-plate are discoloured and dirty. There are numerous areas of staining. The size of the negative makes possible this movement across and through the image. In Towards a Philosophy of Photography (2000), the theorist Vilem Flusser describes this ambulatory movement as an ability to “wander over the surface of an image” – a radical, fundamental break with the linearity of the written word. Might this fissure shed light on the disparity – played out in the condition report’s antagonistic conjunction of image and text – between what can be seen and what can be said? But one is also drawn, from the image carried in the binder – a reversal of light and dark, transposed in the positive print – back to the three dimensional physicality of the object, and its singular complex material characteristics. Although now part of the V&A’s photography collection, this was once a working object and as such carries evidence of the wear and tear associated with having been instrumental.

That the (art historical) status of these objects changed, is mainly due to happenstance. In the early 1990s, a flood in the photographer’s studio crypt store brought the attention of Elizabeth Martin, the then conservator of photographs at the V&A, who recognised the importance of these long-neglected objects. Although unconfirmed, it would be no surprise that Martin – who possessed a fine-tuned sensibility for her subject – was responsible for their discovery and rescue. The discovery precipitated their move from relative obscurity to a bespoke cabinet in the climate controlled environment of the collection stores: the technical photograph, hereby untethered from its functional role, and returned. With this shift in visibility comes a new lease of life: digitisation, through the latest photo-based technology, is being considered. My preliminary visit, to take the temperature of these objects, is detailed in my condition statement above. My doubts are not too dissimilar to Redgrave’s, and concern the stability and care of these fragile objects.

It is perhaps unsurprising, considering their stature, that the cartoons, ever since the ground breaking work of Redgrave, Thompson and their milieu, have been the focus of several further scholarly undertakings: many of which were reliant on the photograph. One major research project in the 1990s deployed a heterogeneous range of investigative photo-technologies that included: x-ray, transmitted light, raking light, colour transparency and macrophotography. But it was the technique of photogrammetry (most often employed for aerial mapping of the spatial measurement of buildings) which made it possible to produce an accurate three-dimensional picture of the cartoon’s underlying paper layers.

This extraordinary field of interactivity complicates the choice of an image to accompany this text. Is there one that catches this negentropic, circular play, of correspondence? I will settle with one of my annotated images of Thompson’s negative; the latest in a constellation of informational refrains, but almost certainly not the last.

That objects remain elusive, always in flux – never fully relinquishing to modes of capture – is reassuring. However impossible to grasp, in this complicated field of activity, a heterotopian entity that I have come to know as museum-photograph, I’m drawn to speculate: what kind deluge would ensue if it were possible to summon, simultaneously, in one single phantasmagorical event, every moment of light-sensitive photographic inscription at the museum?


Simon Fleury is a senior conservator at the V&A, responsible for the care of the Museum’s photographs. One of Richard Redgrave’s annotated prints can currently be found in the V&A’s History of Photography gallery. (Charles Thurston Thompson (1816-68) Raphael Cartoon with Condition Report Annotations, about 1858, no.76: 598).

Image: detail from a condition report of Charles Thurston Thompson’s collodion-on-glass negative of the Raphael Cartoon: The Conversion of the Proconsul; Elymas Struck Blind, 1858. (© V&A Images)

#25 ‘Adrian Street and his Father’ by Jeremy Deller

The return to Beynon's Colliery.


This is a revenge photograph.

In 1973, photographer Dennis Hutchinson was tasked with taking portraits of Adrian Street for a lengthy piece of editorial in the Sunday People newspaper. He had asked Street to suggest a location, and he said he wanted to be photographed in Wales, at the coal miner’s pit where he used to work as a teenager. He wanted to be shot with his father, who still worked there, and whom he hated.

In fact, he hated all the people in the picture, hated the pit, hated the village. He told Hutchinson, “I want to show them what I’ve made of my life, what I’ve become since leaving Wales.” He’s wearing his European Champion middleweight belt, as though to say, “Look, you peasants, this is what I’ve made of myself. I don’t have to go down a mine every day.” He’s returned as a success; a sort of prodigal son in reverse. This was his calculated expression of his showbiz, glamorous life. He’d clearly thought about this photo for a long time, planned it for years. He’d been biding his time.

The rather classical composition makes this photo resemble a Renaissance painting. When I first encountered it, on the cover of an album by the band Black Box Recorder (an album called England Made Me, which is ironic because the picture was taken in Wales) I found it shocking, but knew nothing about it. At a guess, I assumed it was a publicity image of a glam rock musician, taken at a coal mine. It took me back to my childhood, when the biggest things going on in the country seemed to be industrial strife and glam rock; and here, in the photo, were both. It was only when I saw it again, reproduced at a smaller size in grainy black and white in a book about wrestling, that I began to get a sense of what was really going on here. It had much less visual impact, but I now knew that it was not a photo of a musician, but of a wrestler, Adrian Street.

Street was always keenly interested in marketing himself, in him ‘as a brand’, as we’d put it now. He claims to have been one of the inspirations for the glam rock movement, and apparently he was acknowledged as such by Marc Bolan. Street saw a wrestling match as a kid and thought it was the thing for him; he liked the theatricality. Boxing also has an element of that, but wrestling is neigh on pure theatre. Street was a strong-willed child and he remained strong-willed: driven, egotistical, self-centred and self-aware. He would admit these things, these aren’t criticisms. His first professional wrestling match was in 1957 and from the early 1960s, he started bleaching his hair platinum blond, and wore increasingly outrageous clothes. Even though he was absolutely straight, he realised that his camp yet tough look would be more lucrative, because people would be more interested to see him wrestle. The more outrageous a character you were in the ring, the more successful you’d be. Even if you were a baddie – in wrestling these characters are called ‘heels’, who are ‘scripted’ by the promotors – people wanted to see you lose because they hated you. You got a reaction.

I’ve gone through Adrian’s albums; he’s got a big archive and a lot of photographs are of him looking very dressed up in public places. He’s always ‘on’, always the wrestler, walking around and posing. This photograph is a way of asserting that persona. It’s Adrian showing the men back home what he’s made of his life after he left them. They had all said, “You’ll be back, because you won’t make it as a wrestler or as a bodybuilder. We’ll see you in a few months.” That was in the 1950s, and this photo is of his return, in the wary 1970s, having transformed into this exotic creature. The Sunday People would undoubtedly have had a circulation of millions, and this photo is how he wanted to be seen by the rest of the world.

Street’s father looks quizzical here, and rather concerned. According to Adrian, there was no acceptance whatsoever. His dad made a point of pretending not to be impressed by anything. Adrian would take his parents on what were, in the 1970s, really fancy holidays, to places like Thailand, but his dad would feign indifference. They genuinely didn’t get on. To be as unusual looking as Adrian was, was not to be encouraged. Pit villages were very conservative environments. People with massive amounts of self belief, like Adrian Street, have always had to transform themselves and their lives. In that sense, his is a mythic story.

I’ve called this the most important photograph taken in Britain after the war. I don’t say this glibly, I know it’s quite a claim to make. But to me, it is the perfect summation of the difficulty post-war Britain had to come to terms with being a post-industrial country. A country where the power of heavy industry had diminished, a country that was shifting towards an entertainment and services-led economy. All of the stresses of that shift are visible in this photograph, and all are present in the life story of Adrian Street. In this one image, he personifies the British post-industrial struggle.

In my work, photographs take on all sorts of roles – they are used as documents, serve as reminders, or, as in this case, a source of inspiration. I didn’t take this photograph, but for me it was an entry point; the start of a process that led me, when I realised that the protagonist was still alive, to contact him and make a film about him and this image.

Adrian is a small guy, about the same height as me, and tough as nails. At 73 years old, despite surviving a bout with cancer, he’s still in very good physical condition; you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.

I used to watch British wrestling on television as as a kid – until, controversially, it was taken off air in the late 1970s –– so I would have watched him in one of his estimated 12,000 fights. Street’s no longer active in the ring, he now designs and sells wrestling gear. But I’m still looking at this image. We’re still watching him. And isn’t that what he wanted?


Jeremy Deller is a British multi-media artist. His work often draws upon the cultural and political heritage of Britain. He won the Turner Prize in 2004.

#24 ‘Something, Anything?’ by Martin Herbert



Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything?, released in February 1972, is exactly a year older than me, and seeing the photograph on the inside of its gatefold for the first time, when I bought the record in the mid-1990s, felt confirming – if not for wholly positive reasons. Rundgren, an American rock musician, is seen from behind in the low-ceilinged living room of his apartment in Nichols Canyon, Los Angeles. Creamy floor-to-ceiling curtains are drawn against strong daylight, creating a hemispherical corner of brightness that illuminates part of what is in the room: music gear, an abundance of it. Caught by recording engineer James Lowe’s wide-angle lens are, among other things, a baby grand piano, a Putney synth, a tangle of floor-bound effects boxes, an expensive Neumann mike (it looks like) taped to a floor mop, and recording equipment on racks glowing in the gloaming. The musician, who at the time was about twenty-four – as, coincidentally, was I when I saw the image – is standing barefoot on a low table covered in all kinds of detritus, including a telephone, paperwork, cans and bottles, and he faces the closed curtains as if they were an audience, arms outstretched and culminating in fingers bent into peace signs. The headstock of his guitar suggests a Gibson, probably an SG.

I could identify these specifics without really thinking – though not, at that point, that Rundgren was deliberately, sardonically referencing Richard Nixon’s famous double-handed peace-sign pose in the photograph – because I’d spent years in bands, in messy rehearsal rooms that I mostly wanted to get away from unless I could impose my will onto the musicians (which didn’t often work out), and I am the son of a jazz musician. But this didn’t count for nearly as much as the romance of the image and its wider ramifications, which spoke, still speak – to me, and uneasily so – of self-reliance and private productivity. Something/Anything?, the overspilling double album, was three-quarters a one-man-show (its first three sides are wholly Rundgren overdubbing himself with, the critical consensus goes, dazzling results), recorded in proper studios in New York and Los Angeles. So the aloneness that led to the record – the aloneness that the record’s greatness justifies – didn’t happen wholly here; where he is in this photograph doesn’t look remotely like a recording studio but somewhere at home to try out ideas. It was, in fact, where some of the record’s last overdubs were done.

But as I read it – and I still read it, somehow, as a time-warped twenty-something – this is physical space as headspace, an external world as allegorical for an internal one. (By the time I saw the image, this could have been the recording studio, such were advances in home-recording technology. And I don’t think I’m alone in projecting such things onto it: in the early 2000s, when people began writing articles about the auteurish experimental musician Ariel Pink, their descriptions of his recording milieu – a guy in a Los Angeles house, blinds down on a sunny day, recording equipment everywhere – sound like descriptions of this photograph.) But to be clear: what I get from this is not an image of a musician per se but a person, any person, in their own bubble of making; and that is what, in ways that have changed over the years, has resonated.

When I first started recording music, I had no real desire to be in a band: that was a mistake made later. I multitracked myself, first clumsily bouncing layers between two tape recorders and then using proper gear, usually in a room with the curtains drawn, where it was hard to tell if it was day or night. After a while of that, I got into photography, developing my own photographs in a room with – necessarily! – the curtains closed; curtains like those even, since they were what my mother favoured for our home décor. When I became a writer, the sealed monk cell persisted, was desired: a womb without a view, reconstructed across multiple consecutive homes, via multiple means from curtains to, in one case, cardboard taped over the windows of an outbuilding that used to be a violin-maker’s workshop.

The audience is imaginary, gone, not there yet, not yet critical. You stare at the curtains or the cardboard, at a perceived brightness beyond; you don’t deal with human beings and their unpredictability. This kind of lifestyle suits a certain kind of antisocial, or at least anxious and controlling personality only. It allows for a good deal of focus, if you can sit astride the solitude – though privation may not be an issue. One might feel that the life was designed to maximise the work, the work as an alibi for the solitude; and, in turn, what pours out of the solitude, something you hadn’t imagined you were capable of, compensating for it.

This photograph, for me more than any other, crystallises that aloneness and, in its questionable air of triumph, how we justify it. (I’m aware that critical writing is a far lesser art than composing or genuinely creative writing; I’m not comparing it; it’s the small thing that’s my own, as has been said.) What I see here, fifteen or so years on, still involuntarily excites me but it deeply worries me too: it represents something that my circuitry at once needs and fights against, which is the urge to keep the door closed, to keep facing something glowing and devoid of people and eminently controllable. The warm light is the next good sentence, article, book; the microphone, the carrier of articulation, waits.

Here is what Rundgren did next: he went on alone for a spell while he took a lot of drugs, exploring the stranger corners of his head. Then he left the room – he formed a band and called it, interestingly, Utopia – and then he went back in the room again and recorded a record entitled Hermit of Mink Hollow (1978), and then he left the room again. Etc. We go in, we come out, we go in, we come out and maybe it never settles. The most useful part of this photograph, for me, is that I can’t see the subject’s face. If I spin him around, it might be mine.


Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and Berlin. His most recent book is The Uncertainty Principle (Sternberg Press, 2014).

#23 ‘Face’ by Jay Griffiths


Photo by Dietmar Gibietz-Rheinbay.


You may recognise the face. The human face of the usually-faceless Stasi. It is a still from The Lives of Others, set in East Germany in the year of Our Brother 1984.

Wiesler is a Stasi agent asked to set up a surveillance operation to spy on a writer and his girlfriend. An idealist, Wiesler is disturbed by the deceits he discovers in the state (The Lies of Others) and impressed by the authenticity of the dissident artist community. He lives by the imperative of his conscience, this inner voice leading him to protect the writer, not recording suspicious conversations and removing from the writer’s apartment a typewriter which had become incriminating evidence.

The conscience is morally self-aware whether the eyes of others are watching or not. Surveillance encourages the opposite: morality is in the eye of the beholder, and wrongdoing is done if it is seen to be done. Photography as replacement conscience.

The distinction between an exterior code of conduct and an interior one has been described as the difference between a ‘shame culture’ and a ‘guilt culture.’ In a guilt culture, actions cast their shadows inwards, falling inside the mind, and goodness matters whether or not others see it. A shame culture uses the public stare, a sense of surveillance so that conduct is regulated according to what is outwardly judged, and its punishments are dishonour and contempt.

Conscience is a soloist and its ethics may be solitary and in opposition to the state. Not only Wiesler, but also Winston Smith, hero of 1984, and Edward Snowden all worked in state security, and acted alone opposing surveillance. The vision of conscience is as solitary and as ineluctable as one’s own gaze, out, through one’s own pupils, learning the world.

How you see: that is the key to guilt culture.

How you are seen: that is the key to shame culture.

The concept of ‘face’, including honour and reputation, is allied to shame culture. In China, the idea of ‘face’ is ancient, and you can lose face, save face, gain face (by achieving status) and give face (by making someone else look good.) China today embraces shame culture in the form of mass surveillance and the Communist Party’s aim is total-coverage facial-recognition. There is an eerie irony in that term, reversing the honour both of ‘face’ and the idea of ‘recognition’ as acknowledgement. In the willing mass surveillance world of Facebook, the shame culture is apparent: trying to gain face through public recognition, many people (particularly the young) find themselves losing face, shamed by others, or indeed by themselves, in perpetuity. When footage of the woman putting the cat in the wheelie-bin was posted online, the purpose was punishment through public shame.

In a surveillance state, what should be private – inner, sheltered and intimate – is stolen. This privacy is priceless: it is an agent of conscience, a prerequisite of art, it is a sculptor of dissent and a cocoon of innocence. Privacy is where the human spirit breathes. But wraparound sealed-in surveillance is as suffocating as cling film over the human face, so you cannot freely ask, pray, protest or create.

Fat with ubiquity, mass surveillance is a blanking gaze, a one-way face, giving nothing away but sucking everything in. It collects data forever, eternal and omnipresent as God, this oblong block of absolute recall, this slab of totalitarian perpetuity. China’s aim for total surveillance has been described as the ‘one, all-seeing eye’ and the nation has one surveillance camera for every 43 citizens. It’s worth noting, though, that if you include private surveillance, the UK has perhaps one camera for every fifteen citizens and in the US, the Prism programme gives the state the means of mass online surveillance.

Surveillance is designed to identify behaviour which is criminally or politically suspicious, but so widely is it defined that many security agencies are now asking the public: ‘If you see anything unusual, report it.’ The odd, the specific, the individuated, the especial. This itself is political, encouraging not the banality of evil but the evil of banality, the glutinous torpor of conforming to trivia: TV’s Big Brother.

The word ‘surveillance’ came into the English language from French in 1793, when the Jacobins, tyrant-revolutionaries, set up ‘surveillance committees’ in every municipality to spy on outsiders and dissidents. If you are innocent, they say, you have nothing to fear from surveillance. But there are maps of innocence – and calendars too – and an act or an attitude that is innocent in one place is incriminating in another place, or in the same place at a different time. Innocence when?, Innocence where?, are the questions: and no one can know the answers of the future. Revolutionary behaviour innocent in France in 1793 would be incriminating in 2014. Protest innocent in Britain in 1993 was incriminating in Britain (post Criminal Justice and Public Order Act) in 1994. What was innocent in East Berlin on 9/11/1989 was incriminating in East Berlin the day before.

In the photograph, Wiesler is looking up at the (comically placed) CCTV sign; he is under surveillance, prey, caught on camera, trapped on film. In the animal world, strategies adopted by prey include avoiding drawing attention to oneself, being silent, hiding, reducing activity, mimicking others: in human prey, these all have political corollaries. The camera in this photograph is called Wolf Safety, while other surveillance technology includes Night Hawk and Night Owl. Talons of cameras grip onto posts; they hunch in the stance of a bird of prey, their zoom lens eyes the hooded fixed stare of the cryptic bloodless predators.

The predator stares before it pounces. Mammals (including humans) loathe being stared at because it is a prelude to attack. Staring is aggressive, from ‘It’s rude to stare’ and ‘Who do you think you’re staring at?’ to the widespread traditional belief in the Evil Eye, the malevolent stare which is thought to cause injury, illness or death.

In mass surveillance, the Evil Eye is a camera, its black lens a false pupil, learning about you. In a cruel conjunction of meaning, the Chinese authorities are setting up surveillance cameras in university classrooms so the learning pupils are under the super-vision of the camera’s pupil-eye. Cameras have also been placed in cinemas and theatres, in mosques and temples, and outside the doors of dissidents. What is threatened? Questioning, mutability, thoughtfulness, innerness, prayer, dissent, creativity, art and innocence, quiddity, this-ness, peculiarity and Anything Unusual.

Mass surveillance, in its function of creating conformity and breeding banality, has the geometry of ahuman power. Where is there escape?

An opposite of power is innocence, an opposite of totality is dissent, an opposite of banality is art and an opposite of surveillance’s peculiar ahumanity (neither human nor inhuman) is conscience.

I don’t suppose the Chinese authorities read Dante very much. But if they did, they’d find an uncanny mirror. As they focus (literally) on places of art and spirituality as sources of dissent, Dante focuses (metaphorically) on art and spirituality as sources of conscience. Metaphors and imaginative capability bring ethical knowing, which moves through the poetics of prayer into a purity of love. At its heart, this is a tender openness to the Other, an unguarded gaze into the lives of others, an empathic look at the minds of others, a creative conscience. It could be a description of the path taken by Wiesler in The Lives of Others.

Con-science is ‘knowing-with’. Scire, to know, is not enough: that is merely knowing like a surveillance camera amassing detail. Con-scire, to know-with, is the kind of knowing of the director’s camera, tracking empathy, creating art, illustrating the beautiful pupillage, a form of reflective seeing which is cast fathomlessly inwards and also boundlessly outwards.

In a late scene in The Lives of Others, it is 1989 and the Berlin Wall has fallen. The writer visits the ex-Stasi headquarters and begins to read the files on himself, expecting to find information stored against him. Surveillance, after all, doesn’t concern itself with goodness, and the Recording Angel of the state only ever subtracts. But the files have for once become a store of positive evidence – of Wiesler’s goodness, as the writer discovers how Wiesler had acted secretly to protect him. Secret, that is, but for the one (accidental?) red ink mark from the telltale red typewriter ribbon. Caught red-handed in an act of courage: is it a fingerprint or a signature?

It begs a wider question: what if the purpose of surveillance were to store our goodness as meticulously as our misdemeanours? What if we might all be discovered in secret acts of kindness, committing treasonable acts of innocence, conspiring to create masterpieces? What if surveillance recognised our faces – and gave us face, with acknowledgement – honouring our lives?

In the closing moments of the film, Wiesler walks past a bookshop with a huge photograph of the writer’s face, as he is a well-known – recognised – writer. His new book (Sonata for a Good Man) has just been published, and Wiesler goes to buy a copy. He finds it dedicated to him. Unknown though he is, a ‘faceless’ agent, yet he is truly recognised and acknowledged: ‘To HGW XX/7, with gratitude’. Transfiguring comes from within, as he has acted according to his own lights, true to his conscience. Clear as a crystal prism, conscience gives his face radiance: his expression lifts and lightens to the loveliest moment of the film, as if his eyes were a source of light, shining rainbows outwards into the world, the minds and the lives of others.


Jay Griffiths is the author of Wild: An Elemental Journey, and Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape. She won the Barnes and Noble ‘Discover’ award for the best first-time author to be published in the USA, and has been shortlisted for the Orwell prize and a World Book Day award, and is the winner of the inaugural Orion book award. She lives in Wales.


#22 ‘Implement’ by Chris Fite-Wassilak



In July in 2012, I was sitting in a fairly blank off-yellow meeting room. Researching a project taking place in the area around Blackwall DLR station, I had called in to the anodyne-looking business park across the busy roundabout to suss out any empty units, on the off chance that they could be used temporarily. The manager, a kind but no-nonsense older woman, unexpectedly took the time to talk to me. She casually mentioned that she had her own photo albums detailing the history of the park, and I jumped at the chance to see them. I think she was surprised that anyone else would be interested, accustomed to this habit as a sort of quirk of her fastidiousness that she usually just kept to herself. My impression was that she herself had taken all the photos, all of them seeming in tone with her care for attention and order. While I shuffled through hundreds of images of concrete, walls, and flooring, she told me the negotiations and stories around them – of the tractors in an empty dirt lot, surveying, digging and drilling carefully over weeks for an electricity mains that supplied all of Canary Wharf that it turned out wasn’t there; of engineers attempting to work on fibre optics on the site, lifting up manholes randomly around the park to find the cables. Poking her head out to ask if they needed any assistance, they brushed her off – a bit later, they’d come into the office claiming that the cables weren’t where the official map said they were. At that point, she brought out her own map, a well-worn layout of the site with the actual placement of the lines drawn in various colours. “They thought, what would I know? I’m only the manager!”

The photograph has only a circled handwritten number on the back of it, 90. There’s nothing particularly striking about the image itself, its main feature being a rough hewn crescent-shaped crack, worryingly close to a worn line running up the pavement and off into the short distance. There’s a dynamic to these strokes cooperating with the perspective’s slight angle, a leaning in that anticipates us walking forwards, chins tucked into our chests. What’s caused the crack could be any number of infrastructure or random objects lying just beneath: telephone cabling, plumbing pipes, debris from the former train junction at this site, WW2 bomb shrapnel. No. 90 sits with 113 other similar shots, a numbered and sequenced stack of glossy 6x4s tucked away in a yellow 1 Hour Photo Service envelope with the handwritten note, ‘Fitzpatrick 99/2000.’ No. 36 is a late afternoon photograph of a pebble-strewn curb corner, one part of its lip pulverised to a chalk-like smear of a ramp. No. 19 is a brick-paved sidewalk, an indent in the brickwork aligned almost identically to the composition of no. 90, the sand-filled fault making an almost Aztec zig-zag design. No. 49 features three shrivelled up brown autumn leaves scattered tastefully over a set of paving slabs, one of them resting on the asphalt that has been used to fill the gap left by a missing half of a cracked slab. A warm yellow evening sunlight runs through an adjacent fence, crossing the image with a bracing slant of stripes.

It turns out the packet of 114 photos was given to Elaine Bailey, after some works were completed early in her days as the manager of Poplar Business Park, in addition to the paperwork, paraphernalia, and hundreds of other shots she inherited in taking on the job in 1997. The park was first occupied in 1988 after over a year’s construction, at that point owned by the Port of London Authority, with some of its first tenants including the London Docklands Museum, and the Dockland Light Railways offices. A natural organiser and amateur historian, Bailey took on the images with zeal. The 114 photos, documentation of a series of telecoms and expansion work going on around the park in 1999, Bailey sorted, and then numbered. Two photo albums covered in blue plastic with that imitation leather effect, each of them with ‘Poplar Business Park’ hand written in gold on the cover of each, are also filled with snapshots of the park as it was being built, of its empty units ready for occupation, a few rare images of grinning contractors. “When I started to sort out the documents at PBP,” she remembers, “I came across the photos of the construction and thought they should be given a proper home, hence the photo albums. I continued to add to these during my time there, taking photos as and when needed to record changes, incidents or anything else I was interested in.” Bailey’s photos and those preceding hers have a remarkably similar tone, whether that’s by dint of the nature of the park and its day to day occurrences, or by the fact of Bailey’s eye in choosing and arranging the collection. What Bailey was ‘interested in’ was simply the park itself, whether underground pipes being dug up, or the fences on what were once empty lots on all other sides of the park. There are a few vantage point landscape shots from (the now doomed) Robin Hood Gardens estate next door: beyond the three rectangles of the business park we can see Billingsgate Market, and in Canary Wharf only the pyramid-tipped One Canada Water stands on its own, unchallenged in height. Another shot looks towards the miniature-nuclear-cooling tower of the Blackwall Tunnel ventilation shaft, sitting next to Richard Roger’s Reuters building, his Millennium Dome just across the bend in the Thames. By 2007, a development of the Radisson Hotel and another set of riverside ‘penthouse’ flats further transformed the area, and a 36 storey ‘luxury’ apartment block had opened up in the dirt lot in front of the park: there’s a series of warm, stunning sunset views from its roof.

What might already be clear is that the business park sat just within a dynamic nexus of one of the most developed areas of London, currently undergoing its fourth facelift and major reconstruction within the span of a century. It was, from the beginning, implicitly tied to these changes, initiated alongside the DLR’s Beckton extensions eastwards. This was, of course, part of a wider plan: in 1982, the mangled and supposedly hopeless Isle of Dogs was the eighth area in the UK to have been granted the status of Enterprise Zone, Thatcher’s business-frothing incentive that has recently been rekindled as a strategy: no rates, and a breeze of planning permission if you’ve got the cash. The Isle, still bearing pockmarks from the Blitz, was to follow fellow Zones Corby, Wakefield, and Hartlepool into economic glory. We can now witness the results, though whether the policy was successful or not depends on who you ask. For Bailey, it was an adventure of a lifetime: more interesting than the plotting of the policy is her own involvement in this history; in addition to her photo albums of the park, Bailey had a number of aerial photographs of a desolate Canary Wharf, her peeking out from the cabin of a helicopter. She began as a temp at the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1986 and stayed as part of the ‘High Technology Team’, helping to market Docklands to VIPs with air, boat and road tours. I imagine her accompanying George Iacobescu on a grey, windy late afternoon tour over the half-submerged peninsula, yelling politely over the helicopter’s buzz, ‘You can see all the potential!’ Bailey then began work as the LDDC’s Business Grants Officer, implementing the 1978 Inner Urban Areas Act across several borough in the ‘Four Areas of Docklands’: Surrey Docks (Southwark), Royal Docks (Newham), Wapping and Isle of Dogs (both Tower Hamlets). She, of course, has another blue photo album, a black home-made embossed label ‘Docklands’ on its spine, of her time there—from Christmas parties, to the capping ceremony of Canada Water, to the aftermath of the South Quays bombing just down the street from her office. By the time the LDDC had fully wound down, Bailey was in Poplar, managing the Park from January 1997 for 16 years, retiring in July 2013.

What her informal history of the area attests to is not only a personalised mapping of a particularly tempestuous part of London property history. It’s something in addition to simply managerial overviews, insurance claims, and budgetary concerns. Both she, and the unknown photographers before her, recognised the actual needs of the machinations of the policies, developments and shifts going on around them: to be a custodian, who must implement and document, without any moral agenda or political persuasion. Theirs is the ethic of the engineer, and I see Bailey as a curator, in the classic sense of the word, of that ethic. Inconsequential as each instance might seem, their collection and care allows us to understand the corresponding necessities to notions like the ‘Enterprise Zone’, the shaping of its spaces and facades over time, and perhaps glimpse its tectonics. No. 90 is one moment in a teeming layer of forces, when we can see the accrual of history begin to break through the surface. It asks us to look closer, and deeper.

Poplar Business Park, currently under ownership of Workspace Ltd, has received permission to redevelop its land; next year, a third of its property will be converted to apartments, while all offices and light industrial units will be shifted to the remaining space. Elaine Bailey is planning to donate her photographs to the Museum of London Docklands.


Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer, curator and critic based in London. He is a regular contributor to Art Monthly, Art Papers, Art Review and frieze. Recent publications include Gavin Murphy, On Seeing Only Totally New Things (Royal Hibernian Academy and Irish Architectural Foundation, 2013) and the forthcoming Memory Marathon Catalogue (Serpentine Gallery and Koenig Books, 2014).

#21 ‘Boundaries’ by Brian Dillon

Vera's Shed


I could not swear to the model: my aunt owned many cameras, including a point-and-shoot I recall her bringing out at family gatherings in the 1980s. I do however recognise the vantage from which this photograph – an ordinary  6”x4” print of indifferent quality – was taken. By the shadows among a zig-zag of borders I can judge that it’s mid-morning. The cold outline of a rosebush retreats from the corner of a squat building made of soft wood. The shed has lately replaced an older tar-black structure housing rusty tools, Fry’s cocoa tins full of nails and an ancient policeman’s bicycle whose tyres had rotted it to the spot. A cement path flutes upward slightly and stops where it once met the doorway of this old shed; the path is stained with moss or algae where rainwater has pooled for decades. There are new concrete flags in the lower lefthand corner, and in the shadows at top right a patch of corrugated metal, splashed here and there with blue paint, abuts a breeze-block wall. This otherwise dull portion of the image is pierced by a trapezium of sunlight – where from?

And more to the point: what am I supposed to be looking at? The snapshot is one of many taken by my father’s sister in and around her home in the last decade of her life. I have in my possession 61 of these pictures, but I left handfuls more behind when I helped clear the house after her death. Hardly any faces or figures appear, just a couple of startled women behind the pharmacy counter as she finished off a roll of film and handed it over, and elsewhere an arm reaching into shot that must belong to one of my two brothers, helping old Vera with her gardening. She has photographed the house and environs from numerous angles; here are the roses at midday, a bright red plastic bird feeder suspended from the centre of the clothes line, a whitewashed concrete urn in the middle of the lawn that I remember my grandparents had filled with hydrangeas.

Other, odder images: the fat privet hedges that border the garden, held up in places by long fragile-looking wooden props or patched with more corrugated iron. Flowers with all their heads cut off; views from inside the back door at night, where the camera’s flash has hit the jade-green doorframe but not the scene outside. Blurred or otherwise botched images of door handles, window sills, opaque expanses of net curtain. Photos where the flash has bounced off the sitting-room window and swallowed whatever, or whoever, she was trying to catch outside – erased her own reflection too.

She was looking at, or looking for, evidence. For at least 40 years and possibly more, my aunt maintained a feud with her next-door neighbours (both sides) that came to dominate her life, a quarrel from which she seemed to draw malign energy, and out of which, despite the best efforts of family and friends, she could not finally be extricated. She had inherited the problem – I almost wrote project – from my grandparents, who moved into the redbrick suburban Dublin house with their three children (then in teens and twenties) in the late 1940s. Who knows how it all began. My guess is that my grandfather, a bully and snob with an inflated sense of the respect he deserved as a police sergeant, took against some small infringement of a boundary: a woodpile carelessly edging into his garden, something of that sort. Things must have escalated when he retired and his natural officiousness was slowly circumscribed by illness and immobility. Certainly by the late 1970s, when I was old enough to notice, he spoke of little else on our Sunday-afternoon visits; they – here he would jerk a thumb in either direction – had usually committed a fresh misdeed, often involving their moving by a few inches some portion of his now considerable corrugated defences. My father and another sister had escaped, hopped the fence, married and emigrated respectively. But Vera, then single and middle-aged, was trapped inside her now widowed father’s monomaniacal rage. She seemed to have elected herself heir to all his spite and his paranoia, and even went to work on her own separate campaign against daily life, imagining constant slights and negligences on the part of Dublin bus drivers – I have those letters too.

In my earliest memories of her, she is fat, boisterous, vulgar, not always unhappy. She liked to say that she had been beautiful as a girl, and might have been a model. But tuberculosis had taken years out of her youth. And worse: it had taken a lung, so that all her adult life she listed to one side. Perhaps, in an old fashioned way, she had got it in her head that her general health was undermined (along with her “prospects”) by that early illness and its permanent legacy. She was an energetic hypochondriac, and in her fifties added the medical profession to her growing list of miscreants, alongside insufficiently solicitous priests, cocky shop assistants and local politicians who had failed to act in the matter of the neighbours.

Increasingly it seemed she mediated a world bristling with insult and disappointment through things, through gadgets. She had worked in cinemas for years – we got free tickets to Star Wars and Tron – and maybe there got a taste for technology. Vera was the first person I knew to own a cassette recorder, a video player, a colour television. Some time in the mid 1980s she bought a huge Hitachi ghetto blaster, but was bored with it months later, and passed it on to us. When she upgraded her TV, we got the cast-off, practically new. She never gifted us a camera; her collection simply grew, perhaps in hope she’d one day take a pleasing or even competent snapshot: the family photos I have that can only have been taken by Vera are all sadly askew or out of focus. I can see her now with her big white plastic Polaroid OneStep, standing in the sun by those hydrangeas, growing hot and furious that none of her efforts to fix the world came out looking the way she planned.

I last saw her about five years before she died. Ten years before that she’d dramatically disowned me, not long after my father died. “From now on I’ve only the two nephews, do you hear me?” On visits home to Ireland I resisted getting drawn into seeing her again; her age and frailty did not move me. I heard she had lately driven her sister (returned after 30 years in New Zealand) from the house for, among other misdemeanours, treading too heavily on the stair carpet. I heard she was now genuinely ill, but entirely resistant to the notion she might also have psychological problems. She was consumed as she entered her eighties by the idea that somebody was regularly invading her property and cutting her roses. One day my youngest brother watched her bustle into the garden and snip half a dozen blooms herself, then march back in the house with the evidence: “Look, look what the bastards have done!”

When I finally relented and went to see her I was quite prepared for the monologue, the blame, the fantasies, the sanctimonious memories of Daddy, whom she must have hated above all. What I had not predicted was the intensity of her vigilance, the energy and rigour she still put into her forensic argument with the outside world. She’d recently had CCTV installed at the front and rear of the house, she told me. And sure enough in the small stuffy and formal, mostly unused, sitting room was a pale metal monitor flickering away in black and white, connected to a camera that was propped on the window sill just a few feet away and trained on the small front garden with its ornamental hedges, its neat sprung metal gate. In her living room an identical apparatus, the screen dominating the dining table and the camera directed at rose bushes and shed. Neither camera was attached to a recorder. I swear I felt dizzy at the thought: she must watch this stuff live. Could it be true? That in place of her beloved soap operas and old movies with Victor Mature, she sat down now to squint, unseen behind her curtains, at these squarish grey screens, fearing and hoping to see movement from the hedge, a figure dart into view, the crime itself in process? Afternoon turned to evening as I sat listening to her decades-old complaints; on the table in front of me the screen dimmed slowly till a street light came on, and headlights streamed in the distance.

Though I have chosen the barest and least ‘emotional’ among the five-dozen of these photographs, the snapshot of the garden shed is well stocked with regret and nostalgia, lingering distaste for who she was and belated understanding of how she got to be that way. I would like to know when exactly her personality curdled and whether the process might have been reversed, whether she could have been spared my grandfather’s acid legacy.

But I can see something else among those pictures now, and maybe especially in this dull pattern of corners and edges. If I cannot exactly sympathise with her anxiety and aggression, I understand perfectly her methods and the state of mind necessary to such a protracted act of close looking. For half her time on earth, she never stopped paying attention, never ceased to examine for clues the shrinking world in which she lived. Hers was not much of a life, a half-life maybe; for sure, she ought to have been rescued from eking it out like this, in anxious trips to the pharmacy to collect her prints and examine the recent evidence. But all her obsessive and solitary looking, all her keen listening, all her poring over pictures and locking the world away so she could address it only in letters of complaint – it’s what I do almost every day as a writer, and when I can’t do it what I aspire to, what I miss. It’s the family curse, you might say, this peering at nothing till it gives something up, some objective correlative for our worst fear, and I am simply lucky to be able to stop now and then and turn back to the world, unafraid.


Brian Dillon’s books include Objects in This Mirror: Essays (Sternberg Press, 2014), I Am Sitting in a Room (Cabinet, 2012) and Sanctuary (Sternberg Press, 2011). He writes regularly for the Guardian, frieze, Art Review and the London Review of Books. He is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art.

#20 ‘The Dead Bismarck’ by Daniel McClean

Bismarck auf dem Totenbette


1. The photograph

The shocking image of the dead German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), lying dishevelled, propped-up on his deathbed may be the world’s first ‘paparazzi’ photograph. The clandestine photograph was taken by two young photographers, Max Priester and Willy Wicke on 30 July 1898. They broke into Bismarck’s chambers by bribing a servant and photographed his corpse only a few hours after his death: in fact, the deceased Chancellor’s family had only just paid its last respects and left the bedroom when the photograph was taken.

This grainy black and white photo of Bismarck’s corpse turned out to be the final image of the great leader – no ‘official’ death mask or post-mortem portrait were made. Bismarck’s emaciated face peers out from above a sea of bed covers and pillows, exposed in the cruel, bright ray of magnesium light used by the photographers to illuminate the scene. Save for a protruding right hand, Bismarck’s collapsing body lies invisible beneath the bed sheets. In this iconoclastic image, Bismarck – the national hero who unified Germany – is revealed in a frail and un-heroic state: a chamber pot at his bedside, he slips from the world, much as his body slides underneath the sheets.

Like the photographers who sell their images to the world’s media today, Priester and Wicke tried to hawk their newsworthy ‘scoop’ featuring the dead ‘celebrity’ to the German newspapers, who declined to publish it. They advertised the image in the newspaper, Tagliche Rundschau on 2 August 1898, “[f]or the sole existing picture of Bismarck on his deathbed, photographs taken a few hours after his death, original images, a buyer or suitable publisher is sought.”

Priester and Wicke’s behaviour caused public outrage in Germany. It led to the confiscation of their plates by the police and to civil and criminal legal proceedings being brought against them in 1899. In the end, Priester was sentenced to five months in prison and Wicke received eight months. Their censored plate was handed over to Bismarck’s family where it remained invisible for a long time, though remarkably, it was not destroyed. Instead, it was to resurface after World War II, to circulate in a context where such images did not seem so shocking in the wake of the War’s atrocities. Today, the image can be found readily available on the internet.

2. A law of image rights

The image of the dead Bismarck marks one of the first encounters between the Law and photography. At the heart of this encounter, we find what might be described as three categories of image ‘offence’, all of which are conflated in the taking, content and (attempted) distribution of this disturbing photograph.

The first offence is the manner in which the photograph is ‘taken’ – seen here in the duplicitous intrusion by the photographers into the ‘sacred’ realm of Bismarck’s home. The second offence is the ‘content’ of the photograph – the intimate and undignified image of the dead Bismarck – a sight which was only supposed to be visible to Bismarck’s family members (even Kaiser Wilhelm II was denied access by Bismarck’s family to view his dead body).  The third offence is the ‘distribution’ of the photograph – the way in which the photographers sought to exploit it by selling or licensing it for profit, thereby transforming the dead Bismarck into a commodity.

The Law has grappled with these three image offences (often instigated by paparazzi and the media) in different manifestations throughout the 20th/21st centuries. This has led to the construction of a law of privacy rights driven largely by image disputes. In some instances, the Law has focused on specific image offences to the exclusion of others. In 2004, for example, Princess Caroline of Monaco was able to persuade the European Court of Human Rights that the media’s publication of largely anodyne photographs of her in ‘public’ places infringed her “reasonable expectation” of privacy. At stake were image offences based on the taking and distribution of the photographs rather than on their specific content.

It is, perhaps, no accident that the scandal caused through the explosive elision of all three image offences in Priester’s and Wicke’s photograph would directly lead to the passage of one of the first laws of image rights: section 22 of the German Copyright Act (1907), though the French courts had granted image rights over photographs earlier in the 19th century. In this law, German legislators troubled by the wound caused by the scandal, devised a way to grant subjects ‘rights’ over their image to protect their personality. From now on permission of the subject portrayed would be required when photographs of them were taken and disseminated – though an exemption was granted for public persons or ‘figures of contemporary history’ who would have lesser protection. These rights could persist even after their death and be exercised posthumously by their family relatives. By contrast, when Priester and Wicke had been prosecuted no such rights existed and Bismarck’s relatives/the German state had to rely artificially upon trespass to the Bismarcks’ property.

3. Photography, death and the Law

The Bismarck case reveals the Law’s preoccupation with the fate of the photograph, and its intervention to regulate its circulation and visibility. At the same time, it also reveals the need for the Law to move backwards to find a ‘subject’ to ascribe rights to over the photograph in order to control its fate.

This subject may lie within the photograph (the privacy rights of the subject in the photograph), behind the photograph (the right of the creator of the image, for example copyright or freedom of expression) or in front of the photograph (the rights of the audience or society not to be offended as reflected in obscenity laws). Whatever the context, the construction of a legal subject in relation to the photograph is contingent and unstable: often the Law has to decide in favour of the rights of one subject (e.g. the depicted) against those of another (e.g. the photographer).

Yet what does it mean for a person in a photograph to ‘own’ its image? The law of image rights rests upon two assumptions: the first is that the appearance of the subject can become its property; the second is that a person’s property in its image can be appropriated through (un-authorised) photographic reproduction.

Both assumptions are problematic. As the Marxist theorist, Bernard Edelman observes, the notion of a person ‘owning’ its appearance relies upon that person being seen paradoxically by the Law as the ‘author’ of its appearance: in this way the body (nature) is transformed into ‘likeness’ an attribute of personality (culture). It is, perhaps, for this reason that German lawyers first classified image rights within the law to protect authors; the German Copyright Act.

At the same time the Bismarck scandal reveals that the origin of the law of image rights is not founded upon the image of a living subject, but instead upon the image of a corpse! That the law of image rights should be founded upon the site of death would seem again deeply paradoxical. How can a dead person protect its likeness? On what basis can personal image rights be exercised by others?

The rationale often provided for the post-mortem exercise of image rights is that the dignity of the deceased must be protected in order to avoid suffering to their living relatives – as exemplified in the harm caused to Bismarck’s family. But this only tells part of the story. This paradox only makes sense when the law of image rights is considered contextually in relation to widely held social and cultural taboos concerning photography’s mimetic capacities and its ability, in particular, to appropriate the souls of the deceased.

Taboos concerning the photographic representation of the dead co-existed alongside common 19th century practices of photographing the ‘dignified’ dead, particularly images of dead children. When the deceased were photographed (without dignity) these taboos often came to the fore. Just as in Germany, the law of image rights would be founded much earlier in France (1858) in another case involving the photographic representation of the dead; in this instance, the image of a famous actress portrayed on her deathbed (the so-called Rachel case). In this case, without identifying the legal foundation of the right, the French civil court held that the “right to oppose this reproduction is absolute; it flows from the respect the family’s pain commands”. Yet it is difficult not to infer that taboos relating to death and its photographic image were also at work here.

Roland Barthes famously observed that death is the eidos of photography – all photographs are indexical traces of lost time or dead moments. Yet this is only part of the picture: defined by reproduction and distribution, photography looks forwards as well as backwards in time. The Law mirrors photography’s ‘double bind’: looking backwards to find a subject in order to control the photograph’s fate, the Law finds a subject, but a subject that is a corpse.


Daniel McClean is a lawyer, writer and independent curator. He is head of art and cultural property law at Howard Kennedy FSI (London). He is the co-curator of The Corrupt Show and the Speculative Machine by Superflex, currently on show at the Museo Jumex in Mexico City.

#19 ‘Bliss’ by Henry Carroll

Bliss, Microsoft / Charles O'Rear, 1996.


On Thursday 25 October 2001, 44 days after the World Trade Center crumbled, Microsoft released their new operating system, Windows XP. Programmed into every system were 16 photographs – mostly tranquil scenes of nature – which could be used as desktop ‘wallpaper’. One of these photographs appealed to Microsoft’s sensibilities more than the others and was elevated to the grandiose heights of ‘default’, meaning it was seen by everyone who turned on their XP computer for the first time, and then every time after that, unless they decided to change it. The photograph was given the name Bliss and by January 2007 she had been seen by over one billion people worldwide, making her the leading contender for the most viewed photograph of all time.

As photographs go, it’s fair to say that Bliss gets about. In the past week she’s visited me on three separate occasions. The first was in Heathrow airport’s security lounge. All but one of the information screens were working. Bliss emanated from the faulty screen, unaware of her own existence. She just levitated above the hubbub, waiting to be rebooted. The second encounter was while playing the iPhone game Paper Toss (you flick screwed up balls of paper into a bin while judging the wind power from a nearby fan. It’s good.). There she appeared again, in the ‘office’ level, on a virtual colleague’s computer. The third occasion was in my real-life office. Backlit and beautiful, she passively radiated tranquility from a desktop in the far corner of the room.

This final encounter prompted me to conduct an experiment. That afternoon, by the water cooler, I nonchalantly approached the user of the Bliss computer. I showed him a printout of the photograph and asked if he recognised it. He did. Instantly. But when pressed he couldn’t recall from where. Incredible! How could someone be greeted every morning by the same photograph for the past three years but not actually ‘see’ it? And, believe me, this guy is far from stupid.

That’s the thing about Bliss, she’s recognised by so many while at the same time has the ability to remain absolutely invisible. She’s become a part of so many people’s everyday lives that she no longer gets noticed – perhaps she was never really noticed – and that’s the secret to her unrivalled ubiquity. There’s also the fact that you don’t choose Bliss; she is chosen for you. With her there’s no love at first sight, no catching of each other’s eye across a crowded gallery. Instead, this is an arranged marriage, in which Bliss plays an apparent subservient role and remains, literally, in the background.


I can’t think of any other photograph known by so many that doesn’t depict a global event, person or place. Bliss is the antithesis of images like those captured on 9/11, which are lodged in our collective memory due to the world-changing atrocities they depict. In fact, in terms of subject matter, Bliss isn’t really ‘of’ anything. That expanse of green needs something in it. There are some faint lines running diagonally up the hill and what looks like a more permanent track in the foreground (I wonder if Microsoft likes these?), but I need a focal point. I want cows, sheep or maybe a carefree nude modelling her way down the hillside. Then there’s that pixel perfect blue sky dotted with white, ‘micro-soft’ clouds. But there’s no game to be played with these clouds, as none resemble faces, animals or anything else that might be inadvertently off message. They are, for all intents and purposes, just clouds, which is actually quite rare for clouds. And then there are the distant mountains, struggling to get a look in on the left and right. Without them the location of this scene would be impossible to pin down, but peaks like that don’t spring up anywhere. We could be looking at Ireland, somewhere along the Welsh border, the south of France maybe, or Switzerland.

I’ll cut to the chase. This scene is located along California’s Highway 12 and was photographed by Charles O’Rear in 1996, while apparently en route to see his girlfriend. He used a 6×7 medium format film camera and claims that there has been no digital enhancement. And yes, he did make a killing.

Knowing that this is another image of the iconic American West reveals another side to Bliss. She becomes a kind of double exposure or, more precisely, a double agent. Those tracks, which seemed incidental a minute ago, now take on more significance. And so does the shape of the hill for that matter, and the way those mountains perform a kind of compositional pincer movement. Is Bliss a nod to Timothy O’Sullivan’s Desert Sand Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada (1867) [see also: Tracking Shot, an earlier essay in this series] and other 19th Century imagery wrapped up in notions of manifest destiny?

No, and yes, is the answer. On the one hand Bliss isn’t entering into a dialogue with previous images of the American West. Not overtly anyway. Like a beauty queen, she can’t be seen to push an agenda, challenge, question, controvert or self-reflect. On the surface she is merely Microsoft’s default hostess with the mostess: curvaceous, inviting and easy on the eye. But that’s us being duped, because Bliss is, in fact, a total bitch.

To understand her motivations let’s recap on the history of the American West: In the beginning there was sublime wilderness. Then came the big ideas, the geological surveys, the railroads, the industry, the agriculture, the people – including Ansel Adams – the cities, the National Parks, the gift shops, the packaged experiences and the pollution. Before long manifest destiny had lead to the exploitation and inevitable buggering up of the American West. I know it, you know it, Robert Adams knows it, and so does Richard Misrach.

Bliss wipes all this aside. She’s the rebranded West for the 21st Century: colourful, lush, safe and cultivated without being exploited. There’s no trace of manifest destiny here. It’s a vision of destiny manifested. Where photographs of the 19th Century West showed scenes of man conquering nature and epic landscapes full of opportunity, Bliss has none of that. Instead she sells us a new West, one that isn’t there to be exploited through hard graft. Here there are no adversities to overcome and there’s nothing to fight for. This West is an accessible, pristine, digital utopia offering a tranquil retreat from the hardships and pressures of daily life; it’s somewhere to escape to when the going gets tough and the numbers no longer add up. Yes, those fading lines on the hillside symbolise a past toil – but it’s not yours – and soon they will have faded completely, like one billion turbulent memories of how the West was really won (or lost). This is manifest destiny 2.0.


Initially I thought it odd that Microsoft, with their famous slogan ‘Where do you want to go today?’, would present all their users with a destination so close to their own Silicon Valley doorstep. But it’s not odd at all. At the height of its popularity Windows XP had a market share of 83% and Bliss, with her post 9/11 ‘trust me, everything is going to be OK’ message, had infiltrated offices, homes and schools across the globe. Manifest destiny 2.0 has reached everyone, from Members of Parliament to members of Al Qaida. And just like William Henry Jackson’s photograph, Mount of the Holy Cross (1873), Bliss seems to wave at you from afar; ‘come join me’, she’s saying, ‘I am your destiny. I represent everything you believe in’. But what isn’t carried on the wind is, ‘whether you like it or not’.

Bliss is a new virtual frontier that’s devoid of people because she’s trying to seduce you into becoming a part of the picture. Let’s lie on that hillside and look up at those clouds before being led home by the sweet aroma of mom’s cherry pie. But in a world that’s never been so divided, Microsoft has planted a seed that’s cultivated screens across all kinds of political, economic and geographic landscapes. What do users of Windows XP in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and North Korea make of this very Western interpretation of bliss, I wonder? Does Bliss still represent bliss? Do people still want to become a part of the picture? Or is it the case that, for some, Bliss could be viewed as an everyday symbol that reinforces hatred and irreconcilable ideological differences?

Bliss appears so innocent at first, nothing more than an inoffensive emblem of hope as we struggle through troubled times. But there’s a snake hiding in that lush green grass. Bliss is an ideological masterstroke that’s slithered through everyone’s back door. Not only has she been programmed into four hundred million computers worldwide, she has also become forever hardwired into the minds of their users. Microsoft has succeeded where the American government has failed. Invasion complete. This really is ‘Mission Accomplished’.


Henry Carroll is a writer, photographer and entrepreneur. In 2008 he founded frui.co.uk, a global provider of photography holidays, courses and events. His latest book, ‘Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs’, is published by Laurence King in February 2014.