Roads to Ruin

A chronicle of disasters, mistakes, memory, entropy, and the built world crumbling back into ruins.

Tina Campt, on Looking at Photos and “Biographical Accuracy”

Q&A w/ Tina Campt 

Alaska: I’m wondering about your process of writing about orphaned photographs, and writing about people who you don’t know, and can’t talk to: as a historian, how do you work through the problems of biographical accuracy?

Campt: “There is a different kind of accountability when you’re writing about people you don’t know. It’s hard enough to write about people you do know, but I would say it’s even more treacherous when you’re writing about people you don’t because there’s so much you can get wrong. I had to let go of that and switch away from the question of accuracy. I tried as hard as I could with the partial historical archive that each of these collections have to be accurate; but I felt like the biggest thing that I was accountable to was that there are so many images in the world that don’t have a full accounting of them.

Does that mean that we need to leave them alone? Does that mean that the only way you can talk about an image is if you know everything about it with absolute security? I decided that this is a huge tragedy and that what we have to do is deal with these images as something more than biographical documents. I think that photographs tell us something about more than just the individual the picture represents… they tell us something about ourselves, something about the context, and they tell us something beyond the facts. What they tell us beyond facts can be as important as what they document.

So the shift that I had to make is to be accountable to the impulse of making photographs as opposed to the content of what’s in the photograph. Rather than asking ‘What is in this photograph?’, I ask, ‘Why was this photograph taken?’. This leads me to a whole other set of equally challenging questions that you have to answer. Why make a photograph on a bridge of three men hugging? And that may seem really mundane, but it’s really important. He was trying to demonstrate, to show something to someone else, but also to capture a moment beyond the moment. And then I ask myself, ‘What about that moment is so precarious?’ And when we put all these images next to one another, we see it’s not just this one moment… there were lots of photographs of him, and they’re all about him with his best friends, and he seemed to have a lot of best friends.

But why do we have this photograph now? Why did someone save it then? Why did people keep it over and over again? And what happened to it that it made us come here, together, to talk about it? Those aren’t questions that are biographical. They’re not. They’re questions that are about photography, family, culture, history.

So attending to those questions I decided was equally important as the biographical details. I couldn’t answer the biographical questions, but I felt that these were important images nonetheless. And to try and answer the other questions helps us to think about photography and making photographs differently. I wanted to liberate the photograph from this kind of linear narrative. ‘Photographs tell you a story…’. No, you tell the photograph a story, and the photograph answers you back and says ‘Yes’. I was interested in that, because these photographs were telling me stories that weren’t mine, but we needed to listen to.”


From Q&A session with Tina Campt and Leigh Raiford at MOAD, San Francisco, Nov.3, 2012

Campt, Tina, and Leigh Raiford. “AUTHORS IN CONVERSATION | Why Images Move Us: Family Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe.” Reading and discussion, Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, November 3, 2012.

theatlantic:

A 1940s RCA Manual Teaches Male Bosses How to Supervise Ladies

The blog Retronaut has unearthed a booklet, created by RCA in the 1940s, intended to inform male bosses about the best ways to supervise their new employees as World War II brought females into factories, often for the first time. […]

What’s remarkable about this is that none of the qualities highlighted or advice dispelled in the booklet is actually specific to women. “Tell them what they’re supposed to do” and “tell them when they’ve done good work” and “make sure they know where the bathroom is” are not nuggets of wisdom that are in any way particular to women. They’re just, you know, what any boss should probably be doing for any employee.

Read more. [Images: National Archives]

(via maedron-deactivated20130915)

The Conet Project is an anonymous archive of intercepted Spy Numbers stations— the shortwave broadcasts of spy transmissions from around the world, since WW2. The broadcasts are typically very eerie, distant-sounding human or computer generated voices reading and repeating series of words, letters, or morse code in various languages through shortwave static. I love these, but can only listen to them for a little while before they get deeply under my skin.  The whole archive is streaming- and available for download— here.

Poor Franz Reichelt. On February 4, 1912, the tailor and inventor called the press and public to the Eiffel Tower to demonstrate his “bird suit”, a wearable parachute suit that would quickly convert from a three-piece suit into a full-body parachute, enabling aviators and adventurers to glide through the air without falling to their deaths.

It didn’t work out.

From Wikipedia:

"Initial experiments conducted with dummies dropped from the fifth floor of his apartment building had been successful, but he was unable to replicate those early successes with any of his subsequent designs.

Believing that the lack of a suitably high test platform was partially to blame for his failures, Reichelt repeatedly petitioned the Parisian Police for permission to conduct a test from the Eiffel Tower. He was finally granted permission in early 1912, but when he arrived at the tower on February 4 he made it clear that he intended to jump himself rather than conduct an experiment with dummies. Despite attempts by his friends and spectators to dissuade him, he jumped from the first platform of the tower wearing his invention. The parachute failed to deploy and he crashed into the icy ground at the foot of the tower. Although it was clear that the fall had killed him, he was taken to a nearby hospital where he was officially pronounced dead. The next day, newspapers were full of the story of the reckless inventor and his fatal jump – many included pictures of the fall taken by press photographers who had gathered to witness Reichelt’s experiment – and a film documenting the jump appeared in newsreels.”

That newsreel is above. It’s not at all gorey, but it is a little unsettling, as usual.

The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.

—Paul Virilio

 Wan Hu, a sixteenth-century Chinese official, attempted to become the world’s first astronaut.
A description of the event is translated in Rockets and Jets, from 1945:
"Early in the sixteenth century, Wan decided to take advantage of China’s advanced rocket and fireworks technology to launch himself into outer space. He had a chair built with forty-seven rockets attached. On the day of lift-off, Wan, splendidly attired, climbed into his rocket chair and forty seven servants lit the fuses and then hastily ran for cover. There was a huge explosion. When the smoke cleared, Wan and the chair were gone, and was said never to have been seen again."
The largest crater on the far side of the moon, Wan-Hoo, is named after him.

 Wan Hu, a sixteenth-century Chinese official, attempted to become the world’s first astronaut.

A description of the event is translated in Rockets and Jets, from 1945:

"Early in the sixteenth century, Wan decided to take advantage of China’s advanced rocket and fireworks technology to launch himself into outer space. He had a chair built with forty-seven rockets attached. On the day of lift-off, Wan, splendidly attired, climbed into his rocket chair and forty seven servants lit the fuses and then hastily ran for cover. There was a huge explosion. When the smoke cleared, Wan and the chair were gone, and was said never to have been seen again."

The largest crater on the far side of the moon, Wan-Hoo, is named after him.

From YouTube:

Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto has created a beautiful, undeniably scary time-lapse map of the 2053 nuclear explosions which have taken place between 1945 and 1998, beginning with the Manhattan Project’s “Trinity” test near Los Alamos and concluding with Pakistan’s nuclear tests in May of 1998. This leaves out North Korea’s two alleged nuclear tests in this past decade (the legitimacy of both of which is not 100% clear).

Each nation gets a blip and a flashing dot on the map whenever they detonate a nuclear weapon, with a running tally kept on the top and bottom bars of the screen. Hashimoto, who began the project in 2003, says that he created it with the goal of showing”the fear and folly of nuclear weapons.” It starts really slow — if you want to see real action, skip ahead to 1962 or so — but the buildup becomes overwhelming.

Hashimoto says:
"This piece of work is a bird’s eye view of the history by scaling down a month length of time into one second. No letter is used for equal messaging to all viewers without language barrier. The blinking light, sound and the numbers on the world map show when, where and how many experiments each country have conducted. I created this work for the means of an interface to the people who are yet to know of the extremely grave, but present problem of the world."

I saw this happen once when I was about four years old. I tried to describe it to my parents, and no one believed me. To them, rest their souls, I’d like to say: Suck it bitches, video.