More Work in Berlin

This week, I have the honor of catching up with Carleton’s Cinema and Media Studies off-campus seminar in New Media during their time in Berlin. While in the city, I’ll be joining them for a bike ride along a section of the Berlin Wall, and helping them get started on new Rephotography projects similar to my comps work displayed on this website. It is my hope that the students on the seminar will be able to contribute to this project and its goal of rephotographing the Iron Curtain. I’m very excited to once again fuse my background in history, photography and visual studies, while contributing to the experience of the off-campus seminar.

I will also be able to expand my own project and apply a deeper understanding of technique and theory to my work. While I am in Berlin, I plan to rephotograph journalistic images from the erection of the Wall in 1961, with an emphasis on portraiture and individual interaction with the site of the Wall in contemporary space. Although I have already submitted my CAMS comps, I will have the opportunity to incorporate this experience and work into my comps panel on May 12. Please check back for updates and photos throughout the week, and beyond!

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There is nothing quite like the search for The Spot. To find The Spot is to stand in the footsteps of photographers past and make a personal connection to the visual history of a place. If you find The Spot, and record it with a camera, you can join this history and open a window to the past through the indexicallity of the photograph and place. The Spot makes it possible to transcend the present and see the world through History Vision.

During the Summer of 2010, I biked more than 1,000 miles through the heart of Germany, following a now-invisible line through the countryside where the Iron Curtain once divided a continent. I had with me a series of photographs of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, and for forty days I searched for The Spot as I traveled, rephotographing the former border as accurately as possible.

Sometimes you can’t get to The Spot. Maybe there’s a building covering it, troublesome undergrowth or foliage, or inaccessible vantage points from private facilities. This problem is particularly interesting along the Iron Curtain where the landscape, once dominated by barbed wire and watchtowers, has changed dramatically in the last twenty years as the walls that once haunted the countryside faded and have been lost to the land. This rapid transformation makes experiencing and rephotographing the Iron Curtain all the more striking.

While the experience and moment of taking these photos was an important aspect of production, almost all the work has come after the trip.  I made numerous Rephotographs over the summer, but chose to include the twelve most successful for this project. Each photograph was carefully tuned up in Photoshop to reach its aesthetic potential, while preserving its basic integrity as a photograph. By this I mean that photos were cropped only to better fit the scale of their corresponding, older photograph, sharpened, burned and dodged, and slightly saturated. Throughout the project, I strove to strike a balance between digital improvements while respecting the limitations of the analog so as to avoid what I perceive as problematic contradictions when comparing digital and and analog indexicality.

Indexicality is a central theme in my essay, which is an exploration of the genre of Rephotography as it is rooted in theoretical discourse yet increasingly relevant to internet-based new media. In the essay, I argue that Rephotography draws its significance from, and is fundamentally rooted in film theorists’ ontological understanding of the photograph. Furthermore, Rephotography serves as a bridge between this theory and the use of contemporary programs like Google Earth that combine place, media, and images. These themes are further supported by the production aspect of the project.

To display the old and rephotographed images, I aligned them in Photoshop using two different layers. I chose to make the old photographs black and white to maintain a consistent aesthetic, but also to connote transformation from old to new from the juxtaposition of the two images. I created the animations you see here by adjusting the opacity of the top layer by 10% every .5 seconds. This allowed me to create a .mov file that is easily displayed online via YouTube. I did not want the transformation to be too smooth because this would imply a direct link between past and present, when the two images cannot truly speak to the history in between them. The format also gives viewers agency in their relationship to the images as they are able to adjust the opacity by using the time slider. The significance of this method is highly appropriate, as viewers are able to literally participate in the passing of time while controlling their view of it. Finally, the interactive aspect of this display contributes to a growing trend in New Media in which audiences are invited to play and be involved with art exhibitions.

The animations are also displayed in an Google Earth Tour in which the viewer “flies” to the sites at which the photos were taken and can view the transformation of place over time. This photo-map encourages viewers to make connections between the photos, place, and time that emphasize and compliment the themes explored in my paper.

The blogging capabilities of my website, combined with interactivity and visibility with Google Earth also enable future participation and increased involvement in rephotographing the Iron Curtain. I have already laid plans with the Spring term CAMS study abroad program to undertake Rephotography projects in Berlin which will be incorporated into the website. I see this as the beginning of an ongoing project which I intend to maintain well beyond Carleton. With today’s technology, Rephotography is quite accessible to anyone; extensive global participation is possible. The Iron Curtain is such a potent subject for History Vision because of the emotion surrounding it and its rapid disappearance. However, it is also in danger of disappearing from a generation’s memory. In this sense, Rephotography is a form of reconstruction that ensures that the threads of place, memory, photography, and the theories surrounding them have a place in the digital age and remain accessible for other citizens and artists.

Regarding the comps process itself, I enjoyed the independent format but feel that I may have benefited from more structured check-ins either with faculty, or students who were working on similar projects. There is much to be said for independent, creative processes but I also feel it is a shame to miss opportunities for discussion and critical engagement with my peers.

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