An edited extract from Daniel Palmer ‘The Mistake in Photography: Patrick Pound, Jackson Eaton and the Paradoxical Self Image’ Dissect Journal, no. 2, 2015, pp. 15-32
Jackson Eaton’s Paradoxical Self Image According to a recent book on snapshot photography, there ‘are now no more “mistakes” in the image archive’. Apparently, digital habits of viewing, deleting and retaking are driving images towards a kind of inhuman perfection. But fortunately, humans remains fallible and even digital cameras make mistakes. The nature of the mistake in photography, in fact, tends to be curious conjugation of technical issues, human errors and aesthetic conventions. Think, for instance, of all those books around ‘good’ composition that proliferated in the post-war years, famously parodied by John Baldessari in his 1967 photo-canvas Wrong, which shows him standing with a palm tree coming out of his head and a single capitalised word below it that says ‘WRONG’. Arguably, the possibilities for such untutored mistakes in photography are progressively being removed by the various automations that now facilitate image making, and which inevitably change what it means to photograph. As digital cameras become more and more sophisticated they increasingly remove decision making from the photographer—even, in some cases, making them completely unnecessary to the basic process. As we know, more and more photography today does not involve human operators (think red-light cameras, security cameras, robotic cameras, etc.). At the same time, everyone with a mobile phone is a photographer now, and, as if in resistance to their vestigial obsolescence, many of these people regularly take pictures of themselves.
Within our intense visual present, life is consumed and the self is performed. All of this underlies why the ‘selfie’ has become the watchword of photographers. Oxford Dictionaries named selfie as its word of the year in 2013. The Guardian described 2013 as ‘the year that the selfie reached saturation point’ in an article featuring the year’s so-called ‘best, worst and most revealing’, including celebrities (Kim Kardashian posing in the mirror) and politicians (Barack Obama with other world leaders at the funeral of Nelson Mandela). The same article complained of the surfeit of ‘faux-sociological rationalisation pieces about selfies’ that have appeared in the past few years in newspapers (and, we might add, art and academic journals and catalogue essays). Selfies appear to be the ideal symbol of our hyper-vanity; narcissism perfected as a popular distraction. The reality star Kim Kardashian is perfectly attuned to this moment, photographing herself obsessively for her Instagram feed, and then compiling a collection of these images in a book, sardonically titled Selfish (2014) – inspired by a similar collection she originally gave to her husband. The book has apparently sold unusually well in Australia. Selfies clearly belong to photography’s long and intimate relationship with narcissism and celebrity. Such tendencies were already identified in Charles Baudelaire’s brilliant 1859 essay ‘The Modern Public and Photography’. In that essay, Baudelaire took the Daguerreotype’s mirrored surface as proof that photography makes narcissists of us all. Baudelaire’s critique—in which photography breeds and reproduces self-absorption—was based on the rapid success of portrait photography. He was responding to the cultural success of the Daguerreotype as a medium that enabled the mid-nineteenth century bourgeois to look at its own ‘trivial image’. Baudelaire detected in the ardent desire of the masses for conformity a deceptive equality of social representation. Long concerned with the peculiar relationship of the
self to others, and the restless quality of our self image, Melbourne-based artist Jackson Eaton, finds the readymade archive of Google Images represents a particularly rich source of imagery. Eaton has made various bodies of work involving his own libidinal self image, including ironic images of himself on t-shirts. In his ongoing series Melfies 2 (2014), Eaton has plugged into Google images of his body parts and clothing sampled from selfies taken in various mirrors. The process is simple: Eaton spots a mirror (usually in a bathroom or clothing store), takes an image of himself, then cuts up his body in Photoshop into geometric parts and uses these images to do a reverse Google image search. Google’s image-analysing algorithms struggle to find an accurate match to the images submitted due to their always contingent backgrounds, and generates bizarre and seemingly random associations. As Eaton described it to me, the resulting surrealist collages mask ‘the “biological self” with technologically-matched yet erroneous images that are usually saleable commodities and criminal faces.’ Eaton is interested in Lacan’s notion of the narcissist’s frustration with the self as projected object. Just as narcissism, for Lacan, is based on the child’s misrecognition of its self-image, Eaton relishes Google’s misrecognition of his body sections. His ‘becoming other’ speaks to the obvious point that the popularity of selfies is at once because they seem to empower individuals to control their own representation, but also represent a symptom of networked isolation—of geographically fragmented individuals desiring connection through little screens. And because self-presentation is fundamentally always in doubt, since in order to conform and ‘blend in’ to established stereotypes we invariably perform an act of mimicry, the act of self-representation must be constantly repeated. Moreover, if selfies, following Baudelaire, represent a pseudo-democracy of appearances, Eaton’s work also speaks to the commodification of the self in online networks that are designed to monetise the expression of desire. Concentrated
on corporate networks as Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, selfies are fundamentally linked to consumer culture. Each and every day, users post about 130 million photos on Tumblr, and starting in 2014, the Yahoo-owned media brand began to analyse all those images for clues to users’ brand affiliations. Eaton’s work makes a mockery of this process. When even the ideal self-image can now be determined by software, Melfies can be interpreted as both a critique of demands for self-representation online and a parody of aesthetic outsourcing to algorithms. Eaton is a meta-photographer. He exploits Google’s mistakes to reintroduce randomness and chance into the contemporary self-portrait and works with the overload of generic images online to see how his own digital self-image mingles with millions of others. Eaton’s work suggests that the online self—the selfie—is already determined by its relation to objects of commerce. This raises the question: can the photographer’s self-image, his residual trace, now be read as some kind of resistance to his own redundancy in the face of ever increasing automation. Automation, as we have seen, seeks to homogenise image making. Its illusions of control and efficiency are like one of the operating principles of contemporary capitalism: the wish to eradicate chance from our lives while simultaneously fetishising spontaneity. Nevertheless, mistakes still happen. Recently, a rare glitch in my iPhoto software saw all the thousands of images I had ever deleted suddenly return to my digital library. Once I had recovered from the initial horror of this unwelcome return, I discovered that some of the images I had originally so carefully deleted turned out to be more interesting than those I had kept. In photography, like life, perfection is illusory and temporary, always haunted by images of a different life.
LIST OF WORKS
Cover Untitled 34 (detail) Untitled 26 Untitled 31 (detail) Untitled 23 Untitled 46 (detail) Untitled 40 Untitled 19 (detail) Untitled 33 Untitled 10 (detail) Untitled 27 Untitled 4 (detail) Back Cover Untitled 12 (detail) series: Melfies 2, 2014-2015 Archival inkjet prints, Instagram 40 x 40cm
36 Gosbell Street Paddington NSW 2021 Australia Tel 61 2 9331 7775, Web www.stillsgallery.com.au
Melfies 2 online exhibition catalogue