M2 Wk4: Strategies of Freedom

Forum: Human?

Photographic images NOT made by a human… are humans truly not involved? 

In my twilight years, as I lounge on the veranda of a retirement home, I am confident that I will bore the socks of my contemporaries, as I postulate photography’s philosophical frivolities.  While time is significantly more precious, I will move straight past the semantics of whether a camera or an operator takes a photograph.  However, this Forum did inspire me to conduct research in order to reconfirm my belief that no natural entity is capable of recording an image… therefore all photographs are ultimately made by humans as cameras (and all such recording devices) are man-made.

David Slater’s infamous ‘black macaque self-portrait’ has received far too many column inches to be included here, but throughout photographic history far more technically significant photographs have been taken by animals: that is to say, the animal has triggered the shutter.

It was Eadweard Muybridge who pioneered what we now refer to as ‘camera traps’, using wires that when tripped, trigger the shutter of a camera.  While he can be attributed to a host of fascinating motion studies, and his stop-motion technique was an early form of animation that helped pave the way for the motion-picture industry, it was a wager that first brought him to the attention of the public:

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Eadweard Muybridge (1878) The Horse in Motion, Palo Alto

When a horse trots or gallops, does it ever become fully airborne?  This was the question photographer Eadweard Muybridge set out to answer in 1878.  Railroad tycoon and former California governor Leland Stanford was convinced the answer was yes and commissioned Muybridge to provide proof.  Muybridge developed a way to take photos with an exposure lasting a fraction of a second and, with reporters as witnesses, arranged 12 cameras along a track on Stanford’s estate.

As a horse sped by, it tripped wires connected to the cameras, which took 12 photos in rapid succession.  Muybridge developed the images on site and, in the frames, revealed that a horse is completely aloft with its hooves tucked underneath it for a brief moment during a stride.  The revelation, imperceptible to the naked eye but apparent through photography, marked a new purpose for the medium: it could capture truth through technology.

130 years later, camera traps were again in the public eye as a result of the Grand Title Winner 2008, Wildlife Photographer of the Year.  This proved a contentious decision, as it was argued that a camera triggered by the animal in photograph should not earn such a prestigious title for the owner of the photographic equipment.  However, the background to Steve Winter’s exceptional image ‘Snowstorm leopard’ makes it abundantly clear that had he not committed more than a year to the pursuit of this image, it would never have happened:

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Steve Winter (2008) Snowstorm leopard, Ladak’s Hemis High Altitude National Park, India

For more than ten months, Winter had been using remote-controlled cameras placed along the Husing Trail, in Ladak’s Hemis High Altitude National Park, India, hoping to capture a snow leopard in a snowfall with a backdrop that conjured up the atmosphere of its extreme environment, but to no avail.  While he had captured a number of images, they all fell short of his aim.

Warmer weather forced him to relocate the camera traps to higher altitudes along the trail.  Here he found an ideal location where three trails converge.  Sadly the winter of 2007 was bitterly cold with hardly any snow, and it seemed that his hopes would not be fulfilled.  However, on checking the camera one May morning, he found the composition exactly as he had hoped, with a snow leopard gazing back in blustery conditions, composed perfectly.

Photographs taken by camera traps are a significant part off Winter’s work, making up 10-20 % of his images.  Huge patience is required – often many, many months, together with a comprehensive understanding off the behaviour of the animal in order to place the devices appropriately.  These devices are not remotely controlled: you cannot react to a developing situation by changing the angle of view, for example.  The camera traps need to be set perfectly, with the anticipated image being composed with painstaking precision prior to leaving the camera to work its magic…. or more precisely, in the hope that an animal will trigger the trap.

I have used camera traps for assorted purposes… most trivially in order to monitor a mouse that had taken up residence in my home, so that I could target the most opportune location for placement of a humane trap, in order to relocate him.  Here, almost no composition was necessary, I was shooting blind, simply hoping to capture an image of the rodent. For this work, I definitely did not consider myself as the photographer off a mouse – I simply facilitated a mouse selfie.  There was infinitely more human involvement in the development of the equipment being used.  Perhaps had I committed the best part of a year towards capturing the perfectly compose image, then I would hope to claim ownership.

While all of these photographs have been captured thanks to the (inadvertent) intervention of ‘non-humans’, returning to my opening point, I remain convinced that it is not possible to capture a ‘photograph’ devoid of human involvement, since there is no natural process that can do this.

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