We often talk about photography’s much vaunted ability to reveal things that the unaided human eye could not perceive. The rapid movements of a horse’s legs for example, or the passage of subatomic particles through a cloud chamber. What arguably gets less attention, but is far more remarkable, is photography’s ability to defeat geography and time – to compress distances and refigure timelines, and bring what we might have seen, but didn’t, into view. It is this ability, so often overlooked, to overcome the fact that we can only ever be in one place, at one time, that makes photography remarkable.
It is this ability, so often overlooked, to overcome the fact that we can only ever be in one place, at one time, that makes photography remarkable.
This is a significant part of what makes photography a potent press medium: the ability to bear witness to things that the vast majority of people were not around to see with their own eyes. It was a quality recognised from very early on in the medium’s invention, even if the technologies of image transfer and image reproduction did not fully allow this. For the first several decades of photography, what we now think of as ‘press images’ were laboriously transported by land, and then often rendered as engravings because of the difficulty of cheaply reproducing photographs in print.
The first true photo appeared in print in the 1880s, shortly after the invention of the halftone printing process, but it wasn’t until 1913 that Édouard Belin revealed his Bélinographe, essentially an early form of fax machine, which was capable of slowly transmitting an image over a telephone line. The technology did not reach mainstream usage for another two decades, but by the 1930s the idea of ‘wirephoto’ transfers for press images became an increasingly important journalistic tool, and came into its own in the global war which began at the end of the decade, where clashes took place globally, and events could move at breakneck speed.
David Pace takes a series of these Second World War wire photos, collected by Stephen Wirtz, as the basis for their co-authored book Images in Transition. They then proceed to make a series of extreme crops and close ups of them, designed to reveal the artifacts and traces of the transmitting process. These include the reduction of many images to the stark black and white of the halftone process, marks and damage to images, electronic interference akin to pixelation, attempts to retouch them to cover the limited resolution of the wirephoto process, and even a fingerprint.
Although the essay that opens the book by Mark Murrman stakes a case for the presentation of these images in this book as artistic, I think such claims are somewhat unnecessary and beside the point. The interventions that Pace and Wirtz make to these images only draw closer attention to things which are quite self-evident in such images, and which an attentive viewer would find without direction. A section at the back includes a series of uncropped versions of wire photos, and actually these prove more interesting in many ways than the artfully cropped versions. Visible are the crudely painted original crops, stuck on ‘AP Wirephoto’ logos and a host of other modifications to the image, caused by man and machine.
While statements made online about the work allude to wanting to raise questions about the technologies involved in image production and transportation, it seems unclear at least to this reviewer, exactly what those questions are.
The sequencing of the images also feels ambiguous and like rather a missed opportunity to say something more. Lacking the stark visuals of say Dieter Keller’s Des Auges des Krieges, or the anchor of didactic text as in say Ersnt Friedrich’s Krieg dem Kriege, the images in this book might perhaps have been elevated further and given meaning beyond their thematic and technological links. While statements made online about the work allude to wanting to raise questions about the technologies involved in image production and transportation, it seems unclear at least to this reviewer, exactly what those questions are.