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Works : Shrouded (2012)
commissioned by Ryerson Image Centre

Patti Hearst leaving courthouse (original photo: Fred Kaplan)

Shrouded was commissioned by the Ryerson Image Centre for its inaugural exhibition, Archival Dialogues. Fro this exhibition the curators, Doina Popescu and Peggy Gale, asked 8 artists to produce works that referred to or related to the Black Star collection of 20th century photojournalistic images housed at the Ryerson Image Centre.

Shrouded is a 48 minute long video work that explores 24 images form the black start collection. Each image is initially presented as a blur. An area of focus emerges and moved around the image slowly revealing details over the course of 2 minutes, drawing out the process of recognition. At the end of the 2 minutes, the whole image is revealed. Then the image is "turned over" revealing the obverse side of the actual photo print (with the scrawlings, stickers and notes from that physical photographic print's history of publication.). Then a new blurred image appears.

The following is from the catalog text by David Rokeby:

The photographs in any particular box of the Black Star archives send you leaping haphazardly around the globe and across the entire twentieth century. Bursts of coherent focus only emphasize the ruptures of time and space. A movie star, a politician in a sea of hands, a battlefield explosion, poor children in the Warsaw Ghetto, joy-riding teens in California, a landscape of devastation, a race-riot, a worker's demonstration...

This incoherence lead me to experience the archive at another level, to attend to how I was looking at and responding to the images... at how I deciphered and digested them. As I browsed the archives, it seemed to me that I was engaging in a hybrid, creative form of remembering.

Choosing an image to represent my experience with the archive was a challenge. There was no single image that lead me in the direction I have taken for my project. This particular one has grown on me for the way it contains its particular moment, and how it places itself in so squarely in its own time.

Picking up on architecture, technology, clothing, hairstyles, faces and other contextualizing detail, I would locate myself as best I could in the space and time of the photograph. Through these details, I worked my way into the past, synthesizing the memory of an experience that I had never had from of the memories of my own experiences and my knowledge of historical events, famous people, and foreign places. I found myself thinking of visual detail in a way I never had before.

Of all the visible details of the people in these images, the most time- and placeless are the hands. The hands are powerfully evocative yet resolutely universal. There is a part of our brain dedicated to recognizing faces and interpreting facial expression. I wonder if there is another part reserved for the expressions of hands.

In the mid-90's, as part of the process of creating an installation called "The Giver of Names", I created a computer system that attempted to make sense out of what it saw through a camera. I learned the seemingly paradoxical fact that perception progresses better when starting from a blurry indistinct image than from a focussed one. Until the larger forms in the image are grasped, detail is mostly noise, and in fact, most of the detail in our daily visual experience of the world is superfluous and ignored.

I am near-sighted. Until my myopia was identified when I was 6, I was unconsciously learning to negotiate a blurry world of ambiguous forms... inferring, extrapolating and imagining in order to navigate my environment. When I got my first pair of glasses, the sudden explosion of detail was a shock… the experience was almost hallucinogenic.

Photojournalism seeks to inform, and the greatest density of information in an image is held in the detail. Looking at these images involved a kind of seeing that I realized I had not thought much about. I felt my visual system to be in a peculiar state of tension, became aware of unconscious attempts to push the image out of focus, yet at the same time felt my eye jump here and there across the image gathering detail like a bee collecting pollen.

There is very little blur in the Black Star Archives. There is not much play with depth of field. Detail seems to have been paramount. Even action shots are crisp and clear, frozen moment delivered from time. It is really only as we enter the years of television that pictures with significant motion blur appear in the archive.

The eye's ability to see detail varies widely across the retina. One very small section in the centre of the retina called the fovea, occupying a little more of our visual field than the full moon, has much higher visual resolution than the rest of the retina. No other part of our retina has sufficient resolution to read words in a book, which is why your eye is skipping from word to word across this page so that each word temporarily rests in your fovea and can be recognized.

We do not experience this directly because we tend to keep our point of attention in the fovea. We attend to the area of highest resolution and presume equivalent detail everywhere else. Our peripheral vision does not feel blurry, but if we consciously shift our point of attention towards the periphery, we can become aware of both the lack of detail, and our brain's dogged refusal to admit to it. As our eyes dart around, this detail accumulates in a kind of temporary visual memory to provide an apparently richly detailed visual field. We experience vision as an immediate apprehension of the image with all its detail, but this is an elaborate fiction. While the camera captures all the detail in the whole image in an instant, our visual system reads images through a stream of serial identifications over time. There is a temporal narrative underlying our experience of an image.

For my project for the Ryerson Image Centre I want to draw out this process... to intervene in the subconscious process by which we digest images and bring it back into consciousness.

In the work the viewers initially encounter images from the Black Star Collection shrouded in a dense blur. Small areas of the images are slowly brought into focus imitating artificial fovea, drawing out the process of reading the image over an extended period of time. By default, this process unfolds along a predetermined trajectory, but if a visitor points at the image they can guide the focal point around the image field allowing them to peer through the fog into the detail of the image and gradually construct from these glimpses a sense of the people, place or event the photographer has captured.

Technical Asides

It may seem counterintuitive that a blurring process would be a relatively difficult task for a computer, but it is quite difficult for a computer processor to produce something so vague and general. This, in fact, helps illustrate one of the fundamental differences between the operation of a computer and the operation of our brain. A blurring, generalizing process is built into the structure of the visual cortex of the brain. So something that is natural for our vision system is arduous for the computer. Just as our vision system does, my software maintains multiple versions of the photograph with different amounts of blur and detail. By combining these variously blurred images I can produce images that reflect, in an exaggerated way, the variance of detail across our own visual field, and the passage of our very high resolution fovea at the centre of our retinas over the field of an image.


Archival Dialogues, Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, Canada

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Copyright 2014 David Rokeby / Very Nervous Systems / All rights reserved. 11/27/14