July 24, 2020

Photography as Pornography

[Andrey Fomenko]

I was soon provided with new and abundant food for thought in the same vein. I found Roman and Vitaly on the edge of the chink and traveled with them for three days: first, we toured the Boszhira, then we went to the Valley of Castles. Our movements were determined by Vitaly’s photographic interests, and he was only interested in spectacular views, mostly at sunrise and sunset. He was indifferent to the space-time intervals between these moments. He was equally indifferent to the reality (perhaps I should the word in quotation marks) concealed in the landscapes he photographed—the geological, biological, historical, and human reality. Our trip was a quest for the right places to take photographs, which Vitaly had plotted in advance using images found on the Web, and the word “taking” suited this procedure to a tee. Once, at the dawn of photography, the technique was regarded by some as a kind of exfoliation of the upper layer of things. (According to Nadar, Balzac held this superstitious view.) The most archaic concept of the medium was the most accurate: the image seemed to be detached from reality, the landscape was removed from the place, as clothes were removed from the body. Vitaly showed me some of his previous works: they were spectacular, ultra-detailed digital photos of landscapes in the United States and Iceland, brought to the desired polish using Photoshop. It was a kind of simultaneous production and consumption of landscape as image, more intense than the reality outside the frame, which had been reduced to its numerical equivalent—the number of hours or kilometers separating the visual attractions. Well-known theories such as the society of the spectacle, the society of total simulation, and the loss of “aura” in the age of technical reproduction (ideas I had always imagined as abstractions whose reality more was theoretical than actual) suddenly became strikingly visible.

I am exaggerating a little, of course. Vitaly had other interests, but surprisingly they reinforced the main impression I had of him. Thus, I found out that Vitaly (who headed a branch of a large company) had taken a “basic” initiation course at a Tibetan monastery. Religion, too, has become a consumer product: New Age-style “spirituality” is packaged in different quantities depending on the needs of customers.

These impressions reached their acme, as it were, when Vitaly launched the drone in the Valley of Castles. The high-resolution camera affixed to the drone showed a view of the terrain that was nearby but nearly inaccessible, at least for a person without no mountaineering equipment or climbing skills. (The moment when the drone, at the remote control’s behest, returned to the departure point and hovered a few meters above the ground, against a backdrop of bare rock, reminded me of a scene from a sci-fi movie). There was something akin to pornography in that live video broadcast.

But how was I different from that photographer? Was I not taking pictures of the same views and from the same places as he did? Was I not traveling from one point to another, filling the gaps between them with arrogant meditations like the one above, but more often with the usual inarticulate jumble of fragmented phrases, memories, and anticipations? Were not my own travels a safari hunt for photographic trophies, a production/consumption of images, the gradual destruction of things by removing layer after layer from them? Even if I fancied a different style of hunting and was armed with an old-fashioned weapon (a film camera) was there a fundamental difference?