The Reality Effect

One of the recurring themes of photography is the the extreme efforts by some people to squeeze out the maximum “proof-content” of a photograph.

Accident Investigation Site, shown recently at the Metropolitan Museum, is a new take on this idea. It is almost six metres long (19 feet), a one-to-one scale image of a section of the Santa Monica Freeway. The photographer, Miles Coolidge, used a large format digital camera to photograph sections of the road surface then digitally stitched them together to create a facsimile in real size. It looks like a section of road lifted up onto the wall. The detail is impressive, not far off what your eye would see if you got down on all fours. Your eye roams, looking for clues in the vast terrain of the print but all it finds is cigarette butts, leaves and stains but the act of looking reminds you that the surface is abstract a bit like a Jackson Pollock painting.

A photograph is not the thing photographed. That is the paradox of photography. You tend to look through a photo onto the thing that was in front of the camera. The print itself, in a way, is not there, it’s just a window. Obviously, this illusion doesn’t occur with paintings, except momentarily in the case of trompe l’oeil.

This issue of the ambivalent physical presence of the print surface in photography is the subject of Surface Tension, the exhibition where Coolidge’s photograph was shown. The wall label neatly describes his effect: “Resolutely flat yet teeming with detail, the picture stands as a sly monument to the concreteness of the photographic object.”