I went to all of the large anti-war protests in New York City between 2002 and 2004 and always brought a camera. But it never worked. The pictures produced by my father’s black Ricoh were neither fuzzy nor pointing in the wrong direction – yet, even worse, they were not even photographs. Later I realized that my snapshots had been nullified by powerful forces emanating from the center of the crowd. So I put down my camera and set out to take a photograph of the crowd.
There is some confusion as to who invented photography, but it is a fact that the Frenchman Nicephore Niepce fixed the first photograph in 1827. It was printed by way of a dead-end process: exposure of Bitumen Judea, an asphalt compound dating back to the time of the Egyptians. This was after a maddening decade spent watching images fade or blacken when they reached the light. These were ghosts, not photos. Bitumen Judea and then silver salts and iodine and mercury vapors began to chemically fix images for posterity, but this was only the fetishization of industry: lenses guiding trained hands which produce a different type of photograph are much older than the 19th century. Go see Vermeer’s View of Delft (in The Hague, Netherlands) and you will know that you’re looking at a photograph. Photography is an ancient and cultish way of seeing.
Crowds are a way of being. Crowds are a unique social space where the self dissolves into the many. The common fear of crowds is understandable because crowds have lynched, burned, turned, trampled without reason.
Elias Canetti wrote that crowds make up a large organism that has bodily urges like an immense appetite for watching things burn. But when I think of crowds, I try to transcend the fear and remember the joy and the human power of the many. These crowds in New York City in 2002-2005 were something else too. They were giant human photographs.
When we went out on the streets to protest the war in Iraq, we were flattening ourselves out into an image – each one of us a single pixel. This image was complete, hot, potent, challenging all other images (in the papers, television, internet) for the title of document-of-what-really-is-going-on. The NYPD made it clear that they considered this giant photograph dangerous. They were trying to mess up the image. A baroque system of metal barriers created a maze miles wide that funneled millions of potential crowd-pixels into separate sections. In this way, the NYPD cranked the resolution of the image way down with big holes everywhere in the photograph and in fact there was only one complete view of the enormous dispersed crowd and this was from high in the sky. Sure enough, NYPD helicopters hovered overhead, no doubt snapping high resolution photographs while any other photo was impossible.
It was August 2004 and the protest against the Republican Convention was coming up. I was soon going to fly off to the Netherlands for a year to study painted panoramas (a nineteenth century virtual reality machine which first made Daguerre famous). It was at that August protest that I had finally perceived the facts described above, and understood the worthlessness of my snapshots. So I shot seven rolls haphazardly in less than an hour and took the film with me to the Netherlands. Why not?
I spent a year staring at those pictures, getting to know intimately every face in the crowd. Meanwhile, history moved on. Bush was re-elected, then grew unpopular, and the war in Iraq raged on, and for a few weeks people only thought of the lost crowds in the tsunami in Southeast Asia. But from my desk in the Netherlands, this is how I finally set out to take a photograph: I laid acetate over the snapshots and traced them with black ink or colored gels, using a tiny brush. In this way I fixed all of the little light-shapesmaking-up-faces into the folds of my brain, and the photograph began to take on a sublimely subjective dimension. Little painting resulted and there are in fact usable black and white negatives and color positives. In my dark room, I used ancient processes of candlelight exposure to create the ghostly photographs on silver gelatin paper. The colored gel paintings exist as little slides, ready to be scrutinized, projected, magnified in search of the truth about what happened in the streets of New York in August of 2004.