One artist who makes for a fantastic example of the application of a keen technological understanding to photographic practice is Trevor Paglen, who received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and also holds a PhD in Geography from UC Berkeley. Paglen often utilizes custom equipment that involves a deep scientific understanding, as well as collaborations with engineers and scientists, and thus necessitates a substantial amount of research and experimentation merely to hone the tools which he then goes on to use to make pictures. For example, the images in the series The Other Night Sky were taken with a specially designed camera platform that makes use of gears controlled by custom computer software that accommodates for the Earth’s rotation in order to depict geosynchronous satellites as sharp pinpoints, rather than trails, as might occur without these minute adjustments being made over the course of an exposure. In order to locate the secret government satellites that were the subject of the project, he made use of other custom software to plan his photographs based on data collected by amateur satellite tracking hobbyists.
Limit Telephotography, another series having to do with government secrecy (actually carried out prior to The Other Night Sky), also depended on optical research and development, since the black sites that Paglen located and photographed for this project were too remote to be captured with consumer equipment from the distances that the artist had to maintain from them. One cannot simply approach a top secret facility and ask to photograph it, which also leads me to the political element in his practice.
In an interview on Dailyserving.com, he gestures toward this when he asks: “What happens if we start thinking about the practice of photography as embodying the critical moment in the work? In other words, what if the “fact” of photographing something is the essential critical point of a work?” Thus, while Paglen does produce images, the process of photographing sights/sites that otherwise go unseen becomes a kind of performance which is key to the radical intellectual activity that is a central conceptual aspect of these two projects. In a way, this performance is actually more important to understanding the work than the pictures themselves, which are basically abstract.
The images in The Other Night Sky are beautiful and those from Limit Telephotography mysterious, but neither necessarily reveals anything in the traditional sense of documentary or reportage projects that seek to uncover truths by illustrating them with cameras. It is precisely in the failure of the images to specifically represent the shadowy world they are referencing that the artist’s point is made. The pictures are not so much evidence of undemocratic operations as metaphorical spaces in which viewers are encouraged to question institutions that are taken for granted because they are never discussed. The entrance into said spaces depends in part on separate knowledge of an interwoven series of significations based on the artist’s use of advanced technologies that are inherently related to those utilized by the secret operations he critiques.