three ways cultural geographers can start to think about digital culture

I’ve been working on the lecture I’m giving at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of  British Geographers at the end of August, and I want to enthuse about three books which I thought were great first time round, and are all even better second time round as I re-read them to write the lecture.  They all look at the pervasiveness of mass online engagement, and they all argue strongly and convincingly that the last twenty years have seen profound changes in popular culture, and they all conclude from this that scholars interested in understanding that culture really need to engage with that pervasiveness, with the online and with the mass.  A point that most cultural geographers seem to have missed, and which is my lecture in a nutshell.  So a big thanks to:

John Hartley and his book Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies.  This book goes first because it’s one of the very few academic books that have made me laugh out loud (because it’s deliberately funny, that is).  I posted about it here after I read it the first time.  It’s a very persuasive argument for looking at populations of images rather than single images.

Helen Grace and her book Culture, Aesthetics and Affect: The Prosaic Image.  The first chapter is one of those where you start making notes and realise that you’re pretty much copying out the whole thing.  An amazing and passionate argument for those populations of banal images being vital new form of mass cultural expression, written quite specifically from Hong Kong.

Nana Verhoeff and her book Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation, which you can download for free here.  Like Grace, Verhoeff explores the pervasiveness of digital screens, large and small, in the urban everyday, and argues for a new kind of spatiality that’s performed when we navigate through the spaces they offer us.


dust and smears: materialising digital images part 2

I just came across another take on the task of rendering digital imagery more material, more messy and more fallible.  This is a photography project by Meggan Gould, reported by Wired magazine here.  It’s volume 5 of a series of works called Surface Tension, and it’s simply called iPad.

one of the iPad images from the Surface Tension series by Meggan Gould

one of the iPad images from the Surface Tension series by Meggan Gould

What Meggan has done is wait for the screens of her family’s iPads to get all smeared and sticky with fingerprints, then scanned the screen and manipulated the image to remove the screen’s content.  The result are images of what is usually completely invisible, and designed to be so, as Timo Arnell points out here: the touchscreen.  The screen is made visible by the way that the images show only the traces of the taps and swipes of the fingers that have touched the screen: there’s no sign of the fingers themselves, or of the what the fingers were were getting the screen to show.  No bodies and no content, these images are pure interface.

Except, of course, that they are themselves digital images, and there’s no sign on Meggan’s beautifully designed website that their viewers are in turn being invited to smear her images (and our screens).  There’s an interesting double-play, then, in these images, in the way that they simultaneously challenge and reaffirm the immateriality of the touchscreen.  Intriguing.

dust settles on visualisations of failed urban futures

I doubt anyone really believes in the visions of future urban spaces that are offered to us in the digital visualisations of new urban developments.  Nonetheless, there’s something strangely haunting about those visualisations when they start to look tattered and battered, dusty and faded, when they’re obscured by scaffolding and have other posters and signs stuck onto them.  The glossy futures they picture look best on screens; once inserted into the urban spaces they are meant to show (the future of), their seductive gloss immediately starts to tarnish.

I’ve already blogged about one artist who’s worked on the failure of these images to deliver their promise in the very spaces of their imagination: Randa Mirza and her project Beirutopia. Randa takes photographs of digital visualisations in actual urban spaces, and carefully includes signs of those spaces in her photograph – tatty roads and bashed-up cars, real bits of trees and cars and scooters – as well as photographing billboards with their images torn and sagging.

Now, thanks to Olga Smith, I’ve discovered another photographic project also working to disrupt the perfect finishes of those computer generated images.  This one is by photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg, and was on show in London earlier this year.  You can see some photographs of the installation here.  They look in particular at CGIs of a project in London for a 300m high office block, now on hold, paused at seven storeys.


Olga has interviewed Rut about the project for Photomonitor.  As Rut notes, “dust unmasks the fantasy of the CGI once it is placed in the public territories of the city. The CGI becomes hostage to the materiality of the city, which very quickly covers the images with dust, dirt, pollution. So the CGI’s smooth surface becomes stained”, and her images play with that staining, its materiality and also its temporality. And in the way many of them stare close up at the surface of the CGIs and play with how various kinds light fall on the CGIs in situ, they also strike me as emphasising the way the CGIs carry a certain theatricality: they provide a backdrop to the staging of urban life.

Rut’s work thus serves explores the specific materiality of these sorts of images when they appear in urban spaces – their placement, their lighting, their relation to the urban atmosphere – and suggests that in all these aspects, the visualisations, for all their embedding deep in the property markets of contemporary capitalism, are also oddly vulnerable.

2014 ESRC research methods festival highlights visual research methods again

Interesting to note that the sixth ESRC Research Methods Festival, which runs between 8-10 July 2014 in Oxford, is once again featuring visual research methods in one of its plenary lectures.  Douglas Harper is Professor of Sociology at Duquesne University and is the current chair of the International Visual Sociology Association – and, of course, the author of several key texts on visual research methods.

Digital Snaps: The New Face of Photography

digital snaps1

I got my copy of a great new collection edited by Jonas Larsen and Mette Sandbye last week, called Digital Snaps.  Lots of the chapters in the book explore all sorts of uses of digital snaps, and I have a chapter in it arguing that much of what family photography achieves happens regardless of whether the camera used is analogue or digital.

This might be rather a conservative argument in the face of Martin Lister‘s very interesting opening chapter on the way so many digital images now are overlooked, rarely looked at or never looked at, and how that offers a profound challenge to how we understand photography as a medium (an argument I completely agree with!).  However, in my defence, I do think that family photography is a very particular form of photographic practice, which remains somewhat distinct from the use of photos on social networking sites that provides the main grist for Martin’s argument.

is it a bird, is it a plane, is it an as-yet-uncategorisable form of imagery?

The newspapers here in the UK carried a story last weekend about a new bridge across the Thames in London.  It’s been designed by Thomas Heatherwick Studios, and the news stories all carried various images of what the bridge would look like when it was built.  The most commonly used was this one:

london bridge

Apart from the fact that it looks uncannily like the planet inhabited by the rich and privileged in Neill Blomkamp’s recent film Elysium, this image was both taken entirely for granted in the press coverage and caused some small difficulty.  None of the newspapers I read raised any questions about what it shows or how it shows it, despite it being bathed in a un-London light – oddly blue, cold and artificial, which is why it reminded me of Elysium – and it also having a very odd London skyline behind it (surely St Paul’s wouldn’t look that big – and where are all the very tall buildings now scattered throughout the City and beyond?).

At the same time, none of the newspapers seemed to agree on what kind of image this picture actually was.  It was called variously a “photograph”, which is patently isn’t, although some photographs were probably involved in its making; an “artist’s impression”, which is probably more like it; and an “image”, which is definitely playing it definitionally safe.  This uncertainty about what this – well, image, is, is interesting.  It suggests that for all their increasing visibility, digital visualisations of things that don’t exist – whether that’s orbiting space stations or bridges – are still puzzling objects.  We don’t yet know how to label them.  Which might be to the good; because if we don’t know quite what they are yet, we might be able to question the glossy smoothness with which so many of them present urban futures to us.

the methods of Visible Mending

I’ve just been browsing through the book Visible Mending: Everyday Repairs in the South West by Steven Bond, Caitlin DeSilvey and James Ryan.  It was published by Uniformbooks earlier this year and is the result of a research project exploring workplaces in the south west of England where people repair things.


The book is beautifully designed and produced and full of Steven Bond’s fantastic photographs, which linger on the objects and spaces and light of the workplaces the research team visited.  As Caitlin and James say in their essay that concludes the book, the photographs really do focus attention on the richly textured materialities of these places, and suggest the intimate relations between them and the people who work there, even though very few of the photographs picture people.

That concluding essay is also ponders nicely on the use of photographs in the research project: how they were taken and what was done with them.  I particularly like the reflection on the materiality of the photographs in the exhibitions that Steven, Caitlin and James curated.  They note that the photos seemed to sort themselves into thematic groups, and the researchers went with that clustering, and also decided to print the photos on small metal sheets that could be picked up from the tiny shelves on which they rested in the gallery and held and explored (how does a photo get printed on to aluminium?); the essay also explores the different forms of text that accompany the photographs, in the book, in the guide to the exhibitions and on the project’s blog.  There’s a strong sense of the academic craft in all this, of methods as labour and work.  Lovely.

On the relation between ‘visual research methods’ and contemporary visual culture

For the first time in what feels like a long while, I have a new paper out.  It’s called “On the relation between ‘visual research methods’ and contemporary visual culture”, and it’s available on The Sociological Review‘s Early View page here.  This is the abstract:

One of the most striking developments across the social sciences in the past decade has been the growth of research methods using visual materials.  It is often suggested that this growth is somehow related to the increasing importance of visual images in contemporary social and cultural practice.  However, the form of the relationship between ‘visual research methods’ and ‘contemporary visual culture’ has not yet been interrogated.  This paper conducts such an interrogation, exploring the relation between ‘visual research methods’ – as they are constituted in quite particular ways by a growing number of handbooks, reviews, conference and journals – and contemporary visual culture – as characterised by discussions of ‘convergence culture’.  The paper adopts a performative approach to ‘visual research methods’.  It suggests that when they are used, ‘visual research methods’ create neither a ‘social’ articulated through culturally-mediated images, nor a ‘research participant’ competency in using such images.  Instead, the  paper argues that the intersection of visual culture and ‘visual research methods’ should be located in their shared way of using images, since in both, images tend to be deployed much more as communicational tools than as representational texts.  The paper concludes by placing this argument in the context of recent discussions about the production of sociological knowledge in the wider social field.

I submitted the first version of this paper to the Review in June 2011.  Yep, two years and four months ago.  The delay was caused by the slowest refereeing process I have ever experienced.  You know who you are.

photography, motherhood and identity

There’s a great exhibition on at The Photographers’ Gallery and the Foundling Museum in London at the moment – it runs til 5 January.  It’s called Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity, and it “aims to challenge long held stereotypes and sentimental views about motherhood”.


I visited The Photographers’ Gallery at the weekend to see the photographs there.  I’ve blogged before about the way that this gallery erases any discussion of the production of photography by hanging photographic prints with minimal commentary on its white walls; on this occasion though, for me at least, the photographs seemed to hold their own against that abstracted context and were for the most part very powerful.  Most spoke to me about the complexities of mothering, and how being a mother is also in part an erasure of the person you were before you gave birth.

I also went to a talk with three of the photographers in the show: Elinor Carucci, Ana Casas Broda and Katie Murray.  They were all very articulate about the difficulties of being a photographer and a mother – not least the practical difficulties of taking the kind of photographs they wanted to make of themselves with their children.  Both Elinor and Ana said that of course they used digital cameras for this work, analogue cameras just took too much time to set up and with kids you had to take the shot as fast as you could.  The talk, then, focussed very much on what the exhibition studiously ignored: the labour of making images.

One thing that did strike me about the exhibition was that all the work was very far from the kind of traditional ‘family photography’ that I’ve written about elsewhere.  The work was in very large format, or in rigorous series, or shown in vitrines, or way too explicit for the family album.  One of the arguments of my book, though, is that even the much less aesthetically impressive family snaps that so many women take of their kids might also be seen as expressing certain forms of ambivalence: in mothers’ insistence on taking them; in the way they are gathered together and narrated by the mother; the way they are looked at and then put away by the mother.  Perhaps not in what they show, but rather in what is done with them, family photos also are less sentimental than is often imagined.