Lensless Horizon

“Lenless Horizon” (2021) Series. Top L to R: “Google Data Center. The Dalles, OR.”, “Microsoft Data Center. Quincy, WA.”, “Vantage Data Center. Quincy, WA.”, “Sabey Data Center. Quincy, WA.” Bottom L to R: “Amazon Data Center. Boardman, OR.”, “Amazon Data Center. Boardman, OR.”, “Facebook Data Center, Prineville, OR.”, “Apple Data Center. Prineville, OR.”

This work documents seven data centers dotted across the Pacific Northwest operated by Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. It highlights the usurping of the camera by data centers: in each of these photographs the data centers graphically take the camera’s traditional place at the top of a tripod. As a series these photographs investigate the shifting landscape of images that is moving away from analog photography, and is moving towards a precedence of “network images” in image-making.

Network images are a form of computational photography in which the pre- or post-processing of digital image media takes place in distributed geographies. Network images are defined as a) any image this is uploaded to one of these services, b) any image that uses image analysis models trained in these data centers, or c) any image that borrows the “distributed computing” techniques embodied by the data center. Network images are not defined by the lenses that made them, but by the processing done to them — hence they are “lensless.”

An example of a network image is the image of the black hole in 2019, which is composed of data captured telescopes all over the world and stitched together in software. Zoom calls, AI-generated imagery, online video game realms are also examples of network images. Network images represent a decentralized mode of image-making, indicating a new epistemological understanding of them: images do not behave as products, nouns, or mechanisms, but instead function as processes, verbs, and can seem uncannily alive. To steal from Hito Steyerl, they are “copies in motion”.

The vivacity of these types of network images is best captured in a portrait, rather than a landscape. Hence the orientation of these photographs is vertical, eliciting the traditional format of portraiture photography, allowing the composition to gain a sort of face. The desire to make a portrait of the data centers was inspired by Evan Roth’s Landscape series (2016-Ongoing). Roth’s series captured the material of the internet, revealing it as a jumble of fiver optic cable. Roth described wanting to “stand on top of the internet” and traveled to coastlines where undersea cables transporting internet data would arise from the sea. That same desire to demystify and look into the face of the thing is reflected in these eight photographs.

Upon taking the actual portrait, however, a tension arose. The long focal length and the from-the-ground perspective of this portrait were at odds with one another. The former made the viewer feel distant, while the latter brought them closer to this mysterious place.

The on-the-ground perspective felt important. Jenny Odell’s Satellite Landscapes (2013–2014) is a series which isolates images of essential infrastructure (train systems, data centers, sewage treatment plants) using aerial photography, and very effectively points to the vastness of these sites and how distant we are from them. Satellite Landscapes’s medium of satellite photography mimics the detachment one typically feels from these essential factories. As an exercise in non-aerial perspective, Lensless Horizon places the data center on the horizon. It forces the data centers to be where they actually are: amongst the dirt, the farmland, the underside of gray clouds. Seeing the data centers from this perspective keeps it at human scale.

In contrast to feeling like these data centers are human scale is the use of a zoom lens to mimic the mystique of these places. The compressed distance emphasizes the power and reality distortion field these monuments emit. Similar to how Trevor Paglen’s Limit Telephotography series explored photographing secretive military “black sites” from kilometers away using telescope gadgetry, the distance between camera and subject invokes a standoff with power. The fact that these data centers are atomic and real but still have the same illusory and cultural invisibility of digital places, lends a taboo-ness to the act of capturing these locales: it feels illicit to even look beyond its gated fence.

As a portrait, the formalistic tension of the photograph is between the subject — the tripod — and the ground — the data center. In classical photographic language the subject is foregrounded by being in focus. In this series, though, the subject of the tripod is consistently “backgrounded” by being thrown out of focus, while the data centers in the background are “foregrounded.” The tension of swapping the roles of figure and ground reflects the cultural tension of a blurring of responsibilities between a subject and their environment in part caused by technologies like the data center. The data center, once a passive background environment and a backdrop to the dealings of image-making, is now our subject as an active player in the media ecology. By bringing it fore it can be analyzed, inspected, and treated with the same scrutiny as a human subject posing in front of a camera.

This series investigates network images to be “lensless” in the sense that they do not require a traditional camera to take them, but do indeed require a new set of optics to decode them. Neither a celebration nor a wake, this work simply points to the changing nature of image-making, and thus the shifting grounds on which we can begin to understand it. At a very basic level too it is important to show the literal grounds on which this is occurring.

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A student of Media Ecology. More work at https://www.instagram.com/tywensnotes/

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tywen kelly

tywen kelly

A student of Media Ecology. More work at https://www.instagram.com/tywensnotes/

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