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June 22, 2004

Thinking Outside the Book: the Touchless Automatic Wonder and the Poetics of Randomness

In a world of increasingly elaborate hypertext, Shockwave and hypertext-based visual culture projects, it puzzles me that I don’t come across more imaginative online alternatives (let alone basic equivalents) to the more creative art gallery presentations of photographic projects…diptychs, triptychs, series, etc. I’m not intending to start the old argument about the ”2D” limitations of the online experience…if anything, the “flat and 2D” nature of photographs would seem to be tailor-made for the limitations and the strengths of the web.

Photographs do make up an essential part of the web experience…as presented in online forums, in galleries, personal web sites, photoblogs, hypertext zines, as part of journals and on and on. But so frequently the mode of presentation for images is serial and chronological…so much so that even *I’m* thrown for a loop when I don’t come across the standard “next” and “back” buttons when browsing through a photographer’s portfolio or photoblog online.

Of course, the magic of photographs is their ability to confound our sense of time and order and what we’re seeing, so that even the most linear of presentations with particular artists’ work can become a visual poem. But in most cases online, that magic comes from the images themselves (occasionally in conjunction with text), and the way such images use the characteristics of the photographic medium, as well as the realities and alternate realities they represent on an image by image basis…we evaluate individual images for certain qualities, and series of images around certain broad themes.

In a museum, gallery, or other real world space, though, photographs can be arranged and presented so that juxtapositions, alternative sizings and framings, sequencing in different rooms, creatively built spaces etc can present fresh and alternative ways of seeing and thinking about the artist’s work. Online, web technologies can appropriate or approximate some of these devices, and can even present fresh alternatives…Colors Magazine is one of the best examples in terms of using photography imaginatively around certain themes (they go overboard at times, but they’re no different from artists and art galleries in this respect), and ZoneZero has some interesting uses of multimedia among its vast array of portfolios.

But it seems simpler, safer, more direct for most photographers to do things by the book, literally…browsing through online portfolios are the equivalent of flipping through page after page of an artist’s book, one image per page.

I’ve recently come across a couple of photographers’ work that present, in an old-fashioned, non-Flash(y) way, interesting images and bodies of work made even more engaging, puzzling and (at times) resonant through non-chronological juxtapositions, through reference to other bodies of work, and even through outright random image generation.

* Lewis Koch is a Wisconsin based photographer who is responsible for the classic Touchless Automatic Wonder, one of the more interesting and deceptively simple uses of the Web in presenting a body of work (and a general aesthetic) online creatively.


Diptych excerpt from Touchless Automatic Wonder


Lewis Koch diptych, from Touchless Automatic Wonder

It’s a bit confusing to navigate Koch's online work at first and absorb the mood – but the key is clicking on the *eye* symbol between the next and back arrows whenever it appears (see the lower right of the first image above) – doing so brings up a reference to an installation where the photograph appeared, or sometimes to a different set of photographs. It's fascinating to see how an image was first displayed in one of Koch's creative installations, and how it gets recontextualized in this electronic photoessay.

The presentation is not perfect…the view of the installations that he cross-references online is pretty small, which Koch tries to overcome by occasionally allowing the opportunity to magnify an image to see more detail, but the magnification doesn’t do much to help. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Touchless a lot, and it’s worth it to make the trip through the series twice (or more)…you’ll see things the second or third time around you didn’t see before, and a certain appealing logic to the sequencing and digressions becomes apparent. Found text, road signs, and even peculiar compositions and light form a sort of hieroglyphics that provide a glimpse into a different experience of the mundane and the everyday. His gallery's statement says as much:

"...Koch's work has been described as remarkable and mesmeric, relentless, and as a kind of hallucinatory documentary. Throughout his work, he expresses a desire to organize disparate experience into a unified whole to give form to the fragmented aspects of what we call reality. Drawing upon elements of sculpture, text, architecture, performance and readymades, his prints and assemblages call attention to the mundane and unremarkable elements of everyday life, to recognize these as the building blocks of daily existence."

Koch isn't using gimmickry in presentation to elevate mediocre images to something greater than the sum of their parts...he produces high quality black and white work that's more ostensibly "conventional" and that sells (such as this gallery of images), and he produces stunning individual images like this one of the Statue of Liberty...but his metier really seems to be the creative installation and photo-essay incorporating found text and images, such as this short project.

* Barbara Crane is a Chicago based photographer and professor who’s taught photography at the Art institute of Chicago for over twenty years, and is an even more engaging and maddening example of a prolific artist marching to the beat of her own drummer and using the web to chart all the byways she’s taken in random and peculiar ways. From her artist statement:

"I photograph the real world attempting to represent various subject matter differently than that in my previous work. I am interested in a super reality and concurrently an abstraction of reality. The subject matter is of limited relevance to me; the transformation of it into another experience is of great importance."

A first browse through her massive, sprawling website leads one to quickly jump to the conclusion that the website is either the record of 1) an artistic genius and her protean genre-hopping and experimentation, or 2) an interesting artist whose work is inadequately pruned and self-indulgently dumped in mass quantities on a haphazardly organized and frustrating site. I think the truth resides mainly with point number 1, with a little bit of 2 -- she's a major artist who deserves a wider following, but as generous as her website is, I wonder at times whether it serves her as well as it could.

I’m inclined to be generous and credit Crane with an amazing track record of creativity, because there is a fair amount of thoughtful photography and fascinating projects on her site. To be fair to Crane, the website is the creation of a particularly enthusiastic student and friend of hers, Philippe De Jonckheere...but with that said, one of the best sections of the site, which serves as an excellent introduction to Crane and her methods and aesthetics is De Jonckheere's long, rambling, affectionate essay on his experiences with Crane as a teacher and fellow artist. (This part of the site doesn't always load properly, so you may want to come back and try if the server is acting up, because it is a good read)

There are multiple ways to navigate Crane's site and peruse work from over two dozen projects. The most direct and orderly way is to go to a virtual desktop/hard drive and browse through her file cabinet and project folders, which gives one the ability to view the individual images in sequence...as a viewing experience, sifting through a virtual folder is a bit clunky, though. (The operative metaphor is that of tracking the labyrinthine paths of the artist's creativity through voyeuristically plumbing her hard drive, which includes not only Crane's projects but links to the webmaster's own projects, such as a journal on Marcel duchamp).

A more interesting and free-form, but also more frustrating way to view the images is to go to the site map and try to click on various projects -- it helps if you read along with the tutorial (though the less patient may be tempted to throttle the webmaster for making such a tutorial necessary). There's a navigation bar that usually sits alongside the featured image on a given page, and if you click around randomly, images from other projects will randomly appear in turn...if you want to go with a more focused presentation of images, you can pay close attention to the URLs that appear in your browser when you mouse over the navigation bar, and click on the URL for the next image in the series.

This all sounds more trouble than it's worth, and I have to admit that I've probably absorbed only about half of what the site has to offer even after multiple visits...it doesn't help that the website seems to be a labor of love that isn't supported by a reliable server. But as someone who's lived in Chicago for a number of years, I'm impressed at how Crane has taken the most basic subject matter -- snapshots of Taste of Chicago festival goers, Loop architecture, commuters, Albanian soccer players, field mushrooms -- and turned them into found art and collages through a diverse array of organizing metaphors and presentation techniques.



Barbara Crane website images

Crane is a fascinating individual as well as artist, and though she's retired as a professor, she continues to practice her art, including working with digital, and she's even found love late in life with another artist (though this weird random discovery through an internet search probably wasn't intended to be part of her aesthetic of randomness).

Despite an intermittently successful site and a cranky server, Crane is worth checking out in depth if you have a taste for experimentation and alternate modes of presentation. I will probably pick up her (out of print) book if I can find it at a reasonable price, or find a copy at a local library. She is quite a find, in my opinion.

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You are right that photogalleries look all the same and miss some fresh and new ideas which use the avalible media. But I do think the alot of these artistic sites do miss the ease of navigation and are very bad designed from the point of usability.

This might be what the author/creator want from the website, trying to disorientate the visitior, but does the visitor wants that?

If you visit a website of a photographer, what do you want then? You want to see his work.

If you want to design an artistic lookin website with will be accepted and good viewable by your public you should pay attention who differend kind of characters (the visitors) will interact with you website.

It is easy to say, well I understand my website, so everybody will understand it. But would an older person understand it, or some kid that wants to know more about photographing and styles for his school project. They probbebly will get lost in these not-well-thought artistic sites.

I do agree that there is much more possible with the avalible media like flash/shockwave and even with plain html.

But it is hard to keep all your visitors satisfied when you are going artistic. Aspacialy if you are an artist and not a web / interaction designer that totaly understands how people interact with computers/websites.

Emiel Elgersma (3th year interaction design student)

BTW: For my comming project I will going to create an artistic website with multimedia projects with 2 other students, I will let you know about it when it's online.

Posted by: Emiel at Jun 22, 2004 4:28:52 AM

Hi Emiel, thanks for stopping by and commenting. You're right that most sites (particularly those that use Flash) claim artistic license for a "creative" presentation of images and end up being navigational disasters. In particular, sites that turn the process of viewing images into a videogame by hiding icons and making you find them, or moving icons around rapidly expecting the viewer to chase them down, which is so user-unfriendly I can't believe they expect potential clients to be impressed.

A lot of the sites you refer to are not truly creative, but merely clever/annoying in packaging the content a little differently. They're not creative in any aesthetic sense, as they usually rely on the typical categories "portraits" "fine art" "still life", etc.

The whole subject of creative (but user-friendly) viewing of a portfolio through thoughtful web design deserves more insightful discussion than I can provide. I chose to talk about some different strategies for presentation in this post because the work of Koch and Crane motivated some thoughts on the subject...and more importantly, their work is interesting and often transcends categories, which warrants some creativity in presentation.

But as I said, in the case of Crane, her webmaster took some liberties in the name of creativity that ultimately result in frustration. It's a fallacy that presentation strategies for art in certain genres must literally possess the characteristics of that genre... so that surrealistic art is presented in a random and confusing way, for example, or photodocumentary work is presented in a "straight" umembellished (and often unpolished and amateurish) manner.

But there is room for (certain)artists and viewers to be served by a more creative presentation that allows images to "talk" to one another and suggest different contexts and meanings, which was the point of my post. The majority of photographers, I agree, should just let people see their stuff without a lot of distractions. I look forward to seeing your upcoming project.

Posted by: Robert at Jun 22, 2004 9:10:40 AM


I am Philippe De Jonckheere, the webmaster of Barbara Crane's webiste. You seem to have much frustration in visiting Barbara's site, to a point where you question its relevance in showing Barbara's work.

I would like to respond to this opinion of yours.

I am a former student of Barbara, and I have become a friend of Barbara over the years. I am a photographer myself, as well as a writer (though you may not see that from my broken english at times, apologies for that). I have also designed a few websites. This site was built in cooperation with Barbara from the very beginning. Barbara has given me very few indications as to what she wanted as a website, she stated that she wanted to trust me. I think she did that because she knows I have an inside knowledge of her work.

My aim in buidling ths site was to give a few keys in understading the work of Barbara, which mostly articulates around directions such as random (or chance), series (and not singled-out images), forms, and playfulness with the images.

To illustrate this, I have at times used random scripts that lead the visitor from one page of the site to other parts of the site which may seem unrelated at first, but yet which always hold some linkage. This is for random.

The notion of series of images is extremly important in the way Barbara works. She never produces single images but series of images obtained along the same lines of concept. To illustrate this you always get the opportunity to see other images from the same series for every single image of the site, which enables you to see the concept at work.

To give form the better place in the site, you will notice that the captions are as small and discreet as possible and that some efforts have been made in order to serialize the forms.

What appears to be playfulness in Barbara's work is in fact the result of a ever so curious look on things and constant research. This site often times gives you the opportunity to struggle a bit hoping to make the visitor feel the difficult ways of creating new forms.

When the site was finally ready, I gave its adress to Barbara who has reviewed it entirely, and she wrote me back stating that she was extremly happy about its outlook and the vision it gave on her work. She felt that it was very faithfull to her work. I think that part of this contentement of hers is due to the fact that it is a work in depth and therefore it is demanding on the viewer's part. What is the arm in that?

I very much regret that you did not notice that the form of the site was in balance with its content. Please do not go to my own website ( http://www.desordre.net ) you would indeed find it way too complicated!

I apologize for the hosting (it should be better thess days than it has been, it is hosted in France with a reliable and professionnal host, however seen from the other side of the world may sometimes make things a bit slower, do think that it is the same to us whan we visit american sites).

Yours respectfully

Philippe De Jonckheere

Posted by: Philippe De Jonckheere at Jun 26, 2004 2:43:06 PM

Hi Philippe, thank you very much for your detailed reply. While I admit to struggling at times with the navigation of Barbara's site, I acknowledge that some of the issues may come from my inability to adjust to the demands the site places on the viewer, as part of the experience of appreciating Barbara's work. And only you and Barbara can best determine how to put the work out there.

But my expression of "frustration" lies in factoring the experience of navigating Barbara's site within the experience of viewing images generally online. Obviously, gallery installations and even photo books have employed strategies that challenge the viewer in presenting images, and it's up to the viewer to adjust and find different ways of seeing and even living with the disorientation and (ostensible) lack of logic. But at some level, there's still the physical reality of gallery space and the pages and binding of a book to provide bounds on the experience...these physical experiences (turning the pages of a book, walking through a gallery) also require a certain commitment from the viewer that ensures (in most cases) that the viewer will wrestle (for at least a short while) with unconventional/creative presentation strategies from an artist.

Online, there is even more opportunity for creativity with hypertext linking and other internet technologies, but also more opportunity for disorientation, and there's a more fickle audience to contend with. My reaction, which is somewhat conservative and possibly quite unenlightened, is that the threads that connect the images are far from apparent on a first or even second visit, and the reality of navigation for many users, who may fall too often into random and repetitive loops of images that frustrate more than enlighten, will be to click away.

But if you and Barbara have determined that the site that exists now is the best possible one for the presentation of her work, I can respect that. I certainly wouldn't want to see you compromise Barbara's vision or spoon-feed the site visitor, but to the degree that there are connections that are always present, even in the most seemingly random of linkages, I wonder whether these connections couldn't be hinted at with just a bit more clarity in some cases, or even explained a bit more in the tutorial (not all, just a few representative ones).

I also admit that it's a personal preference of mine not to have to pay close attention to HTML strings in order to make sure I'm proceeding through a series in a reasonable order...I prefer that the viewing of images be done with the technology being largely transparent. Perhaps I'm being too linear and literal in my approach to the website, but having said that, I found the site a bit easier to work through and more enjoyable on my most recent visit.

I want to make it clear that I admire the effort you put forward in the service of her vision, and navigation frustrations aside, I still have a strong sense of the uniqueness of her vision from the website, and the interesting and rewarding relationship you have with her as your teacher and friend (I really enjoyed the essay you wrote).

Posted by: Robert at Jun 26, 2004 11:22:32 PM

I don't know if your site is still active-- it seems like quite a while since your last blog, but some time ago (6/21/04) you wrote at length about one of my web projects, Touchless Automatic Wonder. Very good to read your thoughts on it. More recently, I have completed another extensive project for the web, one which 'virtualizes' an installation I made in 2006; it can be seen in its labyrinthian entirety at--


I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this latest work if you are still out there and writing.

Regards, LK

Posted by: Lewis Koch at Sep 20, 2007 3:22:24 PM