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Signs of the Sky, Signs of the Times: Photography as Double Agent
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Dr John Beck
Theory, Culture & Society
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From Alfred Stieglitz to Trevor Paglen, photographs of the sky have engaged with the relationship between abstraction and representation. This article argues that Stieglitz’s attempt to convert the ‘natural’ abstraction of the sky into the ‘cultural’ abstraction of the modernist image opens a space through which recent photographers have moved to use the sky photograph as a means of interrogating issues of openness and concealment that are at once aesthetic and political. The invisibility of signs of military-industrial power embedded within airspace is, in Richard Misrach’s and Paglen’s photographs, registered but not exactly shown, since the capacity of the photograph to reveal the unseen is challenged by the effectiveness of contemporary modes of concealment. What is shown in these images, however, is the condition of hiddenness itself, which is encountered by Misrach and Paglen not only through the abstraction of the sky photographs but by situating those images within a discursive field -- through the use of titles, captions, and an explication of working methods -- that regrounds the atmospheric as a spectacular function of power’s open secret.
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