from frieze, march/april 1996
Time for Telephotos: The New Politics of American Visual Space
Americans would do anything for community. It's the compound-adjectival base of choice as in community-based policing, community-building programs, and community-activist art. Open the newspaper or the online news service any day and you'll find mention of communities of color, online communities, academic communities, and even the gay community. The architectural wonder of the year isn't a skyscraper, or even a mall, but a planned community, Disney's permanent residence turn-of-the-century small town, Celebration. What's obvious from all the name calling isn't so much the overabundance of community but the obsession with it, an obsession that speaks more to the lack of community than to its overwhelming presence. to many, community is the cure to what ails the country—in America's case, everything from violent crime to budgetary mismanagement. community is what we believe our society once had, but has no more.
In its usual, weirdly indirect fashion, photographic technology has come up with its own answer fort this obsession with community—an explosion in the use of telephoto lenses. Telephotos perform the visual equivalent of getting to know someone—they bring people across the street into acute, visual proximity. Representationally speaking. telephoto lenses diminish the spaces that separate people form their neighbors, their children, their lawmakers, even their pets. Reducing interpersonal space played the largest role in the first telephoto device, developed in 1891 by T.R. Dallmeyer for use as a portrait lens. IN the '20s, Hollywood began perfecting zoom lenses for the wide variety of shooting situations called for in a script. Innovations named Zoomar and Vario Glaukar took telephotos into the '60s when Super-8 cameras made telephoto-zoom technology possible in the amateur market. When video camcorders went mass market, they swept cheap, dependable, electronic telephoto capability into every area of photographic technology. Once the exclusive province of sports and wildlife photographers, FBI agents and CIA spy satellites, telephotos and telephoto zoom functions can now be found on all but the least expensive point-and-shoot cameras.
Unlike the wide-angle lenses that once dominated mass-market photo equipment, telephotos don't depict much of the subject's surroundings—there simply isn't enough room in the frame. By omitting the setting, telephotos tend to promote a view of human activity in which cultural and social environment plays almost no part. Besides isolating human actions, telephotos isolate photographers behind their lenses. Long-range viewing dispenses with the messy formality of social and physical interaction between photographer and subject—the release forms, the bickering, the posing, the trial and error of picture making and social encounter—the communal activities that occasionally transform photographic encounters into fleeting collaborations. Telephotos concentrate the photographic balance of power in the camera operator, making it easy for photographers to depict a subject without the subject's knowledge or permission, much less participation. Instead of engaging in the negotiated social relationships present in even the most common of family snapshots, telephoto photographers enter their pictures only as ghost images produced by the solitary manipulation of their subjects.
So the tragedy of telephotos is that while they embody an intense yearning for human connection and social interaction, their use isolates the photographer from the hard work and mysterious happenstance of shared enterprise and compromised demands—the cornerstones of both photography and community. In place of community and the negotiation of difference comes conformity and exclusivity, whether in the shape of ultra-nationalism or the playlists of alternative rock radio. How better to establish conformity in visual terms than by surveillance—for the public good, of course. Surveillance is nothing new, but like some trickle-down representational system, cheap telephotos have now made it possible for everyone's next-door-neighbor to act our the paranoia, naked competition, and puritanical fear of physical contact that govern social relations today. Surveillance and the oppressive values it exposes have become part of the visual vernacular.
Not surprisingly, American culture is saturated with telephoto images that reveal why community remains such an unattainable obsession. The most famous is the ragged, shocked enlargement of the Rodney King beating, as the video onlooker zooms in for a clearer view of the violence. Telephoto in the public interest becomes simply prurient in TV sitcoms such as The Naked Truth, in which Tea Leoni plays a paparazzo who regularly bares large parts of her body to get celebrity sightings so that she can use her shapely telephoto. But the most potent example is "Dirty Windows," Merry Alpern's recent collection of photographs of a bathroom in a Wall Street sex club. Stationing herself across the street from the restroom, Alpern's images depict truncated exchanges of money, condoms, and sex. Besides documenting how far underground the creation of conformity has driven physical intimacy, Alpern's photos also demonstrate the state of the social contract between photographer and subject in America. It's a no-win situation governed by fear: Alpern's subjects fear being seen and Alpern fears being caught looking.
Janet Paddock and Alfred Stephens discovered the new relationship between telephoto photography and community the hard way when they moved into a small Florida condominium complex complete with communal swimming pool. One afternoon, they arrived home early and made love on the ground floor of their condo. In the heat of passion, they left the window-blind open, permitting a neighbor to secretly videotape the entire incident with a telephoto zoom. The neighbor took the tape the the police who arrested the couple on felony charges of lewd and lascivious conduct in front of a child. (Apparently some youngsters might have been able to see the incident from the condominium's swimming pool area, but in actuality, the kids were having too much fun to look.) Publicity followed recriminations, jobs were lost, and community forsaken. Two weeks after the arraignment, Janet Paddock attempted suicide. With the communist threat in check, it seems people the world over are now equipping their own secret governments to make the world safe for community. Howdy neighbor!