State of the Art: Ed Kashi Recontextualizes Photojournalism In the "Enigma Room"

By David Schonauer   Thursday September 19, 2019

Is coding the future of photojournalism?

“Ever since digital cameras, and particularly ever since Hipstamatic and Instagram, photography is coding — it’s pixels and zeros and ones,” says acclaimed VII agency photojournalist Ed Kashi. “The iPhone isn’t a great camera because of its great glass or great mechanics. It’s all algorithms and software.”

About two years ago, Kashi and his studio staff began looking through his archive with the idea of producing a new book. “We had prints on the wall and we were thinking about where the visuals fit together, in terms of the mood and the subject matter,” he recalls. “And then we all went to the Whitney Museum as a kind of daylong outing, just as a way to refresh the mind and eye. And we saw a video installation there, and we looked at each other like, ‘That’s what we’re going to do.’”

Out went the book idea. Kashi and his staff — Mike Curry, Brenda Bingham and Rachel Dennis — spent a year creating The Enigma Room, an experimental video project on view at this year’s Photoville festival.

The video, notes Kashi at Vimeo, “weighs truth against reality, searching for where they intersect and diverge.” The work blends photos, video, and audio to translate images from the photographer’s archive. “Abstract connections link images across time and place,” notes Kashi at Vimeo. “This dreamlike reverie explores the physical and transcendent elements of life through cycles of chaos, calm, celebration, and rebirth.”

“We basically wanted to use coding to decontextualize my work,” Kashi tells PPD. “Some years ago I published a book called Three, based on triptychs. In some ways this is a similar attempt to take work that was created in a journalistic, documentary context, and pull it out of that and create something completely new and different.”

The installation at Photoville is an immersive experience. “You come into a dark room, and we brought benches and an air conditioning unit so people wouldn’t be hot. We wanted it to a place where when you enter, you’re entering a different world.” The work unfolds on three curved screens (Kashi and his staff used MadMapper projection mapping software to plot the images on the screens). “It’s very intimate, and when you come in you really transcend reality,” Kashi says.

Using Java language, Kashi’s staff developed what they call “the Enigma engine.”

“Basically we came up with five or six effects that we applied to the material,” Kashi says. “About 10 or 15 percent of the images in the video are untouched by coding.”

“This is not about the ethics of photojournalism,” Kashi adds. “This is about how do we play with the visual language we have now — with computational coding as part of that language.”


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