The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel

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If you want to understand photography, all you have to do is to go online and look at how people use it. This means you will have to see past what the pictures look like, whether, in other words, they are any good or not. We all know well what a good picture looks like (for us – this is all mostly subjective), but we don’t know nearly as well what these pictures do that we deem good or bad.

Having written about this for a while now, I’ll admit that fatigue has set in at this keyboard: there are only so many times that you want to write an article about picture “manipulation” and photojournalism, say, before you realize that it’s futile for more reasons than one. For a start, people love sticking with absurd ideas about what photographs are and what constitutes “manipulation”. But even worse is the fact that people love pretending that the use of photographs has nothing to do with how they are perceived when in fact it’s the complete opposite: photographs have almost no meanings without them being used for something (whatever that something might be).

Seen that way, what I wrote in the beginning only is the logical consequence: to a large extent photographs need to be judged not only through their form and content (which, mind you, are important enough), but also through how and where they are being used. Photographs can become good or bad through their use. Good photographs can become bad, or bad photographs can become good once the viewer understands what is at stake.

A variant of this argument is provided by The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel. If the press text is to be believed, “from his studio in Zurich, Kurt Caviezel has been monitoring 15,000 publicly accessible webcams located all over the world.” It makes me shudder to think about going through 15, let alone 15,000 webcams, to look for what might present itself. But then, I’m doing the exact same thing on a large variety of Tumblrs and Instagram accounts. So maybe I’m just as obsessed.

Regardless, Caviezel compiled “an archive of more than 3 million images, categorizing them for recurring patterns and subjects,” and the book is the result of this endeavour.  What it does is straightforward: there is a large list of entries, starting with “airport,” and then continuing through obvious (“bus stop”) and not obvious (“C.D. Friedrich”) ones, to finally arrive at “zoo.” For each entry, there are webcam pictures. The viewer gets 38 images of airports, say. “Costa Concordia” only contains images from one source, but the collection shows the salvage operation of the stricken ship in time.

In its simplicity and maybe degree of obviousness, The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel might strike especially those embedded in academic forms of photography (curators or photography academics) as not worthy of much, if any, attention. But much like maligning the selfie as merely being an embodiment of narcissism, this would be a grave mistake (not that academics won’t happily make mistakes, while attempting to masquerade their ignorance with high-falutin jargon). The book makes a more complex use of how the use of photography determines their meaning than one might realize at first, given that webcams are usually used for evidentiary, not encyclopedic purposes (they are in effect publicly available surveillance cameras).

There is much to be said for a better, meaning: more profound engagement with those forms of photography that aren’t fully accepted into the canon. Ultimately, the selfie is to photography today what colour photography was for “art photography” before John Szarkowski busted that silly barrier down with his William Eggleston exhibition at MoMA.

The usual argument that “there are too many pictures” today, and they’re all bad (or whatever you’ll hear from bored photographers who prefer to think of themselves as “artists”) holds no water for a large variety of reasons. For a start, if your imagination is so poor that the presence of all those photographs will prevent you from taking pictures, maybe you should look for another way to spend your time. And as The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel demonstrates, to deny oneself of the sheer enjoyment that can be had so easily from engaging with the crazy world of photography generated by essentially all of us strikes me as, well, nuts. If you just start looking at what you can see in pictures, and what people do with them these days, you will be amazed.

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 5, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 4.0

The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel; photographs by Kurt Caviezel; essay by Joachim Schmid; 414 pages; Rorhof; 2015

Ratings explained here.