Studio Window — June 25, 2014, 8:01 am

Karine Laval’s Eclipses

Photographs that push the boundaries of what a photograph can be

“Eclipse #2” and “Eclipse #1,” crumpled and exposed photographic papers by Karine Laval. Courtesy the artist

“Eclipse #2” and “Eclipse #1,” crumpled and exposed photographic papers by Karine Laval. Courtesy the artist

A few weeks ago, I stopped by the photographer Karine Laval’s comfortable Williamsburg loft to discuss her newest series, Eclipses, and how her practice has evolved into its current form. Unlike much of Laval’s earlier work, which has been published several times in Harper’s Magazine, these new images are resolutely abstract, seemingly absent the pools, swimmers, and sun-washed landscapes that were her primary motifs. In talking through how she created the colorful topographies of Eclipses, however, it became clear that the series is simply the logical extension of her varied interests, bringing together dance, liquid, and a taste for pushing the boundaries of what a photograph can be.

Born in Paris and trained as an artist in New York, Laval has always been interested in the nature of the photographic gaze, in how it can capture and interpret human experience, and in how it can be altered and subverted. Over the course of several hours and subsequent email exchanges, we moved from Eclipses and the social theater of the pool to the lost transgressive potential of the early BlackBerry camera.

Two works from your new series, Eclipses, appear in the Readings section of our July issue. How were they created?

The Eclipse images are the result of a lengthy process that combines a mix of analog and digital manipulations, including experimentations in the darkroom and with a scanner. The starting point is one of my negatives, whose indexical image I gradually obliterate. First, I physically alter the photographic paper while exposing it in the darkroom, then I allow light leaks and reflections (in the darkroom and the scanner) to leave additional marks that further transform the final image. Paradoxically, this process of erasure is at the same time regenerative: the new forms, colors, and textures create a “near-abstract” image that evokes new topographies or constellations. The title of the series serves as a metaphor for the obscuring and concealment of the indexical images by the new layers of information — mostly abstract forms and colors — resulting from the process.

Eclipses is not only less documentary, but also less representational than much of your previous work. The images are removed enough from recognizable scenes that they are almost abstract. What spurred the move in a more abstract and conceptual direction?

I started to work on this new series last year, as a natural continuation of my last exhibition, Altered States (2012–2013). In that project, I explored the limits of the photographic medium by using water as a distorting lens and shifting the natural colors captured on the film with an experimental chemical process. My aim was to generate images that oscillate between representation and abstraction, and that blur the boundary between photography and painting. I also used Mylar polyester film because it shares reflective and distorting qualities with water, which has been central to my work for a long time now. 

Most of my recent projects have to do with the dissolution of the image or the fragmentation of the human figure (in collages, and in series like CRASH, Anatomy of Desire, and Chroma). In a way, I think this move toward abstraction can be seen as a response to the fluidity and dematerialization of contemporary existence. Most of what we experience or communicate is mediated and therefore transformed and in constant state of flux. It can create a sense of chaos and confusion, or a kaleidoscopic and polyphonic perception of our lives.

“Untitled,” by Karine Laval. Courtesy the artist

“Untitled,” from the series Anatomy of Desire (2008), by Karine Laval. Courtesy the artist

The work in Eclipses is also more object-oriented, with each work itself a product of an elaborate and intensive process. How does this kind of practice square with the notion of you as a “photographer”?

Over the past few years, I have been increasingly interested in the process of image making — as opposed to image taking — and its relationship to surface, texture, and materiality. At the moment, I find it a more exciting and rewarding approach than “straight” or documentary photography. It allows me to experiment freely and to welcome mistakes outside of the medium’s regular conventions. It is also a more creative and instinctive process, closer to painting or collage, and it has taken me in unexpected directions. 

As a child and adolescent, I was very curious and rebellious. I think there is still this child in me . . . even in my early work I consciously defied photographic conventions by aiming my camera directly at the sun, by over- or under-exposing film, by processing it in the wrong chemicals, or by turning the frame upside down — all in order to challenge our familiar sense of perception and to depict a world on the edge of the real and the surreal, of experience and imagination. Eclipses pushes this investigation further, exploring the tension in photography between representation and abstraction, as well as its relationship with painting and sculpture. 

Water and pools play a significant role in your work. What attracts you to water as a substance, and to pools as settings?

I’ve always been drawn to water and its edges. I learned to swim when I was very young, grew up sailing with my family, and regularly visited my father in the Caribbean, where he lived when I was a teenager. And I’ve been surfing since I moved to New York in the 1990s. I find water appeasing, meditative, and exhilarating. It speaks to the senses; it’s a vehicle for transformation and self-reflection. It’s also vital to the survival of the planet and our species, and can be a deadly force, as we’re appreciating more and more in studying the impacts of climate change.

I’m interested in all of these aspects of water, from the more intimate and symbolic to the social and economic. For the past decade, I’ve explored notions of space, memory, the human figure, and our relationship with the environment, with a particular focus on water and swimming pools, which are representative (even icons) of our culture and lifestyle. I started photographing public pools in different countries around Europe in 2002, in part as a way to revisit memories from my childhood. I was also attracted to the architectural aspect of the pools, which combine the natural with the artificial in a man-made environment.

People typically think of swimming pools as places of social and physical activity. In this sense they evoke leisure and the pleasures associated with modern life. However, I am also interested in the psychological subtext associated with the image of the pool — in its subconscious ramifications. Like images, pools can be layered with ambiguous connotations. The pool carries a nostalgic but also sometimes macabre undertone that has been explored and exploited in literature and movies. I particularly think of John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” of the decadent pool parties and final murder scene in The Great Gatsby, and of The Graduate, in which the pool is central to the plot. A swimming pool can be a stage for mundane activities but also an arena for anxiety, drama, and tragedy. The stillness of the water reinforces that ominousness.

In my work since the series Poolscapes (2009–2011), water has shifted from being primarily a subject matter to the substance or tool I use to create the work. I employ it as a distorting lens and a revealer of transformed reality. In this sense, the element becomes almost a metaphor for the medium of photography itself. 

Theatricality and performance also feature prominently in your photographs — notably in your investigation of the social theater of the pool, as you’ve suggested. Indeed, in Altered States, the figure visible in the water is a dancer. What sparked this interest in performance?

It began in my teens, when I discovered the choreographers Pina Bausch and William Forsythe. I’ve been a big fan of contemporary dance ever since. I also joined a high school theater company led by a teacher and director who was more interested in avant-garde theater than in revisiting the classics, and later moved from the stage to assisting her and being in charge of light design.

Performance is present in my work as early as the series The Pool (2002–2006). The simple but often striking geometrical lines and shapes, evident in both the architecture and the natural light, confer a certain sense of theatricality, which is reinforced by the presence of the exposed bodies, the repetitive gestures and rituals, and the interaction of the bathers with the place. When I photographed these “stages” of leisure and mundane activities, I often imagined that a silent choreographer was orchestrating them as spontaneous ballets. But maybe I am this choreographer, after all, when I frame and freeze the scenes.

The human figure, which is essential to performance, has also been central to my work. I’ve explored its many facets, whether the social body, the body as architecture and landscape, the distorted body as a metaphor for shifting identities, or finally the performative body.

With Altered States, I directed a professional dancer to perform underwater, testing the resistance of his body in an unfamiliar element and under challenging conditions, thus evoking man’s struggle with nature, the uncertainty of the human experience, and ideas of vulnerability and physicality. The isolation of the figure within a field of color (red) stripped the image from any narrative reference and focused attention on the body as an “icon” emerging from nothingness. The blurred and distorted figure, and its elongated limbs, contributed to the idea of a disappearing image. The remaining abstract form is like a trace, suggesting the passage of time and our physical impermanence.

“X-R #2 (exposed),” by Karine Laval. Courtesy the artist

“X-R #2 (exposed),” from the series Anatomy of Desire (2008), by Karine Laval. Courtesy the artist

How do these ideas tie into a body of work like Anatomy of Desire (2008), in which you engage with the performance of sexuality — with exhibitionism?

Anatomy of Desire, as you rightly point out, engages with the performance of sexuality, but also with identity and desire. I was also interested in a notion intrinsic to photography and lens-based media in general: the gaze, and its related questions of seeing and being seen, of revealing and concealing. I started this project in 2008 after a traumatic personal event triggered a long period of insomnia. During that time I explored and took part in New York City’s gay nightlife, including illicit sex parties, as a way to face my own dark side and find catharsis. Sometimes accompanying my gay friends, sometimes wandering on my own, I photographed exclusively with my BlackBerry’s camera — the first generation of cell-phone cameras, several years before the advent of Instagram and the proliferation of iPhone photography generally.

The spectacular and almost theatrical aspect of the scenes I witnessed fascinated me, as did the tension between the observer and the observed/exposed, and the shifting nature of these roles. I was also intrigued by the way my camera’s extremely low resolution created texture and gave the bodies a sculptural quality while at the same time blurring the contour of the human figure and reinforcing its dissipation. The dematerialized surface of the image seems to mirror the fleeting aspect of the close and brief encounters I photographed. I see a parallel between the mechanism of desire and the mechanism of photography in the longing to retain a momentary experience that is already gone once it has been captured by the camera. It’s interesting that the same type of device I used has now become a tool to facilitate intimate and sexual encounters, notably through apps like Grindr. Some of the images in the series are presented as fragments and significantly enlarged to the limit of abstraction, whereas others are printed at a much smaller and intimate scale, with the image visible in its entirety to allow viewers the possibility of closer inspection.

The images in this series also address issues of privacy and surveillance, which are particularly relevant in a society where governments, media (including social media), and individuals themselves record and transmit every moment, movement, and conversation. In this context, our intimacy is often “acted out,” or performed, and the boundary between the private and the public becomes increasingly blurred as the private sphere offers itself as spectacle.

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Combustion Engines

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There Will Always Be Fires

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The End of Eden

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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