WALL STREET JOURNAL: “The Fine Art of Spying” (2013)

By Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal, September 2013

With explosive disclosures about the long arm of the National Security Agency, the nation is engaged in an intense debate about privacy and spying. Now there is another snoop in town: the contemporary artist.

Doug Rickard’s Surveillance Art

Fine-art photographers are flocking to what some are calling “surveillance art”—a wide-ranging practice that includes trolling online to appropriate photos of strangers, presenting images of top-secret sites from the ground and air and using covert tactics to shoot unsuspecting subjects. The work is landing in major museums, appearing at high-profile galleries and fetching more than $60,000—even if some of it is lifted straight off the Internet.

California artist Doug Rickard created portraits of blighted inner-city neighborhoods using Google GOOG +0.42% Street View. Photographer Arne Svenson trained a Telephoto lens inside the apartments of a tony New York apartment building. British artist Mishka Henner used documents exposed by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks to help verify his images of secret U.S. military outposts. German photographer Jens Sundheim tracked down more than 400 webcams with online feeds around the world and posed in front of them (he says New York City cops once questioned him for suspicious behavior by a traffic camera).

Arne Svenson used a Telephoto lens to photograph inside an upscale New York apartment building. A couple sued over two images that they say partially depict their children. The suit was dismissed; an appeal has begun. Above, ‘The Neighbors #28.’ Arne Svenson/Julie Saul Gallery, New York
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Mishka Henner’s Google Street View series (shown, an image) attempted to capture isolated women on the margins of society in Italy and elsewhere Mishka Henner
“We’re entering a place where so many pictures and possibilities are being uploaded onto the Internet in various facets—that’s a new frontier,” says Mr. Rickard. “I see it as a new age for exploration.”

Such work is being sought out by a new breed of collector as well as many established museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern in London, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery. The current triennial exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York includes many works inspired by surveillance themes.

This new type of art is raising all kinds of thorny legal questions about such issues as privacy violations and permissible use of appropriated images, particularly where online images are concerned. “It’s a huge issue,” says Catherine Edelman, president of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. “The Internet has completely changed what we consider to be the rules within the photography world.”

That video you post to YouTube, and the public photo of your child on Facebook could become art. Surveillance art, from secret government military sites to strangers caught with a webcam, is increasingly coveted by collectors. Ellen Gamerman explains the trend on Lunch Break. Photo: Philipp Sarasin/Julie Saul Gallery, New York.
Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué’s work includes stills from online cellphone videos—grainy pictures of gunmen with weapons drawn—that he says were taken the split-second before the people behind the lens were shot (though he adds that there is no independent verification). Mr. Mroué, whose artworks and installations sell anywhere from $8,000 to $66,000, is featured in the current New York photo triennial. Since the names and fates of the alleged victims are unknown, he doesn’t consider such videos a violation of their privacy. “These are videos on the Internet,” he says. “Once you watch these videos, you are already involved. You can’t run away from them—you become a witness.”

The rise in such art comes as people around the world fret over the limits of their real-world and online privacy. The live-out-loud party of the social-networking era has given way to caution as people worry the family photos they share could one day get tagged with facial-recognition software, or whether shots of their children could be repurposed without their knowledge. In a Pew Research Center survey released this month, half of all Internet users said they worry about the amount of their personal details available online, up from 33% in 2009.

Though provocative, today’s work is part of a storied tradition of spy-style photography. In the early 1900s, Paul Strand distracted strangers with a dummy lens while actually photographing them through a secret lens under his arm. In the 1930s, Walker Evans surreptitiously shot New York subway riders with a hidden camera, bringing a friend to help give him cover. Japanese artist Kohei Yoshiyuki in the 1970s used infrared film to photograph hidden sexual encounters in Tokyo parks. In the 1990s, Merry Alpern took photos through a window of a dingy sex club in Manhattan and got footage of women in fitting rooms with a video camera peeking through the holes of her eyelet-leather purse.


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Trevor Paglen uses flight manifests and the Defense Department budget to track and then photograph his subjects, often tiny dots in the sky.
Today, Trevor Paglen is exploring surveillance themes in broader ways: His painterly photographs, which sell for $15,000 and up, include images of unmarked government aircraft, clandestine military bases and drones.

The 38-year-old New York artist researches sources like flight manifests, the Defense Department budget and aerial photos to triangulate his targets. Amateur satellite trackers help him hunt for secret spacecraft. “I can track down to a quarter-of-a-second accuracy where a given satellite will be in the sky on any given evening,” he says.

The son of an Air Force ophthalmologist, he grew up around other people’s secrets. “We’d drop off a friend of mine’s dad in a cornfield,” he says, referring to the classified work surrounding his family during a stint in a U.S. military enclave in Wiesbaden, Germany. As an adult, he became fascinated by the world of black ops. Calling himself an “experimental geographer”—he has a Ph.D. in geography from the University of California, Berkeley—he stakes out unmarked military and intelligence sites with help from survey maps and Google Earth images, then treks through public land to get as close as he can to the perimeter. He may get his shot from a clearing or mountaintop more than 40 miles away. If he encounters security guards around a sensitive site, he attempts to appear nonconfrontational, staying off government property and avoiding any sudden moves. “It’s sort of trying to be cool,” he says.

“Big Brother is something that has always fascinated and terrified me,” says private art dealer Benjamin Reed Hunter, who last year purchased Mr. Paglen’s work. He says he bought faraway shots of a spy satellite and a U.S. military drone partly because U.S. intelligence operations had been dominating the news.

Mishka Henner used Google Earth images of what he calls censored areas. Above, ‘The Hague’ from the series ‘Dutch Landscapes.’ Mishka Henner
Indeed, drones have become an entire subgenre of surveillance-themed photographs: Martha Rosler’s “Theater of Drones” is a new 10-panel work that includes images of an MQ-9 Reaper drone ground-control station and the rubble of an alleged drone strike in Pakistan. James Bridle depicts images of Predator and Reaper drones in true-to-size silhouettes on streets and parking lots in the U.K. and elsewhere.

Other contemporary photographers act more like editors, looking for unguarded and intimate moments in an ocean of images taken by other people. About 1.6 trillion photos are taken annually with devices like smartphones and digital cameras, compared with about 100 billion a year in 2000, according to Fujifilm. There are now more than 16 billion photos on Instagram, 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook daily and 100 hours of video are posted onto YouTube every minute. Expect more: Google Glass shoots photos with a simple voice command, the wearable “Autographer” sold in Europe uses a built-in computer to snap photos on its own and the Swedish company Memoto is selling a camera that automatically takes a photograph every 30 seconds—complete with a smartphone app that allows users to share the results.

Part of Doug Rickard’s ‘A New American Picture’ © Doug Rickard/Yossi Milo Gallery, New York and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco
Museum curators and art dealers call this one of the liveliest periods in photography since the 1970s, when artists like Richard Prince appropriated consumer and mass-media images in their work as part of the so-called Pictures Generation. Mr. Prince now is among the contemporary photographers whose work dominates the market, with one of his famous “Cowboy” images selling in 2007 for $3.4 million, an auction record for his photo-driven work.

The question of who owns the copyright to the original photos and images used by artists is becoming a contentious issue. In April, Mr. Prince scored a major victory when the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, largely overturning an earlier decision that his use of photographs of Rastafarians by photographer Patrick Cariou violated copyright law.

Daniel J. Brooks, a lawyer for Mr. Cariou who recently filed a petition to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, says it is almost impossible for lower-profile photographers to stop big-name artists from using their work. “They’re just considered like so much raw material that’s there for the taking,” he says.

Other recent court rulings over the limits of artistic expression and the invasion of privacy have also backed artists. Last month, a state Supreme Court judge in Manhattan dismissed a lawsuit against Mr. Svenson, the artist who took photos inside a TriBeCa apartment building with a Telephoto lens. He sparked a small firestorm when works in the series “The Neighbors” went up at New York’s Julie Saul Gallery, priced at up to $12,000 each. A couple filed the complaint after finding that two of the photos featured images of their young children, according to court documents. A lawyer for the couple started the appeal process last week. Mr. Svenson wasn’t available for comment.

Such attention didn’t scare off collector Allen Thomas, Jr., a law firm manager from Wilson, N.C. He purchased one image by Mr. Svenson and raced to buy another after seeing a TV segment about the lawsuit. “There was a little, ‘I want to get in before I’m not able to,'” he says. “And I’m glad I did.”

From a studio in his detached garage in Shingle Springs, Calif., an old Gold Rush town outside Sacramento, 45-year-old artist Doug Rickard is pioneering a new approach to surveillance photography.

Mr. Rickard was working in software sales at Cisco Systems in 2008 when he says he became obsessed with Google Street View, which had been introduced the previous year. He began searching Internet forums for cities like Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., and New Orleans, looking for discussion threads where people talked about the poorest and most crime-ridden blocks. He spent hours late into the night, scrolling for miles and miles through those streets. When Google’s cameras randomly captured an image that spoke to him, he photographed his computer screen. He was interested in what he called the impersonal gaze of cameras mounted high atop cars sent into disenfranchised neighborhoods by a multinational corporation.

One of Mr. Rickard’s earliest collectors was Daphne Keller, then Google’s lead copyright lawyer. “The way I look at it, he’s documenting everyday Americana, and a lot of that is on the Internet now,” she says, adding that the photos spoke to her because they used a Google product in the name of art. Mr. Rickard’s series, called “A New American Picture,” was displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2011. It was his first American museum show.

The artist is grateful that when he created the gritty series, priced at $4,500 to $10,000, the screen quality of a Google Street View image wasn’t so glossy and sharp. The upgraded Street View makes even deteriorating blocks look better, stripping out the moody atmosphere and charged subtext, he says: “It’s this pretty view, and the sun is shining always.”

On a recent summer afternoon, Mr. Rickard is hunched over his newest series, a collection of melancholy images snatched from split-second moments on YouTube. The garage is quiet except for the whir of a fan. Lit by the glow of two computer screens, Mr. Rickard bores into the trove of videos, clicking on footage taken by people he hasn’t met and doesn’t plan to contact. He stops on one where an alleged drug addict performs tricks for an unseen photographer for $5.

Mr. Rickard watches the full video first, his bony middle finger poised over the mouse (he lost the fingertip while hanging off a wrought-iron chandelier in his hell-raising 20s). “It’s like he’s some sort of marionette or circus sideshow performer,” he says, watching the man do a neat line of backward handsprings down a dark city sidewalk. Then he slows the footage, clicking frame by frame to find his moment. It is like he’s shooting pictures from inside the hand of the person taking the video. He saves the image in case someone takes it down, adjusts it to a blurry, low-definition setting that fits his broken-down aesthetic and shoots a still photo of it on his computer screen with a camera on a tripod a couple of feet away. He plans to begin exhibiting his new series this fall in Europe.

After Mr. Rickard started on his YouTube series, he consulted with a lawyer to see who might sue him over this kind of work. The answer was probably not YouTube, which just provides the platform, but possibly the people taking the videos or appearing in them. For legal and aesthetic reasons, he only plans to use images where his subjects’ faces are masked by darkness, clothing or poor-quality video. A YouTube spokesman said the company encourages its users to credit original photographers when taking content from the site.

Mr. Rickard has amassed more than 450,000 pictures that he tucks into folders and subfolders with names like “Alpha Types,” “Patriots” and “Damage Control.” Every day, he copies photos online, whether on Facebook or in the Library of Congress. He spends as much as $700 a month buying found photos from various vendors.

“It’s almost like they’re all my negatives,” he says of other peoples’ images, which he plans to use in artwork over the next decade. “I’m going to use them to speak in a way that person didn’t necessarily intend.”

Doug Rickard

Doug Rickard’s newest series, called “N.A.,” isolates split-second moments of American life he finds buried in the millions of videos on YouTube. He searches for videos taken in crime-ridden neighborhoods and other urban locations and snaps a photo of his computer screen when an image grabs his eye.

The 45-year-old artist, who favors fitted wool hats over his buzz cut and keeps his tattoos mostly under his shirt, is a son of a onetime evangelical pastor. Mr. Rickard grew up in 1980s northern California, where his father led the 6,500-member Los Gatos Christian Church. “They might as well have had America and the church intertwined,” says the artist, whose work is sold at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York and San Francisco’s Stephen Wirtz Gallery.

By his teen years, he rebelled. At 17, he says, he spent two weeks in a juvenile detention center after vandalizing his own house while his father, Marvin, was traveling in Africa with the televangelist Jerry Falwell.

At 24, things changed. After enrolling at the University of California, San Diego, he discovered the civil rights era and other turbulent American periods that until then hadn’t made much impact.

This came on the heels of a family crisis. In 1988, his father confessed to his congregation that he had an extramarital affair about seven years earlier. It was a secret the son knew and had kept since he was 12 years old after glimpsing the two adults together when they thought no one was looking. Some lifelong friends ditched his father. “It was vicious,” the son says.

Mr. Rickard now is very close to his parents, who are still married and dote on his wife and three children. But he calls this a formative artistic experience, prompting him to look for the fault lines in the American dream. “I’m pretty driven to critique, maybe even transgress,” he says. “I want to tread that line.”

Trevor Paglen
Work: The 38-year-old artist and author of five books has teamed with investigative reporters and human-rights groups on some of his projects, but he remains firmly in the art world. His work is sold at Metro Pictures in New York and the Altman Siegel Gallery in San Francisco, and he’s been exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate Modern in London and elsewhere.

Tools: Mr. Paglen uses high-powered telescopes to help him photograph classified military bases surrounded by so much restricted land they can’t necessarily be seen with the naked eye. At night, he uses telescopes to shoot what he thinks are secret satellites, such as “PAN,” left.

Sleuthing: Mr. Paglen’s grasp of geography helps. While trolling an online aviation forum, he recognized a dry lake bed in the background of an old promotional video for the Polecat drone. From there, he figured out the topography of the area in Nevada. He studied maps, mulling over how to find the best viewpoint of the military site, and got the shot.

Rabih Mroué
Work: The Lebanese artist, 46, heard that Syrian protesters were recording their own deaths with their cellphones and in 2011 amassed what he says are their jittery videos. He takes the last image of a gunman pointing his weapon at the lens and enlarges it to a barely readable close-up. Left, an image from the work “The Fall of a Hair.”

Fact or fiction: Mr. Mroué says that while he can’t independently verify the authenticity of the videos, he firmly believes they are real.

Questions: Mr. Mroué, who is also an actor and playwright, has shown the videos and still photos in the U.S., Europe and Beirut. “Why did the cameraman not run away immediately?” he asks. “My answer is simply because he is off camera he can’t see himself as a victim. He’s not in the frame.”

Arne Svenson

Work: The photographer, 60, shot his series “The Neighbors,” including “Neighbors #1,” right, from a window in his apartment, scanning the windows of apartments across the street with a Telephoto lens given to him by a bird-watcher friend.

Debate: A couple sued over two images that they say partially depict their children. The suit has been dismissed, but an appeal process has begun (more details in main text). New York dealer Julie Saul says those two works were never hung in the gallery, and the artist and gallery have tried to remove any traces of them from the Internet.

Reaction: Ms. Saul says the artist met with a lawyer before exhibiting this series. The dealer, who has represented Mr. Svenson for about 20 years, defends him: “This isn’t some paparazzi out of nowhere.”

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