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Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Jigsaws: the Google Street View of back-in-the-day



Every year we do a jigsaw in our house so we get to see lots of pieces of jigsaw on the table for a few weeks. This year the jigsaw is of Knavesborough, a picturesque town with rows of houses (easy), a bridge (easy), sky (horrible but not too big), river (very difficult) and trees (impossible).

Scattered in the jigsaw we also get to see people. And it got me to wondering who these people are. They are incredibly anonymous people. It also got me thinking that maybe jigsaws are the retro equivalent of Google Street View/Satellite imaging. On a far more limited scale and with jigsaw shaped pieces and frames instead of pixels and stitching software.



On Google Street View, you get a few odds and ends of people scattered in the cracks of its imagery and people make images of them, make books of them, or at least they used to when that was a bit more of a thing and was interesting for a time. You even get people who say hey look, there's me on Google Street View. There's a visibility to it.



But jigsaws, not really. I have never met anybody who has said they have been in a jigsaw, not that I've asked anybody. It would be a bit odd reallly going up to somebody and randomly asking them, "hey, have you ever been in a jigsaw?" Just as it would be a bit odd to go up to somebody and randomly say, "You know the Lyme Regis 1,000 piecer by Steefenback Jigsaws. Well, I'm in that. I'm the woman standing by the fishing nets."



In fact, it would take a huge amount of coincidence to even recognise yourself in a jigsaw. You'd have to be making it, and then recognise yourself. And how do you recognise yourself in a jigsaw when the figures are generic and lacking in distinguishing features due to scale and distance. If you wanted to brag about being in a jigsaw, then you'd really need to be at somebody's house when they were making the one you were in and then you could say, "hey look at this piece. That's me." Then I wonder if you would memorise all the pieces around you and be able to get a jump on the puzzling.



So now that the GSV theme has run its course (for the time being), perhaps there should be a return to jigsaws, which are the analogue equivalent of the GSV/Satellite crossover. Perhaps there's a project in that, perhaps somebody is already working on it. Pictures of people in jigsaws, the idealised world of jigsaws. The trouble is GSV provides relatively high rewards for the relatively minimal time invested. Jigsaws are a fucking nightmare. They take an age and the rewards are minimal - you get a couple walking under a bridge and that's about it. And they take up so much space.



Which is why you'll never get jigsaw cafes, or jigsaw photobook projects. The visual rewards are pitiful and the  time investment is simply too great. Because when I think about the length of time we have been working on our jigsaw of Knavesborough, I come to the shocking conclusion that this picture is the image that I have looked at most since the jigsaw we did last year. In fact the images I have studied most in my life are ones that appear on jigsaws. And I've looked at these pictures in fragmented but sophisticated ways that (as well as taking in things like edges and jigsaw shapes) includes content, tone, colour, pose, hue, shape, edges, feathering and much more besides.



Sometimes we talk about new kinds of seeing and the importance of getting people to look. Perhaps we should consider that there are all sorts of ways of seeing that are very mainstream and we use them all the time, or once a year for me in the case of jigsaws. I might not look at jigsaws in the same way as I look at a photobook for example, but I still look at it. And that goes for a hundred different ways of looking, seeing, spotting, observing and noticing, all of which have their own science and research base, a research base that in some ways is far more rigorous than what we have in our corner of photography. In other words this corner of photography is the way of seeing that is on the margins and we should learn from the real world.

But at the same time it's less rigorous in terms of poetry, or vision or heart and soul. And that ultimately is what matters. So even though I looked at that jigsaw puzzle for hours upon end, it was all a quite distant kind of looking and seeing. There was no soul in the picture the jigsaw was based upon, there was no soul in the jigsaw itself. There was no soul in the making of the jigsaw. And soul is the goal. It's what machines, data and algorithms don't have.




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