2. Essays

This page results from the following in the tutor feedback to Asg. 2 (the text has been reordered but the content not altered),

Before your next submission I would recommend writing you one or two blog posts on one or more of the photographers I’ve recommended

Do look at American photographer Merry Alpern’s 1995 surveillance project Dirty Windowshttp://www.artnet.com/artists/merry-alpern/ This project was shot using a telephoto lens from one high-rise building looking over into the window of another skyscraper on Wall Street.  one small part of this building – unseen to anybody other than somebody with a telephoto lens – was a city brothel. Merry Alpern produced a celebrated series of works using then traditional surveillance techniques to produce a critique on the underbelly of the city.

If we move quickly forward by 40  years, we can see that the landscape for surveillance photography has radically changed – Looking at the work of Trevor Paglen: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/nov/25/trevor-paglen-art-in-age-of-mass-surveillance-drones-spy-satellites.
Paglen often uses military grade surveillance lenses to critique the way in which we know use surveillance to control our borders. Surveillance itself – particularly in the digital age – is a hugely rich area of research and something that many photographers are now interested in exploring.

tutor feedback, Asg. 2

Merry Alpern

I first encountered Alpern in Terry Barrett’s Criticising photographs where she appears only in the 4th edition (2006, p.67) as Mary Alpern, her Dirty Windows project cited as an exemplar of the descriptive photograph, that is, the most basic of Barrett’s categories: factual and documentary and without the particular embellishment of art or judgment.

I accepted that categorisation when I first read it, but when writing this piece thought at first that it might be a little simplistic. On second thoughts, however the photographs are descriptive and any judgment is the baggage of attitudes I use to interpret them. Given the setting of the subject and putting its nature to one side, Alpern had little or no creative choice in the images, it was largely a technical exercise requiring persistence and patience. Modrack & Anthes (2011, p.41) describe the process as,

Alpern … spent several evenings each week camped out at a friend’s apartment in Manhattan, peering through his window into the bathroom window of an illegal sex [lap dance] club … Alpern describes being fascinated by “even the most mundane of anthropological details like … the procedures of the sexual transactions: when the condom came out, when the money was handed over, how long it took, did they kiss goodbye.”

Modrack & Anthes, 2011, p.41

(Their quote from the artist is taken from the book of the project.)

The examples from the series shown below (figs. 1-8) are taken from Blind Magazine’s review of the Alpern exhibition at Galerie Miranda, Paris in 2019 (Gauvin, 2019).

Figs. 1-8. Merry Alpern from Dirty Windows
© Merry Alpern

In reply to the question, ‘How did you feel, as a woman photographer, witnessing some of these scenes?’, put in an interview with curator Pauline Vermare, Alpern stated,

Although the notion of the “female gaze” has never really interested me, as a woman I could project some of my own experiences onto the pantomime in the window. I recognized the ruse when a dancer reached in her purse and brandished a tampon in the face of an overeager, undesirable patron. On the flip side was the anthropological experience of viewing scenes that are quite ordinary in a man’s world. It was a revelation to watch the bathroom habits of the opposite sex…

Merry Alpern, interviewed by Pauline Vermare, 2016

What issues and questions does this series raise? 

Aesthetically, they are of no particular merit, largely as there were no artistic choices made in their production. Alpern had a single view to shoot and chose the most appropriate lens and camera settings available to take the photographs – the choices were technical rather than aesthetic.

Morally and / or ethically, there is a potential question on privacy and confidentiality concerning the individuals being photographed. Alpern ensured that none of the subjects could be identified, so that satisfies perhaps the strongest concern.
There remains a question over whether it is appropriate to photograph people in intimate moments or illegal acts without their consent or an appropriate warrant. The fact that the photographer was a woman almost certainly makes a difference, though what that difference is and whether there should be one is too complex a series of issues for this piece.

Politically, they caused something of a stir because Alpern was first considered for a National Endowment for the Arts grant but that was overruled because some of the board members considered the work too controversial.

The eventual outcome for Alpern was fame and a degree of notoriety as her work was exhibited worldwide. Just reward, in this writer’s view for a compelling set of images resulting from the tenacious and dedicated pursuit of her subject.

Trevor Paglen

One of Paglen’s niches, and the one to be explored here, is surveilling surveillance, what a Guardian interview describes as the ‘unseen political geography of our times’ (Adams, 2017), although on his web site, he describes himself as,

an artist whose work spans image-making, sculpture, investigative journalism, writing, engineering, and numerous other disciplines. Among his chief concerns are learning how to see the historical moment we live in and developing the means to imagine alternative futures …
the author of five books and numerous articles on subjects including experimental geography, state secrecy, military symbology, photography, and visuality.

 Trevor Paglen

Zuboff (2019, p.491) includes Paglen in his examination of ‘a growing number of artists, often young artists, who direct their work to the themes of surveillance and resistance’. Of Paglen’s work in particular he says that his,

richly orchestrated performance art combines music, photography, satellite imagery, and artificial intelligence to reveal the Big Other’s omnipresent knowing and doing.

 Zuboff, 2019, p.491

His work in this arena falls into two broad categories: secret installations (such as military bases, testing sites and prisons); and communications, data gathering and surveillance systems.

Paglen’s background suits him well for his subject: he was born and raised on various US military bases where his father worked as an ophthalmologist; his teenage years were spent in Germany in the period leading up to the 1990 reunification. His degrees are in religion, fine art and geography.

The images shown are :
Fig. 1 A weapons testing site at a range of 42 miles. This was part of the 2010 Surveillance exhibition at Tate Modern and the catalogue say of it, ‘the light is as mysterious as that in a Rothko painting’ (Phillips, 2010, p.143). In other words, perhaps, the viewer has no idea what is depicted. This ties in with a comment Paglen makes in the Guardian interview about his work in general, ‘You might think you know what it is, but I am going to tell you something different’.
Fig. 2 is significantly clearer and described in a New Yorker piece (Wender, 2012) as, ‘widely believed to be an N.S.A. eavesdropping complex’, the National Radio Quiet Zone, in Sugar Grove, West Virginia, where astronomical radio telescopes photograph distant galaxies.
Fig. 3 appeared in the Guardian article, which describes how Paglen trained as a diver in order to photograph undersea communications cables for a project documenting mass data gathering.

1. Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground/Dugway, UT/Distance ~42 miles/10:51 a.m., 2006
2. They Watch the Moon, 2010
3. Bahamas Internet Cable System (BICS-1) NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable Atlantic Ocean, 2015
© Trevor Paglen

Aesthetically, as with Alpern’s project, Paglen’s choices are largely technical: he gets as close to the subject as he can and photographs it with the longest lens he can carry. They are, at first glance, more attractive and less disturbing than Alpern’s images until, perhaps, the viewer learns the nature of the subjects and their possible implications.

Ethically and Politically, Paglen has ruffled the feathers of various authorities, as he reveals activities that they are trying to conceal. (He also collaborated with Laura Poitras who was instrumental in whistleblower Edward Snowden’s data releases.) Whether Paglen’s activities are regarded favourably or not depends entirely on the viewer’s perception of data liberty.


Adams, T. (2017) Trevor Paglen: art in the age of mass surveillance [online]. theguardian.com. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/nov/25/trevor-paglen-art-in-age-of-mass-surveillance-drones-spy-satellites [Accessed 6 April 2020].

Barrett, T. (2006) Criticising photographs, an introduction to understanding images. 4th ed. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing.

Gauvin, J-B. (2019) Merry Alpern’s dirty windows [online]. blind-magazine.com. Available from https://www.blind-magazine.com/en/news/457/Merry-Alperns-Dirty-Windows [Accessed 6 April 2020].

Modrak, R. & Anthes, B (2011) Reframing photography: theory and practice. Oxford: Routledge.

Paglen, T. (n.d.) Trevor Paglen [online]. paglen.com. Available from http://www.paglen.com/ [Accessed 8 April 2020].

Phillips, S (2010) Exposed: voyeurism, surveillance, and the camera. London: Tate Publishing.

Vermare, P. (2016) Public, Private, Secret—Merry Alpern with Pauline Vermare [online]. icp.org. Available from https://www.icp.org/interviews/public-private-secret-merry-alpern-with-pauline-vermare [Accessed 6 April 2020].

Wender, J. (2012) Trevor Paglen’s State Secrets [online]. newyorker.com. Available from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/trevor-paglens-state-secrets [Accessed 16 April 2020].

Zuboff (2019) The age of surveillance capitalism. London: Profile Books.