Category Archives: Week 10

Voyeur to an Uncanny Valley

Our course discussions of the simulated has struck a mental note for me, and for this week’s writing, I could think of nothing but the uncanny valley, a concept most often associated with technology and robotics, but just as informative and interesting in any conversation about representation or imitation in photography. The Uncanny Valley was first termed by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970.

461px-Mori_Uncanny_ValleyOf Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) Mori wrote, “Climbing a mountain is an example of a function that does not increase continuously: a person’s altitude y does not always increase as the distance from the summit decreases owing to the intervening hills and valleys. I have noticed that, as robots appear more humanlike, our sense of their familiarity increases until we come to a valley. I call this relation the “uncanny valley” (Mori, 1970, p. 33). Freud wrote of a similar concept in 1919, Das Unheimliche, translated as “the opposite of what is familiar.” In Freud’s concept, it is the feeling where there is something familiar, yet completely foreign at the same time, resulting in an unnerving cognitive dissonance. The mind tries to rationalize this cognitive dissonance, but ultimately, it wholly rejects the object (rejection thus being far easier and more psychologically comforting than to rationalize). Man, I love those German thinkers.

Mori’s concept can be seen in film-making as in the images below.gremlinsWhether it’s robots, Mogwai, or digitally rendered dogs and flying bison, our minds rationalize these images within the realm of film, and possibly as supra-photogenic. Of 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin, critic Dana Stevens warned, “With the possible exception of the title character, the animated cast of Tintin narrowly escapes entrapment in the so-called ‘uncanny valley” (Stevens, 2011). The motion capture and life-likeness of the animation proved too unnerving. Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired Magazine, was far more positive, suggesting “we have passed beyond the uncanny valley into the plains of hyperreality” (Kelly, 2012). In video games such as below, much the same is true. These digital images have achieved the hyperreality of the experience of playing games. The repulsion is non-existent for a collective of gamers who get to “be” the representative life-like image.facesBut what of photography? What of the images we consume in our print media and peruse through on internet sites? What does the digital nature of today’s photography mean for our cognitive in the uncanny valley? Does it alter the ritualized nature of our consumption?

Photoshopping has become accepted, where once it was as shameful and artificial as auto tuning in the creation of art, the practice of retouching photographs has become so engrained in the popular culture, it’s nothing but a mere afterthought. We used to assume that every model’s picture was photoshopped, now it’s as if we don’t care. In fact, we have video and memes when the digital is tasked for its retouching. Starlets routinely complain about the loss of authenticity in their glamour shots, arguing the poor message it send teen girls to the digital footprint it leave on the corporeal body. But what about those of us who live purely in the digital retouch?

Meet Kota Koti, aka Dakota Rose. kota

From varied reports on the internet, she’s a 18 yr old Floridian who promotes herself online as a “living doll.” One of the ways she does so is with photos, like the one above described as “uncanny valley X high fashion” (DRESSMEMUSIC, 2012), and through her YouTube make-up tutorials and fashion blogs, even earning a contract with a Japanese fashion house. She tweets these photos regularly to her near 97,000 followers, many of whom are Japanese anime fans like herself (Hollywood Reporter). Without getting into the “Is it healthy for young girls?” (Whitelocks, 2012) or the “Does she use Adobe AfterEffects?” (Demmi, 2012) debates, I’d much rather discuss the question of it’s perceptible authenticity. It doesn’t matter to me whether Kota Koti is or isn’t digitally enhanced. It’s that for all-intensive purposes, she’s fine with that, and so are thousands or her fans. But for me, she has very much achieved a sense of the uncanny valley. I cannot look at her eyes and their plastic glaze without a shiver of cognitive dissonance. Something is off, and my brain recognizes the askew. Interestingly, in her quest for the doll like, she has in a sense, surpassed it by entering the hyperreality of a “post-photoshop” existence. Is this the future of photography, or have we been here for quite sometime, and the collective cultural cognition is just now catching up?


Demmi. (2012, Mar. 23). “Kota Koti.” Underyourbreath. Retrieved from

DRESSMEMUSIC. (2012, Apr. 15). “Enter the Uncanny Valley”. Dress Me. Retrieved from

Hollywood Reporter. “Teen Girls’ Provocative YouTube Beauty Videos a Growing Concern”. Fashion. Retrieved from

Kelly, K. (2012, Jan. 2). “Beyond the Uncanny Valley”. The Technium. Retrieved from

Mori, M. (1970). The uncanny valley. Energy, 7(4), 33-35.

Stevens, D. (2011, Dec. 21). “Tintin, So So”. Slate. Retrieved from

Whitelocks, S. (2012, Mar. 29). “Meet the real-life Barbies: Internet craze sees teenagers turn themselves into freakish living dolls”. Daily Mail. Retrieved from

Making Music Matter: A Return to Quality


Ever since the rise of Edison’s wax cylinder in 1877, musical culture has been thrust onto seemingly perpetual unsure-footing. The ensuing debate and dialogue has been filled with extremes, from John Philip Sousa’s prediction that recordings would bring about music’s ultimate demise to Edison’s own proclamation that (as applied to communications more generally) the phonograph would “annihilate time and space, and bottle up for posterity the mere utterance of man,” – an argument often made on behalf of accuracy and preservation. But the birth of recording equipment brought about many unforeseen consequences that populated the middle-ground, changing societal norms, influencing adjacent industries, and providing avenues for seemingly contradictory independently-shared experiences. Highlighting the ways in which recordings led to an increased consumerization of music, Mark Katz argues that the rise of independent listening has paved the way for music to mean new and intriguing things in new and intriguing ways.

But just as Katz argues on behalf of the shared communal experience and the ways in which the commodification of recordings created increased paradoxes, Richard Leppert positions the advent of recordings as a repositioning/redefining of the relationship between the music producer and the music consumer.

Riffing on the positive elements of recording’s insertion into the musical zeitgeist, Katz quotes producer Matt Serletic as he posits that recorded music may actually provide for more honest and passionate preservations and performances.

But much of this is called into question when examining the intersection of electronic music and live performance. Mark Richardson of Pitchfork magazine states that Daft Punk’s most recent album, Random Access Memories “finds them leaving behind the highly influential, riff-heavy EDM they originated to luxuriate in the sounds, styles, and production techniques of the 1970s and early 80s.”  By presenting a curated “mix of disco, soft rock, and prog-pop, along with some Broadway-style pop bombast and even a few pinches of their squelching stadium-dance aesthetic,” Richardson argues that Daft Punk’s central thesis is that something special in music has been lost.

In an internet era defined by quick connections, instant gratification, and “ephemeral pleasures”, Daft Punk seemingly seeks to position itself as a return to a more focused form of media.  Throughout RAM, Daft Punk recorded in the best studios with the highest quality musicians, they completely abandoned samples and instead hired choirs and orchestras when necessary. Daft punk wanted to slow things down and focus on quality. Quality sounds and a quality listening experience. According to Richardson, “most of all, they wanted to create an album-album, a series of songs that could take the listener on a trip, the way LPs were supposedly experienced in another time.” Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes put it another way:


But such a tailored commitment to quality can sometimes register as somewhat elitist approach to creativity.

The internet has brought with it new advertising models and targeted taste-based ads galore. And with it  has come algorithms and theorizing on the linkages between preferences and musical tastes. Daft punk was celarly trying to make an album. A real album.  They were trying to harken back to a time before MTV, CDs, and the Walkman shifted listening experiences from live group performances and high quality vinyl to a lesser quality sound dispersed across a range of media and experienced in varying constellations of people and situations.

Works Cited:

Alex Ross, “The Record Effect,” The New Yorker, June 6, 2005.

Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). Excerpts from Chap. 1 and 7.

Photography and the Hierarchy of Legitimacies

Positioning taste as a vehicle for exclusion (Weber 1968, Bourdieu 1984), theorists of elite culture have posited that upper class individuals view outside cultural forms as crude, vulgar or dishonorable and have created a set of circumstances where occupational prestige begets cultural ‘distinction’.  Building on Weber’s assertion that knowledge of such cultural forms as literature, etiquette and fine art act as passkeys into elite social life, music too serves as a medium through which social exclusion – the process of social selection that is based on a previously determined set of cultural criteria and is exercised by people with high levels of income, education, and occupational prestige (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977) – and symbolic exclusion – the source of those previously determined cultural criteria – find traction.

Tastes (i.e., manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes.  In matters of taste more than anywhere else, all determination is negation; and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes….The most intolerable thing for those who regard themselves as the possessors of legitimate”highbrow” culture is the sacrilegious reuniting of tastes which taste dictates shall be separated. (Bourdieu 1984:56-57)

Throughout his work The Social Definition of Photography, Bourdieu applies this logic to the realm of photography.  Arguing on behalf of “hierarchy of legitimacies”, Bourdieu makes an attempt to equate cultural urgency with scholarly culture.



However, a quick examination of Bourdieu’s Sphere of Legitimacy, the Legitimizable, and the Arbitrary flies in the face of many of the exhibitions and collections present at today’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – an indicator of an theory that – while rooted in an intriguing truth – is arguably outdated in today’s ever-shifting society.

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 1.31.51 AM

Below I have identified 3 exhibitions (Met) where the Sphere of the Arbitrary can be called into question.

SFMoma asked the overarching question – “Is Photography Over” – via a major symposium in 2010. The symposium yielded an wide range of reactions including…

– George Baker

– Corey Keller

Overall, I believe that Bourdieu’s hierarchies were mistakenly defined by issues of access – access to tools, audiences, and training all seemingly dictated which sphere an artist could infiltrate.  The ubiquitous nature of digital technologies has thrust sculpture (3D-printing), painting (Adobe/Blender), etc online and into the hands of millions and relegated many of the “legitimate” forms increasingly arbitrary.  What does it mean to live in a world where everything is arbitrary?  Well, it means that we live, create, and experience art in a world where everything is simultaneously legitimate.

Additionally, I would argue that the rich environments indicative to modern virtual worlds and video games demonstrates a push for high brow art aesthetics amidst what I’m sure Bourdieu would consider a low brow medium.

Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) opened The Art of Video Games

Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) opened The Art of Video Games

MoMA Acquires 14 Video Games for Architecture and Design Collection

Works Cited:

Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art.  Stanford University Press; 1 edition (March 1, 1996).

Bourdieu P. and Passerson J.C. 1977. Reproduction in Education, society and culture. London: Sage.

Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. New York & London: Routeledge.

Weber, Max. [1968] 1978. Economy and Society. Translated by G. Roth and C. Wittich. Berke- ley, CA: University of California Press.

“Is Photography Over?” SFMoma. Symposium. April 2010.

The Value of a Collection in Photography

Emily Rothkopf

Photography as an art form was discredited as “middle-brow” by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, following the commercial success of portable cameras in the 1950’s and 60’s and subsequent adoption by middle-class families as a means to document domestic events (Bourdieu 1965).  In today’s digital world, perhaps Bourdieu would have gone even further to classify photography as “low-brow.”  With the advent of smart phones, society is consumed with the ritualization of ‘taking pictures’ and thus we have found ourselves in an over-saturation of “pics” and “selfies” that are posted to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (a medium solely devoted to the photographic image).  The notion of distinguishing photography from ‘taking pictures’ has become ever so critical in the art world (Irvine 2012).  Exploring works from famed photographers Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz, whose combined careers span almost a century, it is evident that the ability to produce a cohesive collection of photographs is what distinguishes its players, perhaps more so than any other art form.  A collection of photographs asserts a collective meaning and purpose, and can make the art form “high-brow” in the Bourdieu sense.

The National Parks by Ansel Adams (source for selected images below)

The idea and practice of ‘making a photograph’ comes from Ansel Adams, a pioneer in the ‘photography as an art form’ movement (Irvine 2012).  Adams combined his passions for taking pictures and conserving the wilderness, to develop a landscape photography collection of U.S. National Parks, which was completed over a ten-year span in the 1930’s – 40’s.  He aimed to capture the beauty of these national treasures that many may only get to see in pictures.  Adams’ opted to shoot in black-and-white, and also not to include people in these photographs, as to not distract from the natural aesthetic in nature (Wikipedia).  One photo alone does not serve his intended purpose; it is the collection as a whole that drives home his message and helps spread the idea that there is a vast world that needs to be preserved.  While an individual may be able to take a picture and replicate one of Adams’ photographs, it would take a more distinguished photographer to create a new collection, with new meaning.

Glacier National Park, Montana

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Storm Troupers: Celebrating Hurricane Sandy’s First Responders by Annie Leibovitz (Vogue)

Annie Leibovitz is a well-known portrait photographer that has been commissioned to produce some of the most memorable photography collections.  Following the devastatingly destructive Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Leibovitz created a fashion pictorial for Vogue Magazine that honored the first responders in New York.  “We paid these stalwart souls a visit, dressed up in the best of the New York [fashion] collections. Call them New York’s other finest” (  What this collection shows us is the conceptualization that goes into photography.  It would be mundane to simply shoot another model, in another dress.  Leibovitz’s Hurricane Sandy collection creatively juxtaposes two genres within photography – the journalistic photography capturing the first responders in their environments, and the high-fashion magazine spread photography.  What results is something unexpected and grand, and reaffirming to the “high-brow” nature of photography at its best.

Hurricane Sandy Storm Troupers Annie Leibovitz

Coast Guard Station New York

The National Guard’s 69th Infantry

Con Ed’s East River Generating Station

Neonatal ICU at Bellevue

NYPD’s Special Operations Division

FDNY’s Far Rockaway House

At any given moment, someone is snapping and uploading a digital photo, displayed in isolation.  It is likely intended to document people together, in a place, or at an event.  It is created almost instantaneously without conceptual meaning and preparation behind it.  This is considered ‘taking a picture.’  Photographers on the other hand are conceptualizing and crafting a vision that can be captured best through the realism of photography.  Like other art forms, photography is created from an emotion, reaction, message, campaign, etc., and is best represented through multiple works, exhibited together.  And like a fashion collection shown on the runway, piece-by-piece, the whole is often greater than the parts and applause is held until the end, where all of the pieces are viewed cohesively.

Works Cited

“Ansel Adams.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Mar. 2014. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Photography: A Middle-brow Art.” Polity Press, 1990. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Irvine, Martin. “Key Issues in Modern Photography.” Georgetown University, 2012. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

“Storm Troupers: Celebrating Hurricane Sandy’s First Responders.” Vogue Magazine, 16 Jan. 2013. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Photography and Social Index: Documentation Obsession and Progressive Themes

Throughout the development of photography as art, and genres of photographic styles, there is an ever-changing remix of mediums, and a multitude of alternative methods for promoting ones work. Pierre Bourdieu was the first to claim photography fills the function of social index. Being such, over time, photography has blossomed into an art that has a variety of uses including those more geared towards marketing on social media, strictly artistic intentions, social/political statements, etc., or a combination of uses. The publication and material context are what frame the meaning in these variety of ways, cuing the entrance of realizations in the differences in photography over time. Today, many use photography as an obsession and norm of documentation as well as a marketing tool in every aspect of life.

Two examples of photographers from different historical contexts that used photography in different ways are Cindy Sherman and Ansel Adams. Adams, born in 1902, was renowned for created masterpieces of photos including nature and the natural world around him. However, Adams was part of a group of photographers, Group f/64, that truly believed that a photograph is crafted and designed by an artist rather than simply taken or recorded by a technological device. This argument was prominent in the 1930s around Adams’ and others’ work, recognizing the real “truth value” of a photograph: constructed image or just a “picture” taken with mechanical equipment? For Adams it was all about how the photo was shot which made the photographer an artist. Looking at his photography, he has a definite style of perspective, framing, focus, angle, clarity, and the creativity in between.

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Group f/64 wanted to expose a modern aesthetic by revealing natural forms and found objects. A “purist” approach that came to be known as ‘Straight Photography’ (which was the opposite of many pictorialist photographers). This vision became widely accepted, dominating the market in a way that no longer made it controversial as it was in the 1930s. Furthermore, this method is coming full circle in today’s society, due to the amount of edited photos and photography by the average individual that alters a photo’s straight, natural form. It is now seen to be of higher caliber among the millennial generation when a photograph has #nofilter or is #allnatural on various social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, something that would please Group f/64’s efforts.

(View more of Adams’ work, click here).

In later years, Cindy Sherman, born 1954, grew to become a photographer in an era that was based on the principle of sociological effect within a photo. Many of the images she created had a series of interconnectedness with themes such as stereotypes in high culture and entertainment. The images were reproducing was had already been reproduced within entertainment industries. For example, Hollywood scenarios, TV soaps, Harlequin romances, advertising, marketing, etc. She also made herself both the subject and object of her photography many instances. What Sherman represented, was a critical parody of the times, and the trends of mass culture as well as popular culture and entertainment.

Her imitation of what sociologically was represented in present day television and film was to showcase stereotypes in a certain light. She represents the objectification of women everywhere as well as stereotypes attributed to many within the time period. This was one of the emerging photographers who used their work to make statements about sociological effects, using the photo to do so. Mass advertising is another ideology accepted and widely used starting in the mid-late twentieth century. Advertisements are now spread across several medias (including but not limited to magazines, newspapers, television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.) and is not limited to products on the shelves. As individuals we all now have the privilege of being an “artist” through various forms of social interaction online. We are our own authors, photographers, marketing professionals, etc. It’s all about building your own brand, which Sherman very much did so herself.

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(For more of Sherman’s work, click here)

So is building your own brand and marketing yourself always a reality? Sherman’s work also touches upon the idea of Simulacral: the world of distinguishing reality and phantasm is denied. Many times, we as Americans take what’s in film, magazines, television, and media to be 100% truth. Maybe Sherman’s way of telling us differently is through her representation through art. What we watch and see via a variety of media is not the reality we may wish it to be, including ourselves.

We ritualize documenting where we are, who we are with, what we are doing, and also make it a habit of taking personal snapshots and portraits with smartphones and apps. There is social power within this representation of ourselves. But, Sherman’s photographic art still rings clear. Many of these “realities” aren’t so real. Is the girl in the photo really that pretty? Or are the filters and magnitudes of editing what make her facial structure the way she would like. Is the photo of the male model really that toned? Or did photoshop help him out around his love handles?

The quantity of ritualized documentation of every moment in our lives through photographs, as well as the sociotechnical marketing and mass production that can take place through various medias is what sometimes blurs the reality of “personal photography,” and marketing of oneself. However, throughout the arrival of modern and  post-modern photography, Bourdieu was right. Photography is filling the role of a social index, seeming imperative in the lives of many. The ideologies of creating ones own photo, societal representation, realism, and marketing/advertising still hold strong for professionals at work in the photographic art industry today.

“In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” – Alfred Stieglitz



Works Cited

Douglas Crimp, “The Photographic Activity of Post-Modernism,” October 15, 1980.

Key Issues in Studying Photography: “Making a Photograph” vs. “Taking a Picture” (Irvine)

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Photography: From Optics and Photography to Post-Photography (presentation)

Rosalind Krauss, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” October 31 (1984), especially pp. 55-62.

Photography: Social Practices and Understandings through the Ages

Layan Jawdat

In “The Rhetoric of the Image,” Roland Barthes dissects the various levels of meaning and signification attached to an image. He focuses his analysis on photography, and more specifically on advertisements. This is because of the intentionality associate with the creation and use of photographs: “the signifieds of advertising messages are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible…the advertising image is frank, or at least emphatic” (Barthes 152-153). Barthes analysis of an advertising photograph calls to mind questions about the way in which we understand systems of meaning around all photographs. He explains the uniqueness of viewing photographs because of the new “space-time category” they create. The photograph is wedged between the “spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then” (Barthes 159). Understanding this duality is key to understanding the various ways in which photographs have been used, created, and interpreted over time.

Pierre Bourdieu, in discussing the social definition of photography, explains that photographs, through their social use, “can be seen as the precise and objective reproduction of reality”(Bourdieu 77). In view of this popular understanding of photography, Cindy Sherman’s works are a particularly interesting postmodern questioning of this norm. Her works are self-portraits in which she is dressed and posing as someone else (in different settings): “the images reproduce what is already a reproduction–that is, the various stock personae that are generated by Hollywood scenarios, TV soap operas, Harlequin Romances, and slick advertising”(Krauss 59). Sherman’s self-reflexive works are a comment on photography and the way in which it is used and understood on a societal level. The fact that Sherman’s photographs are staged, posed, and planned so deliberately makes us as viewers question the principle that photography is a reproduction of reality. Her series of photos of herself as a reclining figure in what is known as the “The Centerfolds” are an example of this. The three photographs here, all distinctly different from one another in terms of costume, hair, pose and setting, show Sherman mimicking and embodying a certain type of modeling and type of photographs of women found in erotic magazines (MOMA). While the photographs do capture Sherman in certain clothes and in certain poses at a specific moment (the here-now and there-then), they do not necessarily reflect truth or accuracy or “authenticity”: they are contrived, just like the Hollywood scenarios and other “types” she is imitating.

sherman3 sherman2 Cindy Sherman's "Centerfolds," 1981





Moving back in time, the work of the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), also pushed the way in which people made and understood photographs.  First, his photographs and his publication Camera Work pushed the boundaries of what constituted photography and created an understanding of photography as an art form, rather than simply a mechanical process of representation (Irvine). Stieglitz’s photos combined capturing some reality with an aesthetic sense guided by painting and drawing principles (Irvine). His photographs can also be understood in the context of modernism, as commenting on the fragmented nature of identity and in highlighting various subjectivities.  According to Lisa Hostetler of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his series of photos of Georgia O’Keeffe and his series of clouds (Equivalents) are examples of this; they exemplified the “realization that truth in the modern world is relative and that photographs are as much an expression of the photographer’s feelings for the subject as they are a reflection of the subject depicted (Hostetler). The two examples of portrait photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe, below, are a reflection of this understanding of subjectivity and of the fact that her identity could not be captured by one photograph or representation. Each photo frames her in a different way, and clearly displays a fragment of her–her face and hands in the 1918 portrait, and parts of her hands, mouth, chin, ear, neck, and chest in the 1921 portrait. They are taken from different angles and are entirely different compositions of the same woman. These photographs, too, like those of Cindy Sherman, call into question our social understanding of photography as a mechanical means of documenting some truth or reality.

o'keeffe2 Stieglitz's "Georgia O'Keeffe," 1918 and 1921






Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Rhetoric of the Image.” from Image, Music, Text. 1964.

Bourdieu,Pierre. Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Extracts from Bourdieu, Photography.

 Hostetler, Lisa. “Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and American Photography”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004).

Irvine, Martin. Introduction to Photography: From Optics and Photography to Post-Photography.

Krauss, Rosalind “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” October 31 (1984),

“MoMA | Cindy Sherman |Gallery 4.” Museum of Modern Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <>.