Speed Reading

Pub date February 24, 2009


By Robert Flynn Johnson

University of California Press

208 pages


A shop in the Tenderloin sells anonymous photos. The pictures are messily packed in boxes and labeled according to whether the subject, sometimes but not always graphic (there are plenty of head shots of failed actors, for example), is heterosexual or homosexual. As digital images fly and float through the Internet, I’ve thought about those boxes of snapshots, their mix of allure, mystery, and depressing banality. With The Face in the Lens: Anonymous Photographs, a sequel to his acclaimed monograph Anonymous (Thames and Hudson, 2005), Robert Flynn Johnson both expands and refines the type of gathering and organization I discovered in that store.

Alexander McCall Smith’s brief intro, which imagines stories around some of the book’s images, isn’t as effective as Johnson’s essay, which connects obvious critical sources such as Susan Sontag with aphorisms on sight and photography from W.H. Auden and Jean Cocteau. Johnson is out to find the many spaces between the sentimentality of humanistic projects such as the 1955 book and exhibition, The Family of Man, and the morbid focus of monographs such as 1973’s Wisconsin Death Trip. He does so with 1880s daguerreotypes and late-1980s color snapshots. We see Robert F. Kennedy on the day of his death, mass hangings in the Soviet Union, flying leaps from flaming buildings, storm troopers in suburban backyards, kids smoking, infants in dresses holding rifles, men in drag or kissing by Christmas trees, and naked women soldering. Few images are obvious or dull. Some are worthy of a Ralph Eugene Meatyard or Weegee. The power of others resides in the relationship between clueless photographer and defiant or sad subject. (Johnny Ray Huston)


By Trevor Paglen


324 pages


In 2006’s Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights (Melville House), Trevor Paglen worked with former Guardian writer A.C. Thompson to reveal the subculture of "planespotting" and the realities behind terms such as "rendition" as practiced by clandestine U.S. forces. The book also provided an interesting entryway into, or extension from, Paglen’s work as a visual artist, with Thompson’s journalistic voice seemingly braided in and out of Paglen’s more academic tone.

Blank Spots on the Map is a more mainstream book, as evidenced by its publisher. This aspect has its assets and drawbacks. One asset is that Paglen’s writerly voice has improved greatly, growing more versatile and characterful as it shifts to first-person. A look at the rendition programs of the CIA is just one element of his overall effort here, which involves revealing hidden spots used by the U.S. for covert activities throughout the globe — and in the skies above it. Early on, he cites facts showing that the number of federal government employees working on classified projects far outnumbers those working aboveground. At times, Paglen relates discoveries in a manner that suggests that he alone has made them. But for the most part, Black Spots is a bracing, real-life through-the-looking-glass antidote to Tom Clancy–style escapism. (Huston)