oughtful

poems, photographs, prose
by matthew

october 14, 2006 (edited october 17, 2006) · tags: prose art

index of first lines

Certainly the identity of a photographic image no longer has to do with its support or its chemical composition, or with its authorship, place of origin, or pictorial appearance. It instead comprises, as Müller-Pohle suggests, a pliable sequence of digital data and electronic impulses.
· Geoffrey Batchen, Da[r]ta, from Each Wild Idea

As opposed to an analog film negative, a digital image is essentially a stream of data, and can be represented as a string of ones and zeroes. With a bit of ingenuity, a digital image can be 'translated' into other forms of digital data, such as text. I'm interested in adapting digital photographic data into information systems usually associated with language and literature, such as an index of first lines.

An index of first lines, occasionally found in anthologies of poetry, eschews authorship, title and chronology and lists poems alphabetically according to each first line of text. The idea is that a reader might not always recall the title or author of a poem, but is likely to remember how it begins. I've always found indices of first lines amusing as Dadaist exercises in found poetry - reading the lines sequentially often results in a charmingly garbled, wandering diatribe, full of false starts. An example, from The Oxford Shakespeare:

Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all
Against my love shall be, as I am now
Against that time, if ever that time come
Ah! wherefore with infection should he live
Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth
Alas! 'tis true I have gone here and there
As a decrepit father takes delight
As an unperfect actor on the stage
As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow'st
As it fell upon a day
A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted...

index of first lines contains the first row of pixels from every digital photo I took from May 9 to July 17, 2004, during a summer spent studying art history in the U.K. and France. The lines of pixels are stratified in chronological order, with the earliest photo at the top. The resulting image contains 2048 x 1047 pixels - 2048 pixels being the width of the photos my digital camera took (3.2 megapixels), times 1047 photos.

It would have been quite time-consuming to assemble this using digital image editing software such as Photoshop. Instead, I wrote a PHP script to automatically copy and compile the images (PHP is a programming language designed for producing dynamic web pages, and can also be used to generate and manipulate digital images in a systematic way). index of first lines is a product not only of a digital camera, but of computer code - the very act of its creation is an act of reproduction. Thus it is an example of "the work of art designed for reproducibility" described by Walter Benjamin. It is similar to film in this way, and also in that it is composed of a series of sequential images that are never perceived individually. Its horizontal lines can be likened to the lines that jitter across the screen when one fast-forwards a video.

While it's impossible for me to identify individual photos, looking at this image does bring back memories. Its hazy horizontal sweep evokes a landscape seen from the window of a moving train, a suitable metaphor for the fleeting, mesmerizing summer I remember. The 'busiest' areas (with the most contrasting lines) represent hectic days wandering London or Paris, when no two photos were alike. Thicker bands of colour indicate slower times, when I snapped many photos with similar scenery - the greenery of The Gibberd Garden, or a clear blue sky over Brighton Pier. A certain band of white a third of the way down - near the end of the first month - is a trace of the overcast sky on the afternoon I first visited Stonehenge. In this way, index of first lines is an accurate cross-section of my memory, or at least my photographic habits. I read it in the same way I occasionally reread the journals I kept during that summer's travels: not top-to-bottom, but discursively, letting my eyes and mind wander. Nevertheless, examining it is an act of reading.

Robert Frank once said, "When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice." He might have said, "the way they do when they want to pause and rewind a film." index of first lines is full of these small instant replays, from near-identical rows of pixels which indicate a photo taken twice, to my reading of it as a kind of rewound / fast-forwarded version of my summer. Like an index of poems, its usefulness as a reference device depends on my memory. Taken out of context, it has a certain Dadaist quality.

"The still photographic image has circulated [...] predominantly alongside the meanings of the printed word," writes Martin Lister in his Introduction to the Photographic Image in Digital Culture, and "with the emergence of digital technology this convergence is exponentially increasing." Though it can be approximated on paper, index of first lines is not intended for a gallery wall. I'm interested in the possibilities of web-based art and writing, and especially in self-published, ongoing projects such as blogs. It's with the intention of designing my blog that I began to learn PHP in the first place, and it seems fitting to situate index of first lines there, as part of a longer ongoing journal of photographs and writing.


this was written for a graduate seminar class at nscad. i've omitted the bibliography here, but references are available upon request (use the contact box in the left column).

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