The Internet and Photography

Lecture for New York University

Tisch School of Art, Department of Photography

November 11, 1999

Ben Howell Davis


From time to time I will add images and links to this summary.

Lorie Novak, Chair of the Department of Photography at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University invited me to give a talk on November 11, 1999, to her students on The Internet and Photography. I considered it my end-of-the-century lecture and my last visit to New York City in the Twentieth Century. I confess I thought art students in New York would be even harder and meaner than I remembered in the 1980's when I did visits to the New School and Columbia or visits to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where the pressing issues were all gender based. What was the politically correct image? How could male/female gay/straight bisexual/asexual issues be illustrated properly in order to take a stand but not be hateful, etc? But the NYU students were smarter. They asked good questions and didn't give any attitude. I enjoyed the visit. I especially want to recognize the exceptional work Lorie Novak is doing at NYU and the quality of her work and thinking about photography and its persistence in the electronic domain.

I had not given a visiting artist lecture in many years. My own work in photography had gone back into what I started doing when I first took photography seriously thirty years ago. Shooting with an old Leica 35mm, no light meter, black and white film. A shop in Venice, California, makes snapshot type prints and I enjoy wondering, as I did all those years ago, whether they will come out. I take pictures of things of interest to me, sometimes the interest is not actually the subject of the photograph. But that is a another story.

For Lorie's students I started out by taking a long look at Duchamp's painting called Standard Stoppages and playing The Coo Coo Bird by Clarence Ashley off of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. I wanted to see if anyone knew who Harry Smith was and if they had ever heard the song before. I wanted to know if anyone knew what the Duchamp painting was about. A few people knew both. We talked a bit about author Greil Marcus's notion of "the old weird America" and what that sensibility had to do with Duchamp, if anything.

Based on the notion that all we can do is tell our own story and try to relate it to what is going on in the world today with the photography and the Internet,

I showed them

  1. the cover of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death
  2. an image of "Jimmie" the head Disney Mouseketeer from a series of photographs I did of television influences on me
  3. a picture of the Seiko wrist TV with a baseball game on it
  4. Alexander Gardner's Civil War photo of the Confederate dead at Antietam
  5. a painting of a dead angel that I did in the 1980's
  6. hundreds of buttons with photos of people on them from the 1900's
  7. a picture of Einstein
  8. a picture of Mohammed Ali
  9. a picture of Nixon and Chou En Lai eating with chopsticks
  10. a still from "Adam's Rib" staring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (Tracy is standing in front of the "Brianiac" computer - a student in the class actually knew the name of the film)
  11. a film still of Rod Steiger holding the face of and an unknown actress (Julie Nemar?) , Vermeer's painting of the woman pouring milk
  12. Thomas LeClear's 1865 painting of a nineteenth century photographer taking the picture of a boy and girl in his studio
  13. Louis Daguerre's photo out the window of his studio of a man having his shoes shined
  14. a mug shot from the early nineteen hundreds of a convicted conspirator
  15. the photograph of the whole earth taken from space in the 1960's
  16. a digital image of an astronaut on a space walk
  17. a painting from the Louvre that had been x-rayed
  18. an electron scanning microscopic photograph of a phonograph needle in the groove of a record
  19. a nineteen century albumen print from India taken from a balloon
  20. a surrealist photo of a group of well dressed men and women starring intently at nothing, an electron scanning microscopic picture of an ant holding a computer chip in its mouth
  21. a holographic lollypop developed by Eric Begleiter
  22. a photograph I took at a trade show showing a young boy in a virtual reality contraption
  23. a photograph of artist Robert Fichter holding an old camera from 1973
  24. a Robert Fichter cyanotype of himself wearing Mickey Mouse ears waving a postcard of Walt Disney over the heads of three young black boys
  25. a photograph taken by Michael Cook of me in the laboratory of the Florida State Archive breaking rocks from the Spanish treasure ship Atoche in 1974
  26. a Steve Danko photograph called K9 in H2O of a small dog in a swimming pool circa 1974
  27. a series of photographic prints I did in the 1970's of ordinary objects like a welcome mat, Tim Berger's lap and book in Austin, Texas, in 1971
  28. the top of Robin Shanzenbach's head and a flamingo painting from a series of photos I did called Vector Schreders
  29. a series of photographs (The Kennedy Papers) I did of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper accounts of the assassination of John F. Kennedy that I found at a yard sale -photographed and then burned
  30. a painting I did of Hitler without his mustache
  31. a painting I did of Mao as a clown
  32. a series of pencil drawings I have done since the 1980's including A House and a Dream House, Car Crash, and Boat
  33. a picture of a portion of Howard Finster's garden sidewalk that reads " Howard's Tools after Joining the Artist World"
  34. a still of students in my video class at the Atlanta College of Art in the 1980's wearing sunglasses
  35. a photo of Darryl Vance and myself doing a drawing of Larry the Dog in New York City - 1980's
  36. a drawing of Murray the Cat by Darryl Vance and myself
  37. a photo of a slow scan event we did in Atlanta for the Venice Biennale in the 1980's
  38. slow scan screens from the event that read "Sense of Urgency" and "Task Force"
  39. a still of the interface from the MIT multimedia French project of Madame Israel in her grocery store in Paris
  40. the Brassai photograph of Matisse and his model
  41. a digitally altered version of the same photograph with a yellow painting of breasts added
  42. a pencil drawing called "In the Unplanned Community You Build Where It Pleases"
  43. the digital version of that drawing where each word in the title is a separate computer file of a part of the total image derived from the drawing
  44. a pie chart divided into "suits" and "loin cloths"
  45. a series of photographs of the Getty Center in Los Angeles about the quality of light
  46. a series of photographs on the skylights at the J. Paul Getty Museum
  47. Franz Hal's "St. John" painting at the Getty Museum
  48. Robert Irwin's garden at the Getty Center
  49. the State movie theater in Culpepper, Virginia, with the word INTERNET on the marquee
  50. an audience in an experimental interactive theater in New York City reaching for the controls that change the direction of a movie
  51. Darryl and Louise Vance on a pay phone
  52. the "Gunvertor" TV remote control shaped like a 45 automatic
  53. people browsing the bookstalls on the Left Bank in Paris
  54. a Greek woman in Athens acting as a guide to the Acropolis holding out an image of the Parthenon
  55. Malcolm Miller at the Cathedral of Charte explaining to us while holding an open book that the cathedral is really a history book
  56. an art student at the Louvre copying a painting
  57. the Library sign at the Montana Branch in Santa Monica, California
  58. an image of the book in the computer game "Myst"
  59. an etching of an antique Memory Theater
  60. Brewster Kaele's commissioned sculpture of the entire Internet
  61. computer image of combined layers of a landscape
  62. Jeffery Shaw's interactive virtual reality poem generator
  63. a manikin at a trade show with a bar code sweat shirt
  64. a photograph of Stephen Hawking
  65. a cartoon of a man looking in a mirror that says "Budget Virtual Reality"


While I showed these slides I talked about being influenced as a photography student by


I talked about teaching photography, video, drawing and mixed media at the Atlanta College of Art from 1975 to 1985. Doing interactive exhibits, forming a non-profit corporation for art called Senoj.

Doing research on early multimedia at Project Athena, the Media Lab, and the visual arts Program at MIT.

Doing consulting on digital projects for a wide range of organizations and individuals including the J. Paul Getty Trust.

I talked about seeing the Getty as millennial phenomena. The last big money to be spent on the arts in the twentieth century, the last physical building to be done for the arts on a grand scale, etc.

My subsequent employment by the Getty Information Institute and various projects like the Introduction to ...Series of books I produced including the Introduction to Imaging which might be of use to them.

I talked about the notion of augmented reality and used the example of the computer-controlled skylights in the Getty Museum as an example of how technology could heighten reality without attempting to duplicate it.

We looked at Robert Irwin's interest in experiences that are non-hierarchical, interactive, observational, qualitative using the Getty garden that he created as an example.

A shadow is a good example of a qualitative experience that has all these qualities - so is a garden. Robert Irwin, 10-21-98


Then we talked about issues related to the Internet and photography. Including

Image links as

The ambiguity of photography is peculiarly suited to the Web

the picture as a cumulative reference traversing

a cumulative visual poem that may be eternal…?

Then as a preface to my attempts at using the Internet as a laboratory for experimenting with imagery at



We then looked at a variety of Web sites: