Artist Blog

Every week an artist whose single image was published by Der Greif is given a platform in which to blog about contemporary photography.

Unknown Substances

Dec 11, 2020 - Evan Hume

Our tendency is to make something of the photograph, to try to say immediately what it means and how it works and why it was made. But the images are more disjunctive than that, and often frustrate such impulses… The photograph can yield non-data, images of some thing or event rendered completely ambiguous.
– Lyle Rexer, The Edge of Vision

Unknown Substances, my first body of work using photographs from government archives, delves into the history and aesthetics of unidentified flying object photography. The UFO image has many associations and manifestations, appearing throughout the popular culture of the post-war era into the 21st century. It can represent technological anxiety, paranoia, or salvation. It can be the subject of mythology, conspiracy theories, or entertainment. As a photograph, the UFO image is ridiculed by skeptics and treated as evidence by believers. The conversation around UFO photography has been dominated by this opposition while very little has been said about how the photographs actually look.

My research began with Project Blue Book, a US Air Force study of the UFO phenomenon from 1947 to 1969. I requested all available photographs pertaining to the project from the US National Archives and was sent rolls of microfilm containing the photographs. I was immediately struck by their abstract quality. After years of repeated photocopying and transfer to high-contrast microfilm, the photographs are mostly stark black and white pictures that do not reveal much. Some appear to be deliberately concealed, partially covered by sheets of blank paper. I saw these UFO photographs as having a strong resemblance to modernist abstraction and collage, which had come into prominence in the US around the same time Project Blue Book was operating. I began reproducing the photographs at large scale to emphasize the abstraction I found in them, but also paired them with text documents to maintain the connection to their source. At a time when WikiLeaks had become influential and controversial, the indecipherable declassified pictures took on an anxiety over excessive secrecy and bureaucracy, albeit with some absurdity given the UFO’s associations with sci-fi kitsch and fringe beliefs.

I expanded my research and obtained files released by the CIA, FBI, NSA, and UK Ministry of Defense. Many of the photographs from these files are similar to the high-contrast, illegible ones from Project Blue Book. There are certainly UFO photographs with recognizable content – people, buildings, trees – but the object of interest is never clear. The photographs have a sense of mystery and uncertainty that go against the common epistemic expectations of photography.

Analyses of UFO photographs have traditionally been done with the intent of evaluating authenticity and attempting to discern qualities of the object in question such as size and distance from the camera. Even in cases where this information can be reasonably estimated and the photograph, as well as witness accounts, are found to be credible, questions remain: what is this object? Why is it here? Where did it come from? UFO photographs hover on the cusp of legibility and seem to beg for speculation, but my work resists that and instead probes their value and function. Rather than attempting to reach a definitive conclusion or dismissing them altogether, UFO photographs serve as a point of departure for grappling with the limits of photographic legibility.