PHOTOGRAPHY | SIMON HØGSBERG :: «WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE – 100 METERS OF EXISTENCE» + «THE THOUGHT PROJECT»

It’s been a crazy week on my Flickr account: a pro-privacy Facebook group in Germany is using my “Privacy Now” logo to round up support for their demands that Facebook revise its privacy policies. Me? I’ve never been interested in Facebook’s data mining activities, so I’ve stayed clear of that social network, and I wish the pro-privacy group luck in its quest for better privacy standards.

above: 3 details from «We’re All Gonna Die — 100 meters of existence»»

The world’s longest photograph as a work of public art:

«We’re All Gonna Die — 100 meters of existence» on display in Kongens Nytorv, Copenhagen’s largest and finest square, May 2009. That’s the artist on the right in the second photo, installing the piece. Photos courtesy of Simon Høgsberg.

THE WORLD’S LONGEST PHOTOGRAPH

Then, along came a post from The Canadian Privacy Law Blog about privacy and street photography.

The subject? Simon Høgsberg’s amazing piece of photography, «We’re All Gonna Die – 100 meters of existence,» in which 178 Berliners were caught unaware by Høgsberg’s camera, positioned on a railway bridge walkway at Berlin’s Warschauer Straße station.

> click on the screenshot below to access the work:

It took the photographer 20 days to capture 3,000 images for the longest photograph in the world. These were then whittled down to 178 “chosen ones” who must be extra special to their creator.

The time: two hours of shooting a day over 20 days (only two hours because the light falling onto the people I was photographing had to come from the same angle so that it would look as if every person copy/pasted into the final picture was actually present in the moment and on the location that the long photograph depicts).

– Høgsberg : Darren Rowse, Interview with Simon Høgsberg, Digital Photography School

It then took another 17 months to create the entire project in its current form.

Høgsberg’s New Documentarian style is deeply humanist at its core. He selected these few for posterity because they somehow spoke to him.

They are now subjects of study and scrutiny of the world’s longest photograph, an amazing 100 meters long by 78 centimeters wide.

Oddly, three years after the images were taken, none of the subjects have contacted Høgsberg.

Eventually, I would imagine, all of them will discover their frozen self on the Internet. I wonder if they’ll all be thrilled to have finally attained their preordained Warholian 15 minutes of fame, or if someone in that group will be disgruntled about their “loss of privacy.”

Then again, we live in such a “I wanna be a star” culture that I might be mistaken. Who knows?

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I find Berlin intriguing, I love urban transit systems (and Berlin’s divided-city-Cold-War transit history is unique), and I love maps, so I began to be curious about where and how Høgsberg shot this extraordinary photograph.

I searched for Warschauer Straße on Google Maps and found some railway tracks > click on the screenshot:

But I wasn’t convinced that I had the right spot. So, I wrote the photographer and asked him for more specific information. Here’s what he replied:

The map that you’ve attached shows the bridge where I was sitting. Ideally the red A should be placed just left of the green S (the symbol placed on the rails) — simply because the green S is pretty much exactly where I sat.

I’ve attached to this mail two aerial photos (from Google Earth) that show the railroad bridge where the portraits in the long image were taken.

I’ve drawn a red X on both of the Google Earth images. The X is on a walkway that leads down to a train platform under the bridge. People on the bridge were entering this walkway in a steady flow to get to the trains. I placed myself where the X is and pointed the 400 mm lens in the direction of the bridge.

The third (attached) image shows how the whole scenario looked from where I sat on the walkway.

– Simon Høgsberg, e-mail correspondence, 2010-04-15

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I think that «We’re All Gonna Die» is an exceptional piece of contemporary photography from an outstanding artist. Yet … the piece does raise interesting questions about privacy in today’s digital matrix.

Only few of the people on the photograph seemed to know I was taking their picture.

– Simon Høgsberg, Intro to We’re All Gonna Die – 100 meters of existence

I asked Høgsberg for his thoughts about art and privacy. This is what he had to say:

Different countries have different laws in relation to street photography, of course, and I must admit that I’m not entirely sure how exactly the German law is in terms of street photography. I would love to know.

I’ve been told that you have to ask permission if you take a picture of a person on the street in Germany. No matter if this person is a 100 meters away. What counts is that this person is recognizable in the picture. But does this rule also apply to street photography that is made and presented as a work of ‘art’ (and not just reportage)? I’m not sure! I don’t know.

In Denmark where I live it is not required that you ask people for permission to photograph them if both of you are in a public space.

None of the people in the long photograph have contacted me so far. So, so far, I haven’t been pushed to look into the legal matter of being a Dane taking pictures of people in Germany.

History is full of examples of how greatly society has benefitted from allowing people with cameras to take pictures of their fellow species in the public domain. Overall this tendency has made man more aware of himself and of culture in general, and it would be a giant leap backwards if we make it illegal for you and me to take photos of each other in the public space.

– Simon Høgsberg, e-mail correspondence, 2010-04-16

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What I like about this particular work (other than its outstanding size and its obvious artistic qualities) is that it seems to me to be something like a digital version of a Japanese emaki, perhaps The Tale of Genji scroll:

Part of the Genji Monogatari emaki (Tale of Genji scroll) by Fujiwara Takayoshi. The tale was written in the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu and this illustrated version dates from ca. 1130. The Tokugawa Museum, Nagoya. SOURCE: Wikipedia

Part of the Murasaki Shikibu nikki emakimono (Murasaki Shikibu Diary Picture Scroll) [Part 3] from the Kamakura period (1185-1333), attributed to Fujiwara Nobuzane (illustrations) and Kujō Yoshitsune (calligraphy). The scroll has been designated a National Treasure of Japan in the paintings category. 21.0 cm x 51.9 cm. The Gotoh Museum, Tokyo. SOURCE: Wikipedia

«We’re All Gonna Die — 100 meters of existence» is a digital-era version of an antique picture scroll reconfigured for today’s high surveillance society. A neopicturescroll.

Like an emaki, Høgsberg’s work requires time to “unroll” and savour.

we_are_all_gonna_die

As for his unwitting subjects, I love the guy with the “Heeeeere’s Johnny” T-shirt from Kubrick’s The Shining, perhaps because the shirt is so in alignment with the long photograph’s provocative title:

Simon Høgsberg. We’re All Gonna Die – 100 meters of existence (detail), 2007

In a similar vein, I’m curious about the woman wearing the purple skull and crossbones T-shirt pushing a perambulator. She looks so determined:

Simon Høgsberg. We’re All Gonna Die – 100 meters of existence (details), 2007

Every time I look at the Flash presentation of the photograph (sometimes running through it quickly, like a movie and, more often, really studying the characters), I find someone new individual or group to focus on and wonder who they might be, what they were thinking the moment the camera’s shutter clicked, and what they were doing at Berlin Warschauer Straße station the day Høgsberg’s camera captured them for posterity.

It’s all rather voyeuristic in its own way.

What about the couple with matching eye patches? What’s their story? Or Mister Leopard skin guy-on-a-bike with the blue shades and red backpack? What was he thinking and where was he going that day? Was he aware of Høgsberg’s gaze?

BERLIN TRANSIT MAP PDF

Høgsberg is a world traveller. I asked him: Why Berlin? Why Warschauer Straße station?

Hey Michael,

Super! Here are the additional questions.

I gathered the material for the long photo in Berlin because in the Summer of 2007 I went to and stayed in Berlin with the purpose of finishing a novel that I’d started working on many years back but hadn’t managed to finish.

I rented a room in a flat in Berlin, and a couple of days after my arrival I gave up my attempt to finish the old story and started writing a new story. Ten days later I quit working on that one too. Why? Because basically the new story was about a guy who was living in Berlin and who threw himself into an adventure in the city that was exciting and full of potential. Yet I was writing this story — not experiencing it myself, and it suddenly dawned on me that it made no sense to bar myself up in a flat in Berlin when I could be out there exploring the city in reality.

So I turned off the computer and started going for long walks in the city.

One day I ended up on Warschauer Straße. I had with me a camera and a 400 mm lens. I looked through it at the overwhelming number of people walking on the bridge. I started photographing them. Those photographs turned out to be the first photos of many that later became part of the We’re All Gonna Die piece.

Kind regards,

Simon

– Simon Høgsberg, e-mail correspondence, 2010-04-17

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I also asked Høgsberg for more technical information about the Flash and Kongens Nytorv versions of «WAGD»:

Here are some technical details about the long photo.

A 400 mm lens (which is the lens with with which I photographed the people in the long photo) is basically a paparazzi lens. The people who are in focus in the long photograph were exactly 20 meters away from the camera when their portraits were taken. The camera I used/use is a Canon Mark II Eos 1 Ds.

One of the questions people have often asked in relation to the photograph is how the sky in the background can be so seamless and clean when I was photographing for 20 days and under different weather conditions. The answer is that the sky is made in Photoshop – it’s basically one color (blue) that is bright in the beginning of the photograph and becomes darker toward the end of the photo.

For the exhibition on Kongens Nytorv in Copenhagen, Epson printed all 100 meters. The long print was subsequently divided into 33 pieces — each piece 3 meters long —and mounted on metal boards.

I’ve attached four images that make it easier to grasp how the print was displayed.

Kind regards,

Simon

– Simon Høgsberg, e-mail correspondence, 2010-04-18

Looking at this picture scroll, I’m struck at how white German society is compared to the Canadian “cultural mosaic.” And how cool the people look compared to Canadians. On another blog, Wendy Reynolds points out another cultural difference:

Fantastic! I want to know the story of the elderly person in the yellow armband and funky cap. Wasn’t it remarkable how few people are wearing ear-buds? I think that a similar project done in Toronto would yield many more people hooked up to some sort of device.

Wendy Reynolds

Taler du Dansk?

Take a look at Høgsberg’s portfolio.

«The Thought Project» (“A project about the thoughts we have when we walk alone in the street”) is especially intriguing (and voyeuristic):

I really like «The Thought Project,» perhaps more than «WAGD,» because it’s more engaging on more levels. What a concept.

I wore a Mona Lisa smile for the entire hour or so it took me to view these strangers’ faces and read their thoughts the second before Høgsberg approached them with his project concept.

It’s fascinating to read other people’s ruminations about life: intermediate-range ballistic missiles, chocolate truffles melting in the sun, unfair parking tickets, the ubiquitous relationship issues … do our minds ever really turn to the “off” position when we’re alone?

Simon Høgsberg is what I consider to be a “high concept” artist. He’s got an intellectual’s brain and an artist’s soul — a great combination. I look forward to watching his career unfold.

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What I strongly suggest to you, dear reader, is to set aside an hour or so in your busy life and stop surfing for a while.

Take the time to view this extraordinary artist’s website. I think you’ll find it time well spent. I know I came away from it feeling much more connected to my fellow species, as Høgsberg calls us. It’s good therapy.

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ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Simon Høgsberg (b. 1976 in Åarhus, Denmark) is working as a freelance photographer in Copenhagen.

His first encounter with photography happened in 1997 when he was working as a journalist for a state-funded agency in Åarhus that was producing stories about young people for various Danish media.

Writing seemed to him to be too much of a ‘head-experience.’ whereas the work of the photographers he was collaborating with seemed to be a more physical experience that called for action and experimentation.

This physical aspect of photography appealed to him, and he soon got a job as a photographer at the agency.

In 1999 he went to London to study and practice photography for three years, and in 2002 he started his own freelance business in Copenhagen.

– Verve Photo: The New Breed of Documentary Photographers



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