The deepening shadow of future light
The photographic reconquest of the vanished past began modestly , about a decade ago. Someone scanning an age-darkened photograph of a family gathered on the sunlit stoop of a vanished sod house on the Nebraska prairie wondered what lay in the shadows beyond its open door. They hit a Photoshop contrast icon , and out popped an interior scene no Victorian photographer could hope to capture- an invisible image brought back from a distant era when film had next to no latitude.
The discovery spread like wildfire on the net, and was soon applied to everything from Civil War battlefield Deguerrotypes to press Graflex pictures of the Hindenburg in flames. Imagination , like myth and obsession, can ramify faster than the wreckage of tragedy can decay.
Instant replays of 9-11 may numb the modern imagination of disaster but older icons, from the Hindenburg to the Holocaust remind us that it can take years to apprehend what our retinas seize in the split second it takes to turn our eyes away.
Memory is not a static. We are used to its decay, yet sometimes it grows as things once thought lost are regained. All the elements of ground zero memories, the flying paper, the comingled reek of hot metal , wallboard dust and death that once briefly converged into reality may not stay lost forever. Since 9-11 the arts of image enhancement have advanced ever faster ,reversing a long historical trend. The sum of visual information about the disaster is growing , not shrinking with the passage of time , and the capacity to experience it is fast converging upon the ability of the eye to see.
One day, it will overtake it.
is more to this than Photoshopping the Apocalypse.
technology transcending limits once thought permanent on the
transmission of history . The scant recording power of a few grainy
snapshots is all that links us to the world our grandparents saw , but
the reality of hyperspectral imaging raises the prospect of seeing the
recent past restored not just to aching clarity, but something
The heat of the Hindenburg's burning and the shudder of the Titanic’s collision have been lost to history, but posterity may share the visceral impact of the Twin Tower's fall. Data fusion is among those dark arts with a future so bright that its promise to deliver an ever richer past is a matter of when, not if. What we call high definition television may soon seem like painting by numbers, for digital resolution is doubling fast as Moore's law. Some digital cameras already boast more pixels than the six million cones and 120 million rods of the human eye combined ,and their images leave us staring at more than we can see. The most formidible of these crystaline retinas are the largest integrated circuits yet made- a 300 milimeter silicon wafer only yields three , each with over ten times the imaging area of the eye, and even better edge-to-edge resolution.
160 Megapixels and counting: Seitz - Dalsa naked eye camera
Will we want to look? Electronic imaging systems absurdly more powerful than the naked eye are an emerging reality-- you can already buy a 160 megapixel camera for about $30,000 , including enough disc drive to store a portfolio of its gigabyte images, and a little more money will get you a Foveon camera that captures color in successive layers of each CCD pixel . Their future focuses on raising the tempo of display to expand our visual sensibility, and warping time to improve our depth of vision. One camera has never been the case in a teeming place like Manhattan, and some aspire to seize the vision of the countless thousand of shutters on the scene and fuse it into one seamless montage of 9-11. We now experience it in terms of what scarcely a dozen grainy and peripheral images took in as the 757’s entered the twin towers, and passed from integrity to oblivion. We have not seen the last of them , and our experience of the towers collapse has already burgeoned into kaleidoscopic acuity.
The effort of reconstructing the horror of their last seconds repels the mind , but electronic interpolation makes it child’s play. Soon the integration of the perspectives of a host of witnesses from blocks to miles away will be equally commonplace. Our visions of Ground Zero can only grow as everything from satellite to seismograph data is declassified, de-convoluted, and merged into new maps of hell. If another catastrophic attack ever comes, posterity will be doomed to know it far more intimately than the last.
electronic cameras can capture , display technology can put before our
eyes. There is still a bandwidth gap when it comes to animating the
twenty one thousand pixel-wide , seven thousand five hundred line-high
images now being captured , but a meter and a half wide screen
display can render every 8-micron pixel in a two-handed hypercamera's
sprawling focal plane at a dot size too fine for the naked eye to
percieve. This is well within the drawing board limits of both silicon
crystal growth and field emitter plasma displays , albeit requiring
an honest kilowatt to drive --hypertelevision's first embodiment may be
a very hot medium indeed. The first such virtual windows on the world
may occupy the sashes of real ones, their heat exchange bustles adding
to the urban cacophony of air-conditioner noise. When hundred million
element GaN or other LED display arrays arrive , you may get your
window back, but prepare to have your eyeballs popped in earnest .
Postmodern architecture may be playful, but data fuson is not a game . Its progress produces not fantasy, but ever better counterfeits of reality ,and counterfeit reality is all recorded images are. Sometimes they are all we get to see. 9-11's closest survivors saw least of all, for even the largest spaces that they occupied, the sky lobbies, were overshadowed by the scale of the planes themselves. We have not yet seen a single image from within the warren of hundreds of corridors and thousands of rooms on 13 floors that, for one last apocalyptic second ,were filled with a maelstrom of steel and humanity Do we want to imagine, let alone see one agonizing millisecond at a time what occurred within? The external cameras can only show the aircraft entering, and the collision debris explosively departing from the towers facades. Are we ready, as surgeons must be, to compare the computer's sterile tomographic vision with the bloody anatomy of history?
Many of the digital frames that recorded the towers death throes from within have yet to be released. It remains to be seen if any can deliver the resolution of an old fashioned Press Graflex. With a sharp lens a postage stamp frame of 35mm Kodachrome can record more than 8 megapixels , and larger formats far more . Even the digital pocket cameras common in 2001 could deliver ten times the detail of TV , for the acuity with which tragedy is recorded has perversely, or mercifully, regressed since the days of the Hindenburg. TV needs far less resolution than the grainiest Great Depression newsreel. But what matter more is which way the cameras were point. The gaze of some vanished witnesses may have briefly caught New Jersey through a hollow with the unmistakable silhouette of an airplane seen head on. We have not seen this last visual testament but before long we will see its simulacrum. Unless its reality is rediscoved first.
future may hold another reversal of
photographic fortune.We have so far
been spared many images from within the 110 floor labyrinth,for though
TV cell phones had already appeared upmarket in London and Tokyo, they
were still rare in downtown Manhattan. So we remain
blisfully ignorant of what was seen within the 13 floors that for a
last apocalyptic second were filled with a maelstrom of steel and
humanity. Do we want to imagine it, let alone see it one agonizing
millisecond at a time? Nobody asked us if we wanted to see dinosaurs
stalking corporate lawyers ,or
the first light of the Hiroshima bomb, but no one can keep Hollywood
from projecting their shadows on the cave wall of popular culture.
Eventually , that wall will fill the space within- holographs record and display the phase of light , not just its frequency and intensity, and elements of the iconography of 9-11 never to be recovered may be seamlessly- and in a strange sense validly , retrieved by decompressing the surrounding digital images that have survived,letting real and virtual pixels merge. Aided by algorithmic tools like Monte Carlo modeling, and disciplined by the signal to noise demands of the Nyquist criterion, imaging technology is bent not just on creating an avatar of Ansel Adams's razor sharp giant camera , but on making it yield virtual eyewitness to history- less than a holograph, more than a dream.
It takes more than
science to weld this alloy of art and reality , but the animators who
make scary movies scary are for hire, as is the rapidly evolving
software that embodies the imagination
of disaster. It takes a concerted effort of denial
not to imagine what a ghostly plane's-eye view of the impact is ready
to alight from the silicon storyboard, taking our vision with it .
Room by room, and row by row ,the two hurtling airframes will tear once
again though their targets. An approximation of that Gran Guignol
view has already been produced. Most of it is still sealed from view as
forensic evidence, but it’s too big a subject to stay hidden for long
from the virtual light of day. For now , the impact events remain stick
,generated as a finite-element model for engineers and expert witneses
to study, but transfuse the same data set with production
money and it will swiftly evolve onto something hard not to mistake
for flesh and blood.
The decision lies less in the realm of taste than the temptation to turn the mere existence of vast reams of data into what may be at once an obscenity and act of homage to the bitter truth - one of these generations, it is going to happen. There is too much information awaiting the dark arts of data fusion to forever bar the recreation of 9-11, for both the towers and the aircraft existed as computer graphics and numerical models long before they were reified in metal and concrete. Every digit of that data has survived, but what do the survivors want to remember? What can we afford to forget?
This much is certain-some governments revel in surveilance, and in constructing Tony Blair's communitarian Panopticon of street cameras , New Labor may be inadvertently setting a speed trap for history. Likewise, Google and others offering free gigabytes of image storage are creating the mother lode for future data miners. A decade ago , winnowing so massive a data stream was unthinkable, but as the power of parallel architecture is realized in quantum computation, every line of sight, or plane of focus ,captured by a cell phone camera may yield a bit or two to fit into a re-rastered chronicle of universal history that grows ever clearer with the passage of time .
To some, this augurs a new historiography, to others,it recalls Luis Borges vision of an empire smothering itself beneath a map made in its own image. Had he lived , his blind eyes would be open to the fact that we are missing more than ever before, because accelerating the capture of history cannot quicken our ability to see.