Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the Spectacle in Photography
We live in a world that might best be described as a panoply of gestures. Contemporary culture is so given over to experiencing multiple things at once, that a gesture is merely the limit of what a person in this context can comprehend. Through social media, we are exposed to innumerable status updates, news feeds, and images. The rapidity with which this information comes to us causes the individual receiving it to search for what they think is intrinsic and discard the rest. Regarding the images that people place on their social media profiles, the person reviewing the images instantaneously resolves the questions raised by their viewership; ie. person at a bar, person entertaining friends, person meeting someone famous, person’s new artwork, etc. The quick resolution of this rather large dataset means that the mind is compressing what it receives, or rather, is making assumptions. The effect is two-fold, the image-makers must distill what they want to say into a carefully curated presentation so that the viewers make the right assumptions about the message being relayed. Nothing in this correspondence is experiential in the traditional sense because there is no physical interaction between the message bearers and the message receivers. In fact, the message receivers generally have no direct attachment to the message bearers other than occasionally having met them firsthand. For instance, the person viewing the photo of the people in the bar is usually not one of the people photographed, nor were they in the bar at the time, and oftentimes, they don’t know anyone in the photograph at all. This is the nature of the Spectacle: a detached observation of an event that you have no connection to, which you perceive of through an oddly metaphysical window that subverts the real world onto an imaginary plane.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film, Rear Window, the protagonist, L.B. Jeffries observes his neighbors without their knowing as he himself sits prone, recovering from a leg injury. What happens as Jeffries observes his neighbors, and as his affinity for the activities of their life (despite not having any firsthand interaction) grows, parallels the conditions of the Spectacle as we understand it in contemporary culture. Social media sites, like Facebook, are in and of themselves “rear windows” for each of us to peer out at our unwitting “neighbors” and to take a detached participation in their goings on. The curiosity that engages the average person and encourages their untraceable investigation of others is radical in that it has become so pervasive in society and simultaneously accepted. The result is that people, when faced with a camera, perform for it as they understand that the eventual portrayal will be projected to people who they do not know and who do not know them. This is slightly apart from what happens in the film since the characters in the movie presumably do not understand that they are being watched from afar. Consider for a moment the difference between the two images below:
Both photographs were made using the supplied webcam of an Apple computer, however, the image on the left was created as a Facebook avatar while the image on the right was created by surprise. For the second image, artist Kyle McDonald wrote a program for computers to automatically take and store photos, and then uploaded it onto several computers at a Mac Store in New York City. The resulting images formed a series of his entitled “People Staring at Computers”, which showcased the devoid expressions of humans stuck staring into a computer screen. Or possibly their expressions suggest transcendence from the physical? In any case, McDonald’s images certainly typify why the Spectacle is a purely spectator sport. In an age where so much of the world is viewable through a portal with a simple keystroke, it remains questionable what level of human experience is truly necessary.