Visual artist Carson Lynn is fascinated by the concept of the uncanny: a space where the familiar becomes strange, and the strange becomes familiar. With his 2016 photographic series, Obsessive Becoming, Lynn examines the intended future of virtual and augmented reality—to seamlessly merge the virtual with true experience. His work speculates on a moment when photorealistic 3D and 4D graphics will come into alignment with reality: a juncture that he refers to as the Uncanny Valley. What will this be like? What impact will it have? How will it change our understanding of perception? “At that point, what is true reality?” Lynn asks.
“I wanted to put both of those worlds on the same field. And, for me, that field where they can both be is in the Uncanny Valley, where nothing is quite real, nothing is quite fake.”
Obsessive Becoming not only takes on the merging of real and virtual, but also questions biases that privilege one over the other. For example, many photographers distinguish their work from digital artists by claiming that unfiltered or unmediated images of real-world events and scenes—the "real"—are more important than the "virtual." Yet, in a world in which we can communicate “in person” with remote friends through digital video devices, and where virtual reality is both proving itself invaluable in healthcare applications and turning the neuroscience of perception on its head, Lynn argues that this claim may not be so straight-forward. Which is real? Which is now? Which is more important? Lynn’s exploration of the Uncanny Valley unravels the perplexing space between real and virtual experience, asking important questions about what the body’s senses can interpret, and what the human mind can comprehend. Will this fusion be “a weird, uncanny experience,” a moment “where you won’t be able to separate the two”? Will the confusion of realms overwhelm the senses? Will it be too difficult to comprehend? In Obsessive Becoming, pixels and particles are merged; representation, model, and simulation are blurred. What Lynn produces is a virtual reality fused with a real virtuality.
“Obsessive Becoming took the three dimensional view that we associate with photography and flattened it, combining it with the two dimensional viewpoint of a virtual system, so that the virtual and physical were placed at the same point, on a level playing field.”
The project is also in part about making people aware of the mediation involved in all images: “the medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan used to say. Lynn is compelled to explore the materiality of photography—to contemplate and reconsider the ways in which image-making is a process. Lynn holds neither digital or analog photography in higher regard, as, from his perspective, all images are constructed as soon as the shutter is pressed and a series of filters are added to a scene. The work also pushes back at the constraints of commercial photography, joining digital with analog image-making, and combining artistic technique with scientific rigor to produce new beauty.
Trained at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA, Lynn found his artistic instincts buried in favor of the driving factor of commercial work: speed. The value of commercial photography is placed in the framing of the shot and its rapid delivery, tethering the camera to a computer so a pre-set processing occurs instantaneously. Uninterested in this commercially-oriented environment, Lynn wanted to see how far he could depart from standardized fashion portraiture or advertising and, “still make something amazing.”
“People are always saying, ‘Put your phone down and go outside!’ But I have friends that I know in Poland and Australia that I would never be able to connect with in the real world; I can only connect with them through a computer, by video.”
Like many viewers today, Lynn is tired of the rehearsed nature of traditional advertising which tries, but fails to feel real, candid or genuine. A quick cookie-cutter approach to the photography process stifles the photographer’s creative enthusiasm and inhibits the viewer’s curiosity. “Because they’re able to understand it, they stop looking,” Lynn explains. By contrast, Lynn has noticed that when he produces something more abstract, people tend to look longer and think deeper. All the while, a patient process enables Lynn to experiment with different techniques and applications, to ponder his medium and its potential more conscientiously through a slow and iterative process.
In the digital photography process, Lynn sees glitch as productive unravelling, an error that mutates and may be deliberately employed to generate new vision. “To me, a photograph just starts as light and it can go wherever from that,” Lynn notes. The search for glitches and errors within the constructed image pulls apart the expected, and pushing at the medium helps to communicate how it works. Through play and experimentation, Lynn is able to pick apart the fine details, undermine existing constraints, and extend towards new potentialities.
“You can’t show someone what the fourth - dimension looks like, you have to show them what a three - dimensional shadow of a fourth - dimensional object looks like.”
Each of Lynn’s photo series focus on a deep exploration of a different set of techniques. Lynn places analog and digital manipulation on the same playing field, then pushes them toward one another. Obsessive Becoming makes reference to Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave, in which a group of chained prisoners only sees the outside world as a shadow play on the walls of the cave. When they are finally freed, they don't understand "reality"; the 2D shadow world is all that they know. Lynn identifies as a digital artist not simply because he uses digital techniques, but also because he uses the logic of the digital environment - prodding it, extending it, and turning it back on itself. With one early series, Lynn took the iPhone’s built-in panorama mode and broke down its internal logic. The iPhone was placed above a scanner to record a moving series of flashing lights, as panorama function tried to connect the flashes of light by piecing together textures in the edges of each frame, it attempted to create a spatial landscape from a temporal event. The result is a series of beautiful light-scapes, a fictional aurora that is at once 2D, 3D and 4D.
He is further interested in the granular differences in movement and context that occur across successive stills taken at tiny temporal intervals. In another photo-series, he used a tri-color separation technique to layer multiple images of one subject into a combined image, producing a Many-Worlds effect that could explore the minute variations. Color separation was invented to emulate color in the 1880s, before the advent of color film, but here the digital channels recreate black and white. Lynn takes three photos, each on a different channel (red, blue and green), then overlays them. Everything that’s not moving appears black and white, where all channels overlap, while everything that’s moving shifts to a different color, a particularly evocative visualization of dynamics. To the naked eye, the effects are subtle, but when you zoom into the photograph, observing at the pixel level, dynamic shifts appear as a kaleidoscopic rainbow. Lynn is interested in the use of these techniques not simply as a scientist would—to observe and record micro-movements in a dynamic context—but to see what effects the techniques can produce, and how they may alter our understanding of a scene or of the ‘still’ nature of photography. Lynn views 3D objects as 2D photos warped in 3D space, for instance. He uses sensors that identify depth as they scan a 2D image, and photogrammetry (many photos taken around a single site or scene) to turn 2D images into 3D space.
At the center of Lynn’s work is a desire to provoke abstract thought: to generate an interesting uncertainty that makes people think. Dissecting and unraveling processes becomes a way to confront the viewer's imagination with new potentialities. Lynn slips into the gaps between representation and abstraction. He observes that recognizable elements stop the viewer from seeing deeply. If a viewer finds something identifiable within the image (what it might ‘look like’), they attempt to insert its meaning. Instead, what Lynn aims to produce is work that challenges perception and understanding, making images that are hard for a viewer to process at first sight. Because of this, the viewer must contemplate the image for what it is, which requires a de-conditioning of normative ways of looking. “You have to develop a certain kind of thinking to enter the space between these two oppositions,” Lynn notes.
“You have to condition yourself to uncondition yourself, to look at something as it is and not as it represents.”
With the increasing sophistication and ubiquity of digital cameras, Lynn believes that the success of individual photographers will be increasingly determined by the best ideas combined with technical know-how. Nevertheless, he operates in an open-source environment, sharing techniques and technologies with his peers, and encouraging others to experiment too. Lynn values the dialogue and creative exchange which occurs when people work as a community. Every artist who takes on a single technique will produce vastly different results and discover alternative possibilities. This collaborative mindset expands the discipline, and allows a porosity at the edges of photography that bleeds productively into other disciplines.