Issue 13.3 - 14.1 | 2016 / Guest edited by Patrick Keilty and Leslie Regan Shade

My Hero: A Media Archaeology of Tiny Viewfinderless Cameras as Technologies of Intra-Subjective Action

This essay draws from visual studies, feminist science and technology studies, and performance studies to put into historical perspective the popular phenomenon of the small viewfinderless action camera. We are interested in how camera technology and camera practice are enmeshed in the gendered performance of subjectivity and intersubjectivity in an era during which the viewfinderless camera—with the GoPro Hero line of action cameras as predominant example—has become a ubiquitous tool in everyday camera usage. Our aim here is to take the camera apart and discuss its absent viewfinder in relationship to its lens. We are interested in the respective roles of the lens and the viewfinder (and its absence) in action imaging of the self in everyday life and in performance art practice dedicated to reflexive work with cameras. Our proposition is that the viewfinderless camera delinks point of view from the eye, rendering seeing as a partial and distributed negotiation of subjectivity. The viewfinderless camera makes obvious the distributed activity—the moving limbs, the engagement of the full body and not just the eyes—that camerawork and seeing entail.

In theory of film and photography, the lens has been the privileged part of the camera. The lens is synecdoche for the whole of the camera, serving as its defining feature. When I say that “I captured the event through my lens,” not only am I taking the part for the whole, I am also suggesting that the lens possesses the power to serve as the extension of my eye. It is the point of condensation of my subjective point of view. The lens is the critical piece through which the camera frames and hones in on the object of my gaze, sharpening my view. For this reason, perhaps, the lens has been at the center of discussions about cameras and subjectivity, identification, and the indexical functions of camera vision. It stands figuratively for political and subjective orientation: I might say that I “see through the lens” of a discipline, a movement, or a political standpoint.

But a camera doesn’t need a lens. Think of a pinhole camera, to which a lens may be added to enhance brightness and sharpness, but which has no absolute need for one to render an image. The lens is hardly a necessary part. Yet we have a wealth of theories that take that part for the whole, and a dearth of theory about the orienting capacities brought to photographic practice by parts other than the lens. In theory of photography and film, the consideration of other parts of the camera in their relevance to the question of human and subjective orientation has been relatively minimal, with the exception of works on the screen and the projector—instruments that are more or less extraneous to the camera body, appendages in the broader field of the apparatus in which the camera is the clicking heart.

This essay takes up the condition of the viewfinder, a part tacked on to the camera body that stands in a displaced and externalized relationship to the interior lens. Whether hidden inside the body of the camera, or attached to it and pointing away from the body of the photographer, the lens is used, more often than not, in relationship with a viewfinder, a part that is more often than not held close to the eye of the photographer, pressed up against it. The viewfinder, like the lens, is not a necessary part of the camera. It is not even present in all models of cameras. Yet the viewfinder shapes our interactions with cameras, whether it is absent or present.

In 1900, the Brownie was introduced without a viewfinder, requiring no small degree of guesswork and hope in the act of pointing the camera to frame a view. Soon after, a viewfinder was introduced, and that part became critical to the photographer’s orientation at the time of the take, aligning the camera with the eye. But even when a viewfinder is present, the view seen through it is typically somewhat different from that captured through the lens, in varying degrees, depending on the type of viewfinder. Either the view is slightly askew, or it differs in qualities such as angle or depth of field. One looks through the viewfinder to approximate a view, keeping in mind capacities and orientations of the taking lens that are not reproduced in the viewfinder lens. Viewfinders are tools of prediction and approximation, a replication of the interior lens that forces us to notice that our view is anterior to the process of the take. We stand alongside the camera body. The viewfinder thus can be said to serve as an externalized, intersubjective site of imagination and hope, insofar as it aims to draw us closer to the interior mind of the camera, even as it forces our awareness of disjuncture and difference. We want to suggest that the viewfinder is a site of projection, in the sense of this term drawn from psychoanalytic film theory.

This essay is concerned with viewfinderless cameras, from the early Brownie to the GoPro—cameras marketed in their first release as tools without viewfinders, cameras for which viewfinders have tended to be sold and used separately, apart from the space and time of work with the camera body. What happens when the camera system displaces or makes absent this second lens? We wish here to interpret viewfinderless photography as a process that explicitly separates seeing and the eye from the process of taking photographs. We consider viewfinderless uses of a variety of imaging technologies commonly understood as cameras—metal plate photography, the Brownie, the sonogram, Portapak video recorders, and the wearable action camera—as well as select practices of performance artists who turn their own performing bodies into the pivot of a distributed camera-body system. Performance artists of the 1960s and 1970s explored qualities of liveness and corporeal disappearance in long duration works, but also fashioned their bodies as objects to be photographed by others. Others took photographs or videos as part of a live performance, not so much to see an object before the lens as to mark the time of bodily processes and the subjectivity of the act of photographing. In both cases, the performer’s body functioned as one component of a camera-body system that was distributed across multiple bodies—performer, onlookers, documentary photographers, gallery visitors, etc.—at different times. The reflexive incorporation of photographic media in performance art and video art of the 1960s and 1970s, we argue, predicts the widespread internalization of the cinematic apparatus into concepts of the self, manifest in the recent popularization of the selfie and the body-mounted action camera. But this cinematic self is hardly unified, singular, or ocular-centric. It is fragmented in its intersubjectivity, multiple, and trans-sensory. Our goal is to come to some understanding about photographic processes (still and cinematic) that are displaced over the body, and distributed across bodies, insofar as they suggest conditions of performing subjectivity in distributed, temporally complex, and trans-sensory ways.

To find one’s view or to find one’s orientation in the world is a matter of embodied positioning, involving normative skills and performance that entail sexual and cultural aspects of embodied comportment. I stand upright, I hold the camera to my eye with my two hands and move my body to frame my subject, I shoot with the pressure of one finger at just the right moment. The viewfinder, with its second lens, introduces displacement and disjuncture to the performance of photography. It is not just the viewfinder that concerns us in this essay, but rather what we learn from its absence; the condition of subjective doubling, displacement, and disjuncture modeled between viewfinder lens and interior lens, and the condition of being without that externalized lens.

In the pages below we consider a series of precedents to the design orientation of the newer viewfinderless moving-image cameras, which may be mounted to the chest, the ankles, or the wrist of the human subjects whose actions they document, and whose views are visually managed, if at all, remotely through cell or computer screens that are typically elsewhere than with the camera. Cameras without viewfinders, or with detached viewfinders, we propose, make obvious a condition of subjective oscillation and dislocation in place and time that is common to all camera vision, and not just to the experience of using a viewfinderless action camera. When I record an event with my eye fixed on a viewfinder, I see what unfolds in front of the lens in the present, attentive with the camera to shifts in the environment, while also and simultaneously projecting my desire for recordings to become cinematic objects to share later. Viewfinderless camera recording makes explicit a rupture between the seeing eye and the intersubjective desires infused in images later. This essay traces the condition of viewfinderlessness to get at this condition of subjective provisional, shifting, and slipping assemblages and junctures that the viewfinderless action camera maximizes and makes into a technological design aesthetic of action and play. The provisional junctures and sites of splitting to which we will gesture occur between camera and body, and between human body, camera, and elements of the environment. They also occur intra-subjectively, inside the camera body, among its parts, an assemblage in which we might include a finger, an eye, or an arm upon which the camera is mounted. Of course, any camera can be used without consulting the viewfinder. We are proposing that viewfinderlessness is a condition of being in the world for which action photography serves as a ubiquitous contemporary modality. Viewfinderless cameras are models that we might analyze in their historical instances and against their precedents (both obvious and remote) to better understand this way of being in the world, in which a kind of splitting off from ocularity and an extension of the concept of seeing across the trans-sensory and intersubjective field are performed.

The concept and theory of viewfinderlessness has relevance for visual studies, information studies, and the history of photography, film, and media. In these fields, considerable attention has been given to the actual, virtual, or apparent position, angle, direction, and movement of the photographer or cinematographer, camera body, and lens (or its digital approximation—in simulations, for example) in relationship to the object of the look. Considering the viewfinder and its absence tells us about the experience of location, identification, and projection in situated action with cameras or camera-like technologies in the field of the take.[1] Camera point of view (POV), whether actual, simulated, or absent, is often an important aspect of viewer engagement with images, encouraging cognitive and psychological experiences among spectators, such as identification with the position and movement of the camera in its implied field of action, and/or engagement or identification with human subjects who are targeted in the image field. This point has generated a range of theories, including discussions about the oscillation of power among photographer, subject, viewer, and apparatus relative to camera mobility, the field of the gaze, and sexual identification and difference.[2] Two conditions through which we discuss identification and power here are viewfinderlessness, a term through which we suggest a contemporary condition of distributed, uncentered, and mobile ocular intersubjectivity, a condition epitomized in the use of viewfinderless cameras; and camera-body, a term we use to describe the composite of the camera and human bodies in expressive configurations. These include, but are not limited to, selfies, performance art that incorporates the performer’s camera use or anticipates onlookers’ photographic activities, recording technologies that encircle or surround the body like the Somascope, and outward-facing wearable action cameras. We use the term “camera body” more prosaically to refer to the body of the camera outside of use in intentional, expressive activities, at times in relation to a particular recording technology being discussed and at times as an abstract concept denoting the set of physical objects latent with potential to create photographic and filmic images within camera-body configurations.[3] The camera-body merits consideration in terms of its agential capacity as a sensory medium used to monitor, record, and experience the self as a fragmented, distributed, mobile, and multiply constituted entity. We describe the camera and camera-like objects, such as sonography equipment, as having agential capacity, drawing from the general tenets of actor–network theory that nonhuman entities have the capacity to perform in systems and networks, and that agency may be situated and identified in the activity of nonhuman actors.[4] Karen Barad has introduced the concept of agential realism to interpret phenomena as entities that “do not merely mark the epistemological inseparability of observer and observed, or the results of measurements; rather, phenomena are the ontological inseparability/entanglement of intra-acting ‘agencies.’[5] Barad uses the term “intra-acting” rather than interacting to emphasize the ontological inseparability of parts, and it is this notion of inseparability that we wish to highlight in three dimensions. We discuss the internal mechanisms of cameras in terms of the “intra-activity” of their lens mechanisms relative to the viewfinder, whether the latter is present or absent (the viewfinder, even when missing, is always implied, as we may note from the activity of the photographer to frame an image in its absence). We focus on the embodied experience in which human subjects attach to their bodies and their body-extending equipment imaging equipment (such as viewfinderless cameras, or implements such as ultrasound transponders, which we identify as a sister technology to the camera). Body-extending equipment may include medical tables, surfboards, skateboards, airplanes—all mobility platforms that fall within the range of the orienting table discussed by phenomenological theorists from Merleau-Ponty to Ahmed.[6] We emphasize a conceptual shift from understanding the apparatus as a tool of knowledge production to recognizing it as a partial agent in the production of ontological and, more centrally for us, phenomenological activity. In the current era of the viewfinderless action camera-body, we propose, seeing is a dispersed, fragmented, and asynchronous activity with ironically weak links to the production of knowledge, but with strong implications for ontological and phenomenological conditions of the real generated through the activity of distributed experience. Distributed in space as a composite activity and performed from various vantage points on the body other than the eye, performances of recording an experience and perceiving that experience with viewfinderless cameras render visuality weakly disjunctive and contingent. As a means of knowing through somatic experience, viewfinderless practice highlights mobility in the act of taking pictures, whether the camera is used on video or still mode. It also highlights fragmentation from and connectivity with the camera body, suggesting for the body of the photographer new assemblages with and through technology as a way of being in the world and experiencing lived subjectivity.

We suggest that the viewfinderless camera-body is partial in two senses of this term. First, it operates through an inclination toward. The viewfinder is always partial to something. This orientation is always incomplete in its relationship to knowledge about the performing subject documented. This incompleteness is manifest in the viewfinderless camera’s mechanical and temporal delinking of a strong relationship between recording and seeing and between seeing and knowing, due in part to the multiplication of the camera. Like the Brownie, the GoPro is affordable and small, marketed to be owned in multiples. The use of the camera as a multiple foregrounds the potential for displacement of the camera away from the eye, or, in recent applications of six to eight GoPro recordings sutured together for use with the Oculus Rift virtual reality technology, to simulate a stationary position immersed in a 360-degree world. Second, we regard the viewing experience based on viewfinderless camera-body practice as a partial derivative—that is, as the differential surplus or remainder of specific relationships of intra-action and experience.

Finally, we expand the field of what constitutes a camera to include an expanded field of technologies designed to track and document bodies and space. Metal-plate imaging processes are clearly in the photographic domain, sonography less so. We include sonography not because it produces something like a picture (it may be argued that it does not), but because in the form discussed it has much in common with the mobile camerawork of photography and cinematography processes. Our interest is first and foremost in the process of the take, and not the photograph, which we regard here as evidence or artifact of that process. The human body in question is therefore that of the photographer, sonographer, or videographer, and the “image” we seek is not so much the photograph or sonogram but the record of the body’s process of performing the craft. The action body of the photographer-camera is the focus of this review of viewfinderlessness as a contemporary condition of being in the world with technology writ large. We suggest that the activity of performing viewfinderless camerawork has a recursive relationship over time to the images that such activities produce. When we watch and consider the images that our bodies create when wearing cameras on ankles, wrists, chests, etc., we develop ways of seeing that correlate more to the movements of the viewfinderless camera-body than the positioning of the viewfinder per se. Branded videos on the GoPro YouTube channel, for instance, combine the contributions of hundreds of bodies wearing viewfinderless cameras over time, but nonetheless demonstrate an attunement to the visual qualities of bodies hurtling through space. These camera-bodies come to “see” through the ways they learn to manage bodily movements while wearing one or more cameras, a process of becoming upon which we reflect in the concluding section of the article.

In the pages below, the viewfinderless camera-body is considered in light of a few historical camera and imaging-practice examples in which the viewfinder is displaced in its relationship to the lens. Through these examples, we hope to suggest an alternative chronology of seeing through cameras as a fragmented and spatially distributed experience by and among human subjects. In particular, we aim to contextualize the contemporary experience with the GoPro Hero line of cameras that we will discuss in the final section of this essay. After discussing several instances of apparatus–body relationships that we interpret as early technical researcher “selfies” with metal-plate photography and sonography, we shift our attention to camera models and features, including the Kodak Brownie, the single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, the twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera, cameras with foldout LCD viewfinder screens, and mirrorless and viewfinderless cameras. Turning back to camera-body experience and focusing on photographic practice, we briefly consider Vito Acconci’s photographic works Blinks (1969) and Following Piece (1969) and VALIE EXPORT’s 16mm film and video projects Adjungierte Dislokationen (Adjunct Dislocations) and Adjunct Dislocations II (1973–78) in the context of performance studies scholar Philip Auslander’s discussion of performance documentation and liveness.[7] Rosalind Krauss’s classic essay “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” (1976), written in the early video era during the height of the video art context in which Acconci and EXPORT worked, provides a critical point of reference in this discussion, which would be remiss without addressing artists’ work in foregrounding camera mobility, intersubjectivity, and the temporality of the take using mobile photography and early Portapak video.[8] We finally turn to experiences of subjectivity and intersubjectivity that are constituted by the duplication and dislocation of the viewfinder and by the condition of viewfinderlessness as it is experienced with recent camera makes and models including the GoPro Hero. Rather than delve overmuch into the action culture of camera-body mobility, we attend to the enfoldment of such action cameras into performance art that contends with a distributed, fragmented, and intra-active gaze within everyday routines in cities. We focus on the use of action cameras and projection in Xiaowen Zhu’s video-reenactment performance work Wearable Urban Routine (2011) as an extension of Acconci and EXPORT’s explorations of camera mobility and cinematic identification to the time-space of digital hypermedia. We conclude with a brief speculation about the ethical and theoretical implications of foregrounding viewfinderlessness in visual culture studies.

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  1. The idea that the spectator is positioned and psychically structured through the cinematic apparatus was famously introduced in the 1970s by writers including Jean-Louis Baudry (see “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus,” in Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj [Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011], 34–44); Christian Metz (see “From The Imaginary Signifier: Loving the Cinema; Identification, Mirror; Disavowal, Fetishism,” in ibid., 17–33); Laura Mulvey (see “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in ibid., 713–723); and Teresa de Lauretis (see “From Alice Doesn’t: Desire in Narrative,” in ibid., 575–593). A classic review of theories of point of view in the film studies literature is Edward Brannigan, Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984). For an account of camera point of view in computing and digital media, see Mark J.P. Wolf, Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication and Cognition in the Digital Age (Lanham, M.D.: University Press of America, 2000). [Return to text]
  2. On this point, see Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure,” and De Lauretis, “Desire in Narrative.” [Return to text]
  3. While we are dislocating the image from the eye in our analysis, we are indebted to Vivian Sobchack’s writing toward a theory of intersubjective, distributed embodiment in cinema viewing practices, encapsulated in her concept of the “film body.” See The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), especially 164–259; Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004). [Return to text]
  4. On actor–network theory (ANT) of actors and agents, see Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987), and John Law and John Hassard, eds., Actor Network Theory and After (Oxford: Blackwell/The Sociological Review, 1999). [Return to text]
  5. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics & the Entanglement of Matter & Meaning, (Durham. N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007, 139. [Return to text]
  6. In the introduction of Queer Phenomenology (2006), Ahmed traces a genealogy in philosophical writing that includes Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida, Arendt, and Merleau-Ponty grappling with questions of perception and experience through their own ruminations on the writing tables where they conducted their work. While Ahmed’s argument centers on the oriented, situated qualities of perception within the history of phenomenology that may be re-oriented for queer desire, we may also read her observations through actor-network theory as acknowledging the agential capacities of objects. Tables, in her analysis, catalyze philosophical reflection across time while also providing the physical surface upon which the philosopher writes. See Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), especially 25-64.” [Return to text]
  7. Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008). Originally published by Psychology Press in 1999. [Return to text]
  8. Rosalind Krauss, “Video: Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October no. 1 (Spring 1976): 50–64. [Return to text]