Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography, and the Media of Reconnaissance
by Hanna Rose Shell
Zone Books, Brooklyn, NY, 2012
240 pp., illus. 16 col., 50 b/w. Trade, $32.95
Reviewed by Brian Reffin Smith
Collège de Pataphysique, Paris
This review must start with a complaint about the book’s design. It isn’t good enough to have a book on camouflage, necessarily a visual subject, whose illustrations are poorly printed on not very good paper, as if the publishers had no access to image editing software. There is a series of slightly better colour reproductions at the end, but these have a tacked-on air. I am aware that the majority of photographs were low-contrast monochrome in the originals, but it might have been better to forego the colour at the end and spend a bit more on the black and white. Or did someone decide that if the photos were too clear, then the camouflage wouldn’t work?
That said, it’s an interesting read. There is a lot to be said for ‘the gaze’ and its studies being directed to what is not to be seen rather than what is and yet more for a study arguing that camouflage is primarily directed to the photographic emulsion rather than the eye. Whether this be true or not, it disrupts our idea of what camouflage may be and broadens any inquiry into areas of media art and cognitive psychology and questions of what is and is not to be seen.
For this reviewer there were two main thoughts that arose. First: are we not all would-be masters and mistresses of disguise? Do we not risk becoming the sum total of the bits of stuff that we stick to ourselves hoping to become what we look like, until all that is left is the outer shell of photos and PR material sticky-taped to wire and papier-maché, with no one actually home?
Second: do we not want to fit in everywhere, like a colour- or shape-shifter? (The author makes much of the ‘chameleon impulse’.) There is much in this book about the history and practice of camouflage, but it is really all leading up to the idea that we ourselves practice a kind of camouflage consciousness.
In passing, there is a rich mine of ideas to explore and leads to follow. What would it be like if things had no shadows? (There is shadow-removal theory and technology at work already: entering “shadow removal” into a well-known search engine gives over 70 000 hits, mostly not about cosmetics.) If we really ‘fit in’, don’t we just disappear? But camouflage out of context is hyper-visible! I am reminded of seeing Warhol’s 37 foot long camouflage painting in Berlin, which stood out in the Neue Nationalgalerie like a sore thumb.
So often, what is to be concealed by camouflage is not a thing in itself, but some aspect or secondary effect of a thing. By attending to why and under what circumstances that may be camouflaged, we paradoxically draw attention to this aspect itself. We start a dialogue between the (of course connected and fluid) ‘opposites’ of Lao Tzu / Laozi: “…it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness…depends.” This is a book, also, about hide and seek, about Monty Python’s ‘How not to be seen’, about the sniper as a vehicle for deep perceptual studies and finally about camouflage as anything but green and brown painted material. And like all the most interesting books at the moment, it blurs the distinction between true and false, between our old certainties of something and nothing, of yes and no.