visual spectrum: Robot 3


The Robot 3 has got to be one of the cutest toy cameras ever invented.  On the front of the camera is a smiling robot face with tiny plastic lenses for the mouth and eyes.  These lenses are tripped by the shutter button and fire in a counterclockwise sequence starting with the mouth.  All three image captures end up on the same film negative, with just a bit of a time lag between each.  Since the film is inverted in the camera the image generated by the mouth lens, which is the largest of the three, ends up at the top of the negative and acts as a kind of anchor for the two supplementary images.

One of the things that I love most about this camera is the way that the three images on any negative work together to create a kind of disjunctive fracture in photography’s fourth wall, the secret perceptual agreement that we share that causes us to concentrate on a photographic image as if the camera responsible for the shot were, in fact, not there at all.  Photography is famous for the way it makes the dreadfully artificial means of reproduction disappear in the process of manufacturing images that come to us as naturalized representations of the world we live in.  Although Walter Benjamin doesn’t quite make precisely the same claim, the comparison he makes between painting and film in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is, nevertheless, quite illuminating:

The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web.  There is a tremendous difference between the pictures that they obtain.  That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments that are assembled under a new law.  Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment.  And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.

In short, photographs often present us with an ‘aspect of reality, free of all equipment’ even though it is the very equipment itself that enables this illusion.  Even those cameras that make images that may be described as painterly or impressionistic — I’m talking here about various types of Polaroid cameras, vintage cameras, and LOMO products — tend not to reveal the equipment so much as allow us to enter into an aesthetic space and dwell there without considering too closely the precise mechanical processes at work behind the image.

The Robot 3, on the other hand, never lets us fall into the illusion that the images it produces were somehow hatched into this world without mechanical mediation.  For one thing, each of the lenses shoots from a slightly different angle and this results in a de-naturalized point of view that makes it impossible for the viewer to slip quietly in line with the position of a single camera lens and adopt that post for observation.  Secondly, unlike those LOMO products that produce a Muybridge-like set of sequential images, the temporality of images produced by the Robot 3 remains difficult to decipher.  I think this is because the images are arranged in a counterclockwise temporal sequence, while we usually tend to read images like this in a clockwise fashion.  Furthermore, the differing sizes of the images creates a hierarchy that disturbs the sense of neutral temporality that you get from a camera like the ActionSampler, which reproduces all of the images that end up on the negative at the same size.

The ultimate magic of the Robot 3 is that it’s able to produce dreamlike images of intense graphic force that pull the spectator in, while at the same time disquieting the viewing eye.  As much as we may fall under the spell of the image itself, the mechanical ghost of the Robot 3 always lurks just offstage, a spectral inhabitant of the foreground of the image that we can’t quite manage to look right through.


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