Unbelievable part 5: Photography
6 December 2019
Aspects of Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable would have you believe in its legitimacy, and I enjoyed the difficulties it caused for notions of authenticity, legitimacy and truth. The photographs and documentary footage of monumental sculptures, often with divers, on the ocean floor supposedly recorded during their discovery or recovery are convincing in their implied truths and plausibility, and played an important role in upholding the show’s narrative. As recorded documents, the accompanying still and moving images exuded an indexical quality that suggests liveness and realness that could not possibly have been staged. As I discussed in the previous post, that images of real marine archaeological finds of lost sunken cities have been in circulation for two decades, with increases in news stories about them and the share-ability of articles in the last ten years, at first adds weight to the Treasures images. However, much closer study reveals that the show’s lies were visible from the beginning.
Last week I included a photo I had taken of Proteus with Three Divers, a lightbox photo in Room 7 of Punta Della Dogana positioned close to Proteus, a two and a half-meter tall sculpture of what the guide (p. 16) describes as ‘[t]he shapeshifting sea god […] depicted in the midst of a vivid physical transformation: pose slackened, his human form mutates into the rocks and boulders of the caves in which he was believed to sleep.’ The Proteus mythology and this work’s resemblance to John Hurt in The Elephant Man I will discuss in later posts, but for now I want to draw attention to this image as one of the more fake-looking in the show.
There is a murky realness to the show’s images of the ‘original’ Hydra and Kali, the drama of which in the photographs and how it is ‘discovered’ and revealed via sonograph in the Netflix film give it a sense of believability, if framed dramatically. But Proteus with Three Divers appears staged to me (they’re all staged, but this one looks explicitly so). The sculpture looks Photoshopped into a very bright subaquatic scene with divers at the edges of the wide frame. Proteus stands upright, somehow landing on its base after, as the show’s lore claims, the Apistos met its fate too heavy with cargo during a storm, and had not been discovered as such for two thousand years.
I should stress at this point, while I have a trained eye as a film analyst, I am not a photographic expert, so until I can evidence the collage I am suggesting such an image to be, this remains in the realm of conjecture – and this will not be the only instance in my investigations where I will have to announce such a disclaimer. The crispness of digital photography now means that genuine photographs can look tampered with when that is not the case, which is something to bear in mind. It would be helpful to study each photograph to spot patterns in the seabed, to judge the depth of the water and light penetration, and to see if there are any signs of multiple artefacts within a given frame in the photos and videos. Some are taken with wide angles and no hint of anything else of explicit interest in the frame, just the set dressing of the ocean bed and no sense of geography of the underwater exhibition(s) we are encouraged to imagine there must have been. The images and show placed too much into visitors’ fields of vision, giving them too much to see and take in, and so drew focus away from details and out into the broader overwhelm of the spectacle. What I have done, though, is look into how staged underwater images can be photographed and filmed in special effects tanks such as those in Malta which have horizon views and a range of depths. Also, looking at the credits for the Netflix film, there are no fewer than ten visual effects artists listed. While their specific tasks are not given, at the very least they would likely apply colour-grading and the removal or insertion of objects.*
What I can also do with the images is compare those from the show with each other and with Christoph Gerigk’s journalistic photos of the IEASM excavations. In the case of Proteus, at least the photograph could be compared immediately with the sculpture positioned adjacent to it in the gallery – quite an uncanny experience as the sculpture almost faced itself, and, if I recall correctly, the viewer had to flip between the two, unable to see them both fully at the same time. With coral seeming to cover only one side of the body and of a colour somewhere between the aged bronze and surrounding foliage, in the image it appears standing tall amid a bright, lush ocean bed as if emerging from the aquatic greenery in mid-transformation, a slow sea-change if you will, as divers approach and stay the process by surfacing the old man of the sea, leaving him locked forever in between states of being. There is also a reminder here of the notion of Alonso in The Tempest having died in the shipwreck faked by Ariel and his remains turning to coral.
Rather than coral, though, Proteus looks more like it is partially covered in the type of greenery amid which it was supposedly found. The base is not visible in the image, and instead it looks like the sculpture’s feet rest on the sand. The ripples across the top of the frame and the brightness of the scene indicate shallow water. The Netflix film claims the first artefact – Golden Monkey – was found not far from an unnamed fishing village off the east coast of Africa (not even a country is given), so using the film’s logic it seems unlikely that an erect over-2-metre statue would not have been found before.
This kind of visual relationship between photographs and artefacts simultaneously confirming and disrupting the Apistos narrative recurred throughout the exhibition, with some intrigue emerging when considering Demon with Bowl in Palazzo Grassi. Upon entering the second venue, visitors were confronted with the imposing 18-metre high painted resin replica of an original sculpture not shown in the exhibition, save for in a photograph of it standing upright and alone, like Proteus, on the ocean floor. This image provides a trace of its existence and supposedly long-term resting place, but was the only instance in which the photographed sculpture was not displayed, and nor did a miniature replica feature in the scale model of the Apistos populated with impressions of the ship’s fated crew and cargo.
The enlargement and photograph were accompanied by an enlarged replica head, the guide points out (p. 36), of that shown in a much older-looking photograph blown up in a lightbox of a land dig ‘in the Tigris Valley in 1932’ which uncovered a disembodied demon head. The text suggests its mystery was solved upon the discovery of Demon with Bowl amongst the Apistos cargo. Although mentioned in the description of Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement), this photograph is not named or positioned in the otherwise thorough guide and map.
|Submerged Demon with Bowl|
The titles of the photographs in these examples might be notable. Proteus with Three Divers and Submerged Demon with Bowl tell no lies. The extraction of Demon with Bowl is shown in the Netflix film, so a smaller bronze version does exist and undoubtedly many of the artefacts really were recorded underwater, just in more pristine and staged conditions than implied by the story. Proteus does appear with three divers, but not necessarily in one photograph shot in the same space and time, or even in an aquatic environment at all.
Since the early days of photography and film, practitioners have been pressing the boundaries of associations of lens-based media as producing indexical registers of objective fact. The examples I have outlined here are just the beginning of the ways Treasures dispelled the idea of documentary truth – using some well-established techniques if you know your mockumentary history. An important detail is that, particularly with access to the IEASM photographs as mentioned last time, the Treasures images are too clean and bright for the depths and pollution levels present in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa (that’s as much detail ever given on coordinates), and are likely as staged as they look upon close inspection.
In 1999, major pollution was found across the Indian Ocean covering an area described as the size of the continental United States. We know from further studies in the past twenty years that this has worsened. The study reported significant issues with visibility across large swathes of the ocean surface that reached into the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea.** We also know that the Indian Ocean suffers from incredibly high levels of plastic pollution, yet none of this was evident in the show or the Netflix film, the images from which indicate clear conditions with high visibility. There is much more to mine out from this staging of clarity and implied truth.
*For readers unfamiliar with the terms, special effects are done ‘in-camera’, e.g. models, pyrotechnics, underwater shooting, and visual effects are applied in post-production, e.g. CGI.
** In what I am sure is purely a funny coincidence, one of the lead scientists was Professor Joseph Prospero of the University of Miami – his bio checks out!