Evan Hume: Viewing Distance

Published on 10/29/2021

Viewing Distance grew out of many years of researching photography’s use as a tool of the national security state for reconnaissance, surveillance, and documentation of advanced technologies. Growing up in the Washington, DC area and living in the US’s political center had a strong influence on my approach to photography. I first began filing Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain images from government archives as a graduate student at George Washington University. The FOIA process and spending hours searching through publicly available declassified documents from intelligence agencies became my methods of assembling an archive of photographs that range from informational to enigmatic and redacted.

Photography’s technical and operational evolution in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first is inseparable from political conflict. Having emerged from the Second World War as the major world power, the United States soon began pursuing a policy of containment in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. In 1947, the National Security Act created the National Security Council, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Central Intelligence Agency, and Department of Defense (renamed from Department of War). A rapidly growing national security state would lead to an expanded use of photography in reconnaissance and surveillance to advance the US’s Cold War objectives.

The emergence of Soviet nuclear capabilities in 1949 was a cause of great alarm in the US, and the so-called bomber gap—the unfounded notion that the USSR had surpassed the US in its arsenal of bomber jets—was used to justify increased defense spending and the buildup of a bomber fleet by the US Air Force. By the early 1950s, President Eisenhower and national security officials believed that innovations in aerial photo-reconnaissance were necessary to assess Soviet weapons capabilities. This new approach would be markedly different from aerial photography during the first two world wars, when cameras were used on aircraft mainly for mapping, determining potential bombing targets, and assessing damage after raids. “Peacetime” aerial photography’s goal became capturing images of Warsaw Pact military installations while avoiding detection by Soviet radar systems. The results of this photographic desire were significant developments in aerial imaging as well as high-altitude and high-speed aircraft created from a partnership between government agencies, corporations, and academia now commonly referred to as the military-industrial complex.

President Eisenhower and his advisors agreed that rather than being led by the Air Force, the CIA should take charge of photo-reconnaissance operations despite the resistance of Director of Intelligence Allen Dulles, who preferred more traditional methods of espionage. Eisenhower gave the CIA no choice, considering this to be primarily an intelligence-gathering operation and not a military one. He believed a mission operated by a civilian agency carried less risk of causing political damage if a reconnaissance aircraft was detected or crashed within the borders of the USSR.

Aerial photo-reconnaissance development projects resulted in high-altitude, high-speed U-2 and Project Oxcart aircraft, the latter essentially a camera that could fly faster than the speed of sound. The camera systems on the planes were capable of image resolutions more than 200 times greater than any previously existing camera and included lenses designed with the aid of computer algorithms. The once-skeptical CIA Director Allen Dulles was convinced of aerial photo-reconnaissance’s effectiveness upon seeing an image captured during a U-2 mission, which he called “the million-dollar photograph.”
As Soviet radar systems became better at detecting US reconnaissance aircraft, operations shifted toward outer space. The successful CORONA satellite program that was being developed in parallel with spy plane projects would become the lodestar for photo-reconnaissance moving forward. In 1968, President Johnson stated, “We’ve spent 35 or 40 billion on the space program. And if nothing else had come out of it except the knowledge that we gained from space photography, it would be worth ten times what the whole program had cost.” While this invaluable photography ultimately proved that the bomber gap was a myth and that the Soviet arsenal was not nearly as large as once assumed, intelligence gathering by satellites and eventually drones would be an essential part of the national security state’s preservation and expansion of US global dominance.

The source images that make up the pictures in Viewing Distance provide a distorted and fragmented archival glimpse of photography in the service of US imperium. While many of the images date back to the mid-twentieth century, they have only recently been declassified and much information remains secret. These pictures represent the decades-long time delay from when knowledge comes into being and when it becomes publicly accessible. Some are redacted while others have transformed by repeated reproduction during their time in the archives. Viewing Distance combines photographs pertaining to Cold War developments in photographic technologies with contemporary documents and devices, connecting past and present with implications for the future. Processes including analog printing, digital collage, scanner manipulation, and data bending are used to animate the archival material. Through this disruption and layering, historical fragments are presented in a state of flux, open to alternate associations and implications. What we are allowed to know and see is often incomplete and indeterminate, encouraging speculation and critical vision.