Border PatrolThis post is part of Border Town Online, a digital complement to the Border Town Design Studio which will be on display in Detroit on September 21, 2011. You can find the rest of the posts at dividedcities.com.
Several years ago I was invited by an acquaintance to dinner. In the entryway of their apartment was a large color photograph of a naked woman in a classic pinup pose. The photo would have been sexy in that vintage girl-next-door way, shot against a soft pale-blue background, hands up to her head gently holding back a cascade of natural blond hair. But instead of a soft pouty expression, the woman's hair framed a gaping, empty hole, which echoed the large white punches made in her chest and the wide white circle between her legs.
I didn't know our host well enough to comment until later in the evening, when I learned the image was part of a collection his grandfather had. Apparently, working at a mail-order photo-processor, it was his grandfather's job to work as censor. Using a strict set of guidelines and a metal punch, he selectively defaced customers' negatives, printing the results and sending everything back in this new, more appropriate form.
There is much that is amusing in this anecdote (at the time I found the mental image of the inevitable outcome hilarious: a desk strewn with tiny cutouts of nipples) but the disturbing nature of the end result was what stood out. In a bid to make the picture less objectionable, the censors had made the photo far more violent and transgressive than it actually was, evoking dismemberment and a total loss of identity in a way I found frightening.
The playful look I imagined the woman gave (or feigned for) the camera was excised, emphasizing the uncomfortableness of the pose and the canned background, bringing attention to the most unseemly parts of the process. The image, meant to at least simulate the intimate, had been blatantly "handled;" sharp-edged and mechanical, threatening and violent. The normal border of the photograph, a natural horizon we accept as the edges of a magic window, was made intensely obvious by the missing pieces in the middle. Not only the mental illusion of an intimate, erotic encounter, but the illusion of photography was broken - the process itself was made aggressively visible.
I had more or less forgotten this image until a few years ago, when virtually the same technique (in inverse) was discovered by the internet as a meme known as bubbling, where celebrity photos are "undressed" by carefully masking clothing. A kind of reverse-censorship in the service of titillation.