Erasure, Camouflage, and “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”

Paul Pfeiffer

Paul Pfeiffer discusses the process behind his photographic sequence piece, “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

ART21: Can you talk about the photographic sequence, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

PFEIFFER: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is the title of an ongoing series of photographs. It started with five images that were material drawn from publicity stills of Marilyn Monroe, with the central figure removed. And at this point, it’s kind of morphed into something else. Now, I’m raiding the archives of the NBA and finding photographs that I’m manipulating to, generally speaking, remove a lot of contextual detail, to leave a kind of solitary figure in the setting of a crowd of people.

The series started with research that I was doing into, at the time, images of Marilyn Monroe. Why Marilyn? At that point, I thought, “This has got to be one of the most famous human bodies in the archive. It conjures up so much; it’s such a legend.” And so, I went through these images and ended up selecting a few of them and then going in and erasing Marilyn Monroe from the image. One of the things that really interested me was that, in the process, really what was going on was not so much erasure—and it never really is. It’s actually more like camouflage, in the sense that you are taking pieces of the background from around the image and very slowly applying these pieces over the body. So that, in the end, you’re presenting the illusion that you are seeing through to the background. But in fact, you are inventing background material that wasn’t there before.

What I found out, or what I ended up with, which I didn’t really expect, was in some ways the most abstract images that I’ve made so far. Unless you know that Marilyn was there, you wouldn’t otherwise know that there was a figure there, much less that it was specifically Marilyn. At the time, I was really quite focused on the process itself and the historical resonance and the emotional resonance that I felt working on these images. I’ve been asked after the fact how I would describe that, and I’ve thought that it’s a bit like what people describe as far as ghost limbs among soldiers. In a war, people lose a limb and will have this continuing feeling, like they still have that limb, like a ghost limb. Another kind of dramatic example is when the World Trade Center went down. For long afterwards, you sort of looked up and expected to see something there. Although it’s literally taking the figure away, in some ways it’s also intensifying something about the figure that used to be there.

Now, this year and late last year, I’ve been continuing this series under the same title, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but taking a very different approach. Now I’m starting from images that I’m drawing from the online archive of the NBA. These are images that you can pull up on your screen and then order for something like twenty or thirty bucks a pop, and some of them are quite amazing. They go back to the 1950s and are some of the most striking images of sports legends, in the environment of the stadium or the arena with the crowds in the background. And so, I’ve been selectively appropriating these images and manipulating them to remove all the contextual detail—so that what remains is not an absent figure but an intensified figure, by virtue of the fact that you are lacking some aspects of a context to place it in.

In the last of these images that I completed, for example, I started from an image taken from a game in which Wilt Chamberlain is putting the ball in the basket, and there’s three or four figures around him, all trying to prevent him from doing that. And the figure that remains is not Wilt Chamberlain. It’s actually one of the minor figures from the margins of the image. All the others were removed, and this sideline image was moved to the center. So for me, it’s quite striking because, by virtue of being in the margins—I suppose the person who composed the shot wasn’t too concerned with what the figure on the side was doing: He’s reaching up to stop the ball and is in this position that’s so foreshortened that his shoulders almost completely cover his head. His head is thrown far back and his legs are extended out in a kind of extreme way.

Moving this figure to the center makes sense if you see him on the margins. It’s an odd contradiction that you’re left with, because now it seems the shot was composed completely around him. And it’s breaking every rule of composition. It looks like his head is chopped off; all of his limbs look awkward. To me, it almost resembles the figure in a photograph of a lynching. At any rate, there’s a strange kind of inconsistency to the composition of the image. At the same time, this awkwardly composed person is standing dead center in an arena, surrounded by thousands of people who are watching—and there is no ball, no basket, no reason for him to be jumping or floating in this way. It is the sense of not just a lack of context but, in a way, it looks like this figure has somehow been frozen into this frame. It looks quite airless and almost like a stain on the image.

Paul Pfeiffer. Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (6), 2001. Digital duraflex print; 60 × 48 inches. Edition of 6, AP of 1. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

ART21: Where does the title come from?

PFEIFFER: Well, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is an art historical reference in that it refers back to the woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer, who in some ways was really an innovator in the field of the representation of the figure and was a naturalist and sort of a scientist in himself. He was really involved in defining the building blocks of the figure study and the representation of people during his time. And simultaneously it’s a biblical reference, since the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are precisely the figures that appear at the point when the world comes to the end, at Armageddon. It’s very dramatic—none of which appears in any way in the photographs. There aren’t even four. At this point, there are eight of these figures in the series. But I really like the combination of a title that conjures up the history of the evolution of the figure study and at the same time a suggestion of a kind of larger epic occurring, having to do with some kind of dramatic ending or shifting.

ART21: How does the process of erasing or camouflaging the figure in photography translate into your video works? What is that process like?

PFEIFFER: The editing process that I use is very slow and ultimately very manual and requires going frame by frame even though, to a degree, the process is somewhat automated through software tools. It’s like—the computer can only think so much, and then the human hand and eye really have to do the rest of the refining work. It’s partially because this kind of editing software is really meant to be used in tandem with other shooting techniques and framing techniques. So that, for example, if you really wanted to remove a figure in an efficient way, you should start by shooting the figure against a blue background, which is standard practice in the special effects world. Then it becomes very easy. But in my case, I’m using found imagery and (often) archival imagery, which to begin with is not even very high quality. It’s already degraded from age. And I’m often taking an image that’s at its ninth or tenth generation by the time it reaches the shelf at a video store, and I pull it of the shelf.

So, what it means is: when I get to the editing, I have to go very slowly. A certain amount of the automated tools in the software I can’t use. I just simply have to go and do it manually. I’ve already started to work with other people and build a team to work with me on this. I’ve gone back to my oldest friends in art school who I know are amazing craftsmen because I hung out with people who had the same kind of love for doing this kind of work that I had. To edit a three-minute piece like the Long Count pieces, it would take me and two or three other people roughly two or three months. And that’s now that we’ve gotten better at it, to do three minutes worth of finished footage.

And what’s curious to me is it’s actually a process that I enjoy. If I had my way and there were no other added complications to renting a studio, I would happily sit in my room and do this work all day. It’s a bit like meditation. I also feel like it’s a bit like painting or drawing, in the sense that you leave your everyday consciousness of the world and achieve a certain focus. People would call it right-brain focus, but at any rate, it draws you in and can be quite relaxing and enjoyable, especially if you don’t have some horrendous deadline to meet. At the same time, this kind of process predates the computer and goes back to the way animation was done in Hollywood early on, where you would find practically a room full of what amounts to animation factory workers overseen by a foreman, who makes the important decisions about what the figures are doing. Ultimately you have a large team of people who are paid less! (LAUGHS)

Paul Pfeiffer at work during a residency at ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2003. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 2 episode, Time. © Art21, Inc. 2003.

ART21: Let’s talk about the NBA in San Antonio, where the process of obtaining your source material is quite different from dipping into an archive of images. The filming process with the Spurs—what were you trying to do there?

PFEIFFER: I started out in this process thinking, “I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to accumulate footage from commercially available tapes and off the TV, and wouldn’t it be great to take it one step further, or one step closer to the source and try to get exactly the images I want, on the spot?” Especially because I’m working with special effects software to do a lot of the manipulations that I am doing. And what I have or what I can generally afford is a consumer-level version of much more expensive machines and software that only Hollywood can use. So, I’m really interested in trying to figure out how to move past the consumer level. Not necessarily to do something more Hollywood, but to my mind, kind of, it’s a way of getting deeper into the material.

Ultimately, if you look at how the images are made, that leads back to Hollywood and back to professional sports. It’s these places that the tools were really made for. The consumer tools are a secondary output. Everything is really tailored for a much bigger industry. I find it really an interesting possibility to work somehow closer to that, even though I know that with copyright issues and all the money that’s involved, there’s plenty of reasons not to.

When I was developing a plan for the Artpace residency in Texas, I found out that the Spurs—the basketball team in San Antonio—and the owners of the Spurs are quite friendly to artists, and they are patrons of the arts in Texas. So, through Artpace, I approached them and, lo and behold, they were like, “Sure, you can come and shoot as much footage as you want at the game.” I approached it as kind of an experiment. Wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do and how I was going to do it, but thought, “Let’s just go in there and try something out and discover a few things.” One was that, after a few days of shooting, it became clear that what I could shoot—and actually they gave me a cameraman to work with, they were so generous—what I could shoot and what I could tell the cameraman to shoot, in the end, wasn’t necessarily more interesting than the kind of stuff that I could pull of the television, in a way. The television broadcast crew has ten cameras instead of just one, with fancy track systems that allow for really smooth motion shots.

The footage that I could get off the TV is of a much higher quality than what I could actually shoot myself on the court, without my duplicating the infrastructure and having ten cameras myself and doing what they were doing precisely. The other thing that I discovered is that there’s an enormous amount of activity happening in the stadium beyond the game itself, and that’s what I found myself really interested in and focusing on. At a certain point, I just stopped filming the game and turned my camera around and started filming the crew—Season Three! (LAUGHS) I mean the camera crew in the arena—and watching how the whole spectacle worked, which is quite amazing. The final effect is that it’s extremely difficult to sit in the arena as an artist with a camera and be dispassionate and be removed from the emotional intensity that’s going on. At a certain point, especially if it was a good game, I just wanted to put down the camera and just watch. How do they do that?

It’s a fascinating thing because I got to talk a bit with the people who produce the games—not the players but the audio-visual technicians who produce the games. And they are timing the bringing down of the lights and the bringing up of the lights at every moment, and where the cameramen are standing. It’s interesting to watch the cameramen because oftentimes you’ll have a row of three or four cameramen, and they are so well trained, in terms of following the game, that it’s like a ballet. Without even looking at each other, they move perfectly in tandem. The sight of four cameras all moving—it’s almost like a chorus line.

Paul Pfeiffer filming a San Antonio Spurs vs. Miami Heat NBA basketball game, San Antonio, TX, 2003. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 2 episode, Time. © Art21, Inc. 2003.

ART21: Do you think filming live events has generated a shift in your thinking?

PFEIFFER: Well, I guess it relates, to me, to the idea of a reduction of things to images. We have great power today to make images that are truly spectacular and to achieve a kind of perfection, and there is something terrifying, to me, about it as well, because maybe these images become so perfect that you forget everything else. So, in a way, there is like a shrinking possibility in the mind or in the imagination. It’s kind of like if you’re served literally five hundred channels on TV, why go out? There are obviously plenty of reasons to go out, but there’s something really seductive at the same time about the comfort of pre-digested images that are available. It makes me wonder if, ultimately, what we are talking about is not just the proliferation of images or a more distracted viewer or freedom of choice in terms of the consumption of images but really a shrinking of the imagination.