Brea Souders


Essay by Alessandro Merola

What will be left for us to probe? What ‘aesthetic entrances’ will be used? Alessandro Merola on Brea Souders’ weaving of pixels and pigments that offers intricate yet epic articulations of the natural world, continuing long traditions of American landscape photography.

The counter-mapping of Michael Wolf, Doug Rickard and Jon Rafman – armchair street photographers who arrived following the inception of Google Street View in 2007 – was distinctly radical at the point of emergence. They mined data captured by roving robot cameras to uncover the forgotten, harrowing and sometimes sublime. Yet, given our urge to seek out the unchartered and unseen, have the possibilities of such appropriations been exhausted? After all, as Philip Larkin ventured: ‘All streets in time are visited’ (1961). So entered Google Photo Sphere in 2013. The software enables users to take 360-degree panoramas deep in the wild, where there are no roads, utilising AI to stitch together hundreds of images and construct navigable constellations. Whilst Rafman even trawled Street View to discover parallel histories of the medium – with one screenshot a repeat of Garry Winogrand’s ‘Los Angeles, California’ (1969) – users of Photo Sphere can contribute to the world of images by rendering a slice of earth for the first time ever.

Of the many quandaries such technologies have tabled for photography, one looms on the horizon most existentially: once we reach Jorge Luis Borges’ vision of a map so vast and detailed that it becomes indistinguishable from the empire itself, what will be left to probe? As an artist exploring the limits and possibilities of the medium, Brea Souders has channelled this conundrum into an inspired new work, currently exhibited at Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York. Comprised of images culled from Photo Sphere’s reconstructions of the American West, Vistas stages a geology of ghosts; of shadows sheared from their real bodies. The latter have been erased by Google in a concession to privacy, but the silhouettes – often truncated, splintered and smashed in uneasy syncs – remain, with the algorithm not recognising them as humans. Indicative of her adventitious practice, Souders has shaped these artefacts through an arduous process, circumventing the algorithm’s asperities by painting over screenshots with watercolours. It’s an exercise rooted in late 19th century traditions of colouring, by hand or through printing, souvenir postcards presenting national parks in the West. They allowed Americans to see the utopias they could not visit; ‘aesthetic entrance[s]’ through the picture frame, as geographer Denis Cosgrove has noted,[i] which have only intensified in the intervening years.

The renaissance of image-manipulation – as well as collecting, reproducing and distributing online – has often turned images into degenerate imitations, orbiting miles away from their origins. Hito Steyerl posited: ‘The poor image is a copy in motion. […] As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed.’[ii] Such disassociations are especially manifest in our encounters with images of the earth, considering that as our assimilation into virtual space becomes more entrenched, our relationship to physical space becomes more estranged. Swooping down on oil fields and feedlots (2012–13) via Google Earth, Mishka Henner conveyed this most saliently. His beautifully abstract composites, enhanced and blown-up, belied the atrocities they depicted, consequently exposing the ways we are increasingly conditioned to witness the world at a surveillance camera’s remove.

Yet, can image-manipulation – digital or analogue – also be a means to bridge the gulf between the viewer, photographic original and place portrayed? Souders’ devoted brushworking of each nook and cranny transmits a venting of nostalgia and homesickness so fiercely felt that these locales – some of which have been reconfigured by fires and mudslides since their uploads – become either impossibly intimate or devastatingly remote. There are instances when Souders moves from pale, pastel hues to produce more retinally-dazzling displays akin to a sun-stroked trance, thereby subverting her predecessors’ primary logic for painting postcards: to make black-and-white more real. Stones swirl luminous yellow; shrubs glow neon green; and mountains ache with a melancholy blue, the same shade Rebecca Solnit called ‘the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance.’[iii] Souders seeks to kindle a tactility with these faraway fragments; to commune with the longed-for original. After all, what is desire if not endless distances?

The spectacular mysticism of Souders’ visions invokes an inalienable subjectivity, yet one which is not only steeped in the drama of the self, but bound by a larger awareness of its passage through certain photographic traditions. For, virtually mediating, and appropriating images of, terrains initially imaged by men – Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan et al – the artist activates an agency historically withheld from women. Vistas thus becomes all the more disruptive by way of the fact many of its scenes relay female viewpoints; those of women trekking, documenting, mapping and populating. Their imprints recall those of Ana Mendieta’s Silhueta (1973–78), which saw her burn, carve and mould her form into the landscape to ‘return to the maternal source’.[iv] Whilst Mendieta’s interventions were inherently fleeting – the frames of her figure were filled with flowers, blood and candles, all unguarded against a gust of wind or incoming tide – the very act of their documentation ensured the performative pieces endured within an arc of photographic history. Similarly, what Souders has excavated on Photo Sphere are evasions of the ephemeral; traces of traces of the body, ‘stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask’.[v] But what if the Internet itself is not immune from decomposition? In weaving pixels and pigments, Souders secures the survival of each shadow self within imaginary, symbolic and ultimately material registers. Her literal layering of experiences – encounters with and yearnings for the sublime – amounts to an intricate yet epic articulation of the multivalent meanings we can ascribe to the land.

Overcoming loss by ‘fixing a shadow’, the ‘most transitory of things’, is tied up with the advent of photography.[vi] In The Pencil of Nature (1844), William Henry Fox Talbot of course recounted that it was through his fruitless attempts to trace Lake Como’s refracted image in the camera obscura with a pencil that the idea of the photogram occurred. Given human proclivities to orient the self within the world (the oldest known paintings comprise outlines of hands splayed across cave walls in northern Spain), it was only inevitable that the creator’s shadow would enter the frame via the “shadow selfie”. Lewis Hine’s ‘John Howell, an Indianapolis newsboy’ (1908) pictured as much of his figure and tripod as its “subject”, whilst Alfred Stieglitz’s ‘Shadows in Lake’ (1916) echoed Narcissus’ projective stare. With Vistas, however, it is impossible to discern, in the source images themselves, the strategic shadows from the inadvertent ones. Indeed, these photographers were not responsible for an imperfect algorithm that only partially-excised them, nor were they ever able to escape the West’s radiant rays. A less ambiguous consideration is perhaps of that which moved them to pull out their phones in the first place; the mantra of the Instagram era, “pics or it didn’t happen”, looming large.

There are several occasions when Photo Sphere’s algorithm comes, via chance, perilously close to eliminating the human trace in its totality, leaving behind only the shadows of dismembered hands holding onto phones. Maintained in monochrome, four are arranged in a grid layout, constituting the series’ cynosure. They are the eeriest of the images, but equally evocative. For herein lies the alleged democratic virtue essential to photography, as discovered by Talbot at Lacock Abbey: all is illustrated by reversible patches of light and dark. What, then, is the difference between bodies and shadows? I was here, imparts each vista. Gazing into the iridescent blacks of these silhouettes, it is possible to meet ourselves – wanderers, cowboys, pioneers, goddesses, custodians – stood on a cliff-edge somewhere with a wildness in our bones, the sun soaring above and phones pointed ahead, ready to make history and impart back: We were there, too.♦

All images courtesy the artist and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York © Brea Souders

Installation views of Vistas at Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York until 20 August 2021. Photographs by Olympia Shannon

Alessandro Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.


[i] Denis Cosgrove, “Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea” in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 10, no. 1 (1985), p. 55.

[ii] Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image” in e-flux #10 (2009), available at, accessed 22 July 2021.

[iii] Rebecca Solnit, “The Blue of Distance” in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Viking, 2005), p. 29.

[iv] Ana Mendieta, quoted in Ana Mendieta: A Retrospective, eds. Petra Barreras del Rio and John Perreault (New York: New Museum, 1988), p. 10.

[v] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Doubleday, 1990), p. 154.

[vi] William Henry Fox Talbot, “Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or the Process by which Natural Objects may be Made to Delineate Themselves without the Aid of the Artist’s Pencil” (1839), p. 6, available at, accessed 22 July 2021.

Tom Griggs and Paul Kwiatowski

Ghost Guessed

Book review by Natasha Christia

For her piece In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective for e-flux journal #24, 2011Hito Steyerl writes: ‘Imagine you are falling. But there is no ground. (…) Paradoxically, while you are falling, you will probably feel as if you are floating – or not even moving at all. (…) As you are falling, your sense of orientation may start to play additional tricks on you. The horizon quivers in a maze of collapsing lines and you may lose any sense of above and below, of before and after, of yourself and your boundaries. Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft.’

Ghost Guessed by Tom Griggs and Paul Kwiatowski is a brilliant meditation on disorientation amidst a groundless world of increasing digitisation, expanded horizons and prolonged absences. In their book, the voice of a narrator is deployed to bring together two stories centred on the theme of loss: firstly, the tragic accident of a young pilot, Grigg’s cousin Andrew Lindberg, who crashed while on his way to a hunting trip in northern Minnesota in 2009; alongside the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014, undoubtedly one of the greatest mysteries in the history of modern aviation.

Combining intimate prose with photographs, Ghost Guessed examines the after-effects of these unfortunate incidents. It looks through the multiple emotional strategies people employ to process absence caused by death in an era of high-tech visual media; images here are seen operating both as a means to validate facts and as cradles of comfort insulated from pain and self-delusion. Three chapters divided in subsections arrange the project chronologically. ‘Vanish’ awakens memories of the two accidents, their media coverage and impact; ‘Search’ focuses on the narrator’s failed attempt to reconnect with his family through an unsuccessful return to the crash site; and ‘Return’ is a flashback to a trip to Kuala Lumpur, presumably three weeks after the news of MH370 broke.

Ghost Guessed adds up to an alluring fictional essay on the visual culture with which Griggs and Kwiatowski grew up. Long passages of text alternate loosely with a variety of registers that encompass the visual archaeology of the last 30 years: Family photographs, stills extracted from home videos, forensic reports from the crash scene, press images, TV screens and aerial photography offer one level of imagery, in tandem with the authors’ own photographs or digital collages. On the one hand they set the tone for dealing with demise and pain, but at the same time, they address how media – from domestic video cameras to today’s online streaming – have been paramount in creating our rational and metaphysical understanding of the self and the exterior world.

Ongoing digitisation and its intrinsic technological and aesthetic modes have been at the core of the skilful intertextual construction of Ghost Guessed. What began as a sporadic Skype correspondence between the two artists turned into a poignant co-authored memoir of life interconnections and synchronicities. The revelation of Andrew Lindberg’s accident during the conversations provided the breakthrough from theory to life, triggering a series of strange coincidences and life experiences, such as an unexpected opportunity for Griggs to undertake a trip to Malaysia, and his decision to revisit the crash recovery scene. Project and life started to collide.

Ghost Guessed eloquently addresses the pronounced shift of our times from the zapping condition, where screen and spectator are still physically and ontologically separated, to a form of second life, where orchestrated reality literally takes over. As early as the eighties, Andrew Lindberg’s grandfather is the first of the family to step into an alternative reality. Enclosed in a flight simulator during an aviation convention, he manages to channel his frustrated dreams of becoming a pilot without any risk of failure. Later, it is the narrator who undertakes the same route as the MH370. Surrounded by a screen in a controlled airspace chamber at Pavillon, one of Kuala Lumpur’s most popular shopping centres, he is able to position the aircraft safely back on the runway, rewriting history and restoring hope. If simulators perform it explicitly, this euphoric re-enactment of fate implicitly undercuts the whole Ghost Guessed. In order to make sense of reality’s haphazard and heavy events, the protagonists resort to social networks, snapshots and amateur video cameras –‘their eyes wandering non-stop through floods of images’. Eventually what is real has to take place in the realm of the virtual.

And yet the very thing that gives the overall narrative its linchpin is that which is impossible to reach. ‘Located deep within the wilderness of the White Earth Indian Reservation’, the event has not been recorded. The day Andrew’s body is recovered the gathered family is not allowed access to it. The body cannot be seen; no image is produced. ‘Years later, on the drive to return to the crash site, the narrator is lost and unable to make the photograph. By the time he is almost there, it is too dark’. Arriving at the scene neither ensures the success of the experience nor does it make him feel closer to his family. Ghost Guessed deals with this paradox – the excruciating albeit redemptive resistance of the fact. In the aftermath of the accident, the narrator, ‘floating through time with no structure’, appears watching for hours the lives of family and friends through social media. There is always the screen mediating, as if the relieving pure truth lay unreachable in the blind algorithmic parts of the simulation cabin.

In her video essay In Free Fall (2010), Hito Steyerl examines how the paradigm of linear perspective today is currently supplemented by groundless vertical perspective. Likewise, Ghost Guessed is replete of ‘vertical cities that measure the distance to the horizon in blocks’, and of views from above or towards the sky. This condition of verticality is even further accentuated towards the end of the book, pointing to the ultimate fragmentation of experience in a hyper-reality devoid of foundational schemes as Kuala Lumpur evokes a claustrophobic glass shimmering dreamscape. Under its discoloured sky, any sense of orientation is disrupted and multiplied into a million pieces. Even the views of Hawaii from the pilot’s cabin end up looking as a simulated landscape; the horizon is melting before our eyes.

‘Blue skies, clear skies, everything is ok’. A fascination with birds, flights, and clouds – both natural and virtual – too is vividly apparently in Ghost Guessed. Different cognitive systems, such as astrophysics, meteorology and religious omens, hint at solutions to enduring questions but these expectations crash against the narrative’s disquieting mix of conspiracy theories and endless media speculations. Extracted from video stills of jet flight crashes, the collage of the four planes in the middle of the book signals the mediatised hijacking explosions as it was exemplified in Johan Grimonprez’s glorious Dial History (1997). The sky is consolidated as the sanctuary of destruction where our more precious memories are anchored to impossible images. Up there, aside from the unlimited time of fall, there is no stable paradigm of orientation onto which we can hang. As Paul Virilio once remarked, each technology invents its own catastrophe, and with it a different celestial insurance. Ours is the permanent vertical fall.

All images courtesy of the artists. © Tom Griggs and Paul Kwiatowski.

Natasha Christia is a writer, curator and educator based in Barcelona.