Tate Etc

Portfolio Power Games

An insight into the making of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel's Evidence, a fascinating 1977 photobook of found images gleaned from scientific and corporate archives across America

Larry and I grew up in California, which was a centre of research for the technology and engineering companies, the sort of places that served the defence and space programmes – places that built big things. We believed they had archived photographs that were recording the difficult-to-understand collision of technology with the landscape, or with human activity.

The hard part was that even though we knew the images must exist, how could we find them? We had a National Endowment Fellowship, which served as our licence to enter, but there was no system, so we just had to look at everything (that wasn’t classified). We studied tens of thousands of pictures wherever we went. Larry would start opening filing cabinets and flipping through pages of 4×5 contact sheets, and I started at the other end.

We were working with these places of power, the places that built the nuclear reactors, missiles, components of the space programme – Bechtel, TRW, JPL, Aeronutronic Ford, Lockheed, Northrop, United Technologies – who were in many senses creating the world. We developed a guerrilla intent in subverting this world, by using their own ‘facts’ to formulate an opposing narrative. By creating a new context – the book Evidence – the photographs could articulate a story about our loss of faith in technology. The photographs implicate, but they are insufficient for indictment. They are a poem about the amputation of human sensitivity in service to technological progress.

Mike Mandel is an artist/photographer living and working in Watertown, Massachusetts.

A selection of photographs from Evidence is on display at Tate Modern.