high altitude

“The person who has never climbed a mountain has never lived. He merely vegetates on a level plain. What he lacks is the third dimension, the dimension of the sublime.”

– Vilem Flusser, quoted by Michael Najjar [1]


In 2008 Michael Najjar travelled to Argentina to climb Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas. While there he photographed the mountain and its surrounding peaks using an analogue camera; these photograph later became the basis of his 2010 series high altitude. In this series, the line of these already imposing mountain ranges is altered so that they no longer follow their natural path but instead trace the rise and fall of a number of the world’s stock indices – including NASDAQ, the Dow Jones, the DAX and the Hangseng. One image, perhaps the most potent of the series, deals with one single company: the infamous Lehman Brothers bank, the collapse of which is widely attributed as the trigger for the 2008 financial crash.

The images in high altitude are photographic but they are not simple photographs. Najjar describes the series as both an example of “hybrid photography” [2] and “data visualisation” [3]; painstakingly “modified stone by stone and rock by rock” [4] until the spiky line of the mountains mirrors perfectly a graph of the chosen stock index. What precisely Najjar means by the term “hybrid photography” is not clear, in popular usage the term refers not to photographs that have been digitally altered, but to photographs appearing in animated slideshows and set into motion by cinematic transitions, often accompanied by video and audio. [5] One might speculate, however, that in this particular instance “hybrid photography” refers not simply to the digital alteration of the photograph, but to the shift in its referentiality that alteration entails; while emphasising that this alteration is not arbitrary but drawn from a definite source.

The images no longer depict only the Andes mountain range, but the world’s stock markets; in fact the particular mountain range seems unimportant – more important is the idea of mountains in general. Mountains – and untouched ‘wild’ nature more generally – have a long association with the sublime, [6] with imposing peaks and sharp precipices the epitome of the unreachable and the overwhelming. That Najjar travelled to Argentina himself, placing himself at physical risk from altitude sickness and exhaustion to capture these photographs emphasises the bodily presence of the photographer in the landscape. Najjar makes a very explicit link between high altitude and the sense of the sublime that arises from this engagement with the landscape; describing the sense of sublimity experienced standing on the mountain’s summit as “overwhelming”. [7] In describing this sense he focuses on the sheer physicality of the mountains, contrasting their solidity with the dematerialised stock market that trades on “signifiers” [8] as opposed to material goods.

That Najjar has chosen this dematerialised system of commerce to reshape the mountains then is significant, for it suggests that, much like the forces of nature, the stock market not only has the power to reshape our world physically (for instance, through the laying of cables to enable faster transactions [9]) but represents a system that is beyond our control (high frequency trading algorithms routinely take decisions out of the hands of stockbrokers [10]). high altitude is not the only work to draw parallels between the sublime and the operations of the stock market, a classic example being the 2001 piece Black Shoals by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway. [11] Instead of mountains, Black Shoals uses the metaphor of stars, another example of the sublime, as a means to visualise the trading on the London Stock Exchange in real-time. However, it is not the evocation of the sublime on which I want to focus here.

It is tempting to compare high altitude to Fred Ritchin’s hypothetical photograph that changes hue in response to activity on the stock market, [12] since in both cases something of the photograph is altered by stock market data and the photograph comes to refer to something other than that captured by the camera. There are, however, two quite different propositions. In the case of Ritchin’s example the photograph is continually in flux, changing colour in response to a live data stream in a similar (though far less complex) manner to Black Shoals. The photograph then simultaneously refers to a past moment (the moment of capture) and to the present moment, or, to borrow a phrase from Mikko Villi, what might be termed the “there-now”. [13] Najjar’s work on the other hand is static, it is an image that remains tied to the past, both to the moment of capture – though as suggested above this is diluted – and the period represented by the stock index graph.

In order to help tease out some important differences between these two propositions, I am going to use an example I am currently developing as part of my own practice, KODK, which seeks to create a photograph like the one described by Ritchin using Processing. However, unlike Ritchin’s proposed photograph, my work only focuses on one specific company: Eastman Kodak. In using my own work as an example, I only mean to give a concrete example of the various technical considerations; I do not mean to claim that my method is the only or best method.

In my Processing sketch, the hue value of the photograph changes depending on the current price of Kodak stock, relative to the stock’s lowest and highest prices this year. The prices are obtained by sending an HTTP request to Yahoo! Finance (which I accept is not a direct line to the stock market), which returns a list of Comma Separated Values (CSVs) detailing the stock’s lowest and highest prices this year, its lowest and highest prices today, and its current price. In other words, the program receives a block of text, with the requested information given as floating point numbers. The stock’s year low price is mapped to a hue value of 0, and its high price to a value of 360. The other prices are mapped to values that lie between the two extremes. Based on this the hue value of the displayed photograph, in this case depicting a Kodak Box Brownie camera, is altered to reflect the current price of the stock – a low price causes the photograph to acquire a red tint and a high price a green one.

In KODK, non-visual data, that is the floating point numbers retrieved from Yahoo! Finance, is rendered visually; therefore it satisfies Manovich’s definition of a visualisation. [14] It might also be suggested that the changing colour of the image can be read as an index of the algorithm acting on the photograph. [15] Most importantly, however, the fact that the changes are occurring in the photograph in real-time creates a sense of “contiguity” [16] with outside events: that it is changing in response to something happening elsewhere at this present moment.

Although Najjar’s images also give visual form to non-visual data, the process that creates these images is quite different. In this case, the visualisation is completed by hand, adjusting the line of the mountain to align with a graph showing the rise and fall of the given stock index over a number of years. This means that Najjar’s images are not in the strictest sense mappings – remembering that a mapping in this sense involves substituting one set of values for another – but a tracing of an already mapped data set. Unlike in KODK there is no algorithm acting on the photograph and nor has there ever been. [17]

While high altitude refers only to the past, and not to the “there-now”, [18] as KODK does, it refers to an extended period of time and the shape given to the mountain ranges is not a likeness of anything found in the physical world. Najjar’s work traces stock market indices – quite literally indications of the state of the world’s stock markets. They are not connected to any physical process per se but they are reflective of real world events; and, as such, it can be argued that highs and lows indicate, or point to, real world events. For instance, in an interview discussing the image that traces the development of the Dow Jones, Najjar points to a dip and tells us that this is when the 9/11 attacks occurred. [19]

According to Peirce, an index is an indication, a sign which forces the mind to attend to something. [20] To borrow his example of a tremendous thunderbolt, the thunderbolt tells us that something significant has happened but not precisely what. The stock market indices function in a similar way, the dip that corresponds to the 9/11 attacks tells us that something significant happened to affect trading on the markets, but without a scale that allows us to link such dips to a specific moment in time it remains unclear as to exactly what they indicate. Likewise, the peak followed by a sharp drop that appears towards the right hand side of every image indicates something significant happened to affect markets worldwide (namely the 2008 financial crash). In both cases, we are encouraged to look outside of the frame to the wider world of which the image/photograph is part. As previously argued this action of pointing – which can be as simple as the fact that the photograph was taken [21] – is faithful to Peirce’s definition of the index.

In high altitude, the photograph’s initial indexicality, that is the interaction of light reflected off the Andes mountain range onto photographic film, has been displaced by shaping the photographs to refer to a stock market index, the importance of which is reinforced by each image’s title: dow_jones_80-09, dax_80-09, hangseng_80-09, and so on. Although there is no point at which the photograph is directly altered by the action of an algorithm mapping one set of values into another the image can be considered an indication and, by extension, indexical.



  1. Michael Najjar, “high altitude,” in Michael Najjar, Kevin Slavin, and Paul Wombell, high altitude (Bielefeld, Kerber Verlag: 2012): 21.
  2. Michael Najjar, “artwork/high altitude” [online], 2015, www.michaelnajjar.com (accessed 22 May 2015).
  3. Institute for New Economic Thinking, “Beyond the Numbers: Michael Najjar’s Artwork at INET Berlin, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64pBS6aqqEg (accessed 22 May 2015).
  4. Ibid.
  5. A Google search for the term “hybrid photography” returns many web pages that describe “hybrid photography” as the bringing together of photographs, video and audio into an eProduct to display on the web.
  6. Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, John. T. Goldthwait (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
  7. Michael Najjar, “high altitude”, 21.
  8. Ibid., 20.
  9. Kevin Slavin, “How Algorithmns Shape Our World,” in high altitude, Michael Najjar, Kevin Slavin and Paul Wombell (Bielefeld, Kerber Verlag: 2012): 5 – 9.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, “Black Shoals” [online], 2015, http://www.blackshoals.net (accessed 25 May 2015).
  12. Fred Ritchin, After Photography (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009).
  13. Mikko Villi, “”Hey, I’m Here Right Now”: Camera phone photographs and mediated presence,” Photographies 8, 1 (2015): 3 – 21.
  14. Lev Manovich, “Data Visualization as New Abstraction and the Anti-Sublime” [Online], 2002, http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/038-data-visualisation-as-new-abstraction-and-anti-sublime/37_article_2002.pdf (accessed 17 December 2014).
  15. Braxton Soderman, “The Index and the Algorithm,” Differences 18, 1 (2007): 153 – 186.
  16. Tom Schofield, Marian Dörk, and Martyn Dade-Robertson, “Indexicality and Visualization: Exploring Analogies with Art, Cinema and Photography,” in Proceedings of the 9th ACM Conference on Creativity and Cognition, New York (2013): 179.
  17. It could be argued that using Photoshop to alter the image also constitutes an algorithm acting on the image, but in this instance an algorithm acting on the image refers to a frameworks of rules set up by the artist/programmer that then operate independently on the image; not simply carry out the alterations dictated by the photographer.
  18. Mikko Villi, “”Hey, I’m Here Right Now”,” 7.
  19. Institute for New Economic Thinking, “Beyond the Numbers: Michael Najjar’s Artwork at INET Berlin.”
  20. Charles Sanders Peirce, “What is a Sign?” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings eds. Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).
  21. David Green and Joanna Lowry, “From Presence to the Performative: Re-thinking Photographic Indexicality” in Where is the Photograph?, ed. David Green (Brighton and Maidstone, UK: Photoforum and Photoworks, 2003), 47 – 60.

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