These images are not what they seem.

Look first. Well-worn trails undulate over arid rolling terrain. Boulders rise from mirror-still water; tree branches dance against featureless skies. Wind-eroded canyonlands fade into smudged horizons. Only a lonely cross, some widely spaced electrical poles, the careful banking of a road, suggest people have been here before in these dark and moody landscapes.

What are we looking at, exactly? Recent scenes? Something from long ago? These photographs refuse to orient us in time. Some could have been made at the dawn of the photographic age. The black and white tonalities, mottled skies, and out-of-focus forms, all evoke the earliest landscapes from the 1840s and 50s, when photographers struggled to sensitize their daguerrean plates and glass plate negatives in difficult out-of-doors conditions.

Others remind us that the images could have been made only after construction crews arrived to carve the roads and string the electrical wires. That narrows things down only a bit. The photographs could have been made yesterday or 150 years ago.

But my initial reading of these photographs takes me down the wrong path. I imagine myself in the American West here. I think I see the arid canyonlands, the dry hills of the Great Basin, the coastal boulders along the Pacific shore. I feel like I recognize that panoramic view, that landscape shot from a high reference point that proclaims the photographer (and his nation) master of all he surveys.

We see based on what we already know.

But I’m not in the West here. At least not all of the time. It’s my own preconceived ideas about landscapes that take me to that place, and slot these images into a personal archive of familiar visual referents. We see based on what we already know. When I learn that Marcus DeSieno made all of these extraordinary photographs over the past few years, without ever leaving his studio, I have to go back and look again. Knowledge changes how I see. I’ve been asking all the wrong questions.

DeSieno makes these pictures by hacking into surveillance cameras, closed-circuit television feeds and the vast network of open-source web camera feeds on the internet. Easy work, he says. From the comfort of home, he roams the globe, voraciously accessing camera feeds from city councils, tourist bureaus, government agencies, and sources I’m reluctant to ask about. He has now visited more than 15,000 camera feeds. In our global surveillance state, all of us are among the watched – just look around you at the cameras mounted on stop signs, in stores, in museums, in airports. But DeSieno has become a watcher.

His interests undermine the true purposes of the cameras he hacks. He cares nothing about the people whose behavior is ostensibly being surveilled, not the speeders, the vandals, the shoplifters, or the trespassers. He’s not interested in singular moments of human drama, but rather in the vacant and empty landscapes captured more inadvertently by surveillance cameras, as they whir away waiting for something to happen.

We might ask whether “landscape” is even the proper word to characterize the raw image captured on a battery-operated digital camera mounted in a remote spot that operates without human intervention. The very concept of landscape implies human perception, what a particular person might see from a specific point of view, how they might make sense of that scene based on their knowledge, experience and cultural values.

So perhaps what the mechanically operated cameras capture cannot be termed landscapes. But the digital images become landscapes when DeSieno singles them out and looks at them anew from a quirky perspective of his own.

Although he starts as a picker, DeSieno eventually becomes more like a curator or archivist

The genius here lays not in taking the photograph in the first place, but in spotting it after it has already been made, selecting it from among hundreds of thousands of other surveillance images generated in precisely the same way. Although he starts as a picker, DeSieno eventually becomes more like a curator or archivist, sifting through thousands of screen shots, searching for images that best suit his needs.

He may not be taking the photographs, but he is thinking like a photographer when he makes his visual selections based on the aesthetic composition of the image, on how the images will work together, and on what raises interesting questions about the very meaning of landscape photography.

Read the rest of Martha A. Sandweiss’s essay in Marcus DeSieno’s new book No Man’s Land. Now available for purchase at Daylight Books.

Marcus DeSieno

Marcus DeSieno is a lens-based artist who is interested in how the advancement of visual technology continually changes and mediates our understanding of the world. DeSieno’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at the Aperture Foundation, the International Center for Photography, Center for Fine Art Photography, and many more.

Martha A. Sandweiss

Martha A. Sandweiss is a historian of the United States, with particular interests in the history of the American West, visual culture, and public history. She received her Ph.D. in History from Yale University and began her career as a photography curator at the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, TX. She later taught American Studies and History at Amherst College for twenty years before joining the Princeton faculty in 2009.