Cow Photo Finish

The history of human competition is inherently linked to technology. Since the days when better rocks meant sharper spears and bigger fires meant warmer caves, the advantage provided by one’s tools could mean the difference between life and death.

Today, away from the conventional arenas of modern warfare and elite sport, society’s quest for absolutes – definitive winners, losers, and zero-sum games – has become increasingly acute. Beyond the individual, we see this competition manifest itself within almost all of our man-made systems, from our political institutions through to our attention-hungry devices. Competitive human nature has now been co-opted and leveraged by the tax-averse barons of Silicon Valley, who operate a profit model largely built upon exacerbating differences and ruthlessly exploiting psychological weaknesses. Big Tech’s own relentless quest for marginal gains now plays out 24/7 across the terrain of twitching retinas and swiping thumbs. More likes, more shares, more follows, more friends, more content, more clicks, more data.

A backdrop of commerce and corruption was also instrumental in the technological developments which led to the introduction of the photo finish within sport. Despite being used in the Olympics as far back as 1912, the real innovations within photo finish technology emerged from the United States in the 1940s in order to increase trust within the gambling worlds of horse and dog racing. Its subsequent refinement and transfer to the world of human endeavours was inevitable.

Julian Benjamin’s work, Cow Photo Finish, is a deliberately absurd appropriation of sprint finish tech, redeploying it within the setting of the English rural-industrial landscape. Having located a dairy producer in the Hampshire countryside, Benjamin painted his own white line across a dirt track and proceeded to capture, pixel by pixel, the absolute mundanity of a herd of cows en route to the milking shed.

When approaching a modern sprint finish photograph, the viewer needs to do so with a suspension of photography’s norms. The surrealness – all warped limbs and sterile background – results from its inverting of the traditional photographic axes. Whereas a standard photograph shows spatial locations at a single point in time, a photo finish confounds us, at least initially, by showing the same location at various points in time. 

Benjamin has long been obsessed with exploring the limits of photography as a scientific tool, often extracting precise data and then flipping the evidence on its head. Embedded within this particular act of appropriation is a desire to a prod and push at the edges of the camera’s capabilities. As well as the occasional Dali-esque disruption caused by a pausing cow, scattered within the tapestry-like panorama are sporadic cuts, exposing the camera’s fallibility when pushed beyond its limits by a 20-minute data-capture session. 

The work lends an additional voice to the conversation between Clare Strand’s Cyclegraphs Camera Work and the Gilbreths’ early twentieth-century studies of time and motion. We can see the influence of technical pioneers such as Eadweard Muybridge, alongside conceptual artists such as Ed Ruscha, whose own panorama, Every Building On The Sunset Strip, is a clear reference point in both form and deadpan approach. Thematically, a line can also be drawn from works such as Mishka Henner’s satellite images of vast US cattle feedlots, which capture the apocalyptic end game of the industrial farming complex. 

The act of traversing Benjamin’s 15-metre long work brings with it a significant amount of dwell time. Throughout the journey, one has time to flip between viewing the scene as a whole, or interrogating each cow individually. Naturally, we anthropomorphise the participants – the speed demon up front, the wildly long-necked inquisitor, and the inevitable straggler bringing up the rear. Some may ponder upon the vast state subsidies, hyper-competition and fractional profit margins coded deep within this landscape, and how it is only by way of an exceptional genetic mutation that this conspicuously Western system can even exist at all. 

At a time when our relationships with data, experts and knowledge have become increasingly fractured, Benjamin’s work poses important questions around who and what we choose to believe. After initially luring us in with its lurid greens and cartoon-esque cows, it is a work which continues to grow in gravity the longer you spend with it. It is difficult to leave having not paused – even for one-thousandth of a second – to consider our own respective races: where we are, who is watching us, and how far we have left to run. 

James Duncan Clarke