NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

January 28th, 2015

The Public In Winter: Ghosting Through Boston

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

Boston Blizzard

The caption says, “A man rides his bike up Beacon Street during a blizzard in Boston, Massachusetts January 27, 2015.”

One might wonder why this photograph would be featured among the images of the day.  It is largely a study in blurred perception, an example of not seeing clearly, and of things that can be easily missed without loss.  I am no worse off for not seeing the details of the solitary commute of an anonymous individual in a nearly deserted street on a winter’s day somewhere in Boston.  The lack of clarity here is not a lesson about political ideology, media manipulation, costly ignorance, or a failure of concern.  A January blizzard made both travel and vision difficult; no news there, and nothing to merit a second look.

The selection becomes more complicated in you consider that the image is even less likely to be featured in a slide show of winter’s beauty.  Think “National Geographic” and many wonderful images will come to mind: the lone evergreen standing between snow-covered hills, red holly berries on black twigs glazed in ice, the low sun glinting through the distant treeline across a frozen lake. . . . or a bustling city transfigured into enchanted silence by incandescent snowflakes falling softly to grace every surface of metal and stone.

Whatever your images, they probably don’t include a blurred figure who seems to be both moving and stationary, and both solid and ethereal, against a background that is both familiar in its outline–street, streetlight, trees, pedestrian–and yet so hazy as to be remote or unrecognizable.  Once we have been told that he is riding a bicycle, the scene may become a bit uncanny: what it is supposed to be, but oddly not quite right.  Somewhat like a doppleganger, in fact, or any image, for that matter.

Let me suggest that this photograph is a study in public perception, in several senses.  First, it suggests that much of what we can’t see here we never really see, as it is part of the taken for granted background that we slide over in ordinary perception.  (If the bike had been clearly visible, how much of it would you have been able identify if tested a minute later?) It’s not that we can’t see those things, or even that we should, but that we don’t need to for the ways of seeing that are dominant (and useful) in public spaces as opposed to more expert or intimate settings.  Thus, the photograph marks, by blurring, some of what would be in the optical unconscious of photography: what the ordinary observer would not notice but would still be captured by the camera.

Second, the photo suggests that much of what we see clearly is actually ghostly–a virtual reality of images that we take for granted as a real world.  The public realm is not only the actual spaces that we inhabit with strangers, but also those virtual spaces that we inhabit as if in public, often through media representations of strangers in distant and effectively anonymous settings.  (Ask yourself why “Beacon Street” was given as the sufficient descriptor for the intersection being shown: the street runs for miles, while similar photographs could be taken in many other cities and towns around the globe.  This is a photograph of a symbolic place.)  The traffic light signals “public domain,” and the figure on the bike is not much more distinctive.  Blurred signals and a spectral messenger; sometimes that’s all you need.

A ghost is defined as a spirit in bodily form, and as a semblance or trace of something, and as a secondary and usually faint or blurry image.  All of these concepts can double as characterizations of photography.  Some would say they are failings of the medium, but I see it otherwise.  Photography’s connections with the spirit world are exactly why it proves to be such a useful medium for modern, liberal-democratic public cultures.  As we see ghosts, we see ourselves.

Photograph by Dominick Reuter/Reuters.

January 26th, 2015

Nature’s Camera

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Blue Green

What struck me most about this photograph upon first seeing it was both its sheer beauty and the invitation to introspection and contemplation.  The contrast of the distant city lights sparkling against the night sky, illuminating the mountains in the background and the bluish cast of (what appears to be) the moon reflected by the water along the foregrounded shore line would seem to be a mediation on the cosmological relationship between nature and technology.  Or perhaps  it is a meditation on the relationship between the far (which is physically nearest to us, i.e., the city) and the near (which is physically the farthest from us, i.e., the moon).  It is both of these things in the abstract, but not for the reasons that might seem to be the most obvious.

What we are actually looking at is a timed exposure of the bioluminescent glow of a green marine dinoflagellate known as Noctiluca scintillans shot with Hong Kong in the background.  Sometimes called “Sea Sparkle,” the foregrounded luminescence is activated by farm pollution that—no surprise here—poses a serious threat to marine life.  The bloom itself does not produce dangerous toxins, but it is something of an index of toxic runoff that endangers the food chain.  In its own way, the bloom is something of a photorealistic representation of the relationship between culture and nature—nature’s camera, as it were—showing all that there is to see.  As with the photograph more generally, the trick is being visually “literate” enough to avoid being enchanted by what we want (or expect) to see and to reflect on the larger significance of what we are actually seeing

Photo Credit: Kin Cheung/AP

 

January 25th, 2015

Sight Gag: Deflatgate

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.56.11 PM

Credit:  Joe Heller/Green Bay Gazette

Sight Gag is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

January 21st, 2015

The Serenity of Networks

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

containers & snow

It could be a circuit board, or a strip of DNA, or a bit of jewelry, or a painting.  Whatever it is, it is orderly, yet not too severe; colorful, but no riot of brash hues; uniform, yet also pleasantly varied; textured, but simply so; a collection of many things, but still a study in form; abstract, yet somehow familiar–almost like crayons in a box, although it may be much bigger than that.  Small/large, micro/macro, ordered/varied, colored/white, delighting the eye yet immobile, still, serene.

The caption said, “Snow covered containers decorate the port of Rotterdam, The Netherlands on January 15, 2013.”  You really don’t see a port, though, or anything quite so institutional.  The key is in the verb: “decorate.”  Exactly right.   And “snow covered” is right, too, even though it’s not literally correct: many of them are not covered with snow, but the phrase captures the feel of the image, the way in which the ordinary sense of things can be covered by a blanket of snow and seemingly transformed, as if by magic, into something quiet and beautiful.  Or, you might say, the way snow can damp down the ordinary way of seeing objects–that is, in all their detailed functionality–so that we can experience the quietude that always lies in the small spaces between things.

Let me suggest that there is another sense of serenity that also might be available here.  Like the snow, the shipping containers are only in a temporary repose.  They have moved and will move again, to flow though circuits of trade that span the globe.  The miniaturization achieved by the camera symbolizes the relationship of this one scene to the vast, dense circuitry of the global economy.  What it captures, however, is not the dynamic movement of goods, information, and capital, but rather the stability in the system as a whole.  That stability is not inert–like the weather, it is one feature of a system that is constantly changing–but there can be something to admire in its impersonal replication, week after week, month after month, like strands of DNA replicating again and again within a global organism.

From the view on the ground, this is nonsense, of course.  The shipping industry consists of thousands of variable decisions being made at every level, all while being buffeting by winds of change over which they have no control: government policies, market conditions, technological developments, even the weather.  But that’s why the view from above can be valuable.  Instead of seeing only competition, friction, and another day’s work, we can see the deep sense of decoration: how the small ornament can mirror a cosmos.

“The serenity of networks” alludes to one of the classic works on the Internet: The Wealth of Networks, by Yochai Benkler.  His title in turn alludes to The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith.  The relationship between digital networks and market economies is still being explored, but each has prompted the dream that we can find in the impersonal processes of large-scale exchange something more reliable than the political behavior that so often disrupts, destabilizes, and leads to want, anxiety, and anger.  The dream is not impossible, but it will not be realized without political organization.

If only that politics could start with an image such as the one above.  An image that is surely decorative, but not merely so, as it also suggests how abundance can be a stable resource, orderly yet varied, complex yet reliable, grounded in what we do well and not in ignorance, fear, and anger, waiting only to be distributed where it is needed.  Something that could be done, you know. . . .

Photograph by Robin Utrecht/EPA.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

January 19th, 2015

On Not Seeing the Homeless

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

sleep20

Homelessness in the United States persists. Estimates vary, but by most conservative accounts 3.5 million people experience homeless each year. That said, it is only a mere 1% of the population. And the number has actually declined a small bit in the past few years. No problem, right?

But consider this: 35% are families with children, 25% are under the age of 18, 23% are military veterans, 30% have been the victims of domestic violence, and, no surprise here, 25% suffer from some form of mental illness. The problem is significant, in other words, and many of the most vulnerable are in little position to do anything to help themselves. And so the socially conscious continue to pursue awareness campaigns.

The photograph above is from Cape Cod, MA, where 27 high school students “slept in cardboard boxes and took turns playing in a 10-hour continuous soccer game throughout the night.” The effort is well-intentioned and even honorable, but the question is: what do we see? Or perhaps, more to the point, what are we being shown? Not the homeless—or their condition—that’s for sure.

There is something of an irony here. At its heart, a huge part of the problem with homelessness is that it is a human condition that we are conditioned not to see; indeed, it is a social phenomenon that we actively turn our head away from: as children we are told not to stare and as adults we look through the homeless on our streets as if they were altogether invisible. And so, of course, the need for awareness. But there’s the rub: As much as we seem to try to animate awareness we do it by turning attention away from the thing itself and to those who no doubt feel righteous in their service to a larger cause. And as with this photograph we complicate the problem further by substituting faux homelessness for the real thing.

Look closely at the photograph. Those sleeping “in cardboard boxes” is a bit of a misnomer. They look more like children who have constructed a play fort in their living room or basement more than anything approximating a homeless person consigned to sleeping in a tattered and used cardboard box. They all look well fed. While they are surrounded by a wall of cardboard they are actually sleeping in what look to be clean and warm sleeping bags with more pillows than they know what to do with; comfortable and content, they rest with their faces fully exposed to the world as if without a care in the world. And why not. After all, they are not exposed to the elements. There is no rain or snow or cold to contend with and the bright lights of the gymnasium add an extra level of security that those sleeping in parks or alleys or under highway by-passes and bridges can rarely if ever rely upon. Those not sleeping are playing soccer, another sign that all is safe and secure. And, of course, when morning comes they will return to their homes—no longer homeless!—where breakfast and their own warm beds await.

So again, what are we being shown? The all too easy answer is the efforts of young people working to right a social wrong the best way that they know how. And the photograph certainly does that. But more than that it also shows how easy it is to sentimentalize a profound and complex social condition, to invoke the pathos necessary to action—and for that matter to access our very humanity—and at the same time to contain and direct such emotions away from the actual problem itself. Instead of seeing the homeless and the common problem that it poses for a liberal democratic society, once again we are encouraged to look elsewhere.

Credit: Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe Staff

January 18th, 2015

Sight Gag: Strange Bedfellows (in the Indiana University Library)

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

NCNLibrary

Credit: Saul Kutnicki

Sight Gag is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

January 14th, 2015

Where Can You Take a Visual Joke?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

ballheadman

One answer would be in India, as with this photo.  Why you would do so may be harder to say.  The visual joke has been one of the lines of demarcation between amateur photography and photojournalism.  Families and friends delight in them, but the pros avoid them for obvious reasons: the basic technique and typical examples are born cliched, and the practice of documentary photography is known in part by its attitude of seriousness.  When some journalists are getting killed, others know better than to goof off.

There are exceptions, however.  This photo was among those labeled “Editor’s Choice” at the Reuters website.  More significantly, Elliott Erwitt is a photographer of the first rank, and he always has had a fondness for the visual joke.  (See how easy it would have been to say “a weakness for the visual joke”?)  His gag photos–e.g., of a dog’s head in place of its master’s–are numerous.  More important, they are part of a social vision that is comic in the deep sense of the term: at once objective and generous, Erwitt depicts human frailty and social artifice as they are each the common lot and saving grace of our human condition.  From that perspective, visual jokes are not merely low level entertainment but also invitations to tolerate each others’ imperfections, and to find moments of accidental joy in what might otherwise be a dreary day.

In the wake of the murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff for publishing political cartoons, the question of “Where can you take a visual joke?” acquires additional significance.  It also has multiple meanings.  One might ask where you can create and publish such humor, and where the jokes can be taken for what they are (and not, say, blasphemy), and where you can take them to do other things (say, entertain your friends or engage in political advocacy), and where you can take them now that you have offended someone (as in the American idiom of “you can take that and shove it up your . . . “).  This last sense is not trivial, even if does have a range, e.g., from merely violating professional norms to risking death at the hands of evil men.

Perhaps this context contributed to the decision at Reuters to feature a photo of a man with a soccer ball for a head.  If so, the gesture can be appreciated, but there is reason enough without it to admire the photograph.  The substitution of the white ball with its geometric lines for a human face conforms neatly to Scott McLeod’s theory of the identification evoked by cartoon characters, which, because they are relatively featureless, match our interior and necessarily schematic sense of self rather than our experiences of how others look.  Thus, the faceless figure prompts the viewer to look at another person from a distant place as a way to see oneself.  What you might see is up to you, but it does matter that you can see it, or a hint of it, in someone who is not you.

That abstract sense of the individual is reflected in the simplicity of the rest of the scene.  The barren yet textured field creates the perceptual ground against which the central figure is defined.  The fences surrounding the athletic field create a sense of enclosure, almost as if it were a prison yard or military base, which is matched emotionally by the morning fog.  The man’s posture and hands suggest attentive focus of mind and body, just as the uniform, equipment, field, and the routine itself–keeping the ball in the air as he marches down the field–all are part of a disciplined practice. He is not joking, but he is demonstrating the intense involvement in a single activity that is the mark of play and of work at its best.  Some might say that the fusion of work and play is civilization at its best, and that excessive separation of the two is a downward path.  Jokes might be closer to our higher selves than we think.

The photographer was joking, just a bit, anyway, as the image involves taking delight in the obvious artifice of the camera.  In a week when there isn’t much to joke about, the small moment of levity provided here might be thought of as a moment of grace.  And as a reminder that life goes on, especially if you are in a place where you can take a joke.

Photograph by Jayanta Dey/Reuters.

January 12th, 2015

Gesturing Towards Sociality

Posted by Lucaites in boots and hands

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We have written here (here, here, and here) and elsewhere about the photojournalistic penchant—indeed, we are inclined to call it a photojournalistic convention—to produce photographs that feature hands (and feet). Often such images feature the fragmented human body, emphasizing the hand (or the foot), and thus diverting attention away from the face. The face is, of course, the chief marker of the liberal individual and by deemphasizing it notice is directed away from the particular individual to a more universal(izing) “human feature. The inclusion of the face in the image above is something of an exception to the typical convention that makes the point, as the caption to this image calls attention to an Argentine Court’s ruling that “Sandra,” an orangutang who has spent 20 years in a Buenos Aires zoo, is a “non-human person which has some basic human rights.”  Humanity here trumps personhood.

The photograph is part of a Big Picture slide show titled “Hands in the News.” According to the BP, “Hands tell stories. They are functional and they have the power to communicate emotions…. Represent(ing) hope, communication, power, connection, and longing.” All of this is true. But there is more. For such photographs don’t just invite us to see the “hand,” but rather to see “with the hand,” and as such it activates a traditional way of thinking about sociality and politics (e.g., the body politic) that is adapted to conditions of public representation: it is fragmented rather than organic, realistic rather than idealized, and provisional rather than essentialist. Most important, the dismemberment of the body implies a body politic that is no longer whole yet still active and engaged.

In short, the image of the hand (or the foot) as a bodily fragment signifies the distributed body of modern social organization, the pluralistic body of modern civil society, the multicultural body of a transnational—or as with the photograph above, transhuman—public sphere. This is the body that resists the abstraction and political symbolism dominating official discourse, but always indirectly, through figures of embodiment that are already dismembered. This is a rhetoric of bodily experience, but not the personalized experience of identity politics or the faux intimacy of infantilized citizenship. These images have proliferated when official authority is already discredited, and they are used to both contest that authority and finesse the problem of maintaining public legitimacy.

We should attend to them with care, not just as a stylistic affectation or an instance of cultural kitsch, but as an important convention of a powerful public art that invites us to see and be seen as citizens in the broadest way possible.

Credit: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

December 14th, 2014

NCN on Holiday Break

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Chicago church angels

Best wishes for a peaceful holiday.  We’ll return to our regular schedule on January 12.

Architectural detail from St. Pascal’s Church in Chicago, via “A rare bird: the Art Deco church” at A Chicago Sojourn.

December 12th, 2014

Azoulay, Luski, and Horizontal Photography

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

Ariella Azoulay will be delivering a series of lectures next week in Leuven, Brussels, and Amsterdam regarding her new book, Aïm Deüelle Lüski and Horizontal Photography.

Horizontal Photography cover

This book is the product of a unique collaboration between Israeli artist and philosopher Aïm Deüelle Lüski and visual culture theorist Ariella Azoulay. In their longstanding working relationship, they research how to theorize the structure of the contemporary scopic regime and open a space for its civil transformation. On this occasion, Azoulay interprets a particular series of cameras built by Deüelle Lüski, along with photographs taken by these cameras. Unlike conventional cameras and their vertical photography, Deüelle Lüski’s cameras seek to generate new sets of relations between the camera and the world. Azoulay’s text unfolds four different ‘short histories’ of problems in photography, each of which deconstructs what otherwise might appear as a coherent photographic regime, yet which is shown to be based solely on principles of sovereignty and possession. Through and with Deüelle Lüski’s project Azoulay seeks to ‘potentialize’ the history of photography, that is, to recover long forgotten, un-materialized possibilities. The book contains 100 images and a conversation between the author and the artist.

The lectures are listed here, here, and here.

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