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. . . .

July 15th, 2016

Into the Twilight Zone in Nice

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Again, yet again.  Another massacre in France.  This time with a truck.

Nice truck masscre

Next time perhaps with a boat or a bookstall or a suitcase. . . . As Elaine Scarry observed about torture, the use of everyday objects is designed to make all of reality terrifying, with nothing that can be trusted.  And something like that may be happening in the collective consciousness.  The politics of too many nations already is marked by too many symptoms of ethical dysfunction, and so one form of violence can resonate with all the others.  Even as the routines of containment also become more visible, more professionalized, and so obviously part of the system that is the real target of the attack.

Which may be why the photographers are on to something when they capture the strange, unreal, or uncanny aspect of the disaster.  These are not photos of emotional drama.  They could be from Invasion of the Body Snatchers or an updated Twilight Zone or any other sci fi movie.  Instead of the lifeworld being torn apart, its technocratic control system is revealed.  Instead of bodies torn apart, technicians in protective clothing and corpses under wraps, waiting to be tagged.

Nice massacre bodies

And yet, there is nothing wrong with these photos, or with the conduct of the police and other first responders.  We live in both lifeworld and system, and we need both human connection and technologies for living together as citizens in modern cities rather than as clans in small scale tyrannies.  Nonetheless the images are showing something important.

The world seems to be pitching into another reality, one that is more unreal than real, both present and still to come, and defined primarily by separation and violence, and by madness and helplessness.

A world in which everything appears as if it could be in a movie–and the wrong movie.  Out of order, disjointed, and not for creative expression or bold endeavors, but for what?  Killing, and cleaning up after the slaughter.

As violence becomes familiar, the world becomes strange, even to itself.  Action is legible, behavior is disciplined, everything is handled with skill and often with care–and yet, it’s not right.  The mood is wrong, the atmosphere stained, and something is odd about the light.  These things are not easy to say, and harder to explain, but you can feel them.  And now they can be seen.

Photographs by Eric Gaillard/Reuters.

June 29th, 2016

Fires, Floods, and Photos

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

Want to see what a wildfire leaves behind?

A freshly scorched landscape is seen in the early morning hours of June 18, 2016 at the Sherpa Fire near Santa Barbara, California. A fire in the Los Padres National Forest had expanded to two square miles (five square kilometers) by Thursday, making it the "largest since 2009" in the area, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Information Center told AFP. / AFP / DAVID MCNEW (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)

Not much.  This image of the immediate aftermath of a fire near Santa Barbara, California is disturbingly empty, almost abstract.  It could be anywhere, as whatever was there has been obliterated.  Or it could be at almost any scale: the scorched hide of an animal, or embers in a fireplace, or the surface of a dying planet.

Given global warming, “dying planet” may not be too far off the mark.  The wildfires have many causes, of course, but human behavior figures in most of them.  What would be occasional events in a “state of nature” have become more than that: signs of systemic disruption by a species too powerful for its own good.

I’ll admit that I love to stare into the embers of a controlled fire, and the photos from the wildfires can’t help but have a similar appeal.  Many of them capture the eye: the fires themselves, the planes dropping brightly colored retardants, the huge clouds of smoke, the stoical firefighters illumined by showers of sparks. . . . Images such as these appeal to experiences deep in species memory, and to myths of conquest and control.  They also can turn melancholic as one looks into the embers and sees dying dreams, empires, galaxies.  Fire is more than a great leveler: when literally scorching the earth, the future seems to have gone up in smoke.

It’s not that simple, of course, as underneath the ashes the forest is already growing anew.  But let’s not jump too quickly to visions of renewal and hope.  The fire has something else to teach us: as in the photograph above, when faced with a large fire one is pushed to scale up one’s thinking.  Fires are no respecter of persons, and their images may appeal to us because they are resolutely about collective conditions: a shared danger or common fate and the necessity of responding as a  group.  If the image of a firescape is abstract or impersonal, there is something to learn from that.

Fires move fast and unpredictably, and they can consume everything one might need to recover afterwards.  Everything except the rivers, that is.

flood aftermath photos

Floods, or the increased incidence and severity of floods, also can be due to global warming.  Even if not, they too become disasters that inundate landscapes, disrupting or destroying the lives that were there.  But there are differences as well.  Floods often develop slowly, and recede at the same pace.  They affect some but not others in the same locale: the difference of a foot can be the difference between desolation and business as usual.

There may be another difference as well.  In surveying wildfire photos, it is easy to find dozens that don’t contain people.  In surveying photos from floods–for example, from the West Virginia flooding last week–many of the images contain people and many feature them.  Again, water doesn’t kill as fire does: you can be OK while up to your waist in the middle of a flood but you wouldn’t want to be half aflame in the middle of a wildfire.  The harm done often is different as well: many possessions are damaged, not destroyed.  Many things are still in place, although rotted and covered with muck.  While fires rage, floods distend time, slowing everything down as you have to sift through the waterlogged mess, making decisions one item at a time.

Which is why the photograph above is so evocative.  She sits, as there is time to sit.  The waters have left, the sun is out, and she is laying pictures out to dry.  There is plenty of other work to do as well–note that she is sitting on what was once a fence–but this small task of conservation also is important.  Memory work, you might say, so that more than possessions will be saved from the waters’ oblivion.

Floods are collective disasters that require collective responses, but there also is something personal about them.  Even the dead bodies still are recognizable.  The task of restoration has to work through what was there before, not simply replace it.  The community has to respond as a community, but so many of the measures have to concern individual people and places, particular habits and specific concerns, and labor that will take time and then more time before enough has been done.

There is something to learn from photographs of the wildfires, and from photographs of the floods.  Not the same lessons, but they are linked in ways that might escape notice at first.  Like fire and water, you might say, or two photos that seem to have little in common, but together show us a world that is in grave danger and yet worth saving.

Photographs by David McNew/AFP/Getty Images and Sam Owens/Charleston Gazette-Mail via the Associated Press.

June 10th, 2016

When Gag Photos Are No Joke

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

As a matter of course, we just don’t do gag photos at this blog.  After all, we’re providing serious public commentary, right?  And we feature many outstanding photographs.  As the gag photo often is assumed to be the sure sign of amateurism, you wouldn’t expect to find it among the images of the week.

TOPSHOT - The Finance Minister in Brazil's interim government, Henrique Meirelles, offers a press conference in Brasilia on May 20, 2016. The new economic team of the acting President Michel Temer updated the 2016 budget deficit expectation. / AFP / EVARISTO SA (Photo credit should read EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

And you’d be wrong.  You’d be wrong in the specific case, as with this photograph of Henrique Meirelles, the Finance Minister in Brazil’s interim government, at a press conference in Brasilia.  And wrong more generally, as one of the very best professional photographers, Elliott Erwitt, produced dozens of visual jokes very much like the one above.  In fact, this image looks like a signature Erwitt photo, but I doubt it’s even an homage.

I was tempted to write that Erwitt “had a weakness for” visual jokes; that’s how conventional discourse does our thinking for us.  It wasn’t a weakness, however, but another angle on the human condition.  Likewise, is the photograph above really of Henrique Meirelles, who I’ll bet does not have two antennae protruding from orange eyes?  If it’s not an image of the person named in the caption, what is it?

One answer might be that it is a portrait of an official.  Not a specific official, but an idea or at least a caricature of officialdom.  In that respect, it may be closer to the reality of modern finance than the idea it displaces: why continue to believe that decisions are being made primarily by prudent individuals, rather than being pushed one way or another by data flows and the abstractions that accompany them?  Does he see the material hardships of ordinary experience, or does he see instead through the optics of financial instruments?  Is he one of us, or does he represent the many levels of alienation that stand between ordinary experience and the decisions made at the top of elite institutions?

As that gap grows, it leads to more anger from below.  Growing inequity leads to reactions on both the left and the right, and to more demonstrations and other protests, and to violence.

And to more gag photos.

Orange County Sheriff's deputies take a protester into custody near the Anaheim Convention Center Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in Anaheim, Calif., after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump held a rally at the convention center. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Here the term “gag” may acquire additional meaning, although the Orange County Sheriff’s deputies may be well trained (may be; it’s possible), and the Masked Marauder seems to know the drill.

But is it a gag photo?  In one sense, no: the surreal juxtaposition of Halloween mask and riot gear is in the scene, not an optical illusion created by the camera.  But in another sense, yes: compared to the other demonstrators at the Trump rally, he probably is featured because he’s got the most unexpected costume, producing an image that most of the time would have to be created by special effects.  But in yet another sense, no: it’s not funny.  But in another sense, yes: he’s probably wearing the mask to provoke a laugh or at least something edgy enough that it’s on the edge of nervous laughter.  So, once again, we might ask, what is it?

One answer is that, similar to the image above, we are not being shown a specific demonstrator but rather an idea or at least a caricature of political unrest today.  In any case, one that is closer to the truth than what a more “unmasked” portrait of the individual would provide.  The grotesque mask (and hair) seamlessly fitted to the cameo clad bruiser suggests that we are seeing Trump’s alter ego: the surreal forces of unreason and violence that lurk below the surface of his campaign.  The many similarities with the police restraining him suggest the alignment or affinity between forces of disruption and those promoting “security” and “order” at the expense of civil society.  The fact that he probably is protesting against Trump suggests that the Left can get sucked into the same downward spiral.

Not funny, not funny at all.  Makes me want to see something light, even silly.  Maybe a dog’s head in place of its owner’s.  Just a gag, you know. . . .

Photographs by EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images and Jae C. Hong/Associated Press.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

 

May 31st, 2016

When Cotton Was King

Posted by Lucaites in visual memory

Memory32

Photographs serve many purposes, not least witnessing and memory. Here we have a photograph of a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta near the town of Money. But what is being witnessed or remembered?

You probably have never heard of Money, Mississippi, but you probably have heard of Emmett Till. An African American born in Chicago, he visited relatives in Money at the age of fourteen during the summer of 1955. While there he allegedly “flirted” with a married woman—a white, married woman—in a local grocery store. And for that “crime” he was stripped, beaten and shot in the head, his face mutilated beyond all recognition, and his bodied tied to a cotton-gin fan and deposited in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral and the now famous photograph of the disfigured Emmett Till appeared first in Jet magazine before being picked up by the mainstream media. The two perpetrators—Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam—were found “not-guilty” by an all white jury who deliberated for less than an hour in a segregated courthouse in nearby Sumner, Mississippi.

One might imagine that a contemporary photographer seeking to memorialize the lynching of Emmett Till might photograph the dilapidated grocery store—or its historical marker—where Till violated the rigid codes of the Jim Crow South, or perhaps the spot on the river where Till’s body was eventually discovered. Or maybe even the Sumner, Mississippi courthouse. Instead, Andrew Lichtenstein chose to photograph a nearby cotton field.

It is hard to know if the sun is rising or setting here, but whether you imagine that the camera is facing east or west there is no question that cotton is cast within a metaphorical timescape. The sun is either setting on cotton and hence a reminder that by the 1950s the economy that relied upon it was in full decline, or the sun is rising on it, and a reminder of the new day soon to be be ushered in by the nascent Civil Rights Movement. In either case, the photograph of a cotton field in Money, Mississippi is a poignant testament to the fact that while Bryant and Milam lynched Till and tied his body to a rusted cotton-gin fan, it was truly cotton—and the economic and social order that it animated—that killed him.

Andrew Lichtenstein, Forgotten Moments

May 24th, 2016

Seeing, Maybe, Another Bombing in Baghdad

Posted by Hariman in a second look, visualizing war

We’ve seen it before.

Iraq bombing aftermath

I’ve even posted on it before. Not exactly the same photograph, of course, but one very much like it.  Suicide bombings are on the rise in Iraq again, and so the news returns to the same crime scenes, the same wreckage, the same helplessness.  The news that, like much else that was needed to prevent the bombing, arrives too late.

Maybe that guy in the cameo is an official of some type, and maybe the state has something to do–a bit of forensic work, perhaps, and some record keeping.  To me, he looks more like the guy with the tow truck, and the only decision to be made is how he’s gonna get that metal carcass up on the flatbed.  As for the rest of those present, well, what can they do beyond what they are doing?  They mill about aimlessly, look for the odd remnant, look around to see who else is there, try to take in the scene as a whole (but what is that?), and generally rely on their presence and the passing of time to somehow bring the world that was there before back into focus.  What else would you expect?  After all, they are spectators.

Spectators like us.  Another bombing, another photo of its aftermath, another moment where you arrive too late to be reminded that there is little you can do anyway.  And what did you expect?  The photo does not make an emergency claim–there are no ambulances, no heroic first responders, no valiant citizens resolved to fight on.  Instead, we see trauma reduced to curiosity as a society, for want of any other option, returns to something like normalcy.

Nor does the photo make a call on our compassion or any other strong emotion.  Instead the scene is emotionally diffuse, even deadening.   Any dramatic actions or reactions are off stage.  In their place is stasis, inaction, banality.  The photo shows us how few options ordinary people have when living amid  violence.  The question remains, are the options any better for the person viewing the photo?

By this point, many writers would have laid the blame for any inability to do much else on the medium of photography.  We’ve been told far too often that it makes us into voyeurs or tourists and exhausts or perverts our moral sense.  That could be true, although frankly I think you are safe.  Let’s consider instead how the photo from Baghdad is doing something else.

It’s not a great photo; it may even be unusually flawed, unless you can tell me what that inchoate white column is in the middle of the main vehicle.  But that doesn’t matter.  Whatever its “quality,” the photograph is a worthwhile realist statement: first, because of how is it one of many like it, all of them keeping the war visible–and I mean the war, not the abstractions that fuel it.  Second,  it shows how large-scale forces are experienced by ordinary people: experienced, that is, as disasters and as ongoing disruptions and as events that will never make sense even as everyone becomes more or less accustomed to coping.  Third, it reminds us that spectatorship alone is an insufficient basis for an effective response to what is shown.

And I’m not just talking about the spectators in the photograph.  If photography is to confront violence, speak truth to power, or meet any other noble aspiration of the public media, it has to be linked to audiences and organizations who can act where it counts.  That may be in the legislature or the refugee camps or a thousand other places, but we have to be able to imagine doing something and then work with others to the same end.  Photographic realism works through spectatorship, but the objective is something more organized.

As far as Baghdad goes, I don’t know if any good options are available within the city or elsewhere in that country.  It may be that the photograph is disturbingly realistic, in the sense that it implies that there is no basis for those in the picture to organize themselves against the next bombing.  They seem to have nothing but the inadvertent associations of a crowd at the scene of an accident.  There are political and military organizations offstage, of course, but they are the problem, not the solution.  In a photo of the aftermath of a bombing, there may be even less to see than we had thought.

As far as the US or other countries that are or could be involved, well, we each need to look in the mirror.  The problem is not what is or is not being shown, but whether there exist any political organizations capable of doing what is needed to move from war to peace.

That said, one symptom of a lack of solidarity or political efficacy is that people acquire a habitual blindness on some topics.  Topics like war, for example.   When you’ve seen it before, and since there is nothing you can do, it’s easy not to see it again.  And then the destruction and despair are sure to continue.

Photograph byKhalid Al-Mousily/Reuters.

May 12th, 2016

Is It War or Is it Art?

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

You tell me.

syria-web4-master675

Could be a play, right?  An opera.  Street theatre.  A scene from an avant-garde movie.  In any case, the hints of commedia dell’arte are there to be seen.  And why else would a bloodied woman be smiling, if she’s not play acting?  You tell me.

In fact, she is a woman injured in an airstrike in Aleppo.  But is that news?  Lots of women have been injured by airstrikes in Aleppo, and there appears to be nothing politically or militarily distinctive about this strike and this woman.  Except perhaps that she got off much better than many, but that doesn’t seem to be the emphasis, either.  It may explain the apparent smile, but that could be an illusion as well: she could simply have been caught in a tiny sliver of time on the way to another, more serious expression.  So why show the photograph at all?

The answer to that question seems obvious: the image is aesthetically distinctive.  The resonances with other arts are precisely to that point: there is a strongly artistic quality to the photograph, which is at once painterly, cinematic, and theatrical.  The photo seems especially theatrical to me, but that may be beside the point.  What is important is that we see it as a work of art.  Only then can we consider what might be the artistic statement–or perhaps the artistic enigma–that is being presented to the spectator.

She is both a woman and a character, an individual person and a distinctive image, another data point in the statistics of violence and a compelling assertion of the vitality, beauty, wonder, and sheer good luck that is a human life.

Not everyone is so lucky.  At the end of the day, difference between art and war is not between aesthetics and something else: it is between a celebration of life and another, all too human propensity to kill indiscriminately.  Sometimes a photograph can remind us of what is at stake by showing us both at once, and how the difference between them can lie in a tiny sliver of time.  The time, for example, between surviving the attack or not; the time between life and death; the time of photography.

Photograph by Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters.

April 6th, 2016

Listen to the Ruins

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

For some in the US this week, the big event was the NCAA men’s basketball final.  For others, it was opening day of the baseball season.  Some have been focused on the presidential primaries and the endless spin and speculation that goes with that.  Almost no one will have been thinking about the Nuclear Security Summit meeting that concluded last Friday.

Too bad.  It was important–unless, that is, you don’t mind having Your Town looking like this.

A view of the abandoned city of Pripyat is seen near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich - RTSBZGE

The photo was taken at the abandoned city of Pripyat, Ukraine.  That’s right–an abandoned city.  And we are not speaking metaphorically: for example, “Detroit has been abandoned by the powers that be.”  I’ve said much the same myself, but this photo is about something far worse that the typical stories of political or economic malfeasance.  Pripyat had the bad luck to be located near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.  Thirty years ago this month the reactor exploded, and today the “exclusion zone”–the dead zone–covers 1000 square miles.

And what did it take to take down 1000 square miles?  A mistake made during a routine test.  Yes, it was the exception; there will have been millions of tests undertaken at the many reactors around the world that were conducted safely.  But the relationship between the small scale of individual human action and the enormous consequences of nuclear destruction should not to unnoticed.

Just as the relationship between a small terrorist action and the enormous consequences of nuclear destruction should not to unnoticed.  Even if it is harder than one might think, it doesn’t take an army–or a Manhattan project–to create a crude tactical nuclear weapon today.  And there should be no doubt whatsoever that there are people and organizations in the world that would use it at the first opportunity.  Not use it as a bargaining chip, not use it as a status symbol to join the nations in the nuclear club, but use it to destroy a city.

That’s why the Summit mattered.  Convened in Washington and hosted by President Obama, it received precious little coverage.  It was derided, of course, for being too small, too weak, all talk, etc.  Some of that had the marks of what should be said by a loyal opposition, and most of it was the all too predictable Obama bashing and saber rattling by the usual gang of idiots.

Either way, there is need to listen to what the ruins have to say.  Every summit matters, every initiative, all the talk, whatever money is committed or technical support provided.  If there ever was need for Democrat and Republican to work together, and opportunity to be able to work together pragmatically and effectively, this should be it.

Tough talk may even have a place, but far more important will be building collaborative relationships and rigorous practices to protect all the available nuclear material.  Even then accidents can happen, but no one should think that there is time to waste, or that the odds are on our side, or that ideology is more important than security.

Listen to the ruins.  They know what people are thinking: how we don’t assume the worst, and how we are easily distracted.

A playground in the deserted town of Pripyat, Ukraine, some 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant Ukraine, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Workers on Tuesday raised the first section of a colossal arch-shaped structure that is planned to eventually cover the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Project officials on Tuesday hailed the raising as a significant step in a complex effort to liquidate the consequences of the world's worst nuclear accident, in 1986. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

And they know what can happen next.

Photographs by Gleb Garanich/Reuters and Efrem Lukatsky AP.  For the Atlantic Monthly’s slide show on the exclusion zone, go here.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

March 21st, 2016

The Last Modern Man?

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

A man walks along the Cheonggye stream in central Seoul, South Korea, March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji - RTSAM1C

The caption says, “A man walks along the Cheonggye stream in central Seoul, South Korea.”  I think that’s an understatement.

How about: A man in a three-piece suit walks on, under, and along the concrete infrastructure of a public space?  Or a a man in a three-piece suit walks on, under, and along the concrete infrastructure of a public space sharply sculpted by bright sunlight and dark shadows along a stream that is part of an urban water management system?

Or perhaps this: A man holding a small leather wallet hesitates on an elegant white and grey platform between the abyss behind and the abyss before him, while a stream flows by without remorse.

Or, a lone man walks tentatively through an empty space amid abstract structures, as if uncertain of what will happen next.

Or, the official walked through light and darkness to carry out his duties, small as they were; the river awaited him.

The spy considered whether he was too late, even though he was too early, too visible, and already a dead man.

As the well-dressed man walked on the clean city sidewalk by the beautiful bridge, he thought about jumping.

You get the idea.  The stream is barely visible; the street and structure could be in any modern city, and the man is the anonymous embodiment of a type.   The scene captures key elements of 20th century modernism: a lack of ornamentation cues the dominance of functionalist design, uniform materials, abstract spaces, geometrical forms, and black and white contrasts.  In fact, not much of the world looks this barren or this purely engineered, and not many men wear suits anymore, and the image of the “man in the grey flannel suit” alone in the anomie of the concrete jungle is a figure from another era.  And yet, here he is again, and perhaps more remarkable for that.

Let’s be clear what this image is not.  It is not news.  It is not emblematic of a significant event or current controversy.  It is not a sign of the times or a new fashion or trending activity.  And yet it is photojournalism, and it was selected for the Photos of the Week at the Atlantic.

More to the point, the who, what, where, and when really don’t matter much here.  (If you look closely, he might be wearing a sweater rather than a vest.  I’m not sure he’s carrying a wallet, either.  Note that we’re not told the name of the street, etc.)  Which leaves us with the why.  And the why is doubly important, because what the photograph certainly is, is enigmatic.  Although quintessentially modernist, it’s no longer clear whether the world depicted has a future.  For all the strength and inertia of the concrete structures, they already seem almost permanently empty, and he seems both wittingly and unwittingly vulnerable.  Kafka’s K comes to mind, which takes us even farther back.  And by the way, where are the women?  Now modernism becomes an empty space that we walk through but would not want to inhabit; and enlightenment serves primarily to demarcate the dark places, which are larger than we knew.

He is caught in the light, but like his shadow, he will soon disappear.  Take a look at the last modern man.

Photograph by Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters.

March 2nd, 2016

When Dreams Become Ruins

Posted by Hariman in visual memory

Miller, Flooded Room Beneath Pad 19

It could be any abandoned basement, or subbasement, or back-lot reservoir of some forgotten rust-belt industrial zone.  And it is–except that it also is the flooded room beneath Launch Complex 19 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The Space Program, remember?  Or maybe you read about it in school.  Gemini, Apollo, the big rockets timbering upward amid gigantic columns of smoke and fire.  Humanity was going to the moon, to the stars, into the final frontier. . . .

OK, so that final frontier stuff came from Star Trek, but it was all the same, really.  Science and science fiction mashed up together.  Dreaming big and making it so real the whole world could watch in awe.

And now?  The rockets are ancient history, the space shuttles are museum pieces, and space is being privitized by those few billionaires who have hobbies other than collecting politicians.

Fortunately, photographer Roland Miller has captured what remains.  His book Abandoned in Place: Preserving America’s Space History is out this month.  I’ve only seen the images at his web site and the New York Times exhibition, but they offer a beautiful study of the complex relationships between dreams, loss, and memory.

If you liked the space program, it will be a mixed blessing, as the glory days are long gone, while rust, peeling paint, and cracked concrete testify to nature’s relentless wear.  Indeed, earth seems to be reasserting the slow, sure bonds of gravity and inertia that the powerful launches seemed to defy.

If you like ruins, however, you will feel right at home.  Which is why I want to feature this work.  I don’t miss the space program, but its ruins can help us think about what it means to tie progress to a dream of escape.

The visible abandonment of the rocket sites is a sad reminder of what it would have meant to abandon this planet.  The falling back into nature is another example of how we have to find more sustainable ways to thrive within our own ecosystem.  The deteriorating relics of a great technological achievement provide mute testimony to the fate of any civilization that thinks it can rise forever.

The great challenge of the 21st century is not traveling into space, but rather renewing our covenants with the earth and each other.  If that challenge is not met, perhaps some day travelers from another galaxy will arrive here, only to find a silent planet dotted with ruins.

Miller, Apollo Saturn Complex 34

Photographs by Roland Miller.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

February 19th, 2016

Progress and Catastrophe at the World Press Photo Awards

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

The 2016 World Press Photo Awards were announced yesterday.  As always, the awards are an occasion for marveling at the quality of contemporary photojournalism.  And as always, they probably have prompted some controversy, although I would expect less of that this year.  The winning photograph channels Robert Capa’s great D-Day photograph, while its black and white tonality and “you are there” action shot will allay concerns raised in the last few years about the presence of painterly or other explicitly aesthetic values.

A wide range of artistic inflection is still on display at the awards, however, and good thing, too.  (Keep in mind that all the photographs are digitally altered–not least the black and white images, which have the color subtracted from the original raw file.)  Photojournalism is a vital, vibrant public art, and the “82,951 photos made by 5,775 photographers from 128 different countries” will provide a rich archive of life on planet Earth today.  Note also that this WPP quotation says the photos are “made,” not taken.  The modernist assumption about transparent representation of the world finally is being replaced by recognition of the fact–and I would hope, value–of mediation.

From the look of the winners, it seems clear that the artistry that is on display brings us closer not only to the world as it is, but also to the world as it is unfolding from past to present to future.  By putting two of the category winners side by side, we can see how this public art is challenging us to think about whether a global future will be one of progress or catastrophe.

China, WPP award, Freyer

The WPP caption says, “Chinese men pull a tricycle in a neighborhood next to a coal-fired power plant in Shanxi, China.  A history of heavy dependence on burning coal for energy has made China the source of nearly a third of the world’s total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the toxic pollutants widely cited by scientists and environmentalists as the primary cause of global warming.”

Put text and image image together, and you have a problem.  Coal-fired plants in China needs to be replaced for the common good, right?  Yes, but it’s cold in Shanxi.  And that massive plant is helping people haul themselves out of centuries of poverty.

The caption refers to a tricycle, but motorbikes are there as well.  Progress is there, but hardly at the level of Saudi elites living lavishly in London.  It’s still a slog in Shanxi.  The fact that the province is now an exhibit for deplorable labor conditions is one measure of where it is on the developmental scale.  One question that arises is whether this is a photograph of how rural China is climbing the stages of industrialization toward First World prosperity, or of how the “temporary” costs of industrialization are now unacceptable because of permanent damage to the global ecosystem.

Which brings us to the photo’s artistry.  Is it a photograph or a 19th century genre painting?  Is it a photograph or a Soviet-era poster promoting industrialization?  Both the painterly hues and the modernist iconography are key elements of the composition.  The artistic implication is that this is a photograph of the past.

In Reading National Geographic, Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins made the astute observation that the ideology of progress sees the developing world is if “their present is our past” (p. 125).  Many, many photographs have carried that message.  With this photo, I’m not so sure.  The the two men in the foreground are moving the non-motorized vehicle away from the power plants.  The plants are being left behind, while the men are walking on a road that seemingly  would become colder, harsher, more tiring.  In place of electric heat, they will need that fur blanket that is draped over the trike.  As in a genre painting, they become a portrait of a simple, agrarian life, albeit now one that comes after industrialization instead of before it.  Progress is part of the picture, but it has become dangerous.  The two men almost could be refugees.  And perhaps they are.

But where might they go?  How are things going in the advanced nations?  The flip side of the Lutz and Collins observation is that those elsewhere could look at our present to see their future.  But what if our present already contains another future, and one that no one would want?

Australia, WPP award, Kelly

The WPP caption says, “A massive ‘cloud tsunami’ looms over Sydney as a sunbather reads, oblivious to the approaching cloud on Bondi Beach.”  Welcome to the affluent world: life is a beach, and better than that when you’ve also got your digital reader.  Industrialization is somewhere off stage here, while global information technologies, consumer consumption, and warmth can be taken for granted.  Taken for granted, that is, until you stop what you’re doing to look at what is coming.

Perhaps it’s just another storm.  Weather, not climate change.  A need to take shelter for awhile, not change the way you live.  That is the difference between a literal reading of the photograph and seeing it as a work of public art.  The photographs taken in 2015 record what is still a present moment, but they also can recall the past and reveal something of the future.  A future, perhaps, that looms like a terrible, dark storm.

Photographs by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images (WPP 1st prize singles, Daily Life) and Rohan Kelly/Daily Telegraph (WPP 1st prize singles, Nature).

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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