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. . . .

May 17th, 2015

NCN on the Road

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

NCN on the Road Again

John and I are hitting the road this week, and then one or the other or both of us will be away for many of the weeks between now and mid-September.  During that time we also will be making the last changes on our forthcoming book manuscript, The Public Image, before sending it to the University of Chicago Press for the production work.  We also hope to do a re-design of this website, to be rolled out in September, but that is well down the road at the moment.  So–are you ready for the big disappointment–there will be no birthday post this year, even though our eighth birthday arrives in mid-June.  That’s the age of the blog, not our mental or emotional ages, although some might wonder about that.  In any case, we need the time off, and we plan to be back in the fall.  If you are new to the blog, please feel welcome to browse around.  There are over a 1000 posts in the archive, and should it be that our best work is behind us, that would be where you would find it.

 

May 13th, 2015

Crossing the Border to the 21st Century

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

boy in suitcase

It is fitting that the first photograph of the 21st century includes an illegal immigrant.

Yes, scanner technology is there as well, and we’ll get to that, but let’s stop and consider what we are seeing.  A stunning image, to be sure, but also one that mashes up a half-dozen critical transformations in the global environment, and yet doesn’t look like a mash-up.  Because the photo has the autonomy of a work of art, it both prompts and resists interpretation.  We see the patterns that already are transecting our lives to construct a titanium cage of biopolitical social organization, and yet we don’t see anything clearly.  The gauzy colors and plastic emptiness of the scan are a parody of transparency, while the dark silhouette of the body blocks any identification above the primal level of embryonic species existence.  The suitcase seems to be a womb; even the placenta is visible.  The photograph itself seems to be floating in some larger womb, some larger context we can’t yet see but only feel all around us, as if the distant sounds of the world to come were reverberating through some invisible fluid.

It’s a boy, by the way.  He was being smuggled into Ceuta, a Spanish territory on the coast of Morocco, on Thursday.  He has a name (Abou), and a father who now is in custody, and we can hope that other family members can be located.  But we already know that his situation is not exactly ideal.  There are over 200 million migrants in the world, and you can bet that most of them are not medical doctors or engineers.  Millions of people have to move across the globe simply to work, while those left behind struggle with all the problems that come from separation within the family and fraying of the social fabric within the community.

There are many photographs of migration, migrant labor, and the like (and see The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis, by T.J. Demos).  This photograph, by showing less, shows more.  We are not shown this or that immigrant and the typical circumstances and deprivations of the diaspora.  Instead, the image points toward the global forces that are converging to make all labor migrant labor, and all of us illegal aliens.

The photo captures by turns the bare life of the human subject in migration; the emblematic equipment of global transportation and, with that, a powerful but harsh global economy that permeates everyday life; the vulnerable individual in neoliberal economic systems who has to be hidden and humiliated to acquire the means to live, and then is hidden and humiliated while working; the digital technologies for comprehensive surveillance of those subjects; the extent to which modern technologies that promised liberation can become cheap instruments of confinement; and not least, via the eerie suggestion of biomedical laboratory equipment, materials, and optics, the planned transformation of human nature.  Indeed, one can imagine that the photo wasn’t taken for a human being, but rather for another machine.

So it is that a digital image from a government scanner of an illegal immigrant can become the first photo of the new century.  The others of the past 15 years have been recording the passage of time, but this one has captured the brave new world that is forming, still largely in the darkness of a time we can’t yet see.   A world, perhaps, where the post-human laborer already is being incubated.

Photograph by Spanish Gaurdia Civil/HO/Associated Press.  A BBC report on the incident is here.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

May 11th, 2015

In Honor of Mothers Everywhere

Posted by Lucaites in Uncategorized

n-MOMS-large570

A Look at the Mom’s of Art history.

We will be back on Wednesday.

May 10th, 2015

Sight Gag: The “Unsinkable” American Self

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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Click on the above image.  Then click on the image that appears.

Credit: Chris Jordan

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.

May 6th, 2015

Mirroring the Sadness in the Post-Soviet Catastrophe

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

 

Anastasia mirror copy

We have been allowed to look in on a moment of stunning intimacy.  Some say this shouldn’t happen–the camera should not be so intrusive, and the voyeurism is obscene.  Furthermore, my emotions of sadness or pity are an indulgence of middle class sentimentality that adds further insult to injury.  What they don’t consider is that without those risks, nothing can be shared or learned.  Care needs to be taken–by the photographer and by the viewer–but that can be done in order to bring people together in a public world.

And was done: the photographer Tamas Dezso spent several years in Romania and Hungary to document those who have been left to contend with the ongoing catastrophe to which they were abandoned.  The exhibition at The Guardian is titled “Postcards from the Ruins,” and it includes this photograph of Anastasia looking into a mirror.

We see her in the mirror–as an image–and also in front of it, and so the photo cues a reflexive awareness.  She confronts her image, and studies it, and we can do the same with the photo.  She ponders the toll time–and work and illness and worry and much else–has taken.  We can do the same.  She looks into a ruin of a mirror that is propped up against a curtained wall, between curtained windows behind which blank white light forms another wall.  It’s as if everything can be seen only through a veil, as if everything were shrouded for premature burial, as if she were looking at herself in preparation for her own funeral.  This world, it seems, is constant deterioration, while the next offers only blinding nothingness.  We might want to think about how things got to that point.

And yet, for all the melancholy that suffuses the scene, she is beautiful.  The mirror’s portraiture captures so much, from the vibrant blue in her dress to the combination of strength and gentleness in her hands to the daunting candor of her self-examination.  It is not hard to imagine that she is seeing not only who she is, but who she was, and perhaps more as well.  She knows something about living among the ruins, and though hard earned, it is hers.

I hope she finds consolation in what she has learned, and joy to match and exceed the colors still remaining in her world.  The question for us is, what are we to learn from what we have seen here?  Good photography can offer something like intimacy, and that can be an occasion for getting close to the knowledge of oneself and the world that intimacy offers.  If it is applied only to those in the photo, it probably is only a semblance of knowledge.  But if we are willing to see ourselves in her, perhaps we might ponder how her fate overlaps silently with ours.

I’m already old enough to know what it means to see one’s own decline in the mirror.  I hope you live long enough to have the same experience, but not for that reason.  Part of the beauty of this photograph is the dignity she confers on that experience. May we do so well.

One might consider also how her world is not as remote from this side of the screen as we might think.  Some of the bad policies and bad luck that produced post-Soviet poverty also apply to more affluent sectors of the geopolitical system, with the effects buffered only for the time being unless better decisions are made.  In a neoliberal economic order, protracted deprivation and indifference can become the order of the day anywhere, even in those places where ruins are still hidden in the mirror, waiting to be seen.

Photograph by Tamas Dezso/the Guardian.

May 3rd, 2015

Viewing Conflict at Home and From a Distance

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 8.42.07 PM

This photograph could have been taken in any number of places throughout the world where violent protest and opposition to authoritarian political regimes seem to dominate the news. And to be sure, we have seen it before on many occasions. Indeed, it is something of a visual trope that tells us little or nothing about the particular conflict, but nevertheless signals a world in which the rule of law has utterly failed if it ever had a place to begin with: the desperate, anonymous individual wielding their body and something less than the most advanced technological weaponry–a brick or rock, a sling, a primitive homemade bomb–against an equally anonymous, heavily armored modern militia.

What makes this image unique is that it does not portray a scene from Barundi or Istanbul or Sana or Tel Aviv or any of the other likely hot spots throughout the world, but rather Baltimore, Maryland. Rather than to be viewing violent protest and opposition at a distance, here we see so-called “unrest” at home. Rather than to be confronted with rebels or revolutionaries and political regimes that are often hard to identify with in any particular way, here we see fellow citizens fighting against the guardians of our civic institutions. And therein lies a tale worth considering, for there is no escaping the implication that what we are seeing here at home is fundamentally no different than what we see regularly abroad, and the clear warning that such “unrest” is not just an aberration but the harbinger—perhaps even a prophecy—of the utter breakdown of civil society.

Given the increasing regularity of such “unrest” animated by a growing distrust of America’s police forces it is a warning we should heed with some care.

Credit: Reuters

May 3rd, 2015

Sight Gag: Seeing is Believing (or, A History of Violence)

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 10.05.03 PM

Credit: Pat Balgey/Salt Lake Tribune

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.

April 29th, 2015

Painting With Light

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 8.21.10 PM

I had an opportunity to see Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” as a teenager and I recall being impressed by the size of the painting, but more than that with the way in which it captured so many different perspectives at once, with folks looking in every which direction. Each gaze within the painting seemed to tell, or perhaps invite, a very different story. I was a somewhat new, amateur photographer at the time, and I remember thinking that the painter here had accomplished something that the photographer could not do – the photographer, I thought, captured a sluice of reality in all of its objectivity, and while the lens could cover a whole landscape it worked most effectively when it focused in closely on details; the painter, on the other hand, did not just capture a scene, but imagined it, and in such imagining there was a special capacity to represent the world in a way that actually “created” it, putting things together that we might not actually see in relationship to one another in the so-called “real,” objective, seeing world. I was young and naïve, of course, but I was also captivated by a fairly common way of thinking about the relationship between painting and photography marked by somewhat rigid distinctions between the real and the imaginary.

Much has changed since the mid-1960s, and we are not so taken anymore with the notion that the distinction between the real and the imaginary is quite so stark –although, oddly enough it does rear its head somewhat regularly. And of course photography is one of the places where we see the problem worked out most clearly. The photograph, of course, is animated by its indexicality, the notion that the thing was actually there. But as with the photograph above, it is also something that in fact can work to evoke the imagination. The scene here is a helicopter on its way to Katmandu, all but perhaps one of the individuals in the scene victims of the recent earthquake in Nepal. And while it is shot within the narrow and confined space of a helicopter, it nevertheless shows a rather wide scene; indeed, there is a sense in which the cramped space of the helicopter has been recast as a wide and capacious landscape. And like in Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” notice how just about everyone has cast their gaze in a different direction, each face evoking a somewhat distinct emotional register and inviting consideration of a different story. All Nepalese, and all suffering the same random act of nature, each is nevertheless still an individual with his or her own hurt and sorrow. Painting with light, the photographer here has helped not just to capture an objective reality, but to do so by imagining the relationship between individuals and the larger society of which they are part, and in so doing inviting a different kind of relationship between those of us who view the photograph and those suffering at some distance.

There was a time when photographs were understood as primarily objective representations of the external world. And there is an element of the objective at work here, to be sure, but to limit our understanding of the photograph in such a register is to ignore the incredible power of the camera and the agency of the photographer to help us imagine and rethink the world.

Credit: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

April 27th, 2015

Nature Photography’s Liminal Moments

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Iguana

Fabulous, isn’t it?  As if from a fable, perhaps: “Once every 1000 years the Magical Iguana King would surface to inhale a silver bubble of air.  And if at that moment he saw a sea eagle, he would become Lord of the Sea and the Sky.  But if the bird was not in sight, then he would return to his sunken lair for another 1000 years.”

This iguana might be magical–after all, he is digital–and he already is a mediator between sea and sky.  The photograph provides a stunning tableau of how separate worlds meet at the surface of things: three worlds, actually, as we also see the rocks of a sea cave framing the heavenly vista that extends far above and along the water.  The iguana represents a fourth world, that of organic life, but it also seems to incorporate the first three in its rock-like skin, streamlined posture, and eye that can see along the rays of light permeating the air.

So it is that the photo captures a profound sense of liminality: the border between things.  We see water and earth and sky and animal, but each of these separate entities is also part of the borders between them, which are something else as well.  The slightly turbulent, partially illuminated surface of the water and the outline of the sky made by the rock create a sense of bounded yet dynamic space, which contrasts with the vast darkness below and the endlessness above.  That border is neither one side nor the other, but both, just as the animal is neither above nor below the water, but both.

Although the act of breaking the surface will have lasted only a moment, the photograph has a sense of timelessness.  The iguana looks like a prehistoric creature, the dark sea and distant sun have been there for billions of years, and there is no sign of anything having changed since then.  Some say that photography shouldn’t aspire to the timelessness of art, but that’s the wrong standard anyway (and not only for photography).  The beauty of this photograph has done something important, which is to show how the enormous scale of nature’s time and space also includes the magic of surfaces–of those places, often very small places, where forces meet and mingle.

And not just once.

wave

This is another example of what I have in mind.  You are looking at a wave that looks like a rock.  The incredible motility of the water has acquired the solidity of rock, which we can see because of the contrast with the sky.  The illusion (if you want to call it that) also is caused by the light flowing through the water, but that proves the point: what we think of as one thing is two or more; a wave is both air and sky, not to mention the motion of earth and moon.  This wave is a border between sea and sky, and one might well wonder what great leviathan could be rising to break the surface.

This photo, like the one above, also seems to depict nature’s timelessness in a liminal moment.  And why not?  Not only are the techniques the same, but the subject is the same.  That wave lasted only a few seconds, but the water and wind shaping it have been there for billions of years and will be there long after we are gone.  We can sense  the abstract forces coursing through the wave, and we can see texture of its surface, which is at once sea and sky.  Together they communicate nature’s glory.

The wave, like view from the sea cave above, also is the product of digital processing.  I wouldn’t worry about that.  Like the effect of the light through the water in each scene, the tonalities of the image are neither fixed nor misleading.  It is only by seeing these scenes somewhat imaginatively that one can begin to appreciate how the world is made, and that is true whether you see it through the lens of art or science.  To the extent the processing helped bring out the richness of the world, so be it.

These photographs are not only an education in natural beauty; they also exemplify how photography itself is a liminal art.  The photograph is a thin surface between two worlds: neither here nor there, and neither past nor present, but both.  Every photograph puts us into a liminal space–a space where perhaps we can breathe a silver bubble of air and see anew.

Photographs by Lorenzo Mittig and Ray Collins at Smithsonian.com.  The first was the winner and the second a finalist in the Natural World category at the Smithsonian Magazine 2014 photo contest.

April 26th, 2015

Sight Gag: Absolut(ly)!

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

01b6f525-3b1d-4cc2-a139-673c553f00b0

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.

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