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. . . .

April 26th, 2015

Sight Gag: Absolut(ly)!

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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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 22nd, 2015

Figure and Form in the Photographic Imagination

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Some of the time photography relays other arts, and much of the time it creates the artwork.  Much of the time photography provides figural representation (that is, of persons and objects), and some of the time photography provides formal representation (that is, of abstract shapes and relationships).  Figure and form are themselves relative terms, as is suggested by their Latin roots which refer to the not very different concepts of shape and mold.  Figures include forms, and forms imply figures.  In like manner, you could switch the terms “some” and “many” in the previous sentences and they still would be true.  So it is that the transition between figure and form can be a source of invention in this public art.

wall man China

This photo was taken in Shanghai, where local artists were painting a man to blend into a wall.  The project is intended to raise awareness of the need to protect traditional structures.  Good luck with that in capitalism’s newest laboratory, but along the way the photographer has captured a moment in which the figure is both there and not there, familiar and uncanny, still salient but fading into the background.  We also can see that as the figure disappears, the human form does as well, to be replaced by the more impersonal formal relationships of bricks in a wall.

But not really.  There are three figures in the photograph.  The partial disappearance of the one is highlighted by, and highlights in return, the detailed, striking, robust presence of the other two.  The photograph gives us a temporal (and ontological) succession from the wall to the somewhat abstract figure emerging out of it to the fully textured persons in front.  Of course, it also is a recession, as the movement can go from person to (via the brushes) to figure to wall.  It’s all the same to the camera.

So what is the point of the photograph?  It is showing artists at work, so that seems to be the obvious answer, and one that is reinforced by including that architectural ornament in the upper right.  Art and artistry are on display, both as a contemporary act and on behalf of a sense of tradition signified by the decorative fixture.  The skill evident in the painting supposedly is more than is required to operate a camera, but this photograph demonstrates that each art is capable of achieving an aesthetic effect.  The mimetic work of the painters is admirable, but the depiction of the painters is superb.  With their intense concentration and arrested movement, they become aesthetic objects themselves, so much so that they could stand beside others like them in many a painting of the artistic life.  Figural representation has triumphed after all, because of the continuities of form within the image and across the archive.

Clouds Germany

But not for long.  I have included this second image not only because it is a beautiful study in natural forms, but because it happened to follow the first in the recent Photos of the Week slideshow at In Focus.  There doesn’t seem to be any logic or narrative continuity to this new media genre, but the editors are making decisions of selection and placement, so something must lie below the surface.  Once again we have a study in figure and form, although now with the ratios reversed.  The tree is recognizable as a tree, and you can know that the shapes in the air are clouds (which they are), but now the term “clouds” seems a retroactive and all too limited description of what we see.  The photograph presents beautiful, marvelous, enthralling shapes made up of sinuous contours and simple colors.  The forms seem both dynamic and timeless, both solid and ethereal.

So what is the point of this photograph?  Let me suggest that one answer comes from seeing it, as with the one above, as a transitional moment between figure and form.  We see clouds and a tree, but also the vast, incomprehensible beauty of the natural world; and we see the vast, incomprehensible beauty of the natural world, and also clouds and a tree.  Seeing either alone could be too much or too little to contemplate.  The point would be that the beauty of the world is there to be seen, but to see it we have to pull it out of the background just enough so that it is visible yet not too familiar.

As photography is a public art, it depends on and expands an imaginative space, one that stays connected to but extends beyond ordinary vision to show what we have in common.  That includes showing things like nature and tradition and beauty and art, for example.  To see any of these things, figure is necessary, and form is essential.

Photographs by Reuters and Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/AFP/Getty Images.

 

April 20th, 2015

The Costs of Gun Violence

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 3.16.06 PM

Since 9/11 there have been over 400,000 gun deaths in the USA from privately owned guns. That’s approximately 33,000 deaths per year – murders and suicides combined – and it doesn’t take account of the approximately 80,000 injuries each year. To put it all in context, the Congressional Research Service estimates that from the Battle of Lexington and Concord to the war on Afghanistan, 1,171,177 US citizens lost their lives in American wars; according to the FBI, since 1968 1,387,171 American have lost their lives to firearms. Most recently it was reported that the direct and indirect costs of gun violence amount to $229 billion dollars per year – that’s more than the estimated cost of obesity ($224 Billion) and nearly as much as the cost of Medicaid ($228 Billion). Or to make it personal, the per capita cost ranges from $234 per person (in Hawaii) to $1,397 per person (in Wyoming). The average national per capita cost is $750.

Now I know that attitudes about the 2nd Amendment are polarized across the nation, but whatever your ideological position is it is pretty hard to deny that we have a serious problem here. And the photograph above points to at least a small part of the trouble. That’s a Barrett .50 caliber rifle—often referred to as a “sniper rifle”—on display at the annual NRA meeting in Nashville, TN. It shoots ten rounds per second is a semi-automatic weapon that holds a ten round magazine, projects an effective range of 2,500 meters, and has been known to cleanly sluice through the engine block of a truck. The man wielding the gun is intense and focused. He seems to be having a good time. And therein likes the rub.

I realize that some will take exception to this claim, but I truly cannot imagine how a private citizen could possibly need quite that much firepower, whether for hunting or self-defense or … for what? The International Association of Chiefs first recommended banning the private ownership of such weapons in 2004 as a protection for law officers, a recommendation endorsed by strict regulations passed in the State of California and the District of Columbia. And yet, as the photograph above suggests, the rifles are still not only being manufactured, but promoted at national events … a phenomenon no doubt encouraged by the popularity of this past year’s biographical movie American Sniper. One cannot only see such weapons, but one can play as if they were actually shooting one. And to what end? To imagine assassinating a foreign leader? Or stopping an invading tank?

The question is, can we have a sensible endorsement of the 2nd Amendment without going to the extent of encouraging the purchase of or identification with weapons that clearly have no other purpose than to kill and maim at great distances. After all, weapons such as this are not used for target practice or sport and the thought that a rifle of this size and caliber might serve as self-defense is laughable. Perhaps its only virtue is that it is so large that it can never serve as a concealed weapon. The point, I guess, is that the debate over gun control has extended to such absurd limits that we have failed to produce any kind of sensible regulations on gun control at all. The Constitution grants the right to bear arms, just as it grants the right to “free speech.” But as we know in the later case, such rights are neither absolute nor without obligations. They have to balanced against the costs. And when the costs get too high the rights must, reluctantly, be restricted and restrained.

Rather than to endorse playing with guns, the bigger the bang the better, the NRA would serve itself and the nation more productively if it worked to think about how the 2nd Amendment might be sensibly adapted to a growing (and tragic) cost that seems to exceed its benefits.

Credit: Harrison McClary/Reuters

April 19th, 2015

Sight Gag: Fox News — Irony Free Zone

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 FNews No Irony ZoneCredit: Fox News

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 15th, 2015

Spring Time in the Dust Bowl

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

It’s that time of year when we can enjoy the annual photographs of cherry blossoms, tulips, and daffodils; not to mention birds building their nests while lambs and puppies and babies delight in the warm spring sunshine.  Winter has finally moved on, and hope springs eternal.

China dust storm

Unless, of course, you are caught in a dust storm in Dunhuang, China.  I realize that we are all too familiar with the dust storms of Dunhuang, but let me bring up the subject one more time.  Yes, I want to introduce a sour note into the seasonal chorus, and no, it’s not something I usually do.  You shouldn’t blame me anyway, because it’s this photograph’s fault.

Any part of the planet can have a bad day, and I don’t want to single out Gansu province, which would be a tad hypocritical when my own country is dealing–and not dealing–with a drought and other adverse weather that of course has nothing to do with climate change.  And like most photographs, the value of this image really isn’t in its news value, but rather in how it helps to orient us toward conditions that we already are experiencing.

To that end, this photo’s artistry provides at least three suggestions that merit further reflection.  One is how all-encompassing the storm is.  Of course, that is an illusion created by the limited purview of the camera: somewhere outside of the frame, there is no dust storm.  But in the scene we see, which extends to the horizon, the dust is sovereign.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see that total transformation of the local environment as the result of enormous natural forces.  This incredible feat of lifting thousands of tons of earth into the air is the work of vast weather systems wheeling about the globe.  In case it wasn’t clear enough, consider also the contrast with the human being walking through the storm.  He can endure it, wait it out, survive it, talk about it afterwards, but he cannot control or conquer it.

The second suggestion comes from that high-quality fence.  This is not your grandfather’s dust bowl.  The beautiful design may be made of concrete–that is, of sand, a silicone dust–but in any case it sits serenely in the storm, almost as if it, too, could patiently wait it out.  The omnipresent tonality of the photo creates a homology between the dust storm and the patterned roadway, as if the built environment and the natural environment were seamlessly coordinated (in harmony, the Chinese might say).  And there is an important moral there, I think: if the dust all blows away, or if it grinds the structure down to dust, or if it gently buries it 100 feet underground, it’s all the same to the dust and to the structure.  The continuity of nature and human engineering that we rightly prize, works just as well in reverse.

Which brings us to the third design element in the composition.  Both roadway and the lone individual are directed toward the vanishing point of the photograph: a place in this image of pure obliteration.  Sight, distinction, every separate thing is consumed by the storm, converted into total meaninglessness like a last, uniform expanse of cosmic dust at the far end of time.  Against the hubris that comes with building beautiful structures and complex civilizations, we see instead a trajectory toward a common dissolution.

This photograph doesn’t tell us anything important that we don’t know, but it does provide the means to think about what we would rather ignore.  When it comes to living on this planet, just who are we kidding, and what do we think will save us?  There have been dust storms for a very long time, and they have buried more than one civilization, but now the stakes are higher still.  Human beings are able to alter the climate, but not control it.  What had been local problems or long term patterns can be tipped into catastrophic changes.  And if hope springs eternal, then there will be reason to believe that one day we’ll all be there, walking along a beautifully engineered roadway into oblivion.

Photograph from the China Stringer Network/Reuters.

April 13th, 2015

Remembrances of Things …

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory

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We take lots of photographs these days. Photojournalists account for thousands every day and hundreds of thousands every year, but their output is dwarfed by the number of images taken by non-professional, most taken with a mobile device like a phone camera. The photograph above shows a printout of the photographs uploaded on Flickr in a single 24 hour period in 2011 and the number of images taken in a given day surely exceeds what we see in this one photograph.

There is nothing particularly new about taking lots and lots of photographs. We have been doing this for nearly a century since the camera became an affordable commodity and Kodak convinced us that it was a necessary accouterment to bourgeois life. The so-called “digitial revolution” has made taking photographs easier, not least because just about everyone carries a mobile camera of some sort, but also because photographs are now simpler to produce and to circulate—the darkroom is now an antiquity and the family photo album has been replaced by a website of one sort or another. It is thus a bit odd that some bemoan the new found abundance of photographs, such as we find in a recent NYT Style Magazine article titled “Remembrances of Things Lost.”

In the most general sense the complaint is not new. The reliance on photographs will undermine our capacity for remembrance. This, of course, was Plato’s protest against writing (see his Phaedrus) and which has resurfaced over and again across the millennia with the development of each new technology of mediation and representation. And, of course, it is at the core of the iconoclastic critique of photography that we can trace in almost a direct line from Baudelaire to Susan Sontag. And, equally of course, it is wrong—or at least grossly simplistic. Yes, changing technologies alter the ways in which we practice and experience memory. The shift from orality to literacy is a case in point, but what was lost was not memory per se, but a particular way or register in which memory was practiced and understood. And the same could be said for every subsequent development of a new technology or medium of representation. The bigger problem, however, is not that photography – digital or otherwise – has undermined our capacity for remembrance, but that the mindless repetition of this argument underwrites a critical discourse of photography that minimizes—if it doesn’t miss altogether—the power and capacity of the medium to help us think with and through such images as we encounter the problems and possibilities of modern life. And this is not least with respect to how the present—which in some measure is the only thing we can actually photography—functions to help us to (re)member the relationship between the past and the future in powerful and provocative ways.

Consider, for example, this photograph published on the front page of the NYT—both print and on-line—on the same day as the above article lamenting the loss of remembrance animated by contemporary photographic practices.

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Captioned a “shrine to defiance,” the photograph shows a small bungalow in Seattle that seems to have stood in the way of progress. Hemmed in by high rise buildings that all but touch its outer walls, and otherwise bordered by a busy public thoroughfare, the house is altogether out of place—and out of time. It gestures to a past – one can imagine a row of such houses that once stood here – even as it points to the inevitable future that will soon be upon us as modernity move relentlessly forward. But it does so with an interesting edge. Notice that it is the bungalow that offers up the slightest hint of color—of individualism—in an otherwise and uniformly muted, almost black-and-white world. It will not survive for long, at least not in that space, but what the photograph testifies to is the fate of the unique individual in an increasingly modern society where progress refuses to stand still. But more, it also invites consideration of the tension between a more colorful past and a more uniform, colorless present, and to the tint and tone of the future that it portends.

In short, this second photograph complicates our sense of what it means to remember and how we do it, and it does so in a powerful way. Not every photograph will do this, of course, but the potential is there and enough will achieve that potential that it is a profound error to repeat a tired argument about how the medium is a problem for remembrance without also emphasizing its powerful affordances otherwise. Our photographic practices have changed over the years—and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to do so in the years ahead; the more important point is that it is long past the time at which we should change the ways in which we talk photography as a cultural practice and phenomenon so as to understand it as the important mode of public art that it is in all of its forms.

Credit: Erik Kessels/Foam at Amsterdam; Ian C. Bates/NYT

April 12th, 2015

Sight Gag: The Shot Seen ‘Round the World

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

21st Century PolicingCredit:Rogers, Pittsburgh Post-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.

April 8th, 2015

Waiting for Peace at the Syrian Bus Stop

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Buses upright Syria

This scene is so astonishing that I don’t know where to begin, so we might as well start with the caption: “Civilians walk near upright buses barricading a street, which serve as protection from snipers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo’s rebel-controlled Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, on March 21, 2015.”  The description helps, although it, too, is disorienting: What civilians?  Oh, yes, those Lilliputian figures to the left and right.  They are well off center for a reason, for this photograph is not about them but rather what looms over them: the towering construction blocking the view like a bizarre work of street art.

Three buses–or their mechanical carcasses–have been placed on end.  How did they do that?  “With a crane, probably,” says the practical reader, and I’ll bet you’re right.  But however it was done, it is a monument to human resourcefulness.  The buses may have been ruined by warfare already, or too vulnerable to rocket attack to be used anymore, or they may have been stripped down for their new role because those in the neighborhood have learned the hard way that staying alive is more important than getting to work on time.  Whatever the back story, the moral is the same: warfare demands exceptional resilience and inventiveness to survive, and people respond in kind.

Which is why the scene is heartbreaking.  The buses are a monument to resourcefulness, and to waste.  The waste of material, of time, of productivity, of human creativity.  These things are still there in Aleppo, but now they all have been taken hostage by the war.  What could have been an ordinary day on an unexceptional street as people went about the business of getting on with their lives, is instead a study in interdiction, blockage, obstruction, and stasis.

By not getting too close to the action, the photograph creates a space in which we can see inaction, inertness, lost lives and lost years.  Buses that should move along their designated routes now prevent traffic.  A street free of gunfire should be something that one can take for granted; in Aleppo, it requires a Herculean effort, and with the added cost of not being able to use the street.  Instead of the unexceptional habits that can be the bedrock for a good life, this war-torn society is subject to chaos.  And it seems to be a strange, gradual, grinding chaos that persists by turning the city against itself and making disorientation normal.  It looks like life is merging with art, but only to hold off the viciousness and futility characterizing civil war in our time.

Susan Sontag claimed that photography was surreal.  What she failed to appreciate was that reality is surreal, and that photography’s supposed limitations as a medium allow it to capture how that is so.  This photograph of vertical buses in Aleppo suggests a ready-made sculpture in the spirit of Duchamp.  By shearing the scene of purpose which then has to be supplied by the caption, we are sure to be startled, perhaps astonished, but not too quick to rationalize what we see.  The buses will block sniper fire, but still–it’s just crazy that they are the means to that end.  Of course, the more sensible political, diplomatic, economic, social, or cultural means to stop the killing are not working, or not even being tried, so here we are.

Waiting for peace to arrive at the Syrian bus stop.  It could be a long wait.

Photograph by Ammar Abdullah/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

April 6th, 2015

Can We Photograph the Future?

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Photograph the Future

It is commonly believed that the photograph is a limited medium that can only record the present. Without the capacity of time travel we cannot return to the past to record it as it actually was, nor can we stretch into the future to see what will be in a subsequent moment of time. Words—and even methods of non-photographic visual representations such as painting—don’t seem to face the same restrictions as they appear to allow greater reach to the imagination to recreate a bygone era or to envision what the world might become. But the photograph is tied to the here and now with little more than the recognition that at some future moment in time the present that it indexes will mark a past.   It can only record what “is” not what “was” or “will be.” We may take pictures to satisfy a future memory as to what was, but the camera, we believe, cannot exceed the moment at which the shutter opens and closes.

There is of course an element of truth to this set of assumptions, but they rely upon such a narrow conception of the relationship between reality and imagination that it may be worth our effort to reconsider the possibilities. The photograph above graced three quarters of the front page of the NYT above the fold this past Sunday (4/5/15) as part of a story reporting on the implications of the California Governor’s executive order that citizens cut water consumption by 25% in response to the drought that is now in its fourth year with no indication of ending. At first glance it appeared to be a diptych—two distinct images or plates that reflect upon one another even as they constitute a distinct whole—but reading the caption makes it clear that this is not a diptych but rather a single, aerial photography of a “lush” housing development that “abuts” a “bone dry desert.” And the question is, what do we see?

California has long been understood as the land of opportunity, the high mark of modern progress with a population that continues to grow and the seventh largest economy in the world. And the quality of life is, if not fully luxurious, at least generally among the highest in the nation. Not everyone lives in a housing development like Cathedral City, but many do and it surely underwrites the ethos of the California Dream. Look carefully at the image and you will note that each house not only sports a rich and verdant lawn, but that many of the homes feature swimming pools that consume hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a year. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in a state where the lakes are drying up and fields are increasingly laying fallow. And yet for all of that, the reaction by some ranges from incredulity to outright resistance. So, the NYT reports on one resident who insists, “I’m not going to stop watering.… The state does not know how to arrange the resources they have, and so we have to pay for it.” The allure of unfettered progress remains strong, and yet the right half of the photograph is a telling landscape of one possible future if we follow the lead of this one resident.

Can photographs show the future? If we assume that all a photograph shows is the literal world that it indexes and no more, then, of course, the answer is no. But as with the photograph above the reality on display is much more complex than a fundamentalist literalism would allow. And what we see is not just a world that has managed to sculpt nature to accommodate its own pleasures, with lush lawns and luxurious swimming pools in a desert climate ill-fitted for either, but what that world may well be destined to if wiser heads do not prevail. And in this context a photograph can well put the future on display.

Credit: Damon Winter/NYT

 

April 5th, 2015

Sight Gag: Back Home Again in Indiana

Posted by Lucaites in Uncategorized

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.14.52 AMCredit: Tom Stiglich

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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