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. . . .

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.

December 10th, 2014

The Beauty of LA Burning

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

LA apartment fire

Spectacular.  Beautiful.  Hauntingly Beautiful.  Disturbingly beautiful.  Terrifying and yet enthralling.  Awe-inspiring, except that it shouldn’t inspire at all.  Why does disaster dazzle the eye?  How could the spectator not be faulted for enjoying a holocaust?

Such questions have dogged photography as if they were the sign of an original sin.  The medium inadvertently exposed a disconcerting truth: the good, the true, and the beautiful are not transcendentally aligned.  Not for us, anyway.

From comprehensive theoretical critiques to glib labels such as “disaster porn,” academics and pundits alike have faulted those who are drawn like moths to the flame of the disaster photo.  Mark Reinhardt, Susie Linfield and other contemporary writers have tried to push back against such moralizing, but the suspicion of a guilty pleasure remains, and perhaps it should.  There certainly is no lack of beautiful photographs of devastation, and the enjoyment, fascination, and safety of the viewer’s experience will not be remotely like the experience of many at the scene.  But that’s true of all media, while first-hand experience itself can be inchoate, deluded, and otherwise not only mistaken but in need of precisely the distance, perspective, and other resources that art can provide to make sense of the world.

I won’t say that this photograph is likely to be needed by those closer to the fire, but it is a near-perfect example of how photojournalism continues to evoke a mode of seeing that is simultaneously highly aesthetic and yet focused on moments of disaster.  No artistic stance is immune to misuse, but I think images such as this one are an important addition to public life, and not least because they reveal the seamless conjunction of beauty and moral hazard.  Others pay so that we can see that destruction can be beautiful.  They would have paid anyway, however, and your turn will come, so the hard truth is worth having.

Thus, I wasn’t being snarky when titling this post.  LA burning isn’t beautiful because LA deserves to burn.  LA burning is beautiful because we can see it that way.  The interesting question is, what else does that allow us to see?  In the photograph above, we might admit to the close conjunction of civilization and catastrophe.  Note, for example, now the fire and the city towers are each offset from center while side-by-side.  The eye is pulled to the blaze, but then to the gleaming buildings, and then perhaps pulled back a bit to encompass the wider cityscape that now seems aglow with thousands of smaller, safer fires.  The hanging foliage and surrounding sky frames the city within a state of nature where elemental fires burn, ready to consume anyone foolish enough to ignore them.  And yet the city is such an achievement within that frame. . . .  As long as the blaze is contained, that is.  The incredible dynamism of the city becomes framed by a logic of containment, with rupture sure to follow.

I suspect that there are many reasons we enjoy this view.  Light dazzles us, and we like to be dazzled, as the many holiday decorations make clear.  More nasty is the fact that there can be something liberating about destruction.  Where some will see the city enduring and overcoming fires and other occasional spasms of destructiveness, others will sense the possibility of a city consumed in flames–if not in reality, at least close enough that one can feel it.  For those who experience civilization as arbitrary repression or daily humiliation, destruction would become a fantasy of freedom.  And the sheer, almost abstract destructiveness of a massive fire may promise a pure form of liberation.

At the end of the day, however, it does matter that the fire is in LA.  In more than one art form, the city of angels has been America’s harbinger of the apocalypse.  Perhaps this photograph’s visual hint of a mushroom cloud is part of that legacy.  For whatever reason, and by several means, the message continues to be repeated.  A visual spectacle may be the hook, or it may be part of the message.   The question remains, what are we supposed to see?

Photograph by Nancy Yuille/Associated Press.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

December 8th, 2014

’Tis the Season …

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Xmas Joy

I used to think that one didn’t have to be Christian to celebrate and appreciate the Christmas season. Yes, for the devout it marks the birth of Christ, and in that context it has an important spiritual significance that should not be scanted. But it also corresponds roughly with the winter solstice and, for the past century, at least in the West, it has been a secular holiday that celebrates the virtues of charity and selfless giving regardless of one’s religious affiliation. If it were only so simple!

Sadly, Christmas has also become a season for the gross accumulation of commodities under the sign of charity and giving. Children—in all of their innocence—are the primary beneficiaries of the holiday as they are indulged with all manner of toys and goodies distributed, somewhat magically, by an elfish deity who somehow distinguishes good from bad. And, of course, the more toys and goodies all the better. Or at least such is the myth of its representation in popular discourse. But truth to tell, there is something of a fetish to such giving that is more important to the adults who underwrite such indulgences than to the children who receive it—think of all the commercials you’ve seen where the parent’s satisfaction in observing their children far exceeds the joy of the children themselves. Put differently, the joy of giving in this scenario is more a justification for one’s own desire for the accumulation of goods than it is a desire to please the other.

The photograph above is only one of many representations of Black Friday, where adults camp out for hours in anticipation of the opportunity to accumulate commodities at a highly discounted rate. The supply always far exceeds the demand accenting the value of the goods and animating the desire for their possession, often leading to violence. Here, adults and children fight over a high definition television. There are many things worth fighting for, to be sure, but a television set? What is most revealing about the scene, however, is not so much the scuffle as it is the reaction of the spectators, some who have already claimed their own televisions. Some seem to be ignoring the scene altogether, not unlike the way they might walk past a homeless person as if they weren’t there, while others look on with a sadness that stands in marked contrast to what is supposed to be the joyousness of the season.

It is hard to know what to make of all of this, but perhaps there is a clue in the presence of the videographer who is capturing the scene for the nightly news. He knew exactly what was going to happen because what he is watching is a ritual event that takes place throughout the capitalist world (this scene is in a superstore in Wembley, England, but it could be in any Best Buy or Walmart in any city in the United States, or elsewhere for that matter), year after year, and as much as we might revile the greed that seeps through in such images we seem to celebrate it as well, casting such images each year as real time performances (advertisements?) of what we secretly  value the most—and that is not the joy of giving but the accumulation of goods.  As the bumper sticker says, “He who dies with the most toys wins!”

No, one does not have to be Christian to celebrate the Christmas holiday, and all I can say is … more’s the pity.

Credit: Luke MacGregor/Reuters

 

December 7th, 2014

Sight Gag: The Conversation

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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Credit: Breen/UT San Diego

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.

 

December 5th, 2014

Wendy Kozol’s Distant Wars Visible

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

Kozol cover

Congratulations to Wendy Kozol for the release of her new book from the University of Minnesota Press.  The Amazon.com link is here.

The bio will tell you that Wendy Kozol is professor of comparative American studies at Oberlin College.  She is the author of Life’s America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism and has coedited two anthologies (with Wendy S. Hesford): Haunting Violations: Feminist Criticism and the Crisis of the “Real” and Just Advocacy? Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminism, and the Politics of Representation.

We know her as one of the original sources of inspiration for our work, and as an engaged colleague who continues to advance understanding of how photography can be a vital medium for understanding war, human rights, and the obligations of seeing.

 

December 3rd, 2014

The Beatings Will Continue

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

until morale improves.

Hong Kong beating

News reports as I write are that the protest leadership in Hong Kong is divided over the question of whether to disband the demonstrations.  Many students want to continue, as the objectives of the protest have not been met.  Others want to stand down to stop the escalating violence that contradicts the movement’s original intention and values.

I wonder how this guy would vote?

We can’t even make a good guess, as violence can either break or stiffen resolve.  The caption informs us that “A pro-democracy protester, with blood on his face, is detained by police during a confrontation.”  The caption is a model of professional objectivity–and euphemism.  How that blood got on his face, we apparently can’t say.  And “detained,” well, that’s one word for it.  And whether he is conscious, semiconscious, or out cold is left unsaid; perhaps he is resting. . . . .

Many of the photographs from the demonstration have been uplifting testaments to peaceful civil disobedience on behalf of democratic ideals.  Not to mention the eye candy: colorful umbrellas, post-it note signage, and origami displays amidst a gleaming cityscape lend themselves to appealing images, and beautiful young people who look more studious than dangerous can even make politics look attractive.  Throw in a few cellphones and a laptop or two, and you have a liberal techno-globalist dream come true.  Thomas Friedman, start writing.

Which is why I admire this photograph.  It is not pretty; it is disturbing.  The boy has been beaten.  The mask to avoid tear gas now signifies the hospital care that he needs and may not get soon.  His youth has been turned as well: from future-oriented idealism and courage to sheer physical and psychological vulnerability.  Almost everything else in the frame also is destabilized: the yellow metal could be a cage, the red bulb says both “emergency” and “interrogation,” the thin young man is rearing back as if threatened while being more exposed than he knows, the isolated face could be friendly or hostile, perhaps a traitor in the making as everyone seems subject to different vectors in the force field.  Against this shuddering disconnection and ambiguity, only the policeman’s mass in the right foreground stands unchanged–and yet inchoate.

The photograph reminds us that government still is too often conducted the old fashioned way: with violence.  And that bearing witness to common ideals will lead to brutality and pain that is borne not by all who believe, but by a few who are given far more than their share of the load.  And if all we can do is watch, we should at least recognize that we have a responsibility to do so, all down the line.

The demonstrators may decide to stay, or not.  (Frankly, I think they should leave–for awhile.)  Either way, however, the beatings will continue.

Eventually, it might become too much to watch.  I wonder what we will do then?

Photograph by Tyrone Siu/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

December 1st, 2014

… the more things stay the same.

Posted by Lucaites in visual memory

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 8.32.46 PM

Of all of the hundreds of photographs of the protests and violence and destruction to come out of Ferguson, MO in the past week it was this image that stung me the most. A lone black man squatting amidst a raging cauldron of hate and fear and frustration, he bears the simple message “Black Lives Matter.” The flames that surround him cast him in a shadow of backlight but illuminate both his sign and the graffiti behind him that implores whoever encounters it to “Kill Cops.” Each message is equally outrageous and absurd however meaningful it might be under the current circumstances. Of course black lives matter; that the claim even has to be made—and there is no question from this quarter that it does—is a national shame. To incite the killing of police—the avatars of preserving “the peace” and maintaining “order” —is a call to barbarism that beckons to a world governed by the Hobbesian “war of all against all.” In short, the photograph is an allegory for how tenuous the fabric of our contemporary society has become.

What made the photograph most striking for me, however, was not the way in which it cautions us against the current tragedy of Ferguson, MO, but how it stands as a notice that the problem of black-white relations is the true American tragedy, a problem that never seems to go away, but recurs in cyclical fashion for every generation. And so I could not help but remember another photograph, equally absurd—and equally meaningful in its context—from my youth.

Mourner at Martin Luther King's memorial

1968 seems so incredibly long ago—a lifetime for those in my generation—that it is hard to think of this photograph as anything but an aide memoire from the era of the civil rights movement. And yet for all the progress we presume to have made in the intervening decades, for all the talk of being in a “post-civil rights” era or a world of “hope,” there is no getting around the fact that the claim to manhood in the older photograph is a precursor to the precarity of black life marked in the contemporary photograph.

 The more things change …

Credit: Stephen Lam/Reuters; Bob Adelman/Corbis.

Crossposted at BagNewsNotes.

November 16th, 2014

NCN Fall Break

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Two guys3

We’ll be offline for two weeks–some travel, a conference, and the Thanksgiving holiday–to return on December 1.

November 14th, 2014

Catastrophic Reflections: Depression Era Greece and Beyond

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe, conferences & shows

Fysakis, Nea Helvetia

The Depression Era project inhabits the urban and social landscapes of the crisis. It begins as a collective experiment, picturing the Greek city and its outer regions, the private lives of outcasts, the collapse of public systems and snapshots of the everyday in order to understand the social, economical and historical transformation currently taking place in Greece. It seeks to do so with as clear a gaze as possible. It understands, in its double meaning, that entropy, disaster, uncertainty and insolvency are also states of mind, ushering us to an era where the notion of progress, the idea of growth and the reflex of looking forward to a future are no longer dominant modes of perceiving and creating in the world.

The Depression Era project brings together 30+ artists, photographers, writers, curators, designers and researchers. It seeks to stand outside the media montage and white noise of current public discourse by creating its own mosaic of images and texts. Its immediate goals are the broadcast and dynamic exploration of this mosaic on an online platform, a series of international exhibitions and publications. Its long-term goals include an open call to young artists, the eventual creation of an artistic archive of the crisis and through it, a new digital and physical Commons, an ‘anti-screen’ and ‘sidewalk museum’ that would return its mosaic of gazes back to their places of origin.

The Depression Era collective agrees that its images and texts are not Greek, but European, viewports to the shape of things to come, straddling the red line and offering an alternative, unofficial story to the Crisis.

Work is displayed at the link above, and exhibitions currently are on display via Central Dupon Images in Paris and the Benaki Museum in Athens.

Photograph by Pavlos Fysakis.

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