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. . . .

August 31st, 2007

Body Bag in the Bronx

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

This is a hard photo of a bad day at the workplace:

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At about 8 in the morning a former employee of the RiverBay Corporation gunned down a supervisor, then shot two other employees before taking the bus to a courthouse where he turned himself in. (Where would we be without good mass transit?) The photograph with the story shows the body of Audley Bent being brought out of the building at 12:50 p.m.

This is about as harsh an image of death as I want to see. The full body, including the head, wrapped up in that heavy tarp and strapped down tightly–right where the mouth and neck would be–well, there is no doubt that he is cold stone dead. The dramatic effect is heightened by the gurney and the technician’s gloves, which often are seen with a living victim who is being treated by med-techs while being ferried to an ambulance. Indeed, the brisk professionalism of the one, along with the casual attentiveness of the cop in the right foreground, make it seem as if this is just another accident.

Perhaps we’d like to think there might be some hope, but that huge, hulking, inert bag, stuffed with what is unmistakably a human body, crushes hope. Worse, look at how it matches up with the dumpster behind it: bag and trash bin appear to be the same dark green color and almost the same length. It’s as though the dumpsters are a row of coffins and the latest load from the apartment building is being taken to the next open bin. And what a cemetery: metal and concrete, everything rectilinear, featureless, and hard. The two living men could be prison guards. This industrialized back alley is no place to die, or to live.

The Bronx is better than that, of course, and you don’t take a dead body out the front door if you can avoid it. But the photograph does raise the perennial question about what images should or should not be published. Here one has little cause to complain about not being shown the dead.

The photo also raises a question about how violence is framed. Had Audley Bent been gunned down in Iraq, he would have been “processed” in much the same way, but no image of the body bag would be in the newspaper. During wartime, the soldier’s death is rightly treated with respect, although that respect can include visual practices that also hide the nature of industrialized warfare while sacralizing war itself. Likewise, the fact that we are shown the body bag of a murder victim suggests that .38-caliber violence is somewhat taken for granted on the home front–as if it were another not-so-hidden cost of modern civilization like pollution or traffic congestion.

Or maybe I’m wrong about that. I hope so.

Photograph by Uli Seit for The New York Times.


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August 30th, 2007

GI Joe and Barney Fife in Iraq

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

This photo from the Chicago Tribune inadvertently says a lot about what’s wrong with the “Stand up/Stand down” strategy (dare we say myth) in Iraq.

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It is in many ways a bad photo: an ordinary street scene made to look off-kilter from the oddly tilted camera; the focus is divided to both left and the right, which allows the eye to wander aimlessly through the distant, featureless background; not much is happening. This seems to be an amateur snapshot of a nonevent.

One reason it made it into the Chicago paper is suggested by the caption: “On patrol. Army Sgt. Ezequiel Mora of DeKalb patrols a police checkpoint Sunday in Baghdad.” Ok, he’s a local boy. And sure enough, the picture looks posed. Foot up, body turned toward the viewer, gun fully displayed, looking intently beyond the lens–this is what he might be told to do in a portrait studio. And now the context makes more sense: as in a studio, there should be nothing happening, and the actual street scene is merely a backdrop like a fake row of books. Unlike some of the more realistic photographs of soldiers caked with dirt, sweat, and fear as they inch along a wall while under fire, this guy is a perfectly uniformed action figure. Like GI Joe, his mission is to look the part.

If he were the only guy in the picture, that might be the end of it. But look at the other guy. He is one of the cops at the police checkpoint. And what a cop. In contrast to the heavily armored hoplite in front of him, this guy is wearing the thin cotton/polyester shirt you’d see on the street in Maybury. He’s also lightly armed. Most important, he really looks like a small town cop: hand on the back of the neck–got a crick there, maybe–puzzling about some exceedingly local dilemma. He’s built not for action but for talking, cajoling, compromising, and moving things along, all the while not quite up to the job and better suited for it for that. We’re looking at Barney Fife in Baghdad.

The comic contrast between the two figures might be the end of it, except that the rest of the caption places the photograph within a strategic context: “Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said U.S. commanders must work harder to avoid civilian casualties.” So, those patrolling the checkpoints have been a little rough, and now the choice is between two bad options: ineffectual police work such that U.S. troops have to patrol the police checkpoints (shouldn’t the police be able to do that, so that the troops could be used elsewhere?) and the use of excessive force by those troops.

The photograph goes further still: it shows us, first, that the relationship between the police and the troops is backwards, and, second, that the whole operation has gone tilt. In a modern civil society, citizens should encounter not military troops but the police. The troops should be way in the background as the major part of the state’s monopoly on force and used only for extraordinary threats such as invasions and natural disasters. Equally important, most of the time police should be a lot like the cop in the photograph: not paramilitary swat teams but ordinary guys who know the people in the neighborhood and are there to solve small problems. In Iraq, however, it looks like nothing can be done to scale. Citizens encounter troops who can’t help but be dangerous, while the troops are more likely to be trigger happy because they have the problem of having the none-too-reliable Iraqi police covering their backs. And I don’t see Andy Griffith anywhere in the picture.

Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty, August 26, 2007.


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August 29th, 2007

The State of the State of Nature

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

From the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters and from sea to shining sea, images of natural splendor have loomed large in American national identity. The appear everywhere from car ads to movie vistas to those framed Ansel Adams’ photographs that you see in doctors’ offices. Images of the national landscape also appear periodically as photographs in the daily paper. This one caught my eye yesterday while clicking through the photos of the week at the Chicago Tribune:

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Why did I stop and look? Because it is beautiful. The strong blues and turbulent contrasts of the sky flow smoothly over the golden field of grass. The herd of horses moves nonchalantly across the field despite the powerful forces gathering above them. Like the trees on the right, together yet each standing independently, they need not fear an afternoon storm. The photograph was taken “near Troy, Idaho”; that “near” is a linguistic marker of the Western sense of open space. The scene is a reminder of the sublime promise of the American West, where all can live both free and in harmony with nature.

That’s the promise. Other photographs document the underside of the dream. Richard Avedon created a brilliant series of images to challenge the myth of the empty landscape. His images of miners, migrant workers, and others provide stunning evidence that the West is also a place where people live lives of hard labor. These images reveal domination, exploitation, and the wastage of human life on behalf of the production of wealth, but they also reveal something not found in the natural landscape: dignity.

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This is a picture of Red Owens, an oil field worker. This, too, is the American West. Free but not free, close to nature but used up by the physical work of extracting natural resources from the earth.

The first picture appeared during a week when the papers were reporting deaths from a mining accident in Utah, and a swath of destruction unleashed by thunderstorms across the Midwest. The mountains bring more than scenic views, and nature is no respecter of persons, or cities, or nations. We cannot serenely move across the landscape to better pastures.

The task of rebuilding community has to include far more than a change in perspective. In fact, I think we need both photos. And they can do more than provide sunny distraction or a grim reminder. It’s a stretch, but the first photo brought to mind a phrase from Winston Churchill’s “finest hour” speech: “If we can stand up to him (Hitler), all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.” If a photograph of beautiful uplands can be an image of freedom, then perhaps we are more likely to aspire to that. Likewise, the second photo can evoke the remainder of Churchill’s statement: “But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” We need not bash science, but the truth is that the control of nature, like nature itself, can be used for good or ill. A free people cannot live in a state of nature, but freedom may depend on how they understand their relationship to nature and to each other.

Photographs by Steve Hanks, Lewiston Tribune, August 22, 2007, and Richard Avedon, 1980/1985. See In the American West.

Winston Churchill, “Their Finest Hour,” speech to the House of Commons, June 18, 1940.

Thanks to Michael J. Shapiro for bringing the Avedon photographs to my attention in his fine essay, “The Political Rhetoric of Photography,” chapter four of The Politics of Representation.


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August 28th, 2007

Back to the Future

Posted by Lucaites in visual memory, visualizing war

Berman Cowboys

A few weeks ago I called attention to how the attempt to institutionalize the “rule of law” in Iraq was encoded in practices and narratives reminiscent of the conquest of the American frontier. The trope of the conquest of the American west, complete with its allusions of manifest destiny, has been used with both sledge hammer subtlety and various degrees of finespun nicety since virtually the very beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The theme is eloquently and poignantly inflected in this image from Nina Berman’s 2004 “Purple Hearts” art exhibit, which was recently reprised in the NYT. “Purple Hearts” is a book/exhibit/DVD that includes pictures and interviews with six American veterans who were seriously injured in Iraq. This photograph is of Pfc. Adam Zaremba, a 20 year old “wounded in Baghdad when a mine blew off his leg.” The matter of fact objectivity of the caption reads like the conventional title in a family photo album – “Uncle Joe fishing at Lake Erie, 1923” or “Sally, 7, sits on Santa’s lap, Xmas 1952”—and contrasts with the evocative content being shown. The only thing missing, of course, is the date, which marks the scene as timeless. The formal minimalism of the caption contrasts as well with the intricacies and artistry of the image, the effect being to magnify the everyday relationship between the simple and the complex.

What we are looking at is a little hard to say—a fact that belies the unsayability of the picture. The image thus calls our attention to the capacity of the visual to help us see things that can’t be put into words, or can’t be verbalized with ease or efficiency. Indeed, a large part of the power of the image is in how it layers multiple transcriptions of meaning upon one another so as to complicate both the relationship between viewer and viewed, as well as the relationship between past, present, and future. The first thing to note is that Zaremba appears to be sitting in front of a television screen, and what we see is not his unmediated image, but rather his reflection in the monitor. The reflection reverses his orientation so that the viewer of the photograph loses the sense that Zaremba is watching the screen and, instead, is literally part of the scene being enacted, albeit looking away from the chaos behind him and past us to what we can only imagine is a future anterior moment. Though we know he is only a spectator here (and given his injury he can only be a spectator), nevertheless he is implicated in the action being projected outward. The difference between spectator and actor is thus elided, and so just as Zaremba as viewer is implicated in what is happening on the television screen as an active agent, so too are we as viewers implicated in the action, albeit once removed.

The scene seems to be part of a fairly traditional chapter from the received narrative of America’s manifest destiny. Modern progress, marked by the locomotive on the right hand side, required a transformation of the landscape, which threatened the indigenous and native cultures. Rather than to embrace the modern world, native Americans fought back, often in terrorist raids, and had to be controlled and eventually contained by the military and various and sundry mercenaries. Many good Americans sacrificed their lives to the cause, but as the saying went, they “died with their boots on.” Zaremba fights in a modern war where injuries are in some ways more horrifying than death (and so, ironically, he lives without legs), but there is more than a simple analogue to the war in Iraq operating here as the image functions in a more complex, allegorical register. Notice how the received narrative is complicated by the ghostlike apparition of native Americans flying through the air, a haunting of the image that simply won’t go away, even after a century of freedom and progress. And in this context, note too that Zaremba’s image is only slightly less spectral than the native Americans, projected equally backwards into the past and forwards to the future in what appears to be an almost straight line.

Walter Benjamin once wrote that “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” But according to this image it may well be George Santyana who has the final word when he reminds us that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The emotionless and stone cold look on Zaremba’s face implies a zombie-like existence as he glares beyond the present to an eternity that will be “irretrievably” haunted by the specter of our involvement in Iraq, just as we have been haunted by the specter of Vietnam, and before that the Trail of Tears, all wars fought in the names of “progress” and “freedom.” The overall effect is thus one of looking “back to the future”—or perhaps more accurately, looking forward to the past.

Photo Credit: Nina Berman


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August 27th, 2007

Who's That Man in the Picture, II

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public

Chicago Storm

According to the caption this is “a pedestrian [who] battles a heavy rain storm in downtown Chicago.” It could be Bob Hariman, but I happen to know that he is stuck in Evanston without electricity and working hard to bale out his rain drenched basement. Rather, what we see is an anonymous citizen doing his feeble best to stay dry in the wind blown rain while walking down a nondescript urban street. We are told it is in Chicago, but it could be in any city in the world. Indeed, is an altogether ordinary picture of an ordinary event on an ordinary public thoroughfare. And it was designated by the Washington Post for display as part of its “Day in Photos” slide show for 8/24/07, which obviously makes it something just a little bit more than ordinary.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that anyone will come forward claiming to be the man in the picture in the same way that individuals have lined up trying to prove that they are the sailor in the famous “Times Square Kiss.” But in some measure that is precisely part of its attraction. For while we tend to focus attention on those photographs that emphasize the recognizably great and the near great—political leaders and celebrities—or major crises and tragedies, a large portion of the photographs published in daily newspapers show ordinary citizens doing ordinary things, negotiating the travails of everyday life including everything from battling the weather to participating in civic and communal activities (e.g., voting, assisting at the PTA, participating in a charity car wash), to helping their neighbors, doing their jobs, nurturing their families, caring for their pets, celebrating local events and holidays, mourning their losses, and so on. Sometimes they are identified by name, but usually the particular identity of the people being represented doesn’t matter very much (except perhaps to the individuals pictured and their families and closest friends). What matters is that we have an opportunity to see ourselves in all of our sociality as members of a public or a community, that we have models of citizenship and political friendship, and that perhaps (and just perhaps) the world is made a little bit less strange.

It is a small point, to be sure, but one well worth emphasizing: A successful late modern democratic polity relies upon our ability to negotiate with a public full of strangers—people we don’t know personally and who are different from us in some measure and to some degree, but people with whom we also share ordinary and everyday similarities. The anonymity (or near anonymity) of many of the photographs that appear in our newspapers and other media is thus an important feature of photojournalism as a civic and public art which functions at its best to help us to see ourselves and to be seen in turn as citizens in a world full of strangers as we struggle to engage the stresses and strains of ordinary, everyday life.

Photo Credit: M. Spencer Green/AP


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August 26th, 2007

Sight Gags: Photo ID Required for Admission

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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Our primary goal with this blog is to talk about the ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital democratic public culture. Much of the time that means we are focusing on what purport to be more or less serious matters. But as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert often remind us, democracy needs irony, parody, and pure silliness as much as it needs serious contemplation. For our part, we will dedicate our Sunday posts to putting some of that silliness on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the carnivalesque. Sometimes we will post pictures we’ve taken, or that have been contributed by others, or that we just happen to stumble across as we navigate our very visual public culture. And we won’t just be limited to photography, as a robust democratic visual culture consists of much more. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

Photo Credit: Cybergag 3000

August 24th, 2007

A House of Cards

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

Much is made of how the mainstream media, and especially the “paper of record” underwrites a status quo mentality that often seems to play into, if not outright endorse, administration politics. There are good reasons for this, to be sure, and we have done our fair share here at No Caption Needed and over at The Bag of criticizing the ways in which photojournalism too often contributes to the normalization of such politics. What we must not forget, however, is that photojournalism is a complex and often eloquent public art, a technology of ingenium that functions in a wide range of ways to display and animate public life.

Earlier this week the NYT published a photograph that demonstrates how photojournalistic efforts can begin to frame a critical civic attitude, even as it adheres to the conventions of realist representation that might otherwise support a status quo sensibility and the current administration’s point of view. On 8/19/07 the NYT posted a picture of a single marine walking down a street in Falluja as part of a story concerning the “fragile calm” that has descended upon the city as a result of U.S. military presence there.

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The street seems to be a main public thoroughfare, but there is no evidence of a public. Besides the lone marine in the foreground and what appears to be another marine in the distant background, almost too small to see, there are no other people and quite clearly no Iraqis. The only vehicles bear military camouflage, certainly no small consideration given the significance of car bombs, but also a reminder of the citywide vehicle ban imposed by the mayor and enforced by the U.S. military presence. Interestingly, however, it is not the marine who captures our immediate attention. Rather, it is the rusted and dirty propane tanks that literally divide and dominate the scene. Stacked high and teetering, like a house of cards, they seem somewhat out of place. The top yellow tank is especially strange, drawing our attention to the midline of the image and underscoring that this is where the narrative action of the scene resides. The caption makes the point, “Many wonder what will happen when they [the marines] leave,” while the image seems to imply that it is the very presence of the U.S. military that guards and helps to sustain the peace.

But a second look at the photograph invites a more critical attitude. The marine walks cautiously but with his rifle pointed down in a manner that suggests that he does not think he is in eminent danger, evidence of at least a modicum of peace and calm, though the situation can’t be all that safe or he wouldn’t be carrying his rifle in front of him (or, for that matter, he wouldn’t be wearing body armor). Indeed, his somewhat tentative posture implies a calm “before the storm” rather than the “peaceful” and self-sustaining calm we might associate with something like, say, meditation. The photograph thus invites a certain cynicism about the very premise of a fragile calm, which here seems to be more feigned than real—indeed, the empty streets are somewhat eerie, more evocative of a ghost town than a city in which peace reigns. Additionally, notice that the marine, the sign of American power, walks in a shadow, partially veiled by the darkness, an ominous sign of death and otherness. By contrast, the propane tanks, containers for fuel and thus the necessary power to make the city work, stand prominently in the light of day. As tall as the marine (and by implication as potentially powerful as he, though presumably empty), they are also clearly unstable. They command the viewer’s attention, although apparently not that of the marine, as he seems oblivious of either their presence or their precarious posture.

There are, I believe, two different ways to read this last dimension of the photograph: Either the marine simply doesn’t see the problem, ignorant of the true instability of local power and politics, or he chooses not to see it because he believes that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – he can do to prop up local power in the long run. Understood in this way, the photograph is an elegant and eloquent metaphor for the situation in Iraq, showing what might otherwise be hard to say: ignorance or resignation, it really doesn’t matter because, in the end, the task is very much like sustaining a house of cards, fated to failure. The photograph thus coaches a critique of the very premise of a “fragile calm” that informs the accompanying article – and by implication the administration’s subsequent appeal for continued patience and support – as anything other than hubris bolstered by dictatorial control.

Photo Credit: Marko Georgiev/New York Times


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August 23rd, 2007

Why Can't the War in Iraq Be a Disaster?

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

The news of the past week has included disaster coverage of the earthquake in Peru. A level 8 quake, it was a bad, killing at least 500 people and rendering thousands homeless. This photo is typical of the coverage:

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We see survivors contending with shattered housing. Whether to undertake extensive repairs or rebuild from scratch obviously is a real question. Equally evident is the relative calm. People are dealing the the aftermath, but the quake is over. A cinder block will fall here and there and the area will remain somewhat dangerous during the clean-up, but people can get to work and help one another like the two guys in the picture, as everything is settling into place.

The news coverage already reflects (models) this thoroughly pragmatic state of affairs. We hear of governments, international aid organizations, churches, and other volunteers swinging into action. Public discussion begins about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of early warning systems, architectural designs, first responders, and other matters of public safety and infrastructure administration. The press also provides stories and images of solidarity: people praying together, impromptu vigils, neighbors assisting neighbors. These are good stories, even if we all know the drill. The stories have consequences: many readers will open their pockets, local governments will review disaster response plans, social networks will expand, and for a while lesser quake victims will receive news coverage and the benefits thereof that they would otherwise have missed.

One can still find much to fault, of course, but the whole business is at bottom a testament to the public value of news coverage and the organizational effectiveness that it nurtures. It also is an example of the power of framing. Look at this photograph:

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This, too, could be a photo of the aftermath of an earthquake. Instead, it’s a Baghdad marketplace following a bombing. This one killed 170 and injured over 300, according to the first count. The week of the Peruvian earthquake saw blasts that killed 500+ Yazidis in two villages year the Syrian border. Since the invasion of March 19, 2003, at least 300 Iraqis have been killed by warfare every week, week after week, for a total thus far of at least 70,000. Think of it: an earthquake a week, every week for four years.

I can’t help but wonder what might change were enough people to label the situation in Iraq a disaster. Of course, it is a war–in fact, several wars all mixed up together. But here the war frame can only lead to more war. And for all the expressions of sympathy for those being destroyed, the response to Iraq at all levels has virtually none of the pragmatism and cooperation characterizing disaster relief. This difference in attitude is reflected in the two photographs above: in one, the viewer is at street level, close to the scene, postitioned as if to lend a hand; in the other, we are looking down as if “seeing like a state,” emotionally distanced from a mass of people being channeled through the “collateral damage” of history. One frame pulls us into the picture, and the other provides the secure perspective of geopolitical observation.

One can’t wish away the problems in Iraq by changing a label any more than one can fix it by waving a magic wand. And yet it is looking unlikely that the US will extricate itself any time soon, while our military presence there will continue to be a major cause of the carnage. This is in fact a disaster in more ways than one, and perhaps it is time to say so and, more important, to act as if it were so.

Photographs by AFP/BBC and Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press.


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August 22nd, 2007

Hiding in Plain Sight

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

Northwestern graduate student Brett Ommen recently completed the oral defense of his Ph.D. thesis on the role of graphic design in public culture. Brett’s argument is too detailed for me to summarize it here, but he highlights something everyone ought to consider from time to time. Brett claims that an important function of graphic design comes not from the message content but rather from how it covers the surfaces of public space. Thus, even when not attending to the myriad of signs that surround us, we are unconsciously responding to the “surface message” that our environment is intensively communicative. To illustrate this point, Brett took a page from the work of an artistic project called Delete!, which covered the signage along Vienna’s Neubaugasse for two weeks:

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Brett did the same virtually, here with an image that replaces the signage in Chicago’s Ogilvie Center with whiteout.

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The Center is a late-modern environment that doesn’t encourage civic association, and you can see just how barren it is when the graphic content is deleted. You also can observe how much you see-but-don’t-see. I’ll bet that few commuters could fill in many of the blanks. You might look at a familiar street scene of your own and count how many signs you overlook at any given time. We are awash in information and continually accosted with appeals, yet much of that registers, if at all, only as a form of blind sight. That idea might be extended further: how much of the information about who we are collectively is already right in front of us, but unseen? More important, how is that inattentiveness not only characteristic of our relationship with signage, but also with each other? You can’t and really don’t want to see everything, of course, but what are we missing?

Photograph by Hans Punz/Associated Press. An AP article on the Delete! project is here.


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August 20th, 2007

The Color of Sorrow

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

This photograph was front page above the fold at the New York Times yesterday (Monday):

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The caption read, “Photographs of Joseph Graffagnino, left, and Robert Beddia at the firehouse for Engine 24 and Ladder 5. They died fighting a fire at the Deutsche Bank tower.” By highlighting the photos taped to the windows this description may distort the overall effect of the visual composition. Likewise, the smaller image here may not do justice to the emotional power of the photograph’s placement in the print edition. It remains a complex and strangely moving photograph nonetheless.

The emotional power of the image begins with the color of the firehouse door. Red is the color of blood, fire, anger, and other intense experiences: psychologists would tell us that it stimulates emotional responsiveness. Red also is the firefighters’ iconic color, but we don’t see the shiny metal surface of a fire truck. The red wood has the grained, organic feel of a barn and its associations of working hard while living close to nature. The large color field is enveloping and yet somehow also soothing, perhaps because of the square panels and solid bolt construction. This is a good red that helps us feel our way into the photograph.

The second major element of the composition is the line of four windows that divide the monochromatic color field. They are tied to the colored door by the touches of red on shirt and badge, but the primary effect is one of contrast. Instead of an exterior surface, we peer into a deep interior. Instead of a surface that catches the light, there is only the all-too-symbolic darkness. The photographs on the windows not only memorialize the dead but accentuate the sense that a window both reveals and buffers. The door becomes a divider between those suffering within and the rest of us peering in from more distant lives.

The photographs themselves are heartbreaking. We see young people full of life and love, and now two of them are only images. The large white frames isolate the vitality of each couple and set these past scenes against the utter darkness behind them. Thus, a second contrast, for the photos of the dead are all the more compelling by being placed in a line with the two living firefighters on the right. Again, darkness lurks behind everyone, but two are obviously alive, real people hurting yet breathing in real time, while the others are now only images on paper that are pathetic, hopeless masks placed on the darkness.

And so we are left with the living. They remain behind a scrim of mourning, but we can see two individuals lost in different though related postures of sadness. They are touchingly close to one another and yet each is lost in thought, dwelling on the tragedy as they work side by side to re-enter life in the outer world. You can’t ask for much more than that, and so they become a model for others’ mourning as well.

It also matters that this is not the first time. The fire was in a building that has been a dangerous wreck since the World Trade Center attack, and the Times story was titled, “Scarred on 9/11, a Firehouse Mourns Again.” The photographs make the same connection visually, as snapshots of the dead were an important part of street-side memorials and Times obituaries after 9/11. Since then, too many Americans have become experienced mourners. This photograph suggests how the rest of us might join them. Patriotic boosterism didn’t save a single life while destroying many American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Perhaps only by grieving together can we achieve the emotional maturity needed for political wisdom.

In classical rhetoric, one could speak of the “color” of a speech in order to mark its emotional tone. We might do the same today for other works of public art. I would not say that red is a color of mourning, but this photograph as a whole has an emotional tone that is at once nuanced and profound. It is the color of sorrow.

Photograph by Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times.


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