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Photographer's Showcase: AMERIKA

Last month we introduced Tom White to the readers of NCN. Today we are pleased to announce a show that he has curated (along with Nico Silberfaden and Deirdre School) titled “AMERIKA, A Group Exhibition” that opens at the Bushwick Open Studies in Brooklyn, NY on Friday, June 6th 2008. The show includes the work of twenty four different photographers and speaks to the vexing question of American identity animated by what Ralph Ellison described as “the pathology of American democracy” and the discrepancies between our democratic ideals and social realities.

According to the catalog, “The photographers in this collection exemplify the cross cultural nature of America. While living here – whether American born, foreign immigrants or just passing through-each one represents a facet of htis diverse society and has a unique take on its culture. There is more than just a geographical link; each photograph in some way addresses the nature of American life. These pictures are grounded in a particular American reality, a ‘New Americana’ if you like…. If ‘America’ is the ideal, then ‘Amerika’ is the social reality.”

Click here or on the photograph above to see a sample slide show of the work in the exhibit.


From Tragedy to Farce

There would seem to be very little in Scott McLellan’s recent exposé of the Bush White House that very many of us would consider to be “news.”  Much of it is, however, a poignant reminder of how consistently and extensively incompetent and irresponsible the current administration has been on issues large and small.  Its response to Hurricane Katrina is a prime example, as  McLellan notes that following Katrina, “the White House spent most of the first week in a state of denial.”  The first week, it turns out, was simply the tragic rehearsal for what would become (and continues to be) a farcical government policy of profound neglect and indifference.

The point was driven home for me by the image of a couple who live in a tent in a “homeless encampment under a highway overpass” that was used to anchor a story in the NYT on the persistence of homelessness in New Orleans.

Every city faces the problem of homelessness, but according to HUD, since Katrina the numbers in New Orleans are off the charts, with 4% of the population currently living on the streets (by comparison, the homeless rate in NYC = .59%; Washington, D.C. = .95%; and Atlanta = 1.4%). And the numbers continue to grow!  With FEMA planning on closing down its final six trailer parks this coming week and the city’s plan to eliminate four major public housing developments that consist of 4,500 units, the situation only promises to get worse.  But such numbers, as astronomical as they are, are hard to process.  And in the end they reduce policy considerations to questions of an accountant’s bottom line that is all too easy for governments (or individual citizens) to overlook (especially when it doesn’t effect you directly, like, say, body counts in the War in Iraq).

The above photograph, on the other hand, captures the utter despair of individuals trapped by a system and circumstances that seem to be completely out of their control.  Indeed, the image resonates in many ways with Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.”  Notice, for example, the blank stare in the man’s eyes and how they avoid making contact with either the camera or the viewer, as well as to how he embraces the woman who clings to him as if a child in need of the protection that he knows he cannot provide; and notice too how she turns her face from the camera in shy resignation of her situation.  Differences between the two photographs  of race, gender, and age abound, to be sure, but they don’t (or at least should not) mitigate the simple fact that these are people in need and that we should be helping them.  There is one other difference, more pronounced and perhaps more significant:  Lange’s “Migrant Mother” helped to animate the social welfare state that assumed the responsibility to care for those in need; the photograph above marks the effects of a neo-conservative political imaginary that began with the father’s appeal to a “thousand points of light” and has achieved its nadir (or is it its zenith) with the son’s utter evisceration of a political culture of care and social accountability. 

Marx had it right, it would seem,  “all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were twice … the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

Photo Credit: Lee Celano/NYT

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Special Exhibit in Gallery I: Human Beings

One reason I enjoy art galleries is that they enhance the way I see the people around me. I begin to look at strangers with the same intensity given to the art on the walls. This gaze involves more than an eye for detail: people become at once universal and more perfectly unique. They become types yet acquire a distinctive aura. I see each one alone in existential space and yet rich with meaning and mystery. Above all, they become idealized. The beautiful people become more beautiful; those who look interesting become even more so; even those seemingly trapped, whether in low end jobs or their own stories, appear to be treasures of human experience and possibility.

That is not the only way to see, however, and two photographs in the same week seem to challenge exactly this attitude to idealize when seeing life as art. The first photo shows gallery visitors together with a sculpture by Juan Munoz.

The visitors are the ones in color. I can imagine a space alien having to ask and perhaps being disappointed on hearing the answer. Perhaps the grayscale figures suggest a statement about uniformity or collective happiness, but they do look better off than those around them. And not by accident. Munoz is quoted as saying that “The spectator becomes very much like the object to be looked at, and perhaps the viewer has become the one who is on view.” But not prepared to be on view. The spectators here each look as if unaware of being seen and the worse for that. The two women are pensive at best and perhaps depressed. The two guys appear to be studies in corporate indifference (on the left) and self-interested calculation (on the right). And whereas the statues are dressed in clothing that looks both comfortable and styled for being in public, the male spectators look dressed to code while the women look somehow uneasily thrown together.

This contrast between life and art is inflected further by this photograph:

The photo was taken at an exhibition in Athens, Greece of contemporary Chinese artists. The work on the right is no smiley face, but neither is the one on the left. The one on the right at least has the excuse of being a commentary on itself, not least on the effect of being pulled in opposing directions. Having no aura and holding herself protectively, the one on the left is several times diminished by contrast with the larger, stylized fashionista. If at this point someone were to retort, “yes, but she’s a real person,” well, then the game really is lost.

These photographs achieve exactly the effect that Munoz hoped to create with his art work: “the spectator becomes very much like the object to be looked at.” It’s a small step from there to imagining ourselves on display in a museum gallery. What would other viewers say? “They were a sorry species, weren’t they?” “Do you think their artists were as depressed as the rest of them?” “Maybe they were different in private, but you think it would show. . . .”

It would show, wouldn’t it? Or is it just that museums are depressing? Or are the photographs unfair? It is easy to answer no, no, and yes. These are real people with rich inner lives and many moods including the inward reflection rightly activated in a gallery and easily misread. But art is there to help us take a careful look at ourselves. If we really looked at one another, what would we see? What would the spectator’s gaze reveal if taken out of the gallery? What is there to be seen in public? Depression, fatigue, loneliness, exhaustion, failure? All of the above.

Photographs by Vincent West/Reuters and Louisa Goullamak/AFP-Getty Images. The work “Many Times” (1999) is comprised of 100 figures in a single room. A Tate retrospective on the artist earlier this year generated a number of reviews that are available online. The painting in the second photograph was not identified in the caption accompanying the image in a Manchester Guardian slide show.


Playing Through in Joburg

Things are not going well in the global street these days. The migrations created by wars, civil wars, failed states, famines, and the sheer anarchy loosed on too much of the world is driving people to the brink–and beyond. Every day the slide shows at the major papers catalog new scenes of deprivation, along with the familiar demonstrations that soon follow. Hands in the air, pushing against the police line, nameless masses call out for justice and for bread. And then the news moves on to the typhoon or the earthquake or the election or the game. What else can it do?

It was against this background of constant yet distant disruption that the photograph below stood out.

The New York Times caption read, “In settlements around Johannesburg, the belongings of fleeing immigrants have been looted, and their dwellings torn apart by mobs. Left, a resident of Ramaphosa used a golf club to demolish a shack.” That’s right, a golf club.

Like Barthespunctum, that club is the detail stabbing through the screen of cautious buffering that I bring to the news. Whereas the other photos became merely instances of familiar categories–the riot, the police response, the official Statement of Concern–this one disrupts deeper assumptions. What is going on? Does he actually golf? His form is pretty good: left foot planted, head down, letting the club follow the strong torque through the hips–this should be a a good rip.

OK, some will say that he probably stole the club. But not to sell it, apparently. Everything else in the scene fits the conventional story of poverty and the breakdown of social order. In that story, people throw rocks and set tires and cars and shanties on fire because, really, what else can they do? And in that story, the world is partitioned into safe zones and “trouble spots” sure to be somewhere else. We can play by the rules, keep score, be civil–“would you like to play through?” They can be left to their spasms of self-destruction.

Except for that damned club, which suggests that the two worlds overlap after all. If there can be golf in shantytown, then there could be riot at the country club. From that perspective, there is reason to pay attention to those behind you.

Photograph by Joao Silva/New York Times.


Sight Gag: Save Us from the Commies!


Photo Credit: John Lucaites

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.


BUILT: Naming, Acting, and the Changing City

BUILT explores the changing city in the US and the challenges that will affect housing, infrastructure, neighborhood cohesion, and equity in the coming years. BUILT is a series of research, installation, dialogue, interview, and performance events of varied scale, including the opportunity for public conversation offered at this blog.

This week we celebrate the culmination of academic and public discussion in other forms of cultural performance. For those in the Chicago area, don’t miss the second image below. The first image is for any reader near or far who wants to play a name game. The image outlines a simple game. The game is named BUILT, but let’s pretend that is not going to sell. Another name is needed–one that will both capture the public imagination and communicate the idea of citizen participation in urban development. Now, conjure a name for the game.

Or, if the name alone isn’t going to do the trick, suggest changes that ought to be made in the game: What steps should be added or skipped? Should the visual design be altered or changed completely? How do we imagine change or development or getting people involved in making decisions about the urban fabric?

And if you have the opportunity, you might want to continue the conversation here:

BUILT is a performance/civic dialogue project and a collaboration of Northwesten University’s Theater Department & Portland, Oregon’s Sojourn Theatre, led by visiting artist Michael Rohd.


In Memory of Making Sense Out of Senselessness

Last week we missed the passing of artist Robert Raushenberg (1925-2008), who maintained that he worked “in the gap between life and art.” Characterized as a “neo-dadaist” his work challenged the difference between traditional art objects and the objects of the everyday world (including everything from the “junk” one might find on the streets to snapshot photographs), creating what became known as “combines” and “assemblages.” By some accounts he sought to make “sense out of senselessness.”

Often controversial, he was also a prolific artist and his work occasionally graced the cover of Time magazine. He will be missed.

Note: For a commentary on the conflicted reception of Raushenberg’s work see James Johnson’s post at (Notes on) Politics, Theory, and Photography.


The Many Shades of Racism

I learned to read at the age of five because of the tireless efforts of my grandmother who would spend hours teaching me how to sound out words and then sentences after working a full shift on a factory assembly line.  There wasn’t much money to buy books and so all that we read came from the public library.  Each Saturday we would get five new books.  And the books that I loved the most were a series of tales about a mischievous monkey by the name of Curious George who had been “rescued” from his native Africa and taken to live in a big city by “The Man in the Yellow Hat.” I would check the same ones out over and again, never tiring of reading about George’s adventures. I was reminded of all this recently when I encountered the image above and the recent controversy it sparked in Marietta, Georgia.

By now you probably know the issue.  Bar owner and ultra-conservative Mike Norman was selling the t-shirt displayed in the above photograph.  When challenged that the image was offensive to African-Americans he recoiled, claiming that he was “no racist” and that he had simply “seen” a resemblance between Senator Obama and the monkey while watching a cartoon movie.  In his words, “Look at him … the hairline, the ears, he looks just like Curious George.”  According to Norman, the comparison to a monkey was simply coincidental.  Watching Norman on CNN I initially considered the possibility that he was simply an uneducated redneck who really didn’t know how truly offensive and racist the image was.  That assumption was quickly proven false when it became clear that Norman was a notorious local provocateur (one sign outside of his bar announces, “I wish Hillary had married O.J.; another reads “INS agents eat free”) and he later acknowledged that he understood the connection between the image and racist stereotypes of the Jim Crow South, averring, “this is 2008 … not 1941 in Alabama, so get over it.”  But the question for me was whether someone could identify with the image of Curious George and not know that it was a racist image.  Was my grandmother a racist because she had allowed me to develop a close attachment to Curious George in the 1950s?  Was I? 

The answer to these questions, I fear, is yes.  Or at least a qualified “yes” with the acknowledgement that racism comes in many shades and that some are much easier to see (or to veil) than others.  As an example that seems less obvious to the sight, consider columnist Kathleen Parker’s recent endorsement of those who “would be more comfortable with ‘someone who is a full-blooded American as president’.”  Her argument is that politics is now driven by a “patriot divide” animated not by race or gender but by “blood equity, heritage, and hard-won American values.” And lest there be any confusion as to the target of her argument, she notes “Hillary has figured it out.  And the truth is, Clinton’s own DNA is cobbled with many of the same values that rural and small-town Americans cling to.  She understands viscerally what Obama has to study.” 

It is hard to know where to begin here.  But surely it is difficult to imagine an appeal to “blood equity” that isn’t fundamentally racist at its core.  And that one candidate can know America’s underlying core values “viscerally” while the other can only “study” it would seem to make the point.  Or maybe, like Mike Norman’s claim that his comparison of Obama to a “cute” monkey was only coincidental, so too, perhaps Parker’s contrast is simply a matter of happenstance. But I think not.  Norman, after all, is a caricature of himself, a local character that we might find in an episode of The Dukes of Hazard seeking out his fifteen minutes of fame; Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist whose reasoned missives are featured nationally as part of the Washington Post’s writer’s group.   Norman, it would seem, is really just trying to make a buck by selling parodic t-shirts and beer to his local constituency, and so perhaps he has an excuse (i.e., racism sells, or as he puts it, “it’s my marketing tool”), but what is Parker’s excuse?  I’m really curious to know.

Photo Credit:  Thinh D. Nguyen/AP


Private Grief and Public Life

I’m not sure why, but the photos from China that have been devastating. Disaster coverage is familiar to everyone–whether it’s twisted wreckage or a bloated corpse, long lines of refugees or supplies stacked on the tarmac, we’ve seen it before. And we’ve seen people crying over lost homes, villages, loved ones. But somehow not like this:

Can a photograph be more tender, or more heartbreaking? The contrasts only make everything worse by underscoring deeper similarities. He looks as if he still could be alive, but he is as dead as the hardening body shrouded next to him. His covering is colorful, alive with color, but that only marks the vitality that has been lost. She holds him so lovingly, as if they had fallen asleep in each others’ arms, but she will never hold him again.

Nor is she alone in her loss. There are many images of parents, sisters, friends, stricken in their grief. Like this:

This woman has just identified a loved one. The shock is palpable–a heavy body blow driving her into herself. (The English word “grief” derives from the Latin gravis, heavy.) Her hands claw at her face, as if to scratch out her eyes. Other friends or family are with her, holding her, yet she is inconsolable.

This photograph is less elemental than the first. Instead, it is cluttered with signs of the public character of the disaster. A uniformed emergency worker fusses with tarps and other material while overseeing the body bags. The background suggests some public venue (a stadium?) and a stranger walks by on his own business. The informal masks, which are an indication of mass death, also signify the anonymity that divides private lives and public interaction. And that’s where we come in: anonymous spectators far away from those whose lives are being ripped apart in full view of the world press. Some writers on photography are appalled by the visual mediation of suffering, and they could describe these images as a voyeuristic indulgence in false sentiments that deaden genuinely ethical relationships.

And they would be wrong.

Second photograph by Mark Ralston/AFP-Getty Images; I misplaced the credit for the first photo but hope it will turn up.  (If anyone can let me know, it would be much appreciated.)