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. . . .

June 30th, 2008

Stopping Time at the Olympic Diving Trials

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

The Boston Globe now provides an online photography page that features stunning images in full page display. I’ve wanted to call attention to The Big Picture since it was brought to my attention recently, and the images below are a fitting example of the work that can be found there.

Tony Dumais is spinning through the air between the three meter board and the water at the US Olympic diving trials. You’ll see more at the slide show at The Big Picture, but hang with me for just a minute. This is an amazing shot, not least because you are seeing something you would never see were you watching the actual dive. The dive will have been a whirling swoosh of motion that was over in the blink of an eye. Yeats once asked, “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Well, this is how: stop time and take a look.

There is much to see in this instant of stopped time. The incredible muscle definition, his concentration, the contortion that exposes the body while bending it to a demanding task, the sheer energies of the torqued body drawn through gravity’s funnel toward the surface below, the taut suspense of whether he will pull everything together in time. And the photograph asserts itself amidst all this, displaying a human body with the exquisite anatomical detail of Renaissance art. The body is displayed as if a specimen, and yet not only that, for it is both commanded and exposed as part of a society’s relentless attempt to optimize human power. The perfect dive, the perfect shot.

All that is evident in this image, and something more.

Again, the definition is incredible. Allison Brennan could have been sculpted out of living flesh. But another facet is revealed here, as this image reminds us that diving is a controlled fall. Allison seems to have it under control, waiting only for gravity to finish the job. For some reason, however, the photo gives me the sense that she could be falling for miles. She seems to be holding her breath, and that may evoke something dream-like, as though she were under water rather than in the air, or in a science fiction film, falling through one dimension after another in some alternate universe. Her body’s sense of suspended animation reinforces the formal dimension of the photograph itself, a suspension of time, and so of space.

Thus the dive unfolds: from concentrating the body while throwing oneself out into the air, to folding into a controlled fall toward the earth, to entering the water:

This is Terry Horner at the moment of completion. Again, a powerfully defined body, the controlled fall, and now the water. The beautiful water, which reminds us that this has been about being in another medium all along. Not just on the ground, where we only breathe the air and drink the water, but in the air, just as he will within the next instant be immersed in the water. Just as these photographs have allowed us to be suspended within another medium, not just looking at things but caught up in vision, seeing what otherwise would be a blur.

Only a very few people will ever dive at this level. Their experience is not ours, nor should we miss it. The last picture provides a caution in that regard. The buff body is so forceful within the frame, and yet it also is headless. I can’t help but admire his build, and yet he appears monstrous. The beautiful water might as well be a trap. The diving competition has brought these athletes to the heights of athletic achievement, and yet there always remains the fall. Much is given, and yet something is always taken. The Olympics, like the dives, isn’t even here yet but soon will be over. The trick is to see, and savor, the brief moment of time.

Photographs by Harry How/Getty Images. Note that The Big Picture at the Boston Globe online should not be confused with the excellent economics blog, The Big Picture.

June 29th, 2008

Sight Gag: The Warning

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

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 Jon 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 such moments on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the ironic and/or 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. Sometimes the images will be pure silliness, but sometimes they will point to ironies, poignant and otherwise. 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.

June 27th, 2008

Post-Doctoral Fellowships in Photography Studies

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

This from Andrea Noble at the University of Durham (UK):

I’m writing to see if you happen to know of any candidates eligible to apply for a Newton Fellowship that would enable them to come to the UK to work on a photography-related project at the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies (DCAPS). This seems like an exciting opportunity for 2-years postdoctoral research experience in the UK. Newton Fellowships provide grant of £24,000 per annum to cover subsistence and £8,000 to cover research expenses, plus a one-off relocation allowance. Additionally, as part of the scheme, all Newton Fellows who remain in research will be granted a 10-year follow-up funding package worth £6,000 per annum. I’m forwarding further details of the scheme (below) and would be very grateful if you could bring it to the attention of (ex) graduate students (up to 6 years postdoc) working in a photography-related field who might be interested.
Full details can be found at:

http://www.newtonfellowships.org/

I’d be happy to field any questions, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Professor Andrea Noble
School of Modern Languages and Cultures
Durham University
Elvet Riverside
Durham
DH1 3JT
00 44 (0)191 334 3428
www.dur.ac.uk/dcaps

June 25th, 2008

It's not the Message, It's the Medium

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

How often have you seen a t-shirt of tattoo featuring Japanese or Chinese ideograms? No doubt they were beautiful. They also may have not exactly said what they were supposed to mean. A line here or there, a seemingly incidental mark might make a big difference in the original language. LIke this, for example:

There are hundreds like this at Engrish.com. As the site explains, in Japan English lettering often is used just as we use ideograms here–entirely for decoration. “Most of the Engrish found on Engrish.com is not an attempt to communicate – English is used as a design element in Japanese products and advertising to give them a modern look and feel (or just to “look cool”). There is often no attempt to try to get it right, nor do the vast majority of the Japanese population (= consumers) ever attempt to read the English design element in question.” OK, that we can understand.

But is it correct to say that Engrish is “not an attempt to communicate”? Obviously, if communication is defined as the intentional transfer of information and ideas from one person to another, the answer is no. But what is design doing if not communicating? Even the attempt to look cool is a message, and the “modern look,” like any style, involves an act of identification–I am such a person, or adopting such a role, or orienting myself toward such people, etc. We dress to identify ourselves with particular cultures and subcultures, and we then can be identified by others accordingly. Even the social references often are not exactly spot-on accurate: look at how many university sweatshirts are worn by people who never attended the school. Society works in part by articulating social types such as college student, middle class family, and hip consumer, and some of the time we are the signboards for keeping those types in circulation.

Way back in the twentieth century someone stated that “you cannot not communicate.” He should have added that this fact of life can be the source of a lot of business, and even a laugh or two.

So, have a nice day:

PS: Thanks to those who contacted us via the blog or email regarding the future of NCN. John and I will continue to post, though not at the 6 days per week pace that we have maintained for the last year, and we will be bringing in a few guest authors as well. One of the strengths of this blog is that we have discerning readers who value the public arts and engaged discussion that characterize a strong democratic society. You may not know of each other, but you are there.

June 23rd, 2008

First Birthday: What's Needed at No Caption Needed?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

It’s been a year since we began this blog. We had no idea what we were getting into. The initial idea was to put up an ad for the book. Not a great idea, but then we thought that we could write a few posts to thicken the ad. After all, neither one of us had the time to do this on a regular basis. One thing lead to another, and soon we had created a monster: we loved writing the posts and seeing the audience grow, but we still didn’t have the time, so we told ourselves that we’d do it for a year and then quit. It’s been a year and we don’t want to quit, but we need to make some changes.

We have a number of options: quiting, mothballing it for the summer (when readership drops a bit), posting regularly but less often (say, two substantive posts instead of four each week), providing more varied content with less commentary, bringing in more writers, and merging with a bigger blog (we have a standing offer).

Before we make any decisions, we’d like to hear from our readers. There are several thousand of you, most from the US but others from around the globe. We assume that most of you won’t see the need to weigh in on this, but please feel welcome to comment, either here or via private email to either of us (robert.hariman@comcast.net, lucaites@indiana.edu).

We’d like to know what you like about the blog, what you don’t like, and any suggestions you might have for how it should continue. We seem to have a niche, but we’re not quite sure what that is. We’d like to provide material that is thought-provoking and otherwise valued, but we’re not sure who wants what how often. In short, we hope to refine our work so that it can be distinctive, useful, and sustainable.

We’ll hope to hear from you.

June 22nd, 2008

Sight Gag: Constitution 2008

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

At NCN we say are fond of saying that the world is there to be observed you just have to look close enough. So the question is, what do you see in the picture above?  Need help? Here is a partial close-up. Still can’t tell … this is closer still.  And once again.  To read the artist’s description, go here.

Photo Credit:  Chris Jordan/Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait.

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 Jon 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 such moments on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the ironic and/or 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. Sometimes the images will be pure silliness, but sometimes they will point to ironies, poignant and otherwise. 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.

June 20th, 2008

Conference Call: Women in Photojournalism

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

The 19th annual Women in Photojournalism Conference will be held August 8-10 in New Orleans

Speakers include:

Melody Gilbert, Brent E. Huffman, Andrea Koriff, Lindsay McCullough, Gail McCabe, Leonel Mendez, Mona Reeder, and Ron Tarver

Also featured are exhibitions and a workshop on video

Exhibition entry deadline is June 23, 2008

Additional information is available here.

June 19th, 2008

Observing Nature's Way

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

The coverage of the flooding throughout the Midwest this month will have brought more than one reader to wonder why people just don’t move to where they can stay high and dry. Easy to say when you are high and dry, and before the mud slide or water shortage or hurricane or wildfire or other so-called natural disaster occurs closer to home. It’s not easy to move a city, of course, nor can home owners pack up the neighborhood en masse without losing their shirts. More important, people live where they do because it once was beneficial to put the city where it is, and because it often is beneficial to continue to live close to nature. Getting too close is one problem, but we should remember that becoming too insulated from our environment is equally dangerous, physically and spiritually.

Rather than feel superior or even fortunate for being above the floods, let’s take a minute to simply marvel at nature.

This photograph gives us both the awesome power of natural forces and the beauty of the earth, the incredible gift of new growth and the fury of destruction. That thunderhead can appear out of nowhere, gather together wind, water, and fire, and wreak havoc on the work of a year or a lifetime. Yet that crop can come up seemingly by magic, teased out of the ground by the sun and rain which feed it and without which none of us would live. No one wants to be battered by the storm, but why would anyone want to get too far away from this?

Or this:

This shot from the San Juan Islands near Seattle is a picture in serenity. But the islands were created by the same massive, impersonal forces that were visible over the wheat field. And that water is no safer than the Mississippi, colder, in fact, with deadly currents should you capsize. But we don’t worry about that when looking from such a privileged place as that provided by this photograph. And it is beautiful. We should ponder why it is so beautiful, for that is another gift: our human ability to see it as more than forage or shelter or simply what it is. Instead, we see the beauty of forms, whether undulating shapes or shimmering shades of luminescence. And form is the trace of prior activity, the natural forces molding the land and channeling the waters.

Photographs by Steve Hausler/Associated Press and Bruce Dike/The Daily Dozen at nationalgeographic.com

June 18th, 2008

High Noon in Sadr City

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

One of the earliest posts I did here at NCN was of a photograph of three Iraqi children staging a mock execution with toy guns.  The image, which literally stopped me in my tracks, bordered on the surreal, the expression on the boys faces marking a dialectical tension between the “pleasure” and “horror” of human violence.  I’ve thought of that photograph often over the past year, especially as I have encountered more than a few photographs of children with toy guns, not least this AP photograph which showed up this week on the Guardian website.

The caption reads “Baghdad, Iraq: A child armed with plastic toy weapons approaches a US soldier on patrol in Sadr City.”   As with the photograph of the mock execution, it is fraught with tensions that make it hard to distinguish between the real and the surreal.  At first blush, the scene invites comparison to a shootout between two gunslingers squaring off in a frontier town. But of course the opposition between a fully equipped US soldier carrying a high powered, automatic weapon and a young boy – he can’t be more than eight years old – with toy guns suggests that something more than a simple parody is taking place here, though what is not exactly clear:  on the one hand, we might view the scene with the same kind of  reflexive and approving  smile we use when we see children trying to act like their parents, cutely imitating what they take to be adult roles; on the other hand, we have a young Iraqi child “approaching” a US soldier in one of the most dangerous suburbs in one of the most dangerous countries in the world right now while appearing to point “toy weapons” at him.  And, of course, any hint of an approving smile has to fade to deep concern. Are they really toy guns?  Is this an innocent child or an insurgent?  And even if the child poses no immediate threat to the soldier, is this an insurgent in the making, someone he will have to worry about down the road?

One might argue that these last few questions reflect a typically western paranoia—and in large measure I would be inclined to agree—but it has to be tempered by the fact that in the past year we have seen more than a few photographs of Iraqi and Palestinian children wielding “toy guns” that they had received as presents and marking them as members of a culture that actively nurtures violence.  Of course, if you are a male who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s as I did, there is a good chance that you too received toy guns as presents and did your part to help make the world “safe for democracy” while storming the shores of Iwo Jima in your own backyard.  And so where is the difference?  One answer is that anymore we rarely see images of US children playing with toy guns (go ahead … search “toy guns” and “kids” at Google Image and see what you come up with).  This is not to say that contemporary US children are not enchanted with guns and weaponry—as I was out for my afternoon jog today I came across a five year old playing with a set of toy golf clubs, except he wasn’t using his putter in imitation of Tiger Woods, but as a rifle trying to shoot me as I passed; and certainly the cottage industry of “shoot ‘em up” video games would make the point as well—but it does suggest how the public visual economy functions to constitute a palpable cultural difference between the West and the Middle East.  If nothing else, it implies the sense in which “their present is our past,” and operates as a marker of our “cultural progress and superiority.”

But there is, I think, an additional and more important point to be made.  As I noted above, virtually all of the contemporary photographs of kids with guns that have circulated in recent years are of either Iraqi or Palestinian children, literally the future citizens of countries widely assumed to support state terrorism and thus a direct threat to the United States and its European allies. During World War II U.S. propaganda typically represented Allied children as they went to school or church, played baseball, did chores around the house, and in general represented an uncorrupted innocence, while Axis children were represented as being trained in the arts of war (see, for example, Frank Capra’s Prelude to War).  I do not want to suggest that photojournalists are complicit in some sort of concerted propaganda effort, but there can be little question that something like a visual trope is at work here as the visual representation of children—abroad and at home—become powerful signs of what purports to be a potent and pernicious cultural threat.

Return now to the photograph above and attend closely to its caption:  “A child armed with plastic toy weapons approaches a US soldier on patrol in Sadr City (emphasis added).”  The word “approaches” seems to domesticate the image some, as an “approach” is not necessarily a threatening move.  And indeed, the image itself reinforces this ambiguity as it is shot from behind the soldier and at waist height, thus making it impossible to see his face and eyes, and so difficult to interpret how he is reacting to the child’s behavior: Is he smiling in recognition of his own childhood “playing soldier” in the backyard?  Or is there the look of caution and concern?  And yet, for us the viewers, operating within the contemporary visual economy of representations of Middle Eastern children, it may well be that “armed” is the more important verb in the caption, for while the child carries “plastic toy weapons” there is nothing to suggest that he is “playing” at anything.  And while the “approach” might appear somewhat innocent, there are too many markers within the larger visual culture to suggest that “plastic toy weapons” are simply a precursor to the real thing.

Photo Credit:  Petros Giannakouris/AP

 

June 17th, 2008

Only Connect

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

The war in Iraq seems to be entering a surreal phase. The surge is working, we are told, and violence is down, and other things are improving, but, of course, the US death toll ticks right along this month at one per day and sectarian bombings continue and none of the avowed political objectives are remotely in sight. Likewise, the likely Democratic victory in November bodes well for a substantial draw-down of our forces, but in the current negotiations with the Iraqi government about our long-term military presence there, the US requested 58 bases, control of the airspace to 30,000 feet, continued immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law of all US personnel and private contractors, and other amenities such as protocols for offensive operations. Given that we currently have 30 bases in Iraq, 58 is an interesting number. And the exemption of roughly 132,000 troops and 154,000 contractors from prosecution for whatever crimes they might commit, well, that is business as usual. “’More than 90 percent of this will be a pretty standard status-of-forces agreement,’ said one senior official involved in drafting the American proposal.”

And that’s the problem: we could be drifting into the usual indifference of Empire. Something called “stability” will be restored while the rest of us will forget that lives were torn apart. So it is that we need to be reminded.

This now famous photo of a coffin being prepared for delivery captures all too well the terrible disconnect between US civilian experience and the costs of this war. The honor guard are doing everything they can to pay proper respect to their fellow Marine, but nothing can change the fact that the dead are consigned to the cargo hold while not far above them the living go about their business. It’s not that those peering out of the windows of the plane are uncaring, but how can they know what is happening in the hold? And unlike the carefully coordinated efforts of the uniformed guard, those above are isolated into individual reality compartments, each firmly separated from the others. The structure of the plane reflects the structure of ordinary life in a liberal society: those things held in common are like baggage, thrown together in the hold, while each of us pursue our separate destinations, free to choose and not likely to even know what is shared.

But, of course, the grief is not shared. The photograph came to my attention again when the New York Times used it to feature a review of the book Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives, by Jim Sheeler, which is based on his Pulitzer Prize winning series in The Rocky Mountain News. The Times slide show accompanying the review documents just how isolated the families of the fallen are in their grief. The honor guards do what they can, but then they leave; after all, they have more work to do.

This photo is one that I find particularly poignant:

Katherine Cathey had asked if she could sleep next to the body of her husband for one last time. Illuminated by the glow of her laptop, she is listening to songs that reminded her of her beloved. She listens if to connect again, somehow, through the ether, through memory. She lies between the hard reality of the shrouded casket and the glow of a virtual world. These are all that remain. She at least knows that. The rest of us sit, like passengers on a plane, unaware of how close we might be to the terrible losses wrought by this war. Or we look into the media portal, like looking out of the window of the plane, staring blankly at the suffering unfolding elsewhere. Like Katherine Cathey, we, too, need to connect.

Photographs by Todd Heisler/Rocky Mountain News. Michael Shaw wrote a fine post on Heisler’s photographs when the Pulitzer was awarded. John and I have written a number of posts on mourning in the US and Iraq, too many to cite here. We’re rather not repeat ourselves, but the war is not over. For some it will never be over. How many are in that category depends on the rest of us.

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