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. . . .

July 30th, 2008

Looking From the Inside Out

Posted by Lucaites in a second look, no caption needed

What we have here is a photograph shot from inside the new, “bullet train” that will begin running on the high speed Beijing-Tianjin express railway starting on August 1, 2008, just in time to accommodate the high traffic of foreigners who will be attending the 2008 Summer Olympics.  It runs at a speed record 394.3 kmh, thus traversing the 135 km from Beijing to the port city of Tianjin in less than 30 minutes and representing the height of modern urban mass transportation technology.  The photograph puts the viewer just behind the driver, and thus aligned with both the technology and, perhaps not so incidentally, efficient and effective modern state control of the world in front of it.  

What struck me most about the image is how it operates both in tandem and in tension with the now famous photograph of the lone protestor stopping the tank near Tiananmen Square in 1989.  On the one hand, it shares all of the aesthetic conventions of high modernism that we find in the iconic image of the man and the tank.  The orientation is universal rather than parochial, geometric rather than organic, functional rather than customary, and so on.  This aesthetic—what anthropologist James C. Scott calls “seeing like a state”— is reinforced by the tonality of the image which, while in color, nevertheless veers towards the grey scale of the photographic spectrum and thus gestures towards the abstract and schematic orientation of  much scientific representation.

On the other hand, there is something of a reversal of perspective.  In the original Tiananmen Square photograph the viewer is an outsider looking in on another culture from a safe distance—and in this context it is important to note that as famous as the 1989 photograph is in the western world for its manifestation of an heroic, liberal individualism, it has very little recognition and resonance within China itself—whereas here the outside viewer is invited to share the panoptic vision of the modern state from the inside.  And note how that view is circumscribed by the window that narrowly restricts any peripheral vision, creating something of a tunnel vision effect that enables us to see no more than how clean the tracks ahead are, how totally devoid they are of anything that might derail the train from its appointed task of moving passengers from here to there quickly and efficiently.  In short, we can only see what the apparatus—state, technological, what have you— enables us to see.  And, of course, this can be a problem when you are on the inside looking out, whether as the driver or as an unwitting passenger. 

The question then is, what are we missing in the process?  If there were a lone individual standing on the tracks trying to stop the train he or she couldn’t be seen—and at this speed perhaps all that would remain is that reddish-brown smudge on the windshield.  Then again, protestors—individuals or otherwise—are not likely to stand in the way of this train as they have been relegated to “Olympic Protest Zones” in designated parks, and at that it is unlikely that most dissidents will successfully negotiate the bureaucratic barriers to political protest that include applying for a permit in person, five days in advance of a demonstration, and with detailed information such as the slogans to be used, the number of demonstrators, and so on.  Maybe that is what we miss when we look only from the inside out.

Photo Credit:  STRA/AFP Getty Images and The Big Picture

July 28th, 2008

Perpetual Childhood in America

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Social documentary photography can occur almost by accident, especially when the subject is the middle class. This photograph from the Sunday New York Times is a case in point:

The caption reads, “Just before the official start of visiting day, parents try to get their daughters’ attention as they stand on the side, surrounded by numerous gifts that await the campers.” I like the way the photographer captures the parents as they might appear to children. (Animals at the zoo might have a similar experience.) The spectators are put on display, and despite their size they remain distant while signaling more than can be taken in. The dads appear either stern or clueless while the moms seem to be over-the-top emotional. In either case they are likely to be a load, so the gifts had better be good.

It might be more revealing yet to look at the parents from the perspective of an adult. From that perspective, doesn’t it seem that most of them look like children? Except for the grouchy old guy in the middle–we’ll get back to him later–these adults are dressed like kids. The t-shirts, shorts, tennis shoes, capri jeans, are not only casual but what kids have worn since at least the 1950s. And the adults are acting like kids, too: the girls emoting excitedly about seeing someone special, the boys waiting in line stoically to hold their place until they can make a run for the prize.

Nor does this happen only at summer camp. Look around you in the grocery store. Fathers’ and sons’ clothing would be interchangeable but for the difference in size, and lots of other people also are dressed like kids. And look at what they’re buying: some basic provisions are there, but more often than not everyone in the family has been shopping like a kid in a candy store. Bottled drinks, chips, and other treats make sure that no one is denied their version of a Popsicle. Look again at the gifts that the parents have brought with them. Like the display of wealth that it displaced, American informality goes hand in hand with a culture of consumer consumption.

I’m wearing ragged shorts and a cheap t-shirt while I’m writing this, and I wouldn’t change to go to the store or just about anywhere else in town. I’m sure that we must look like hell to anyone with any sophistication. That stern looking guy in the middle of the picture, for example. His clothing bears some of the cultural shift evident in those on either side of him, but he’s still dressed more as an adult than a child. And he has the grim expression to prove it. The guy looks like he’d rather be at a board meeting and that he evaluates everything by the standards of corporate efficiency. Visually, he’s providing the contrast needed to feature the exuberance on either side of him. Culturally, he’s a relic.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was a big deal for my parents’ generation to be adults. For one thing, they really hadn’t been given a choice. Equally important, adulthood came with a lot of perks: sex, money, alcohol, the vote, and other privileges made it clear that while childhood may have been fun, adulthood brought a major shift in social status. Not surprisingly, one had to look adult, and a lot of effort went into that. Consumption was a part of the deal, but the focus was primarily on being or becoming bourgeois, not on indulging oneself. One also had to act like an adult, and that’s where things started to get complicated. Gender differences became very asymmetrical gender roles; being mature meant making conformity second nature; working hard while still doing without was justified because you were doing it for the kids.

The good news is that the past fifty years have been one of continuous liberalization. The American ideal of equality has been written into law and everyday life for many people in many ways large and small. Personal liberty and American individualism has led to a richly pluralistic society where many inhibitions were overcome in the pursuit of happiness. Informality in clothing and manners became an important part of this sea-change–an enactment of liberty and equality in the performance of everyday life. False impositions of status fell away at the beach and everywhere else. The status of adulthood was one of the casualties. It no longer carried many privileges, so you might as well be comfortable.

One of the interesting side-effects of liberalization on American terms has been the prolongation of childhood. Note that one rationale for having children now is that they make you grow up. I wonder about that. But it does no good to say “grow up” if that means becoming dour or continually calculative or stupidly bourgeois. And in fact childhood is not a time of freedom from work or anxiety these days, if it ever was. When kids are being driven to prepare themselves for a life of competition, being able to act like a kid may be one of the real benefits of adulthood.

Hope has been expressed that Obama’s victory in November will lead to a fashion shift back to the higher standards of the 1940s and 1950s–first with African-American youth, who then set the tone for the rest of us. It will be interesting to see if that happens and how it plays out. Those wanting change have a case, but they also have a lot going against them, not least the belief that happiness means being forever young.

Photograph by Todd Heisler/New York Times. The related story is here.

July 27th, 2008

Sight Gag: No Joke!

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Credit: Anonymous but for details see the LA Times.

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.

July 25th, 2008

Seeing Atoms

We are pleased to welcome Ivan Amato as a guest correspondent. Ivan is the author of the wonderful book, Super Vision: A New View of Nature.

A century ago, some of the best scientific minds were still debating whether atoms actually existed. Although atoms had long been a fabulously useful concept for making sense of chemical and material phenomena, no one had actually seen them. Their existence always was inferred, not confirmed by way of direct observations. Even so, well before World War I, almost all scientists believed that atoms were real.

Since then, microscopists and instrument designers have been inventing ever more clever ways to visualize the material world on ever finer scales. For years now, scientists have been using tools with names like scanning tunneling microscopes (STM) and high resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM) to image the regimented geometry of crystalline samples’ constituent atoms. It has been way easier to image individual atoms of the heavier elements of the periodic table, such as tungsten and gold, compared to the atoms of lighter elements. Hardest of all has been imaging the lightest and smallest atoms of all, among them hydrogen and carbon atoms. These are the atoms most associated with life and with the biological chemistry that underlies life, which is why atomic-scale imaging has largely been the province of physicists and materials scientists who make products such as industrial catalysts and semiconductors.

A team of researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, led by physicist Alex A. Zettl, has found a way to use a standard-issue transmission electron microscope (TEM) to visually discern individual atoms of hydrogen and carbon. A small number of these atoms that were lingering in the TEM’s sealed and evacuated sample chamber had drifted onto an atomically thin sheet of graphene–a molecular grid of carbon atoms in the geometry of chicken wire-that the researchers had placed inside the chamber. In the image shown, to which the researchers have liberally applied image processing tools to produce the colors, the hydrogen atoms appear as green dots amidst a speckling of blue, which essentially is background noise due to the graphene. A lone red dot, with an arrow for extra emphasis, marks the location of a single carbon atom.

In a more raw form, the data from the TEM appears as squiggly traces that indicate how much a beam of electrons impinging on the sample scatters as the beam hits different locations of the sample’s microscape. A computer then transforms this scatter intensity data into a two-dimensional, black-and-white pictorial image that corresponds to the sample’s atomic landscape. Then, with additional image processing requiring the applications of aesthetic judgments, that is, choosing colors, the original data finally becomes the abstract “painting” seen here, a painting that harbors what appears to be scientists’ first glimpses of individual hydrogen atoms by way of TEM.

Unlike directly seeing a flower in your garden or the web page you are viewing by way of your own eyes and brain, “seeing” atoms requires mediation–a TEM, a computer, and image processing tools-to render what is otherwise invisible visible. Yet, eyes and brains also mediate our seeing. They constitute evolution-honed instrumentation that senses photons from objects and processes these signals in a way that we experience as seeing. Directly seeing with eyes, then, might be thought of a singly-mediated seeing, whereas using tools like TEMs might be thought of as doubly-mediated seeing.

Credit for image: Courtesy Zettl Research Group, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California at Berkeley. The Zettl group just published, in Nature (vol. 454, pp. 319-322), their first paper on the technique. The image above is not in the paper but is available at their web site.

July 23rd, 2008

Summer and the Moral Equivalent of War

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

It’s summertime and the news is breezy. No paper can seem to muster the energy to do more than go through the motions, and who can blame them? The political class is laying low–for good reason–while most of us are either on vacation or looking forward to going there. We all know that not much is going to improve in the short term and a lot could get worse, so why not take a break?

Or better yet, take in a blockbuster cinematic epic of heroic scale, like this:

You didn’t know that a World War II movie was playing in the multiplex, did you? And you were right: good wars are out of fashion at the moment, so I substituted this image of an air tanker dropping fire retardant over one of the 1000 wildfires burning in California earlier this month.

This cinema-quality image could be from a WWII movie. A vulnerable prop plane carries its payload right into the maw of the battle. Great clouds of destruction loom all around but the crew are undaunted; they’ve got a job to do, a war to win. The red chemical streaming from the plane could be streaked with fire or blood, and perhaps they will have to make it home on a wing and a prayer. The plane looks fragile yet dauntless, as if already on its way to becoming a scale model of itself, ready to fly again and again in a child’s imagination.

If such simple scripts are too distant now, the California firefighters still have a role to play:

This image could be from the Vietnam War. The helicopter became the symbol of that tragedy, and once again we see a chopper lowering itself into an inferno. The aircraft is farther away than in the image above, smaller, more likely to disappear in the smoke and crash unseen rather than bank toward the sun or go down in a ball of flame. A craft designed for mobility seems almost mired in time, and instead of heroic action on behalf of a great national effort, this is a picture of being dwarfed by historical forces. But bad war or worse, the crew will do their best to complete their mission.

What I wish for America this July is not that we would get serious and turn our attention back to a world in flames. What I would rather see is a lot more images like this one–that is, images of the government turning its powers for organization and action to attack real problems like fire, floods, depletion of natural resources, bad health care, poor schools, poverty, crime, and more. We spend a billion dollars every three days in Iraq, which would fund a lot of work at home. Firefighters, cops, social workers, construction workers, and many more people take risks for others every day, and they could be doing a lot more good if there were a real national commitment to building a good society, which can only be a society that is good for all.

Jimmy Carter is still excoriated on the right for referring to the moral equivalent of war in a speech on energy policy. In the speech he is quoting a union leader–I can explain that term later to some of our younger readers. The union leader was well read, as he was alluding to William James’ essay by that title. You don’t have to like Carter or buy all of James’ arguments to recognize that we could have all of the good side of war without killing, maiming, or otherwise ruining lives. Call it the aesthetic equivalent of war: let’s get a good story and enjoy the show, one where we don’t have to look away.

Photographs by David McNew/Getty Images.  A slide show of these and other images of firefighting is at The Big Picture.

July 21st, 2008

Why "Surge" is a Euphemism

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Here is one reason why we need to look past the language being used to bury the war in Iraq:

You are looking at the blood of a “gravely wounded soldier at the Ibn Sina Hospital” in the Green Zone. Awful, just awful, isn’t it? And look at the guys on clean-up duty. They are not freaked. Not happy about it, either, but it seems clear that they’ve done this before.

The stuff strewn across the bloody smear is evidence of the frantic pace of the emergency care. The room otherwise remains well equipped. The medical staff will have been superb. We can be confident that that soldier was given every chance he could be given. But they can’t turn back the clock, take him back to the other side of the blast, back to that last minute when he will have been whole. Nor can they stop the next one from arriving. And look at the size of those trash cans.

This photo was taken about a year ago during the surge that now is being defined as a success. By finally following the military advice that it had rejected for years, the administration increase in troop numbers and operations may have helped restore a degree of stability. Many goals remain unmet and reductions in violence often are due to other factors such as ethnic migration, but you can’t argue with success.

OK, but let us never call it an unqualified success, and never forget the cost. Also keep in mind that the word “surge” itself is part of the problem. A surge seems so clean and impersonal. We have power surges and storm surges. I have a surge protector on my computer. Surges come and go, and they seem to be bloodless. But they are not bloodless. Soldiers and civilians were gravely wounded and killed during the surge, just as they were before the surge and as they still are suffering and dying every day.

The good news is that on Friday the Bush administration committed to a “general time horizon” for withdrawal. They also were quick to say that this is not a timetable. Nor is it a fundamental change but rather an “evolution” in policy. (One might ask whether the administration now believes that evolution occurs generally or only within the White House.) Even as the policy changes for the better, the administration is still spinning the language to deny its arrogance and its terrible, terrible mistakes. As before, the entire tragedy is clothed in unreality.

Say what they will, they have blood on their hands.

Photograph by Maya Alleruzzo from the slide show “Scenes from the Surge” at her website.

July 20th, 2008

Sight Gag: On The John

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, sight gags

Credit:  Mr. Fish

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.

July 18th, 2008

Picturing Darfur

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

This week we are pleased to welcome photographer Aric Mayer as our first guest correspondent at the New and Improved NCN.

“When we see them, we run. Some of us succeed in getting away, and some are caught and taken to be raped–gang-raped. Maybe around 20 men rape one woman. […] These things are normal for us here in Darfur. These things happen all the time. I have seen rapes too. It does not matter who sees them raping the women–they don’t care. They rape girls in front of their mothers and fathers.”

This is the statement of an unnamed victim quoted by prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo this week in a hearing before the International Criminal Court. The prosecutor called for an arrest warrant to be issued for Omar Al Bashir, the president of Sudan, for 10 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Al Bashir’s weapons of genocide in Darfur are listed as rape, hunger, and fear.

The testimony achieves in one concise paragraph what photographs can rarely accomplish. First, the woman describes what she has seen in person, then what she and her community are suffering, and finally she attaches those horrifying images to the systematic raping of women in Darfur as a weapon for destroying the people and the fabric of their communities. It is the third part, the connection of individual experiences and individual crimes to the systematic destruction of society, that photographs do not do well on their own.

Despite the efforts of some of the world’s great photojournalists, the crimes of genocide in Darfur remain largely unseen in the West. The remote location, the political hurdles, and the extreme physical danger make Darfur nearly impossible to visit, much less to depict in photographs. But we can learn from another recent genocide in Rwanda.

The aftermath of the Rwandan genocide was visually graphic. Piles of hacked and/or burnt corpses covered the countryside for months afterwards. Buildings that had been burned down with hundreds of people inside of them stood untouched as the bones bleached in the sun. Even then, photographer Alfredo Jaar recognized that his best efforts to convey such horror were failing to communicate the breadth of the killing. In the end, he showed one photograph, “The Eyes of Gutete Emerita.” This image is an intense and intimate encounter with another human being, the eyes being the windows to the soul.

Gutete Emerita is, in this eternally frozen moment, looking at the remains of the church in which her husband and two sons were hacked to death with machetes by a Hutu death squad right in front of her. Now weeks later she has returned to the scene of their deaths and stands among bodies rotting in the African sun. Suddenly we, the viewers, are confronted not with a visual spectacle of the dead, but with the trauma, pain, and frailties of the living. Gutete’s eyes speak across time and space as a witness to violence and death on a scale that defies visual depiction. Jaar’s photograph brings us to contemplate the human soul in the face of such cruelty and pain. And Gutete’s eyes stand in as a witness of all crimes of genocide.

Currently in Darfur the genocide is being carried out in a very different manner from Rwanda. Rather than a spasm of violence, the genocide is perpetrated by attrition. Rape, hunger, and fear are slowly and steadily killing an entire population of people. That the rapes are frequently performed in public adds to the terrorizing effects of the crimes. In the West, rape tends to be a hidden form of violence, kept out of the public gaze, while in Darfur it is being used in a highly visible systematic way to destroy women, their families, and their communities. Dislocation and the constant threat of violence make it impossible for the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa groups to support themselves in an already difficult environment. Hunger and starvation are inevitable.

The request for an arrest warrant for Al Bashir is an important step towards generating a clearly articulated picture of how the Sudanese government has sustained and perpetrated genocide while the world knows that it is happening. The scarcity of visual evidence of these crimes in the western media should be no excuse for our lack of understanding of the problem. It may perhaps even help the cause. As in Alfredo Jaar’s images from Rwanda, we can bypass the spectacle and get straight to the systematic structures that keep the genocide occurring. Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo’s document presented to the ICC creates a clear picture of how the genocide has been implemented and sustained. You can read a synopsis and download the full text here.

July 16th, 2008

Sleepwalking Out of Iraq

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

There has been something strange about the recent coverage of the war in Iraq. Privately I’ve been complaining that the war has all but disappeared from the papers, or that the photos are soft news shots, or that everything has becoming numbingly repetitive. There is some truth to all of that, but not enough. It finally hit me today after a friend suggested that I was giving up too easily. So I looked again and there it was: the US, across the board, is already disengaging and moving on, but as if in a dream, as if none of this is really happening.

To see what I mean, you might look at this photograph:

Iraqi civilians are queued up for food and medical aid in Sadr City. We see, front to back the civilians, an Iraqi soldier, and then an American soldier. The details tell a familiar story not without irony: As the Iraqi military steps up the US can drop back into a supporting role, although the US troops are occupying a school that had to be abandoned, the Iraqi soldier is masked because of sectarian violence, and kids are already armed, albeit with water pistols. But these are distractions from the real truth of the photograph. The American is already well in the background, behind a barrier, peering out as though from a door that he is about to close. He is looking on a scene of his own making, but one that now clearly is separate from where and who he is. The interaction is all on the other side of the barrier. Soon he will step back. After all, he is in the vanishing point of the picture.

Any one photograph can be but a fragment and not representative of a larger pattern. So let’s look at two more. This one is yet another shot of US soldiers searching a family’s home in Iraq. You might contrast it with others which were images of close encounters that could be terrifying and confusing for all concerned (here’s one we’ve posted on before). This picture, by contrast, could be a study in alienation:

The scene has an eerie feel to it as if it were a still from some European film where dream and reality get mixed together. He is preoccupied in the background, she is waiting in the foreground, and they are separated by the long viewing angle as well as a concrete partition, as if they were in separate zones of feeling. She is tense, alert, even colorful; although frightened and wary, this still is her home. He is distant, relaxed, even laconic–just going through the motions. He stands by a door. On close inspection it appears to be a closet, but it does double duty as a portal to the some symbolic other place. He will look around, go through his check list, and then go out the door. Why not? He already is far away from those around him in Iraq.

And besides, he might be redeployed to go on patrol in Afghanistan:

This is supposed to be our new and improved war against terror, but old habits are hard to break. The photograph captures the near-complete separation between the US military and those living under the occupation. The troops are walking in one direction, set on their mission, while the Afghani civilian walks in the other. Once again, the troops are a muted presence in the background while more colorful domestic life goes on as best it can. Purely military rather than political, cultural, or economic engagement means that the US is there but not there. The unreal quality of American empire makes it easy to send the troops abroad, and easy to let it all melt away without really admitting mistakes and counting the cost.

The war in Afghanistan initially was justified and may still be necessary. The war in Iraq was neither. That war began in a condition of collective–though not total–delusion. Perhaps it is too much to expect it to end any other way. One would like to think the US could face up to the tragedy and learn from its mistakes. As these photographs suggest, however, it could be that we haven’t learned a thing and that we will leave Iraq in a haze of denial, perfectly capable of making the same mistakes again.

Photographs by Andrea Bruce/Washington Post, Damir Sagoli/Reuters, and Rafiq Magbool/Associated Press. This post also is going up at BAGnewsNotes today. As always, we’re very pleased to be associated with Michael Shaw’s terrific blog on politics and photojournalism.

July 14th, 2008

Public Faces Large and Small

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

Public life involves seeing the faces of strangers. Often they are but a blur, yet they can create a unique emotional experience. Ezra Pound captured that experience in his famous poem, “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd/Petals on a wet, black bough.

The faces are of individuals yet unknown save as part of an unconscious pattern; ghostlike in their sense of social presence and yet vividly present in aesthetic space; beautiful yet ephemeral. Pound was able to create this masterpiece of emotional discernment and poetic compression by imitating Japanese haiku. One wonders what he would have thought of this face:

Actually, there are two faces, neither one quite what Pound depicted. The large image is a work of art by Kaho Nakmura on display at the Tokyo Express exhibition in London. The woman in the foreground, a dark smudge on a bright background, is someone walking through the gallery. Though seeming opposites–large/small, bright/dark, art/life–the two women are tied together by the photographic composition and the color red. The reversal of foreground and background makes each a commentary on the other. Thus, the red of her coat is exposed by the bloody glob on that tongue. In actual display, what should be inside the body is imitated on the surface, while what would seem to be on the surface–our expressiveness–is in fact hidden behind a mask, say, the flat expression and dark glasses of the onlooker.

So it is that the artwork is transgressive. This young woman is so out there, and so in your face. She exposes her inner self, which includes being pierced with a tongue stud. Eyes, mouth, face are open and illuminated for public view. She is not receptive, however, but aggressive, larger than life, projected into our world. A signboard, not a flower petal. She exists not as a moment of beauty, but rather as a beacon of desire that always will remain unnamed and unsatisfied because created entirely through the circulation of images.

At this point it would be easy to fall into a blanket dismissal of public imagery as having become too commercial, empty, loud, and otherwise degrading. That’s not my point, and Pound’s vision has not gone out of date either. To take a step in his direction, let’s look at another image from Japan, this one probably taken on the street:

This beautiful work by Hiroh KiKai is not of Pound’s apparitions, but there is something haunting about it. The young, hip father is so gentle, and so worn. He is holds the boy so lovingly, but the child’s weight is a load on the man’s slight frame. Look at this face, hands, every part of him suggests that he is steadily sacrificing his youth for this child. Youthful affectations remain, but I suspect the only dancing in his life right now is the sign on the bag. Not to worry. The beautiful realism evident in his face is matched by the sense of sheer, imaginative flight in the boy. He could be in a dream, on a magic carpet ride, flying high above the world and yet completely secure in his father’s arms. Dream and reality are face to face, cheek to cheek, in this remarkable image.

There is no need to choose between the painting and either of these photographs. Like Pound, each of the artists is showing us how we can see, value, and think about the faces that we see when walking down the street, through the terminal, in the mall, or at the summer festival. Art and life are there to be seen, face to face, in the gallery of public culture.

Photographs by Ben Stansall/AFP-Getty Images and Hiroh Kikai, from the New York Times slide show on Japanese Photography at the ICP. The show at the International Center of Photography is entitled Heavy Light.

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