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Oct 30, 2007

Color and Politics

This week we are pleased to welcome Aric Mayer as a guest correspondent.  Aric’s work has previously been featured in our Photographer’s Showcase here and here.

The entire media experience this week seemed dominated by questions of color and politics. Numerous polls were taken asking variations of the question, “Is America ready for a black president?”  The results came back mixed.  Maybe yes, maybe no.  The question here has to be, what exactly does this mean?

The color palette below was generated from four popular images of Barack Obama and John McCain. These are the combined colors needed to recreate images of both of their faces in their entirety.

As a photographer with extensive experience in photo retouching for national publications, one of the first things that I learned was how to measure the color of a skin tone in an image. Colorimetrics is an interesting and exact science, and suffice it to say that it is possible using ink densities and light measuring tools to describe skin tones in very specific ways. What is surprising is how subtle the differences are between the skin tones of all races. Hues across the spectrum of ethnic groups vary only by a few percentage points. It turns out that all the possible hues and tones of human skin color do not make up an actual rainbow of diversity, but in fact are only a tiny sliver of the possible colors in the visible spectrum. Indeed, skin tones exist in a fairly mundane part of the spectrum, consisting mostly of light tans into dark browns, with subtle variations in color. These colors are dwarfed by the incredible diversity of other colors in the world, greens for instance, the color of chlorophyll. While we are hyper-attenuated to the cultural meanings of skin colors, we tend to categorize them into large groups; what we lack is a cultural language with which to accurately describe their appearance.

Biases and barriers in the political polls are written right into the questions. Barack Obama is not visibly black, nor is John McCain actually tinted white. But the cultural divide between them is frequently shown to be as extreme as the end points on the possible spectrum. The real polling question should not be, “Is America ready for a black president?” But instead, “Is America ready for what might lie between the two extremes?” 


The More Things Change …

What you are looking are members of the Russian Olympic Woman’s basketball team just prior to an exhibition match against the United States in Hainilng, China.  The young women in the front with her hand on her chest and her eyes fixed above is Becky Hammon, a former All American at Colorado State University and currently a member of the top-ranked San Antonio Silver Stars of the WNBA.  She is also a native of South Dakota and, as of this past year, a naturalized citizen of Russia.  There has been something of a small controversy brewing here, as some such as U.S. basketball coach Anne Donovan, have accused her of being unpatriotic, but Hammon’s more numerous defenders have been quick to point out that there is nothing new about naturalized citizens playing in the Olympics, and the simple fact is that she was not originally invited to try out for Team USA and this was her one opportunity to participate in the Olympics.  And truth to tell, the look on her face as the Star Spangled Banner plays tells you what uniform she would much rather be wearing, and given the intensity of the gaze—in contrast to the bored and nonchalant indifference of her teammates—I doubt it is simply because it would give her a much better chance of winning a gold medal. This is not a picture of an unpatriotic U.S. citizen regardless of the uniform she is wearing.  Indeed, it displays the passionate love of country with a powerful and subtle nuance that reminds us of the tension between nationalism and individualism.

There is more to this picture, however, than the pained and conflicted loyalties of a single, individual athlete, however pronounced that might be.  For it also stands as a marker of the changes that have taken place in world of geopolitics over the past 30 years.  In the late 1970s the Cold War between the United States and Russia (then the USSR) was at full tilt and the tensions animated by ideological differences between western capitalism and Soviet style communism were no more evident than in the politics of the 1980 Winter and Summer Olympic games held respectively in Lake Placid, NY and Moscow, Russia.

The Winter Games came first, and the picture above stands in stark contrast to the most famous image to come from the Lake Placid games of a ragtag collection of U.S. college hockey players who “miraculously” defeated a Soviet team which, by almost any standard, consisted of seasoned and “professional” veterans.

The present day image comes from before the sporting event not after, and so it is marked by a degree of calm and reserve that we would not expect to find following an upset victory, but the larger point to be made is that the contemporary photograph would never have been taken in 1980 (and if taken surely not featured in the NYT), precisely because it would have been anathema to the spirit of the times—a Cold War world where national citizenship trumped all.  We have no doubt not yet moved fully into the “globalized” world that recognizes the legitimacy of post-national citizenship—and, indeed, we clearly continue to live in a country where at least one version of the cold war optic organized around the notion that walls of national separation and isolation might be a good thing persists— but that such a picture as the one of Hammon could even be taken and featured in a mainstream news outlet suggests at least the possibility of such transformation to a more complex and nuanced sense of citizenship on the worldwide stage.

But there is perhaps one additional point to be made as well.  For while we have a photograph from Lake Placid that helps to foreground the difference between a Cold War world and a post-Cold War world, there is no contrasting image to be found from the subsequent Summer games later that year in Moscow.  The reason, of course, is because the U.S. led a boycott of the Moscow games and no such pictures exist period.  And the reason for that boycott:  in the summer of 1979 the Soviet Union had invaded …. Afghanistan. There are differences, to be sure, as we are tracking “terrorists” and not seeking to oppress “freedom fighters,” and yet, the more things change …

Photo Credit:  Elizabeth Dalziel/AP



Downsizing the Chain Store Near You

“Several national restaurant chains were shuttered last Tuesday, possibly offering a early taste of what’s in store this year for businesses that depend on free-spending consumers whose budgets are now being squeezed.” Clever puns aside, this lead-in to a New York Times report says a lot. So does this photograph that accompanied the story.

We know what we are supposed to observe here: ordinary people who are glum. Some may have lost their lunch and others may have lost their jobs, but no one can see a ready alternative. The photograph itself reinforces a mildly depressive reaction: it seems a banal, cluttered, diffused shot with the lighting either dull close in or too harshly white in the background. No one of the three figures holds our attention, yet they don’t form a coherent group either as they each are alone, left with their thoughts as they go their separate ways. Arrayed along a line of sight that leads only into the open street where others go about their business, the prospects for a new start close by seem slim.

Other elements of the picture add more to the story. Look at the garish ad for $4.99 burgers. That probably includes fries as well, and in any case it’s a good example of how the US has been awash in cheap food. Look also at the guy’s supersized drink. Or her large bag–the fashion this summer–or the fact that no one in the picture has been going hungry. Even as the restaurant closes, it does so amidst signs of overconsumption. Add the American eagle from the sign in the upper right of the photo, and you’ve got a small allegory. An entire way of life based on cheap food, cheap gas, and constant consumption may be shutting down.

Bennigan’s was the casualty this time, with Steak & Ale to follow and other brands in the “causal dining” category also in jeopardy. In addition, the neighborhood or strip mall typically loses a familiar place that will help anchor the local community or business district, while the space will be hard to rent in the downturn. The sad fact is that the housing crisis, the oil crunch, the commodity price hikes, the devaluation of the dollar, the drain on the national treasury from the trillion dollar war, and similar the big-picture troubles are hardest on the little people. This closing isn’t the first and won’t be the last, and every time it happens more people have to go home and tell someone they love that that things just got worse.

I dream of the day that Main Street Republicans figure out that their interests are not served by the party of Wall Street. Maybe if enough stores close and enough people vote their interests, then local businesses can start up again, this time with health insurance and the economic security that comes from regulation, conservation, and other proven measures for a sustainable society. I’d drink to that–and maybe even go out to eat.

Photograph by Roger Mallison/Star-Telegram via Associated Press.


Sight Gag: Free Speech Zone

Credit: Safety State

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.


Documentary Arts Competition

First Person Impressions

A National competition for Memoir and Documentary Writers, Filmmakers, and Photographers.

Each day countless stories unfold. Take a real life experience of your own and tell it in a way that only you can. Craft your story with words, photos or video. Make the ordinary magical, or the exotic familiar.
Shock us, amaze us, or make us pause to reflect. The only rule is that it’s real.

All entries must be new works that have not previously been published, exhibited, or screened in the US.

Film: up to 5 minutes
Essay: 1500 words or less
Photography: up to 5 images. Single images are welcome; multiple images must be related, as in a photo essay.

The top three winning entries in each category will be presented at the First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, November 12-16, 2008.

$500: 1st place category winners
$100: 2nd place category winners
$50: 3rd place category winners

The 1st place writing and photography winners will have their work published in various publications including the Philadelphia City Paper. For a complete listing of publications go to impressions.firstpersonarts.org. The top five entries in each category will be featured on firstpersonarts.org

Documentary Video
Steven Rea, Film Critic, Philadelphia Inquirer
Samuel Adams, Contributing Editor, Philadelphia City Paper
Ron Kanter, Emmy Award-winning director of New Cops, Acting Out, Life and Death. Dawson, Georgia

Katherine Ware, curator of Photography, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Short Memoir
Daniel Jones, editor of the Modern Love column in the New York Times
Laurence Kirshbaum, Founder and agent, LJK Literary, former CEO Time Warner Book Group
Amy Salit, Producer, Fresh Air, WHYY FM

Enter at impressions.firstpersonarts.org

Video: http://www.viddler.com/explore/FirstPersonArts/videos/33/