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Announcement: Peter Turnley to Speak on Visualizing Conflict

Peter Turnley is one of our preeminent photojournalist.  His work has appeared regularly on the cover of Newsweek, as well as in places like Life, National Geographic, Harpers, and the London Sunday Times.  He covered both Iraq Wars (1991 and 2003) as an unembedded photojournalist.  We  are delighted to announce that in the next week or so we will be showcasing some of his recent work from the inauguration of President Obama. Today we want to call your attention to a series of lectures he will be presenting at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana,  as well as a series of workshops that he teaches regularly throughout the world.  


Photographing the Facial Mask

The slide shows are full of masks these days. January is the beginning of both the Chinese new year and Carnival time around the globe, not to mention various religious holidays, civic anniversaries, and assorted other excuses for parades, fireworks, dancing, and mummers galore. Factor in a sag in the news cycle and you get more than the usual number of colorful images. I’ve picked out two that seemed more artful than the standard fare.

The caption identifies the artist as Chen Ting, a Beijing opera performer from the Jiangsu Art Group. You can see a more direct view of the made up face at The Big Picture, but this photo adds a reflective dimension better suited to highlighting the theatrical artistry on display. The double image mirrors the fact that the makeup doubles the face. Similarly, the explicit artifice in the photograph suggests that the makeup is not merely enhancing nature but rather creating a mask. The point, after all, is to depict something larger than a single person. We can see the difference between actor and character only because the camera has taken us backstage. Once the makeup is applied and brush and mirror have been put away, artifice and nature will have become fused into a third thing, the facial mask of the living character in the play.

The backstage shot reminds us that there is machinery behind enchantment. It may be as simple as a brush, some paint, and a mirror, but the mythical creation is a product of methodical craft. We are easily enchanted nonetheless, and so it is that many of the other photographs of the season feature spectacular sets, shows, and performances. Perhaps that’s why I found this next photograph absolutely endearing.

The caption reads, “A performer smokes a cigarette during a show to celebrate the Chinese lunar new year.” No news there. I wonder, though, if she is on stage; I doubt it, and so this would be another backstage shot. There is another similarity, as she, too, has reddish makeup under black eyebrows. But that’s it. This performer is old rather than young, adorned in folk costume instead of artiste simplicity, grinning while taking a break rather than tightly focused, and she’s got a lot of miles on her.

And one more thing: she’s beautiful. She’s beautiful because of that wonderful smile, and her enjoyment of the cigarette, sun, and whatever else has caught her fancy, and because, despite her age and those lines and creases that can’t be hidden by any makeup, she’s still getting up on the boards and living her life in the theater.

And so we see another way that art and life merge. Instead of conforming her face to the mask, her mask has changed with her face. We see neither actor nor character but instead a real person. Someone whose facial mask has become the familiar expression of who they are. This is the better art: it doesn’t enchant, and settles instead for showing us a real face, one much like all the others that we could see but ignore.

Photographs by Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters, Christina Hu/Reuters.


Jackboot Ballet

Photography is faulted for creating what it reveals: the aesthetic dimension of social reality. This image is so good it almost looks rehearsed:

The caption at The Guardian tells us that a member of the Palestinian security forces is kicking a protester in Bethlehem, West Bank. That’s the language of professional journalism, and you can see how it misses exactly what is distinctive about the photograph. There can be both athleticism and artistry in violence, and here both art and agility are on display.

The casting is perfect: a beefy adult male pivots on one boot while swinging the other with the full force of experience; the young man leaping nimbly to avoid the kick is lean, graceful, and yet vulnerable. The costumes have been made to character: top-of-the-line clothing and accessories for the well-heeled professional, and basic black jeans and jersey topped off with a dash of red for the young artiste. Behind them the more awkward, uniformed stooge with club in hand reprises the attacker, while the graffiti smeared on the wall backs up the artiste. Against this background of force without style and resistance without clarity, the two actors in the center play out the drama of youth and authority with consummate elegance.

About ten months ago I did a post entitled The Olympics of the Street. Subsequently the Beijing Olympics got more attention, even at this blog, and then the American presidential campaign dominated everything else. Now the news is slowly settling back into some of its old rhythms. If you read my older post, you’ll see that there is no news whatsoever in the photograph above. I try to avoid repeating myself even though the news is repetitive, but today’s image was too good to pass up. More important, however, is the realization that this scene is part of a long running show—one that has gone on much too long.

Photograph by Eliana Aponte/Reuters.


Sight Gag: United Steaks of America


Photo Credit: Dominic Episcopo with compliments to Amy Stein.

he “Sight Gag” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture. 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.

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Conference Paper Call: "Creative Industries"

Conference on Creative Industries

Algarve, Portugal, June 19-21, 2009

Call for Papers

The functionality of visual communication has been underestimated as photography and cartoons claimed artistic autonomy rather than being submissive to the explicit message to be conveyed. Commercials and pervasive messages in ideological campaigns are early adopters of visuals. Since 3D image spaces in Virtual Reality have been introduced it is a must to meet between scientific researchers, art directors, photographers and illustrators.

“Creative industries” is the epitome for critical applications like social software, gaming and cultural documentaries. This conference will open the landscape for those who bring overlooked messages from theory and practice and those who have the intuition that the visual languages prevail in attitudinal and affective communication. Multi cultural projects demand a high of sophistication in semiotic awareness.

Not at least we welcome media technologists who extent the conventions of images on the surface of the screen and are thrilled by 3D, tactile, haptic and immersive image “spaces”. The conference offers you a wide overview, exclusive demos and in-depth reflections. Besides Communication, the application domains are Educational, Corporate, Governmental, Medical, Military, Engineering, Commercials and Leisure.

A list of topics and of presentation formats is provided here:

All submissions, except invited talks, are subject to a blind refereeing process.

Important Dates:

– Submission deadline: 30 January 2009
– Notification to Authors: 6 March 2009
– Final Camera-Ready Submission and Early Registration: Until 6 April 2009
– Late Registration: After 6 April 2009
– Conference: Algarve, Portugal, 19 to 21 June 2009


"We the People …"

Yesterday we inaugurated the 44th President of the United States, but the inauguration did not belong to Barack Obama so much as it belonged to the American people.  The numbers are contested, but somewhere between 2 and 4 million people (nearly 1% of the entire population of the nation) made their way to Washington, D.C. for the ritual celebration of a truly historic moment.  And what it celebration it was!  As the photograph above can only begin to hint at (and as the roving and panning television cameras made all the more palpable) it was a spectacle of the first order.

Iconoclasts of all stripes, and many on the extreme left of the political spectrum, are cynical about political spectacles, and there is a point to be made about mindless rituals that animate an unreflective hero worship that can too easily  encourage quiescence and mitigate civic agency.  And truth to tell, we have seen a good deal of such spectacle and ritual in recent times.  But at the same time we need to remember that democratic life demands rituals of social and collective communion that work to build the trust necessary to effectively negotiate the competing interests that motivate us as individual members of the polity.  And the spectacle of this inauguration—a collecting  of “the people” not just to witness the peaceful transfer of power but to voice its endorsement of  a democratic polity predicated on the idea of national imperfection and the possibility of change and renewal guided by the “arc of justice”—was not just a passive or mindless acquiescence to the mass mediated display of bread and circuses to which, perhaps, we have become all too accustomed.  It was instead an incredible and joyful collection of “the people,” the likes of which we have rarely seen: Millions strong, braving freezing temperatures, sharing the public space in communion with a set of ideas and dedicating themselves to the hard tasks ahead.  It was their spectacle and their inaugural.

It would be a mistake, of course, to assume that the election of Barack Obama means that we have solved the problem of race in America, or to imagine that his presidency will recognize (let alone eliminate) all of the conditions of injustice (economic and otherwise) that plague our nation (and the world). But it would be equally mistaken to believe that rituals of communion and spectacles of national wholeness are unnecessary to the democratic way of life, or worse, necessarily undermine the path to a just and productive national solidarity. Ritualistic performances of  political feeling are necessary (though not sufficient) to that task, especially when we remember what the ritual is all about, and here it is in honor of “we, the people.”  The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the tasting, but from where I sit we are off to a good start.  

Photo Credit: Win Macnamee/Getty  Images


Visual Histories Framing the Obama Presidency

The presidential inauguration is a time of new beginnings, but it cannot avoid comparisons with the past. Indeed, a time of transition places a special premium on the past. Speech writers, pundits, retailers, and ordinary citizens have been trying out various comparisons and narratives to place the historic event in its proper perspective. This attempt to make sense of collective life includes notable images as well. Images such as this one:

As dad sits at the president’s desk in this faux Oval Office, his daughter pops out of the door in the front, neatly reprising the famous image of John-John Kennedy doing the same in 1963.

Dad forgot to pretend to be reading, but then he is on vacation–all the way from Italy, in fact. The Kennedy image apparently has global appeal, and the Oval Office replica probably is doing a brisk business in the run-up to the inauguration. The cardboard cutout of Obama standing behind the desk will be there to help sell the photo-op as a fitting part of the inaugural festivities, but it does more as well. The future president is already there in spirit, as if waiting to sit down and get to work once the public has had its fun. The image makes it easy to believe that the administrative transition between past and present will be as seamless as shifting one’s attention from the replica to the real thing.

The insertion of Obama into one of the stock scenes of the visual history of the Kennedy presidency has other implications as well. Many a commentator has been pushing the Camelot analogy, and there are indeed many similarities between JFK and Obama, including both eloquent oratory and skill at manipulating the media. Kennedy’s photo-op with John-John for Look magazine was no accident, and Obama has not been innocent of selective encouragement of the comparison with his classy predecessor. At the end of the day, however, I think that the Obama-Kennedy comparison is largely kitsch. That’s why the first photo above is perfect, as it captures the analogy exactly as it is–a cheap form of popular entertainment that should be played for laughs rather than taken seriously.

To put it bluntly, I can think of one very good reason why I don’t want to see that analogy become significant, and others as well. Oval Office replicas are not going to shape history, of course, but historical analogies can shape the way we understand the world and evaluate leadership. Images of the presidency can have historical resonance which in turn can guide collective efforts at renewal. That’s why I like this image:

This photograph of Obama at the back of his inaugural train is hardly innocent of strategic design on his part. The train ride is a trip down memory lane to influence public understanding of what lies ahead. The conjunction of the slogan on the seal–Renewing America’s Promise–with the largely abandoned technology of passenger rail travel speaks volumes. Individual comparisons with Lincoln or Roosevelt or Truman are the least of this image of a gleaming railroad car decked with patriotic bunting. This renewal will include restoration of traditional values such as personal discipline and public service, decision-making conducted in a deliberative manner, and government programs addressing collective needs.

Renewing America’s Promise at the back of a railroad car is nothing less than a commitment to using whatever works to sustain American democracy. All this is possible, of course, because the black man at the back of the train will be the president, not the porter. Now that the oppression that also was part of that old order can be discarded, renewal through restoration can begin.

Thus, we have two images and two senses of a usable past: With the one, kitsch and the undertow of tragedy. With the other, the possibility that what was best about the past can, finally, be restored now that so many prior failings can at last be left to history.

Photographs by Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune; Stanley Tretick/Look Magazine; Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press.

Update: Thanks for the cross-post at BAGnewsNotes.  To see an earlier NCN post on another Oval Office replica, go here.


Sight Gag: Bye Bye Bush

Photo Credit:  Bulent Kilic-AFP/Getty Images

The “Sight Gag” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture. 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.


Obama's People

Click here to see the full gallery of  “Obama’s People.”

“In December and early January, the photographer Nadav Kander shot 52 portraits of Barack Obama’s top advisers, aides and members of his incoming administraiton.  Kander and the Times Magazine’s directory of photography, Kathy Ryan, discuss putting those portrait sessions together and what happened behind the scenes.”

For a reflection on how such portraiture is reminiscent of Richard Avedon’s work, including his “The Family” project published in Rolling Stone in 1976, (and lest we forget, Mathew Brady’s “Gallery of Illustrious Men” from the antebellum period), see Gerald Marzorati’s editorial letter in the NYT here.


Winter Elegy

Winter brings snow, cold, blizzards–and photographs of everything from cars in the ditch to crowded airports to rural landscapes blanketed in solitude. Each of these images has its purpose, but even so they can quickly become as conventional as a Christmas card. Although the image below isn’t unique, I think it gives us more than the usual seasonal sentiments.

The influence of Ansel Adams is obvious, but the photographer has achieved something by avoiding Adams’ monumental scale. These trees along Lake Michigan have instead a ghostly quality to them, as if along the shore of the underworld. Their white canopies have pulled what light remains close to them, although only to give relative warmth. Snow is where leaves might be, and grass, while the sky and water that should be full of light and reflected light are dark. Although not a warm world, it remains beautiful, one where essential forms still can be traced–until they, too, dissolve back into nothingness.

Photography has been accused of corrupting experience by beautifying reality. One might ask if that aesthetic impulse always deserves censure, but let me take a different path today. I don’t know of similar critiques of the verbal genre of the elegy–“a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem, especially a lament for the dead”–despite its aesthetic distinction. Consider how this photograph can be elegiac: It marks, with subtlety and beauty, all that we can experience as cooling, loss, and mortality. The beauty of what remains in this winter scene testifies to how much lies dead or dormant, unable to thrive until there is another turn of the great wheel.

Perhaps we should dwell in this attitude for a moment. Aside from the weather, we seem to be living in an overheated world. Whether caught up in the drama of war or gushing about the new administration heading to Washington, the news rushes along with little pause for reflection. Despite anguish over the war dead in the Middle East, the pain is by turns either localized or abstracted but never cause for meditating on our common humanity. Despite heated arguments about the economy or the latest entertainment awards or the playoffs or whatever, no one seems able to take a deep breath, calm down, and listen.

The story is told that when General Stonewall Jackson was in his death throes, he was at first wildly giving commands for battle, but then paused, smiled, and said, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” Jackson may have been imagining lush magnolias, but surely the trees above would do as well.

Photograph by Jakub Bomba from the Daily Dozen for January 12, 2009 at

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