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. . . .

February 27th, 2009

Facing Death at the Rocky Mountain News

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

Today the Rocky Mountain News will publish its last edition and go out of business.

The closing was announced to employees of the paper yesterday afternoon. Like the pros that they are, they had the story up on their website immediately. Not everyone gets to report on losing their own job, and I doubt it is an experience to savor. The coverage included a photo essay with these pictures.

There may be some irony in a storied newspaper reporting on its demise with an online digital slide show, but the explanation of the paper’s collapse is not that simple. Nor will I go into it here. Let’s dwell instead on what it means to face the death of one’s job.

That stunned look is the face of someone who has just lost his livelihood, who works in an industry where re-employment may be impossible, and who has to somehow make all that not matter to the child in his arms. He is one of many in this awful spot, but I would bet that he feels almost completely alone.

The pictures tell the story of individual lives, a spreading economic disaster, and perhaps the death of an institution. The Rocky Mountain News was closing in on its 150th anniversary this year. American democracy is older than that, but its future has been secured for a long time by the press. Of course, it also is true that everything is changing, and the horizon is not uniformly dark, and the digital media are abounding with democratic energy while reformatting and extending much of what was good about journalism. But the faces in the Denver newsroom show what happens when you stare into the future and see nothing there.

Photographs by Darin McGregor, Judy DeHass, and Joe Mahoney for the Rocky Mountain News.

February 25th, 2009

Politics and Fashion in Modern Dress

Posted by Hariman in fashion/fiction, the visual public

Fashion Week has been running for about a month around the world, and so the slide shows have been full of carefully staged displays of both elegance and excess. Usually excess, of course, but sometimes a bit of both.

This shot is a small masterpiece of visual design. The twin models signify difference articulated perfectly within a pervasive uniformity. They are two: front and back, pants and dress, black and white, hands loose and pocketed, legs and shoulders covered or bare. And they are one: identical in height, weight, posture, skin, hair, walk, training, occupation, attitude, and place. Were it a movie, we would assume the same actress had been doubled via special effects. Were it a science fiction movie, we would assume they were cloned from the same egg.

What it is, of course, is the aesthetic vision of modernism. If you aren’t sure, look at the spare, minimalist, rectilinear plane surfaces that make up the rest of the scene. The robotic women stand against the decor in the grammatical relationship of figure to ground, a process of reciprocal definition here honed to perfection by the additional technique of the mirror image. Even the decor is two-toned in the same manner as the models: grayed white wall and whitened gray floor could each be the reflection of the other.

One would expect the fashion houses to imagine the world as a hall of mirrors. The mirroring of one another may be more than an artistic conceit, however. Perhaps it is used to manage modern culture’s paradoxical development of individual identity within processes of production and distribution that produce comprehensive uniformity. Stated otherwise, mirroring may become useful precisely as modernity makes different people more and more uniform.

From that perspective, modernity itself seems to be on display in this otherwise conventional photograph:

The stock photo presents Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Look at how they mirror one another, much like two models waiting to be called to the runway. Two stylish men in identical chairs each look toward the other. They wear nearly identical suits, shirts, shoes, socks, smiles, and lapel pins. The are distinguished by differences in size and how they hold their hands and feet, and by their equally stylish ties: one a shiny pink and the other a subdued blue. They could be a nice gay couple.

They also are two official heads of state. One is the leader of a nation that recently experienced a decade of stagflation, and the other the leader of a nation trying to ward off that same fate. Their near-perfect mirroring of each other’s position in the modern world is highlighted by one other, slightly ironic use of the same technique. George Washington’s portrait sits above them, mirroring the two leaders below. Although supposed to bestow legitimacy on those below, his colonial era dress and incarnation within the pre-modern art of painting signal more difference than commonality, just as there is only one of him. He remains the distinctive work of art commanding an aura, while they seem more the issue of a process of mechanical reproduction.

But that aura seems faded and distant when set against the mutual admiration of the two models in the foreground. And so the two photographs mirror one another. In modernism, fashion is placed in one realm and politics in another, each ideally uncontaminated by the other. But that mirror image is another example of accenting small differences within the deeper uniformity of modern culture.

Photographs by Arturo Rodriquez/Associated Press and Doug Mills/New York Times.

February 23rd, 2009

Fly Air ICE and Repatriate in Comfort

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

One thing that nearly everyone on the political spectrum seems to agree about is that the U.S. immigration bureaucracy is an incredible mess.  Of course, there is no consensus on what the problems are, let alone the solutions, but there truly doesn’t seem to be anyone who thinks that the status quo is acceptable.  I suppose that’s a start, but if we are going to make any real progress we need to come to some agreement over key terms, and there, of course, is the rub, for at the heart of the issue of  immigration policy is a disagreement over terms: is the problem a matter of  “undocumented immigrants” or “illegal aliens”?

I was led to think about this problem this past week when I came across a photo-essay in the Chicago Tribune on “Flight Repatriate,” one of a fleet of Boeing 737s contracted by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to “expedite the removal” of  “illegal immigrants” to their “homeland,” often in Central or South America, but also Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  Since October 2007 ICE Air has transported more than 367,000 immigrants to their countries of origin (a 77% increase in the number of deportations since 2006), the vast majority of whom have lived peaceful and law abiding lives within the US borders, notwithstanding their designation as “illegal.”  Animated by a desire for “cost effectiveness and safety,” Air ICE flights include “sandwiches, cheese and crackers, fruit, bottled water, civilian clothing, checked baggage and a private nurse.” As one ICE official put it, “there is no reason why we can’t treat them with as much respect as is possible.” Indeed, “nonviolent” passengers can even have their shackles and handcuffs removed on international flights.  It is hard to imagine how anyone could complain.  And yet …

From the moment of its origins the U.S. has been a land of immigrants, and across the broad expanse of that history the vast majority of those immigrants—starting with the pilgrims and moving forward—have been “undocumented.”  The development of the modern nation-state changed all of that, of course, but not even a bureaucratic sensibility can mitigate the irony of castigating “undocumented immigrants” as “illegal aliens.”  The doubled shift in terms is much to the point, as the absence of documentation becomes not just a sign of exclusivity, i.e., non-citizenship, but of criminality, just as one’s status as an immigrant becomes a sign of alterity that warrants a stigmatizing alienation further marked by the presumed need for armed guards, caged busses, and shackles and handcuffs.

Some undocumented immigrants might be criminals (rather like, say, some Wall Street bankers and financiers can be criminals) or even dangerous individuals, but it is somewhat churlish to designate and treat them as such simply because they lack the proper documentation—or at least one might imagine that a democratic society would adopt a more liberal and humane attitude towards such persons. 

But then again, perhaps one can’t be too careful.  After all, in the right hands even a three inch heel can be a deadly, dangerous weapon. 

Photo Credits: Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune

 

February 22nd, 2009

Sight Gag: Chicago Skyline, 2016 (No Joke!)

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Credit: Chicago 2016

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.

February 20th, 2009

Automotive Wreckage and Crash's Law

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Close your eyes, think Big Three auto companies, and open them again:

Just about perfect, isn’t it? An out-of-date vehicle with crappy decor designed to distract you from substandard engineering has been wrecked by a head-on collision. And what do we see now that the barrier between the car and the outside world has caved in? Utter darkness.

Even if you stagger away from the wreck, head-on collisions are particularly awful because you know you should have seen it coming. Although the crash explodes in an instant, it was developing well before: when people weren’t paying attention, when merely adequate brakes were installed, or barely adequate regulations enacted. The long aftermath of an accident is the other side of a long winding of the spring beforehand. Emily Dickinson said it best:

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crash’s law.

The Big Three didn’t collide with market reality overnight. They had been warned and warned, but they looked the other way, as did a lot of other people. The result is broken glass, broken dreams, and a dark future.

The photograph is by Nicolai Howalt, from his series Car Crash Studies. I found the series at Amy Stein’s blog on photography. The poem is an excerpt from “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act.”

Cross posted at BAGnewsNotes.

February 18th, 2009

Sunset in Oil Town

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

Today I came across a photograph that could be a picture-perfect illustration of how aesthetic judgment depends on context. I also discovered a photograph that could be a picture-perfect illustration of how political judgment depends on context. Fortunately, the two photos are identical:

This photo of an oil refinery in Edmonton, Alberta could be placed on a Petro-Canada promotional brochure. Surely for many of those in the business, and for a majority of those in North America in the last half of the twentieth century, this could be an image of progress. The sun is setting but that doesn’t matter as hundreds of lights wink on at the refinery that is a vital node in the great industrial system that has all but eliminated darkness in the modern world. The plant (note the word) seems to be a substitute for nature itself: electric light replaces sunlight, the steam from the towers plumes like beautiful clouds across the night sky, and all this because subterranean power is being drawn out of the deep earth.

The stacks, towers, and other structures are the work of civilization, of course. The industrial complex seems to be a city rather than one factory for powering distant networks. This seamless fusion of the natural and technological sublime is one source of the photograph’s appeal. We are brought to a limit condition–the setting of the sun, the outer edge of civilization–and yet can gaze safely on the power emanating from the other side. Awesome power that is contained by the machinery of civilization, from refinery to camera.

But that is only half of the story. The same image will have looked quite different to those who saw high-volume pollution instead of billowing vapor, and consumption of a non-renewable resource instead of production, and a massed concentration of corporate power instead of economies of scale creating mass prosperity. Likewise, the design and tonal values of the image can reveal not beauty and power fused together but instead an allegory of the decline of the industrial society. Now the sun is setting on both the landscape and the refinery. The orange glow along the horizon reveals what was always true: that this was an infernal place that could only end in self-destruction. The lights now look like torches that cannot hold off the impending night when the oil runs out, never to be replaced for hundreds of millions of years. Instead of replacing nature, this place is returning to nature as sure as night follows day.

I’m writing this at night, the computer screen aglow in a house illuminated and heated by power plants that draw on resources thousands of miles away, day and night, year in and year out, continuously, reliably, without my doing anything other than writing a check once a month. That has to be acknowledged. The oil does no good to anyone if never used, but it would be one of history’s great crimes to exhaust the supply before a sustainable alternative was available. Likewise, it seems foolish to deny that the image can be a symbol of progress, but the wiser choice might be to see it as an allegory of decline.

Photograph by Dan Reidhuber/Reuters.

February 16th, 2009

Photography and the Visual Recession

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

I’d like to consider why this is a good photograph:

We start by noting how it is a bad photograph: a dull, static, poorly lit shot of a dull, featureless, commercial building in an unknown location on a cloudy winter day. The building itself is of no obvious significance, and the image does nothing to elicit and direct our attention. Even when a caption is supplied–this is the plant of the Manchester Tool Company in New Franklin, Ohio that has been shuttered for ten months–nothing remains of visual interest.

In fact, the photo actually diffuses the viewer’s gaze. Your eye might be caught by the bright colors on the large sign, but it then is pulled along the left-to-right diagonal to the next sign that is smaller and less legible, and then instead of converging on a point it spreads out along the shadowed wall of the building, and from there it wanders right and left trying to draw things together into a coherent whole except that the building continues beyond the frame in each direction. Worse yet, the flag lifts the gaze up on the left but then leaves it hanging there, looking above everything else in the picture to the empty sky, and what is the purpose of having a flag waving over an empty building?

Even if you were one of the perhaps two readers worldwide who might be interested in buying a plant in Ohio at this time, this photo wouldn’t grab you. And it certainly is not one likely to be seen on someone’s desk or in a family album or even in the newspaper. So, what is it doing?

At some point last year a friend got in my face and said that I needed to be posting about the economic downturn. I gave a grumpy reply to the effect that doing so was easier said than done: a fragmentary medium such as photography wasn’t suited to depicting structural problems, and the news media limited themselves to a few stock images such as executives before Congress and workers at factory gates. But I knew he was right, and since then John and I have put up a number of posts on the economy. What I’ve noticed, however, is that the best photos have been uniformly bland images. Examples have included customers leaving a restaurant, an empty auto showroom, furniture dumped along a sidewalk, and others as well. They provide visual parables, but they do not feature the art of photography.

By contrast, the visual archive contains many images of both economic power and economic catastrophe. Think of the World Trade Center or famous images of the Great Depression such as Dorothea Lange’s White Angel Breadline. Even government response to the Depression was captured in monumental imagery, as in the photograph of Fort Peck Dam on the first cover of Life Magazine. But it seems that the economic mudslide we have experienced so far requires a different iconography.

What I like most about the photograph above is how the building seems to be withdrawing from view, receding into its minimal state of dull banality. Of course, it wouldn’t look much different in good times. Commercial real estate like this is not built for looks. But the “For Sale” sign wouldn’t be there, and the windows might be open and the walk shoveled, and, most important, the photograph wouldn’t have been taken at all. The image seems dull, cold, and aimless, but that is exactly what it is documenting: how the plant closing leaves nothing but an empty building, forlorn signs, and workers who are left out in the cold without work or opportunity when they need it.

Recession may include not only cutting back on luxuries but also cutting back on the optical extravagance of towering skyscrapers and dramatic action shots. The photojournalist’s task now includes documenting dispersion, retraction, erosion, and sad quietude. In doing so, it may bring us to dwell on the dull surfaces of ordinary life. Those surfaces were easily overlooked when driving down the road in an SUV using cheap gas to get to the mall. Now, however, they may be all that remain.

Photograph by David Ahntholz for The New York Times. See also the Times article, Months After Plant Closed, Many Still Struggling.

February 15th, 2009

Sight Gag: Another FDR Comparison

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Credit: All Hat No Cattle

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.

February 13th, 2009

Photographer's Showcase: "Everything is Possible"

Posted by Lucaites in photographer's showcase

Today we are very pleased to welcome Peter Turnley to NCN with a photographer’s showcase.  Peter is truly among our very finest photojournalists and not just because he is a maestro with the camera, but because he operates it with a profound social conscience.  His work as an unembedded photographer during the first Persian Gulf War (aka “Desert Storm”) was central in breaking through efforts to manage and control western perceptions of what was going on.  But no less important was his very earliest work (with his brother David) on race in America (1976) or later efforts from Tiananmen Square (1989) or his work for outlets such as Newsweek, Stern, Life, Paris Match and the list goes on, covering world conflicts everywhere from the Balkans, Somalia, and Rwanda to the Israeli-Palestine controversy.   No less important has been his coverage of the U.S. homefront in the wake of war and conflict.

In this Photographer’s Showcase Peter Turnley features photographs that he took at the recent Inauguration of President Obama. One might wonder why we return to this moment of public elation so quickly, as recent wrangling over the economic stimulus package has served as a sober reminder of the hard core reality of the political world that we live in. We do it mostly because Peter’s photographs are a sensitive and powerful reminder that even in such a political world, “everything is possible.”

Click on an individual photo in the gallery below to see a slightly larger version of the image and Peter’s caption.  Click on the slightly larger photoraph a second time to see a large version of the image.

February 11th, 2009

Obama's Eloquence: Mistaking the Artist for the Art

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

I’m not sure anyone expected that the celebration of Barack Obama would have continued this long, yet it is still in full swing. For once, right-wing pundits may have a point when they lash back, but they also have a well-deserved credibility problem. The question remains, however: What might be lost in the shadows when all the lights are on Obama?

Let me offer one of the many answers that could be provided: By celebrating Obama too much, we can conclude that only he can do what he does well. When he is the only figure in the picture and the only hero in the story, it becomes too easy to see him as the sole embodiment of virtues that could be developed more broadly.

This conflation of the political leader and his skills is most evident in the responses to Obama’s eloquence. Perhaps because the contrast with his predecessor could not be greater, it quickly became commonplace to declare that Obama’s speeches, answers, and other remarks were astonishingly skilled. Make no mistake about it: he’s a very, very good speaker–and one whose speeches, like everything else he does, show all the marks of political genius. But you don’t have to be a genius to speak effectively.

The photograph above features Obama’s sure command of the platform, but it also reveals commonly available means of persuasion. Obama is speaking at a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Indiana. The white dots on the blue background could be lights but actually are the stars on a large American flag. Framed by the flag and the closely cropped photograph, Obama appears to be the epitome of the political leader as public speaker. His words can’t be shown in the photograph, of course, but look at what is on display: the focused line of sight toward the audience, the comfortable ability to speak across the microphone rather than be disturbed by it, the thoughtful tilt of the head as he strives to connect with the questioner, the forceful gesture of arm and hand to emphasize the argumentative point while exuding confidence, the slight smile of public combativeness oriented toward conciliation, and all seemingly without breaking a sweat.

You can’t deliver a speech much better than that. But asking how he does it is like asking how an NBA player can make a three-pointer. He can do it because he’s done it a million times. And because he studies the game, and works at it, and enjoys it when he does it well. And if everyone can’t play in the NBA, anyone can become a better player if they work at it. The same holds for public speech.

If you look at Obama performing, you can see how to do it well. Look closely and you also will see a lot of small mistakes and other features of ordinary, everyday communication. He’s not perfect, and virtually everything he does is something anyone could do with a bit of practice. How to answer questions masterfully? Well, if asked two questions at once, respond to each in turn directly and succinctly and don’t answer other questions that weren’t asked. How to respond when someone is channeling the opposition’s talking point? Well, identify the source and its characteristic bias, then counter with the corresponding principle on your side. How to do this without dying of nervousness? Well, put yourself where you get to practice before others who take it seriously.

When looking at Obama on the stump, you can see the consummate public speaker without peer, or you can see the art of rhetoric that he practices. That art is something that can be taught to and learned by ordinary people. More to the point, democracy depends on ordinary people taking turns speaking and listening with some commitment to doing both well. To think that only great speakers can speak well is to mistake the artist for the art.

Someone once said that the genius of democracy is that it doesn’t require genius. A good monarchy requires a great monarch, while democracy can do just as well or better if ordinary people put enough effort into public discussion. Obama concluded his press conference Tuesday night by saying that he believed in civility and rational argument. Those are the values of good public speech. He shows how it’s done, but many people could do it. Let’s admire the artist, but work at the art.

White House photograph by Pete Souza, 2/9/09.

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