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 31st, 2009

Conference: Feeling Photography

Posted by Lucaites in conferences & shows

Feeling Photography
University of Toronto
October 16-17, 2009

“Feeling Photography” is an international, interdisciplinary conference that will bring together scholars working in a range of interpretive and theoretical approaches to interrogate the relationship between the affect, emotion, and/or feeling and the photograph. The conference will be held at the University of Toronto and is sponsored by the Centre for the Study of the United State and the Toronto Photography Seminar.

The conference features plenary addresses from the following scholars: Lisa Cartwright (UCSD); Ann Cvetkovich (UT Austin); David Eng (Penn); Marianne Hirsch (Columbia) and Leo Spitzer (Dartmouth); Christopher Pinney (University College, London); Shawn Michelle Smith (School of the Art Institute of Chicago); and Diana Taylor (NYU). We have assembled fifty-two papers from our fall CFP into sixteen panels featuring scholarly work from across the globe and the disciplines. Panel topics include Children and the Political Management of Affect; Feeling Together: Publics and Counterpublics; Emotional Geographies; Marketing Emotions: Loss, Fear and (Comic) Loathing; Racial Affects; Emotional States: Citizenship and Photography; Instrumental Images: Bodies, Cities and Empires, 1903-1918; Digital Affects; Public Intimacies; Touching Photo; Visual Witnessing: Photography and World War II; Feeling First: Documentary and Left Internationalism; Photography, Trauma, and the Ethics of Witnessing; Queer Affect(s); Affective Economies; Facial Tics – Faciality.

Early registration deadline for the conference is September 1st. To Register, and for further information, see www.torontophotoseminar.org.  Our email contact is Feeling Photo.

Conference organizers are Prof. Elspeth Brown, University of Toronto; Prof. Thy Phu, University of Western Ontario; and Prof. Matt Brower, University of Toronto with the assistance of David Sworn, graduate student in History at the University of Toronto and Nina Boric, Munk Centre. For the Toronto Photography Seminar, see www.torontophotoseminar.org; for the Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Toronto, see http://www.utoronto.ca/csus/.

July 29th, 2009

What We Dare to See

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

solar-eclipse-india-709

A total eclipse of the sun is a rare phenomenon. In ancient times it was understood to be an omen or portent.  Herodutus reports that an eclipse halted a battle between the Lydians and Medes, noting that  “when they saw the onset of night during the day …[t]hey stopped fighting, and both sides became eager to have peace.” Would that it had the same effect in contemporary times.  Superstitions of one sort or another continue, of course, particularly in tribal and polytheistic cultures, but from the perspective of the so-called “modern” world an eclipse is a natural event that manifests what we might call the “sublime,” an awe-inspiring spectacle, simultaneously beautiful and foreboding; as a sublime object a total eclipse commands our attention even as we know that looking at it directly is forbidden lest we risk losing our sight altogether.  And more to the point, we almost always take the dare.

There was a total eclipse of the sun that crossed nearly half of the earth last week, cutting across most of East Asia from India to China and lasting for nearly seven minutes  And we looked.  Not directly, of course, but through various media that filtered our vision.  Those in the direct path of the eclipse relied on indirect projection, smoked glass, exposed slide film or x-rays, and all other variety of solar filters.  The rest of us have had to rely on photographic representations such as those available at The Big Picture to satisfy the desire to look at the forbidden object.

Viewing an eclipse through a camera’s lens or a view finder can be no less dangerous than unmediated observation (and maybe more so to the extent that it telescopes and magnifies the view), but that doesn’t seem to have deterred the various photographers who alternately took pictures of people viewing the eclipse and pictures of the eclipse itself.  Interestingly enough, pictures of the eclipse are divided into two categories, those that feature various stages of the eclipse itself without any external reference points (as with the photograph above) and those that locate the eclipse against the silhouette of various cultural backgrounds, such as in a statue of Chairman Mao in Hubei Province.

mao-eclipse

Such photographs are interesting allegories for the naturalizing mystique of photography itself: a technology that presumes to separate the viewer from the thing viewed at a safe distance, even as it creates the illusion of being there.  So we can presume to view (and in viewing to experience the “beauty” and “pleasure” of)  a solar eclipse—or other manifestations of the sublime such as wars and catastrophes—without the risk of wound or demise.  Of course here the silhouette of culture against nature emphasizes the illusion and thus reminds us of the real  distance from the thing we are viewing, both physically and technologically. What we need to remember is that photographs don’t always foreground their artifice, and therein lies the true risk in what we dare to see.

Photo Credits:  Saurabh Das/AP Photo; Stringer/Reuters

July 27th, 2009

Mandalas of the Secular World

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Whether traveling or just hanging out at the beach or barbeque, summer is thought of as a time to actually look at the world.  You might be watching an ant working at a giant crumb, or boats bobbing in the harbor, or accidental patterns in the crowd at the ball park, but you are looking at something instead of merely scanning as you would when going about your business.

Photography can do the same: not merely record the world but bring one to see it anew, if only because one is looking for more than a few milliseconds and without a specific objective in mind. So it is that we might value the image of a water droplet on a leaf or of ice cream clouds in a blue summer sky. But there is more than one way to open the doors of perception.  Like this:

european-balloon-festival

This big, vibrant image is of a hot air balloon being inflated at the 13th European balloon festival at Igualada, Spain.  But is it a photograph of a hot air balloon or of a mandala?  Both, of course, and for some viewers other analogies may come to mind, say of an enormous Japanese umbrella.  Part of seeing slowly is letting one’s imagination come into play.  Even so, the mandala struck my mind as surely as the photo struck my eye.

But what kind of mandala is this?  It would seem to be an accidental pattern more than a sacred object.  Taken from another angle, the balloon would have looked much more deflated or conical or uninteresting, yet here the perfectly symmetrical form is perfectly centered to focus perception.  The mandala is created not so much by the balloon but by the photographer.

That said, the photograph does nothing to draw attention to itself.  The focus in entirely on the archetypal design.  That form is not quite complete but, better yet, emerging smoothly from the ground into its own space.  The ascension into an all-encompassing form is marked further by its relation to the figure in the center, who is dwarfed but not harmed by the larger power that he serves.

Come to think of it–and to look again–he could almost double for a priest performing a ritual.  Perhaps there is a sacred dimension to this image of cosmological coherence after all?  Art and nature are unified in a single design that induces serenity while offering an aperture to the inner light of a transcendent reality.  The response to the photograph would be just what could be induced by ritual use of a mandala: a more contemplative state of mind.

Which you might need when looking at this:

cern-tob

This is from a photo-essay at The Big Picture on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) under consruction by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). The caption read: “View of the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment Tracker Outer Barrel (TOB) in the cleaning room. The CMS is one of two general-purpose LHC experiments designed to explore the physics of the Terascale, the energy region where physicists believe they will find answers to the central questions at the heart of 21st-century particle physics.”  True enough, but it’s still a mandala.

I would not say it is a particularly serene mandala, however.  The machine looks angry–as if it were some cybernetic monster from a sci-fi flick, its tentacles lashing to and fro, all garish colors of a vital but alien biology, a gaping maw, and somehow I also sense both fire and frenetic ants.  If it were a deity, it would be one representing voracious nastiness and other unsanctioned pleasures.  But, of course, it is not that, and this is not the place to allude to Frankenstein and moralize about scientific overreaching.  Instead, look again, longer, and see the unity of art and nature. Consider how the photographer has created another mandala for you, and other that may be a bit more challenging than some of the others.  Or, one that can allow us to think about the not so serene parts of who we are, individually and as a civilization.

Two mandalas, each unique and yet the same, for you to use as much or little as you wish.  As if on a summer’s day, with all the time in the world. . . .

Photographs by Susi Saez/EPA and Maximillien Brice/CERN.

July 26th, 2009

Sight Gag: P-R-O-G-R-E-S-S

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

cronkhite

Credit: Cagle

“Sight Gags” 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.

July 24th, 2009

After Cronkite: Sizing up "The Way it Is"

Posted by Hariman in guest correspondents

By guest correspondent Elisabeth Ross.

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported the death of Walter Cronkite with the headline, “Trusted Voice of TV News.”  That sentiment was echoed in obituaries across the country, many of which also suggested that there had been a decline in the character and credibility of news coverage from the days of network television.  The Times story also included this front-page photograph:

cronkite_screen

This image of Cronkite seated in front of television monitors hardly seems noteworthy, beyond serving as a fitting visual tribute to the news anchor whose career spanned the history of television news itself.  Of course, much has changed on both sides of the camera.  Cronkite’s pose here captures a sense of the newsroom as command center, a somber stage free of the competing visual cues of contemporary media sprawl.

Consider the subtle background: barely visible behind Cronkite, stacked next to the active screen in the image, are three additional monitors, each blank, waiting for a control-room command.  In the hierarchy of the nascent television newsroom of the 1950s, man still dominated machine, and the trustworthiness and reliability of the medium rested largely in the projection of the self-assured anchor.  The era’s bulky media equipment ensured that control over media images lay in the hands of a few professionals.  In the days before the now essential teleprompter, the news is literally in Cronkite’s hands.

Most obituaries could not help quoting Cronkite’s signature sign-off, “And that’s the way it is,” a trademark phrase that, together with news show titles such as “You are There” and “See it Now,” played on the early television audience’s need to be reassured that they were experiencing something real.  Television anxiety is, after all, as old as television itself.  The medium that came of age during McCarthyism and the Cold War was prone to a paternalistic model of the authoritative screen, one whose audience–with far fewer screens to choose from–was alternately transfixed by and mistrusting of the powerful images newly anchored in their living rooms.

Not that there haven’t been dissenting voices.  Director Hal Ashby’s 1979 film Being There mocks the very idea that TV can bring the audience “there,” “now” or anywhere resembling reality.  When the simple-minded main character Chance Gardener, played by Peter Sellers, leaves his television-riddled home for the first time, he is armed only with his remote control.  The little hand-held piece of equipment appears laughable (and is promptly put to humorous effect by Sellers).  It soon becomes clear, however, that Chance and everyone else is already enmeshed within an enormous technological apparatus–one in which the news can never be “the way it is.”

chance_screens

In the thirty years since the release of Being There, equipment such as bulky cameras and big screens  has been augmented by powerful small technologies such as the portable, wireless digital recording device.  The possibilities for visual media experiences that could be called “You are There” and “See it Now” have grown, as has the media savvy of the viewing public, which itself is armed with increased means of capturing and deploying images through an ever-expanding variety of media outlets.

Cronkite’s death was lamented by most commentators as the end of an era in television news.  Certainly there has been a changing of the guard, not least because the public is no longer limited to the chronic mindlessness of network news.  When that change opens possibilities for increased reflexivity and citizen participation, “the way it is” can take on richer meaning, expressed by competing voices and disruptive images, meaning that hopefully reflects the complexity of relationships that in turn drives the critical consciousness of the viewing public.

Photograph of Cronkite from Bettmann/Corbis. Screen grab from Being There (Director Hal Ashby, Warner Brothers, 1979) taken on 7/23/09.  Elisabeth Ross is a graduate student in the program in Rhetoric and Public Culture, Department of Communication Studies, Northwestern University.  You can contact Elisabeth at e-ross@northwestern.edu.

July 22nd, 2009

Remembering Apollo 11: Techno-Porn and Modernity's Gamble

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory

a13_c69pc442-1

The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing has been the occasion for commemorating a moment of national triumph—by some accounts “the” moment of national triumph in the post-World War II era—with slideshows of  “remembrance” at many of the major media outlet websites (e.g., here and here).  The photos at these slideshows display a ritualistic pattern of representation that features heroes (both the astronauts themselves, as well as the engineers and technocrats that made it all possible) and images of the earth as if shot from the heavens, a vantage that  no ordinary mortal could ever achieve.  But more than that, these slideshows are dominated by images that fetishize the technology itself, as with the photo above of the Saturn V rocket that hurled the Apollo 11 astronauts into space.

The photograph is a sublime display of raw and unfettered power.  I am typically reluctant to concede the generally all too easy identification of a phallic symbol, but it is pretty hard to avoid the ascription here.  The long, thin projectile is literally “blasting” off from the launch pad, powered by nearly 7 million lbs. of fuel (according to the caption).  And it is not hard to imagine it as a representation of  a nationalist (notice the red, white and blue color scheme) and technological orgasm, a physical expression of force further accentuated by the sheer size of the photograph itself, a 10 X 20 inch reproduction at the website where I encountered it, that far exceeds the dimensions of my 22 inch monitor and requires that I scroll up and down to see the entire image.  Indeed, in its own way the photograph as such functions rather like the foldout in a “girlie” magazine that requires the viewer’s active participation in order to take in the somewhat “larger than life” object of desire.

The national media has been complicit with the promotion of NASA and the space program virtually from the beginning, and so I was not really surprised when, in the midst of all of the nostalgia for Apollo 11—and visual remembrances of  what we might characterize as vintage techno-porn—I encountered a slideshow at the Sacramento Bee that once again seemed to make a fetish out of our more contemporary space technologies, this time in conjunction with the International Space Station and the recent launch of the Endeavour space shuttle. But what took me by surprise was the slide that ended the show:

endeavour-blast1

The photograph is distinct in a number of important ways that warrant comment.  First, of course, is the simple fact that the image features the technology of photography itself rather than the space technology.  There is no way to know if those with the cameras are professional photojournalists or pro/am photographers, but in either case the point is clear that the spectacle we are witnessing—whether it is the blast off from a launching pad or a close-up of the space station floating ever so serenely in orbit—is not immediate to our ordinary human perception but rather is refracted through a lens that creates the appearance of closeness or distance, that can expand or diminish the magnitude of the object or event being observed, and so on.  So, for example, compare the size and distance of the image of the Endeavour in this photograph with the image of the launch of the Apollo 11 above.  What these photographers can see with their eyes and what they will capture with their cameras is not exactly the same thing.  The photo is thus something of a reminder of both the fact and effects of technological mediation.  And more, it is a reminder that the camera itself is complicit in some important respects in creating the objects of our desire; and this is no less so in observing the idealized presentation of technological wonders themselves than when we are gazing upon the eroticized body.

But there is a second and more subtle—perhaps even more important—point as well.  Although the billowing plumes of white smoke indicate a powerful force, it is nevertheless a finite power, as we see that what rises must inevitably fall (pun intended).  Indeed, the downward slope of the smoke is at least vaguely reminiscent of some images of the descent of the Challenger space shuttle after its disastrous explosion, and thus perhaps the image is a cautious reminder of the anxiety that seems necessarily to accompany modernity’s gamble—the wager that the long-term dangers of a technologically intensive society will be avoided by continuing progress: every step forward entails some risk, the bigger the step the bigger the risk.   Put differently, for all of the positive effects and affects of our landing on the moon in 1969, our remembrances of that event have included virtually no consideration of the costs expended, including the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts, or those who flew aboard the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles.  And to remember Apollo 11 in this way is to idealize the event that took place on July 16, 1969, to airbrush it, if you will,  and in a manner that converts our memory of that day into something of a fetish.

I wonder if we can separate progress and the risks—the triumphs and disasters—of living in a technological society quite so easily.  And if we do, we surely must ponder the ultimate costs.

Photo Credits: NASA; John Raux/AP

July 20th, 2009

Showing Coffins, Revealing Isolation

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

A great deal of heat was generated over the Bush administration policy of censoring photographs of military coffins being returned to the US from Iraq and Afghanistan.  (Actually, the policy had been in effect since the first Bush administration in 1991, but it was renewed by W.  The policy was changed in December 2009.)  The criticisms were justified, of course: democratic governments are supposed to be transparent; wars should not depend on public ignorance of their costs; military sacrifice can not be properly honored if hidden.  On the other side, defenders of the status quo had argued that the images would fuel controversy about the war.

Now that the coffins are back in public view, however, the impact of the photographs seems to be far less than anticipated.  (Some day governments will learn that the best strategy is to hide things in full view.)  In fact, the result has been a big yawn.  That may be why photographers now are doing something far more interesting that playing supporting roles in a conventional standoff.  Instead, we are being shown something else.

coffin-uk-tarmac

This image from the UK is, not surprisingly, a model of ritual observance.  The coffin of a rifleman killed in Afghanistan is being carried to a hearse during a repatriation ceremony at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, England.  The flag-draped coffin forms one point of a triangle completed by the enormous transport plane centered in the vanishing point and the hearse in the left foreground.   (The vectors are marked by the line on the tarmac, the wing/coffin and tail/two figures standing at attention.)  The set also composes a rectangle as the plane appears to be the same length as the distance between hearse and coffin.  The rectangle creates a strong sense of order and stability, while the triangle directs the meaning of the event from the foreground on earth through the plane to the blue sky beyond.

Thus, the photograph completes the work of the ritual practice being depicted.  The viewer is being asked to acknowledge two transitions: the soldier’s remains are being brought from a foreign battleground back to the motherland, while his soul can be imagined as already winging its way from earth to heaven.  Fittingly, the coffin is neither in the plane nor the hearse; the soldier is neither completely within the institution of the state nor transferred to the family.  He is now forever in between and somewhere else.  The institutions remain, here in idealized form: the large, impersonal, powerful plane that is nonetheless beautifully self-contained and standing at ready, dedicated to service of the individual citizen; and the small, familiar vehicle is also beautiful because built to human scale, carefully polished, designed to handle loss, and part of everyone’s fate.

Obviously, that story is too good to be true.  Rituals are not merely fictions, and they don’t contain only good news.  What struck me most about this photo is not the precise positioning of the ritual objects but rather the terrifying isolation being displayed in plain view.  Note how nothing is connected except by the invisible vectors of visual design.  Each element of this social setting stands in complete separation from the others–including the viewer from the scene itself.  In place of any connectivity, we see the open tarmac, flat landscape, and immense sky.  You can imagine heaven, just as you can imagine the nation, but the photograph also suggests the the story of this death is radical isolation.  That soldier is forever separated from those who knew him, and that loss contributes to greater separation among all those within the community.

Nor is this the work of one photographer, or a British rather than American tableau.

sailors-and-coffin

This photograph is from Delaware, probably at Dover AFB.  A Navy team stands at attention before  a coffin that has arrived from Afghanistan.  Here you see basic elements of the military ritual in the first photograph, albeit in much more humble fashion.  The coffin is partially hidden, the state how is represented by a delivery van, and the sailors’ service uniforms suggest a working class destination.  Most important, however, is that we again see human isolation amidst a vast emptiness.  Here, in fact, that comprehensive absence can’t be contained by ritual forms.  The scene is, sadly, all too revealing.

Perhaps this is the real challenge of showing the coffins.  The basic question is not whether to criticize the war or support the troops, but rather how to cross the distances that already separate everyone in the human community.

Photographs by Adrian Harlen/Reuters and Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

July 19th, 2009

Sight Gag: Weapon of Choice for the 21st Century

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

camq

Photo Credit:  Cam Cardow, Ottawa Citizen

“Sight Gags” 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.

July 17th, 2009

A Thousand Words: Masters of Photojournalism

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

drum-major-eisenstaedt

Monroe Gallery of Photography, 112 Don Gaspar, Sante Fe, NM, is pleased to announce “A Thousand Words: Masters of Photojournalism”, an exhibition of more than 60 great photographs from the field of photojournalism. The exhibition opens with a public reception on July 3 from 5 – 7 pm, and will continue through September 25.  Additional information is available here.

Photograph taken in Ann Arbor, Michigan in October 1950 by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life.

July 15th, 2009

Photographing Poverty: Realism or Sentimentality?

Posted by Hariman in boots and hands, economic optics

Debates about the moral value of photography have to deal with poverty.  One might think that there is little to discuss: poverty can be distressingly visible, and photographs have been a principle means for motivating efforts to help those in need.  From the classic photographs by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine to those persistent Save the Children ads, images of poverty and particularly of its effects on children have raised awareness, shaped public policy, and opened pocketbooks.  All that remains, one might think, would be to continue to produce compelling images of destitution.

a-child-stands-at-his-hom-haiti1

This photograph from Haiti may not prick one’s conscience, perhaps because we can’t see the child’s face, but it remains a striking image.  It also reflects the other side of the debate about photography’s moral legitimacy.  One argument against the image is that the photographic depiction of poverty is in fact highly sentimentalized: a continuation of the stock attitudes–including charity, but also condescension–of the Victorian era.  In short, the photograph of the poor child is a transposition of the Victorian waif from illustration into photography.   For this and other reasons, photographers such as Gordon Parks and others have been accused, not entirely without cause, of simplifying or otherwise aesthetically framing poverty as an object for concerned contemplation, instead of either exploring the social fabric of the poor community or exposing the causes of its continued oppression.

This photo would seem to fall under that criticism.  The image is too good: on the one hand, a near-perfect outline of the waif and, on the other hand, a composition of elegant design and rich colors that belies the child’s lack of resources.  Indeed, it could be in a Renaissance painting, and both the cropping and the oddity of the one shoe draw one into a close study of the image itself and thus away from critical attention to the social and economic conditions that lie behind it.

The photograph may reflect another criticism as well.  Somewhat paradoxically, photography is faulted (and by the same people) both for not evoking the correct moral response and for wearing out compassion or other charitable or progressive inclinations.  (Save the Children does come to mind.)  That idea could drive photographers to look for new angles on an old subject, and the image above certainly has been cropped in that manner.  Instead of the typical dirty face, we see asymmetrical feet (one shod and one bare); instead of the usual sense of need, there is a strange self-sufficiency in this child’s pose; instead of the same assurance that everyone knows what is needed, wearing one shoe creates a whiff of illegibility.  And so a photo that may be making poverty into art could also be reworking viewing habits to suggest that seeing is not knowing.

The debates about photography are not going to be resolved today.   I don’t think one can or should avoid the work done by public art, which includes channeling sentiments and thus risking sentimentality.   Photojournalism does traffic in stock sentiments, just as intellectuals rely on stock criticisms.  I’ll admit that there are days when I side with Oscar Wilde’s comment that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”  But there is still reason to take a good look at the other side of privilege, and to consider how compassion must at some point be a way of seeing.

Photograph by Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press.  (This post is the second this week on channeling 19th century public art; the first is here.  Another relevant post is here.)

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