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Jun 20, 2010

Bearing the Public Pall


Bearing the pall is an honored ritual in western funerary traditions according to which typically the most intimate friends and family members of the departed carry the casket that cloaks and contains the bodily remains. Until recently I thought of this as a rather instrumental ritual, activated largely by the pragmatic need to transport the body from one place to another in solemn and decorous fashion. This past spring, however, my mother passed away at the age of 83 and I came to realize the larger symbolic significance of literally touching the coffin, of making physical contact with the deceased, even if only by proxy and separated by the ritualistic container. I can’t say that I have the words to describe the actual feeling accurately, but there was something powerfully transcendent about it—almost as if I was making contact with a different plane of existence.

My experience was personal and private and I haven’t discussed it with anyone until now. Nevertheless, I was reminded of it by this photograph of Senator Edward Kennedy lying in repose at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. The individuals kneeling at the coffin are five female family members, but in the visual tableau of the photograph they function as faceless surrogates for the thousands of anonymous members of the public who stood in line for hours just for the opportunity to pass the casket on the other side of a velvet rope and to pay their last respects to a life dedicated to national public service. The photograph underscores the solemnity of the occasion—heads bowed, hands folded, and notice how the pall is illuminated in a space otherwise shrouded by shadows cast by the backlit scene—but more than that it channels an ineffable, transcendent, affective sense of belonging that is arguably essential to communal life, animated here by decorously “touching” the coffin with our eyes.

The photograph above was the first image in the NYT’sPictures of the Day” for August 25, 2009. The second picture in that slide show was of the funeral procession for Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, an influential Shiite theologian and the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq who had died of lung cancer.


The NYT employs the two photographs to make the point that “very different” leaders—one quintessentially western, the other quintessentially eastern—were mourned in “very different ways,” contrasting the rational and decorous “solemnity of the public farewell to Senator Kennedy” as “thousands of visitors continued to line up to pay their respects,” with the unfettered “emotion of the public farewell” to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim marked by the “thousands [who] poured into the streets amid tight security.”

And indeed, the normative differences and implications of the two photographs are surely pronounced, as one displays a scene that is apparently stately and reserved, a modicum of order and restraint, while the other purports to reveal a dangerous mob “pouring into the street” and warranting “tight security.” In one image the facial markers of emotional expression are hidden from view as the faces of the individuals cannot be seen, either turned away from the camera and directing attention to the coffin or veiled by distance and dark shadows. In the other image, however, shot in the harsh light of day, facial expressions of intense emotion are prominent and pronounced, not least the man in the very center of the image who appears to be bearing much of the weight of the coffin and crying out in grief. And there are other differences as well, as one image genders the public it displays as passively female, the other aggressively male.

And yet for all of the differences what stands out most in need of comment is the profound similarity between the two photographs as each indicates a ritual of mourning predicated on making a direct, affective connection between a surviving public and its deceased leaders as a performative, transcendent marker of civic identity.  Call it “solemnity” or call it “emotion,” the simple fact is that communal life demands affective connections.  If we are going to come to terms with the profound tensions between east and west we might not find a better place to start than in acknowledging and taking  account of this radical similarity.

Photo Credits:  Damon Winters/NYT; Loay Hameed/AP


Sight Gag: C-I-A! C-I-A!


Credit: Aislin, The Montreal Gazette, 8/29/09

“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.

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The People Project

Morgan Hager has created a show called The People Project.


“There are a myriad of challenges facing the human race today. The People Project attempts to define the challenges facing humanity as a whole by examining the views of the individual. Through compelling images and the thought provoking words of his subjects, Morgan Hagar has begun an ambitious ongoing project in hopes of answering one question…  What is Humanity’s Greatest Challenge?”

This is an ongoing project still in its initial phase.  Hagar’s home page is here; his blog is here.

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Separate Visions in the Same Place at the Arctic Edge

Photography (and neither painting nor film) is the nearest artistic source of contemporary conceptions of the natural sublime.  And with good reason:


This image just about stops my heart.  It is majestic and serene, austere and wild, menacing and yet perfectly balanced. And far more than its informative caption: “Icebergs float in the calm waters of a fjord, south of Tasiilaq in eastern Greenland August 4, 2009.”  (To get the full effect of this Arctic vista, see it at The Big Picture.)  The broad, encompassing horizontal field seems to expand infinitely, and yet the sharp angle of the berg in the foreground is paralleled by the ominous thunderhead on the left, as if they were two tectonic plates shearing across each other.  Between them the light of a fading sun recedes to the vanishing point.  Could Valhalla be too far beyond that horizon?

This scene is so elemental–water, air, earth, and fire–that it seems to bring us to the edge of reality itself.  And yet we are the supernatural beings here: for we see but are not seen.  And we can view the cold, harsh elements at the world’s edge because we stand safely on some unseen platform–most likely, on a boat.


This photograph of the port of Nuuk on July 6, 2009 is in many ways the opposite of sublime.  Instead of elemental and awesome, it is crowded, busy, varied, jumbled–even when stilled, supposedly at rest, it is a riot of color and variation.  Boats of every size, shape, and purpose are wedged together.  Nature’s dangers are still implicit in the scene: the boats huddle together because the barren hills will provide little protection from northern winds whipping down a narrow channel.  But this is an image of vitality, of life thriving far beyond moss on a wind-swept rock.

Although no people are visible in this picture, we are everywhere: bustling and creative, but still having to hug the shore.  The welter of masts, poles, cranes, and wires makes a mess of the visual field, but those boats are the only basis on  which we can even see other images of natural beauty.  One problem is that these two visions are kept apart, even though they come from and need to coexist in the same place.  There are many factors in this enforced separation: social, political, and economic practices not least among them.  We need to consider, however, how the artistic medium itself is part of the problem.

It remains easy to see nature in one place and human activity somewhere else as long as each is sequestered within its own visual field.  To have both–in reality, not merely as images–we have to think carefully about how we use our images.  Without images of natural splendor, an important incentive for conservation is lost; without sustainable economic and social practices, the natural environment will continue to be ruined while images serve a psychology of denial among those otherwise separated from the leading edge of destruction.

Fortunately, photography also can be a part of the solution.  Just as the individual photograph can both inspire (think of the image of the whole Earth floating in space) and mislead (as when nature and culture are placed in separate still images), photography can help lead the way to imagining how to integrate separate visions.  Sound ecological design has to include both the sublime and the practical, but not in separate places.

Photographs by Slim Allagui/AFP/Getty Images and Bob Strong/Reuters.

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Nature in the Global Petri Dish

You might wonder what you are seeing in this photograph:


Look closely, and you will see a clump of trees.  Some might also recognize the even rows of high-tech, monocultural agriculture stretched across the plain.  But I’ve given too much away, as you also could have seen a clump of mold or cells bunched together in some microscopic field.  Beneath the surface, one might also “see” some more elemental social form such as herd animals pressing together for warmth or even an ark adrift in barren sea.  Whatever it is, it is visually striking: one blot of rich green on a uniformly reddish-brown background etched with small modulations in black.  Scale becomes elastic while form and color dominate in any register.  There is something basic here, but what?

Perhaps some content would help.  The caption in the New York Times read: “Small islands of forest dot the landscape of farms and ranches, fulfilling regulations to maintain percentages of native forest on agricultural properties. Driven by profits derived from fertile soil, the region’s dense forests have been aggressively cleared over the past decade, and Mato Grosso is now Brazil’s leading producer of soy, corn and cattle, exported across the globe by multinational companies.”

OK, it is a photograph of trees in a field.  Trees saved to maintain a forestation quota, in a field of soybeans produced for the international commodity markets.  The additional information and the political subtext are helpful, but a problem remains.  Note how the photo’s ambiguity in scale is also there in the text.  We are seeing something “small,” and also something that extends “across the globe.”  And, sure enough, the story behind the picture is one that identifies the tension between localized benefits and global costs.  Life might be simple if one could focus exclusively on one dimension or the other: manage the forests for the planet, or allow economic development wherever possible.  But, of course, the problem is that both are needed.  One has to be able to see both locally and globally, a bifocal vision that itself does not come cheap.

Some might argue that the picture is unfair.  It looks as if only the trees are natural, whereas in a few months the entire field also would be a vibrant green.  Frankly, “nature” is becoming an outmoded term, and protecting nature or biodiversity or carbon dioxide levels or any other ecological value involves both technological savvy and a recognition that life is everywhere, even in burning forests for commodity cropping.  The photo is not so much fair or unfair, however, as it is profound.  It captures something essential, a sense of what is at stake.  That small island of trees can stand in for everything from a tiny cell to the planet itself, and the point is always the same: no matter what the scale, life on earth is a small, precious island amidst a void.

The image is ironic as well: trees having no need of human intervention evoke something like sympathy, whereas the field is an achievement of human productivity that will produce historically astonishing yields capable of feeding millions. But, of course, it’s not that simple.  The fields will wither if the carbon dioxide levels get out of whack, and the deeper irony is that what feeds us can kill us.  Just as indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin learn to discriminate poisons, medicines, and foods carefully in the forest, moderns need to learn to do the same in respect to their remaking of the forest.  In each case, one needs to learn to see, but not in the same way.

In this case, the photograph provides one lesson in how to see modern development: as if cultured for observation, both up close and from a distance, on behalf of sustainable growth, and capable of extinction.

Photograph by Damon Winter/The New York Times.

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Sight Gag: The New Colossus For the 21st Century


Credit: R. J. Matson/St. Louis Post Dispatch

“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.


北京背景 Bĕijīng Bèijĭng

Today we are pleased to welcome Alejandro Martinez to our Photographer’s Showcase at NCN.  Alejandro is an American- educated Mexican photographer.  He holds a B.A. in Studio Art and a minor in Japanese from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.  He spent the past year in China, photographing and studying Chinese.  Currently he teaches photography at an international high school in Mexico City.

The first Beijing is the city, the second means background (as in historical or personal background or the background of an image) or backdrop .  The series is an exploration of the complexity and fragmentation of the city space as it continues to rapidly expand.  The images were taken in 2008-2009 in the aftermath of The Olympic Games.


西直门 (Xizhimen):  Recently demolished structures to construct a new high rise next to a new subway station/mall/office complex.


立水桥北 (Lishuiqiaobei): Looking at an upscale mall/office complex from the subway station in one of the most populated suburbs in the north part of Beijing.


Near 国贸 (Guomao): Chinese flag flying outside a store, and traffic barriers by upscale apartment buildings close to the financial district.


五道口 (Wudaokou): Bicycle parking by subway station in the university district.


北三环 (Beisanhuan): Underpass on the 3rd Ring Road North.

These images belong a larger series exploring the city space and its people.  People can access this and other series from Alejandro’s time in China here.  They can contact him at


Art and Life at the Beach

One of the attractions of the beach is that so many distinctions seem to melt away into the broad expanses of  sun, sea, and sand.  Nature offers the same three elements to whoever is there, and there seems to be room enough for everyone, and–for the day, anyway–what more does anyone really need?  But, of course, even when life’s a beach, it is a life lived one way rather than another.  This image from the Hamptons is one example of what I mean.


I had to stare at this image initially to make sure that it was a photograph.  The pictorial values are evocative of the seaside reveries that were a favorite subject for painters around 1900.  (For one example having a tone similar to this scene, see Calm Morning (1904) by Frank Weston Benson.)  But if life is following art at the Hamptons, the closer source might be a J. Crew catalog.  The causal wealth on display here reflects that narrow niche of class and ethnicity, starting with the gorgeous blue and white beach towels.  The rest of the scene is more subdued, but the pattern continues: her pink and white shirt, the white breaker of the emerald wave,  white umbrellas on orange or yellow poles, the green chair between sand and sea foam.  Somehow this world is both colorful and very white.

The blue and white towels create a space of privileged intimacy within the scene, one mirrored by the second couple as well.  One member of each pair is eating and listening, savoring, as if there is no hurry, no need to worry about running out of time or anything else.  We see them from behind, while standing at a respectful distance, as if servants waiting to be summoned.  The photo depicts a summer idyll and also the image of an ideal life, but only for the few.

It should not be surprising that people of wealth can seem so at home in an image that appears to be an oil painting.  The photographer’s achievement has been to capture a representative moment in a social stratum by evoking the appropriate pictorial tone from another art and time, albeit while also channeling the commercial iconography that defines that way of life the present.  There is more than one beach, however, and more than one way to use a camera.


The caption in the Times (the source for both photos) read, “An early arrival at Orchard Beach in the Bronx staked out his territory on Saturday.  Estimates put the crowd at 59,000 by 5 p.m.”  I think this shot is hilarious.  It might as well be Rodney Dangerfield taking a break from Caddyshack.  The guy is a scandal according to the social and aesthetic values of the other photo: damn near naked, exposed to the world, but not before drawing a line in the sand that serves as a big “Keep Out” sign.  He looks like a beached whale with attitude, and instead of being huddled in luxury he’s stripped the day down to its essentials: bike, just enough clothing to be decent, a towel just big enough for his body, and a poor man’s moat to keep the 59,000 other people out of his face.

This slice of life on the other side of the cabana is presented courtesy of another photographic perspective. Instead of the faux intimacy of the painting, we have a documentary angle, seeing the subject from the side and set in context, as if a subject for sociological study.  And yet the distance is still respectful, allowing him the sovereignty of his temporary kingdom.  Unlike the Hamptons photograph, there is no implicit invitation via the fashion code to wish–or buy–our way into the scene.

One photo is from the beginning of summer and the other comes much closer to the end, but that is the least of their differences.  The question, however, is not which is the better way of life.  I’m not sure there even need be a question.  May you find your beach in what little summer remains.

Photographs by Jemal Countess/WireImage and Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times.


On The Difference Between Seeing Forests and Trees

The national health care debate has received an enormous amount of attention over the past few weeks, but for the most part the focus has had less to do with the state of health care and more with the incivility of protestors. As President Obama put it, “TV loves a ruckus.” Apparently so too does the print media where most of the photographic record has featured groups of protestors and reformers holding signs and/or shouting at one another, town hall meetings seemingly out of control, and the president addressing audiences in what appears to be stump speech fashion. What we have seen very little of has been any visual evidence that might help us to reflect on the actual problem of the health care system itself.

The difficulty is figuring out how to show a systemic crisis. We can display photographs of individuals in need of some, more, or better health care, but in the very process such images typically individuate the problem in ways that minimize its magnitude (we only see one person or family at a time) and mask its bureaucratic complexities (systems, by their nature, are abstract and multifaceted processes that are rarely evident in the individual case). The photograph below wrestles with these problems.


At first glance it might be hard to know what one is looking at. The photograph is shot from above and at some distance, rather like the way in which we often photograph scenes in which too close proximity to an event might put the photographer at risk of bodily harm. As we will see, the photographer’s well being is not at risk here, and so there must be some other function being served by the photographic aesthetic. The key point to note, however, is that the distance from the scene of action is accentuated by the fact that we get a fairly wide field of vision that frames the image as a landscape: it invites us to take in a wide vista, to see the whole rather than to focus on any individual part—to see the forest rather than the trees. And truth to tell, no individual is recognizable as such; indeed, in most instances it is difficult to identify even typical demographic markers as race and gender with any accuracy. There are individuals here, to be sure, but the significance of their individuality is visually minimized in the face of some larger communal or collective quality—whatever it is that they are doing or whatever it is that has brought them all together.

Here the photograph becomes harder to decipher. And so we need a caption to direct our attention: “Thousands Line Up for Free Health Care.” What we are looking at is not an overhead shot of a flea market or a trade show but a makeshift medical clinic set up inside of The Forum in Inglewood, California by Remote Area Medical, a nonprofit agency that provides free medical and dental care to people living in “remote” parts of the United States and throughout the world. One might not ordinarily think of Los Angeles County as “remote,” but therein lies at least one dimension of the systemic problem of health care in the U.S., for many—by some accounts the number is as high as 46 million citizens or 15% of the population—the issue of access is not a function of geographical proximity to medical care facilities but rather a function of the inability to pay for medical services. And in this instance thousands of people stood in line over night—many for more than one day—in order to “take a number” that would allow them access to medical services that their lack of health insurance would otherwise have made prohibitive. What the story fails to note is that when the numbers ran out many were simply turned away.

Much of the current debate over health care has emphasized the question of choice: will health care or health insurance reform effect the private, individual choice of medical services and practices. And no doubt this is a decisive issue for many people. But as this photograph suggests, if we step back to look at the entire health care system rather than the desires of private individuals, we might recognize that a considerable portion of the national community have no real choices at all.

Its all a matter of what we are able—or willing— to see.

Photo Credit: Ruth Fremson/New York Times

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Sight Gag: Diversity of Species in the Rainforest


For full size image click here.

Credit: Oro/Verde

“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.

 1 Comment