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Sight Gag: The Elephant in the Room

Elephant-in-Room

Credit: Nate Beeler, Washington Examiner

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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Photographer's Showcase: On the Outside Looking In

ScreenDesertification 2009 shot 2010-02-25 at 6.44.19 PM

We are pleased to introduce NCN readers to Impact, an exploratory online exhibition site inaugurated by the Resolve collective of photographers and creative professionals and designed  to feature the work of independent photographs as they address a common theme or topic.  The initial theme is “On the Outside Looking In.”  The photograph above  is from Sean Gallagher’s “Desertification Unseen.”

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The Politics of Anger

Politics of Anger

If you even saw this photograph you probably didn’t pay much attention to it.  After all, it looks like many of the images that have come out of places like Lebanon and Iraq in recent years.  One more terrorist, suicide bombing carefully planned and executed by a group of political extremists and religious fanatics.  What more is there to say?  Nothing, perhaps, until we discover that the explosion is in Austin, Texas, not the war torn Middle East, and it was caused by a lone U.S. citizen who flew a small airplane into a building that housed the IRS as an expression of his rage against corporate profits and the U.S. government in general.

The key thing to notice is how quickly the whole event seems to have slipped from national consciousness despite the sense in which it might be characterized as a small scale 9/11 attack: an airplane flown into a government building, animated by a dissident, vengeful desire to bring the political system down.  That’s not the story we got, of course, as most reports focused on the bomber as a deeply disturbed, single individual animated by an inarticulate fury, despite the fact that he left behind a somewhat lengthy political manifesto explaining his long smoldering (and not irrational) anger at what he perceived to be an unjust political system. The above photograph is telling in this regard.  Shot with a long lens and tightly cropped around the point of the explosion shortly after impact, the building is consumed by billows of smoke that shroud the intense flames that burn just below the surface awaiting to erupt. It is in its own way a picture of latent affect that serves as an allegory for the predicament of expressing anger in contemporary times: The smoke can serve as a screen to mask the raw affect for a time, but ultimately it is incapable of giving it a productive form or containing it for very long.  The result is either dangerously explosive or sheer futility—and sometimes both.

Too often, it seems, we treat anger as an inherently irrational and inchoate expression of political engagement, typically representing it in the roar of an inarticulate mob.  But as Aristotle made clear, anger is not madness.  Indeed, it is and can be a legitimate and rational political emotion, quite necessary as a motivational resistance to the forces of injustice, and made effective in the careful and deliberate performance of the cultural norms of appropriate social and political recognition.  The problem is that in contemporary times we lack useful models for the effective expression and enactment of productive political anger. Either we get the silly rants of groups like the “tea-baggers,” which function as little more than a parody of anger, or we get the truly irrational futility of individuals flying planes into buildings or going on shooting rampages.  Neither serves the purposes of a robust democratic public culture.

What we need are exemplars of the performance of political anger that animate the demands for justice and restitution in pointed but measured ways.  Where we will find them, it is hard to say,  but in the meantime it is important to keep in mind that the political scenarios in which we frame enactments of anger carry a powerful normative force that should never go unmarked as transparent expressions of affect.

Photo Credit: Trey Jones/AP

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Diving into Midwinter

The holidays are a distant memory, snow is falling again, and ordinary activity can seem frozen into work and routine.  What else is there to do?  Days are short, there is too little sunlight, depression lurks amidst the layers of heavy clothing, and just getting about can be a series of chores.  One’s options, it seems, are limited.

But don’t tell this woman:

A-winter-swimmer-jumps-in-005

The caption read, “Shenyang, China: A swimmer jumps into icy water at a park.”  Really?  You’d think the writer had seasonal affective disorder; doesn’t “jump” suggest suicide?  As it is, however, she is not jumping but diving, and instead of going to her death she is throwing herself into life.

The tension between death and life suffuses the photo. The snow shrouded treeline along the field of whiteness could be the frozen shore of the netherworld, and the cold, dark, glassy water seems a catch basin for dead souls–like the shadow solidifying under its surface.  But suspended against this there is the incredible vitality of her strong, beautiful body, and even the puff of snow testifies to her quick kick up into the air. And all this for one reason: the amazing shock of slicing into the cold water, the sharp gasp, the radiant fire of skin alive.

In 1872 Christina Rossetti penned a beautiful poem that many encounter as a Christmas hymn.  The first verse speaks to anyone regardless of faith–to anyone, that is, who has known winter.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

There is more than one kind of winter. Too much in American national life at the moment seems locked into bleak patterns of dysfunction and stasis.  Too many people are hoping to settle for what is safest, and too many are resigned to simply making do or getting by.  Who can blame them?  When leaders are abdicating right and left and the future looks bleak, it makes sense to pull the blanket close around yourself and not take any risks.

Stuck in the middle of winter, perhaps one should simply wait for spring.  I’d like to think, however, that somehow each of us could take the plunge into a better life.  This might mean nothing more than doing something unexpected or otherwise out of season.  Who knows how much that could change?

Photograph from Reuters.

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Sight Gag: "And the Good News is …"


walters-1

Credit: Kirk Walters, The Toledo Blade

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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World Press Photo Awards

The 2010 World Press Photo Awards were announced last week.

You can see the photographs here.

settler aggression

You may have seen some of the photographs before, as when we posted on this image and The Practice of Domination in Everyday Life.  There are many others, however, and many that are likely to amaze.  Some also will raise questions about who should be the photographic subject, what should count as an artistic image, and how spectators should respond to eloquent images of suffering.  If photojournalism is to remain a public art, we will need both the photographs and an engaged audience capable of debating these issues and more.

Photograph by Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times.

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Haiti After the Catastrophe: The Power of Ordinary Life

This week the New York Times ran a story entitled Haiti Emerges From Its Shock, and Tears Roll.  The government had declared a national period of mourning, and the point of the story was that Haitians finally were able to grieve openly and collectively about their devastating losses.  An accompanying slide show featured funerals and memorial services, while the story itself included eloquent testimonials that could have been included in any eulogy.

Whatever the good intentions behind the reportage, I can’t help but think that this and similar stories are themselves ritual events: specifically, memorial services provided precisely so that the American audience can psychologically declare an end to the disaster and move on.  The massive mobilization of charitable giving is slowing down, and the surge of compassion is being replaced by the daunting complexity of managing  the long effort of reconstruction, and, well, it’s been more than a month and the Winter Olympics are on.

Like any story, it seems that catastrophes ought to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Likewise, the dramatic rupture of the beginning culminates in the symbolic repair provided by ritual performance at the end.  And so it is that the shock of the initial trauma is soothed by the tears of emotional release during the time to mourn. These are important features of human life, and the press would be remiss in ignoring them.  That said, there is another story to be told that has nothing to do with dramatic gestures.

woman looking in mirror, Haiti

This is a photograph from the middle period of the disaster–a time when people already were beginning to get on with their lives.  Furniture from a ruined house has been put out in the street.  A woman is walking by, then stops and checks her reflection in the mirror.  You can see that she is adjusting something–her hair or an eyebrow, perhaps.  The scene is surprisingly intimate, and our gaze is not intrusive as she clearly would be aware that she is in a public setting.  Come to think of it, people often steal a moment of privacy to check their appearance in store windows or other public mirrors, much as she is doing here.

One might be tempted to fault her.  “How vain!  What a princess.  Doesn’t she know her country has been wrecked?”  I don’t see it that way.  Instead, I see an act of triumph over adversity.  A small act, to be sure–we are at the lowest level of the micro-political here–but an assertion that life as she knew it will go on somehow and she has a future in which it matters how she looks.  In short, amidst near complete disruption of the normal state of things (where one’s bedroom now is in the street), there remain practical opportunities to do what you would want to do anyway.

I think this ability to assert the small routines of everyday life is an important political resource.  And just to make sure that we understand how much resilience is at stake, look at this:

woman sweeping, Haiti

A woman is sweeping up the debris in the street in front of a pile of decomposing bodies.  From her smock and broom, I’d say she’s swept up before.  And why not now?  She can’t move the bodies by herself, but she can sweep, and that has to be done if the place is to get back to normal.  And don’t tell her that the scale of destruction is too great or that recovery will take many years or that there’s nothing she can do.

As in the first photo, we see a lone individual engaging in what is usually a private activity, but now in a public space or a space having unusual public significance.  In each case, I think we are seeing a civic practice, albeit in a peculiar sense.  These are not the practices of state action or global mobilization by state and non-governmental organizations; instead, they are the simple habits of vernacular life.  Habits that have transformative power precisely because they aspire to no more than continuity.

Photographs by Ruth Fremson and Damon Winter for the New York Times.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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Vanishing into Modernism

One of the pleasures of going to an art gallery is to see the other people there as artworks–that is, as if crafted for display, and displayed to reveal something important about who we are as human beings.  Of  course, some people seem better suited to being seen this way than others.

Woman in art gallery

This woman striding through a gallery in London seems obviously stylish—high heels, short skirt, long, sleek hair, ramrod posture, stiletto figure, all in basic black, one can go right down the fashion magazine checklist.  Less is more, however, and her lean minimalism and striking pose suggest that she is not merely stylish but as much a work of art as the two paintings on either side of her, as if she were the middle panel of a triptych.  But for the blurred edges that indicate motion, she could be a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

alberto_giacometti

And not just any sculpture, but one that sold this month at a Sotheby’s auction for $103.4 million.  That fact may account for the presence of the first photo above, as the publicity about the sale may have activated the Giacometti neuron in at least one photographer’s brain, and the photo was taken at Christie’s auction house, but the woman had to be there as she was for the photograph to be taken at all.  And so one artist was paying homage to another, but he could do so in part because the artistic influence was so pervasive that life was already following that art.

No one gets up in the morning to put on their Giacometti outfit, but many do spend a lot of money and effort to appear stylish, and the hundreds of his stick figures that populate museums, books, posters, and other media of the art world played a role in defining the aesthetic norms of contemporary cosmopolitan society.  That modernist norms can be traced across art, fashion, and photography as well as interior design, architecture, and other arts is hardly surprising, as a universal economy of representation was the point, but I want to suggest that something more than homology is at stake.

Women walking in Athens

When this photograph turned up as well, I had to wonder what was going on.  One answer is that a second photographer had been cued to Giacometti’s gaze.  But now I began to think that this was not merely a study in influence, but rather that Giacometti had seen something then that was becoming ever more evident now in modernity’s continued development on its own terms.

But what is being shown?  People are transformed into shadows, women are styled into nothingness, mass is consumed by motion, life crafted for the gaze reverts to the vanishing point, all that is solid melts into air. . . . Each of these ideas is a start, but just that, at understanding what is being revealed.  And perhaps it is worth noting that the last photo was taken before the Greek parliament building during a week when the Greek financial meltdown was threatening the EU (and world) economy.  And so, once again, billions of dollars have gone up in smoke across the globe as modern financial systems operate with the radical autonomy and disregard for common sense that may be a key to artistic innovation, but little else.

Modernism is now seen in some circles as a period style, but some have claimed that modernity will not–cannot–ever end.  Even if that were to be true, modernist art and fashion alike might prompt one to ask who, what, and how much caught within modern processes of change will simply vanish.

The first photograph is by Tim Ireland/PA; the third photograph is by Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP-Getty Images.  The sculpture may be L’Homme qui marche I or another like it.

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Sight Gag: Happy Valentines Day – 2010

stein

Credit:  Ed Stein

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.

 0 Comments