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. . . .

December 19th, 2010

Our Holiday Gift to You: Malware!

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Sad but true: NCN got caught in a Google virus alert on December 16.  As far as we can tell, nothing infectious was on the site, but a couple of links could have led to trouble.  We’re having the site completely scrubbed and should be back to normal once the Google virus flag is removed.  That can take time, however, and in any case we want to apologize for any anxiety or inconvenience we might have caused.

And what is normal?  In our case, it includes our usual holiday break from posting.  We’ll be back on January 10, 2011.  So happy holidays and happy new year to all our readers, some of whom are shown below.

Photograph from Mercury Press.  The occasion is the 2010  5K Santa Dash, Liverpool, UK.

December 17th, 2010

Seeing the Past in the Present

Posted by Hariman in photographer's showcase

William Faulkner once wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  Oft-quoted and perhaps less often understood, the remark may have more resonance in some settings than others.  Given the extent to which amnesia seems to be spreading throughout American public life, Faulkner’s insight may seem increasingly peculiar.  (He isn’t read much anymore, and that, too, may be part of the problem.)  The question remains of who might be working today to help people reflect on the relationship between past and present, and between collective memory and mass amnesia.  One answer to that question is Sergey Larenkov.

Sergey Larenkov woman in street

Sergey Larenkov blends together photographs from World War II and the present to capture the recurrent disruption,  jarring continuity, and inevitable denial of the past in the present.  More strange yet is the suggestion that the shiny, visible world of the present is inhabited by ghosts that are continuing to act out their dramas of war and dispossession.  If the past can continue so vividly in this virtual world, perhaps war’s destructiveness could recur just as easily in the world we expect to see: a seeming intrusion that fits right in as though it had been there all along.  Perhaps it’s not even past.

You can see more of Sergey’s work here.

Photograph from “Siege of Leningrad 1942/2010″ by Sergey Larenkov.

December 15th, 2010

Santa and the Problem of Public Safety

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Santa and the TSA.2010-12-14 at 9.29.53 PM

I remember as a child watching over and again the post-World War II movie Miracle on 34th St. (1947), a story about a man who looks rather like the elfish chap above and is institutionalized as insane when he declares himself to be Kris Kringle—the real Santa Claus.  Claiming to be Santa Claus, it seems, can be something of a threat to public safety, and it is only with the help of a lawyer who persuades the local post office to deliver thousands of children’s letters addressed to “Santa Claus” to his client that he is able to get the state to acknowledge his true identity and thus establish his sanity.  And the moral of the story was that sometimes it isn’t such a bad idea to believe in fantasies—or miracles—at least a little bit.

Of course, that was then and this is now.  The late 1940s were something of an age of anxiety, to be sure, but now we live in the so-called age of terror.  And today, not even an army of ACLU lawyers can save Santa  Claus from the indignities of being patted and probed by the woman in uniform wearing the rubber blue glove.  After all, in an age of terror anyone can be hiding a bomb inside his or her clothing: pilots, grandmothers, and even babies in blankets.  Why should Old St. Nick be any different?  And really, what is the loss of a “little” dignity—in some ways just another fantasy of public decorum—in the interest of maintaining national security and public safety?  Or so we are told.

My initial impulse upon seeing the photograph above was to smile at the incongruity of a fantasy figure being treated by the apparatus of a national security state as if he were real and wondering who the sane and the insane might be.  But then it struck me that there was nothing amusing here at all.  That indeed, what we are looking at is a very real and tragic sluice of contemporary life, a world in which even our most hopeful fantasies have been taken away and no one seems to notice … or maybe even care. Notice the man on the left who doesn’t appear to be paying any attention whatsoever—or for that matter to even see—what is going on before him.  Perhaps he is absorbed by the task of preparing himself for the blue glove, or maybe he just doesn’t want to get involved.  But in any case, he remains passive and compliant—rather like Santa himself—and that might be the most troubling point of all as it suggests that just maybe the terrorists have already won.

Credit:  AP Photo/The Repository, Scott Heckel

December 13th, 2010

Icons Diminished and Deflated

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

The protests by environmental activists at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico last week ran the full gamut of street theatre: signs, costumes, body painting, effigies, nudity–you name it.  The image that caught eye, however, was obviously static and even inanimate.

Icons Greenpeace protest

Greenpeace has positioned replicas of some of the world’s iconic sculptures and architectural monuments to suggest one of the sure consequences of global warming: the rising sea levels that could conceivably submerge coastal cities.  Obviously, some creative license has been taken, as no one outside of a bad B-movie studio is going to suggest that the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro is likely to get wet–its base is 2300 feet above sea level.  But in any case, we’re all in this together, right?

Well, yes, actually.  These iconic images provide a shorthand for relaying messages and activating emotional attachments within a global civil society.  Cancun is not known for its public monuments, so this display is one way of bringing the world to Cancun.  It would persuade few to point out that the buildings in the background might be flooded someday, but the Sidney Opera House would be a loss that might touch those who care about culture.  Seeing the several icons sharing a common fate of being reclaimed by the sea suggests that national interests should be united by global warming.  More important, the scene suggests a common public interest, represented by a shared public culture known in part by its visual symbols.  Left to themselves, they symbols are shown to be defenseless against the predictable consequences of unregulated exploitation of another common resource: the global ecosystem.

We get that, I think, and we were supposed to get it.  But there is something else in the picture that also bears comment.  Here I refer to the somewhat shabby tone of the tableau.  Amidst the tropical ocean and gleaming beachfront resorts, the figures look out of place, off-kilter, as if they had been discarded.  Instead of consolidating their symbolic powers, they have been diminished, as if hollow effigies deserving only fire sale prices.  Instead of rightly adorning world cities, they could be in backlot storage for a Hollywood studio.  “Where did you put the icons, Eddie?”  “Those things?  I got ‘em out in back, in the containment pool.  Why?  You get an offer for that junk?”

And what would you pay for a damaged icon?

metrodome roof collapse

The collapse of the roof of the Minneapolis Metrodome got a lot of press yesterday, even though it wasn’t the first time that snow has caused the roof to deflate (yes, that’s the term that is used).  No one was hurt, the scheduled football game has been moved to Detroit, and the structure would have had little use anyway, so what’s the fuss?  Obviously, the damage is one measure of the impact of Saturday’s snowstorm, and, as with the Greenpeace protest, another signature building became a symbol of how society cannot avoid the consequences of ignoring nature.

What interests me, however, is how this photograph, like the one above, captures a sense of shabbiness.  Actually, the Metrodome is never far from vernacular life, as even on its best days it looked like a Marshmallow that one might see around a Minnesota campfire.  (That lack of elevation is one of the things I love about Minnesota.)  Even so, the deflated stadium looks like a cheap backyard pool or hot tub poorly protected against yet another winter.  Or, if compared with the Minneapolis skyline in the background, like some decrepit structure in an old industrial park, say, where the pork by-products used to be processed.

Rather than assume this shared mood is accidental, perhaps one might consider how the photographers have captured something important about public culture.  Monuments to civilization are not self-sustaining, and engineering marvels need to be well-designed and well-maintained in respect to environmental challenges, and even then can fail.  Civilization itself is something that is not automatically sustainable, and modern societies create particularly complex equations that may include only a thin barrier between progress and catastrophe.  It doesn’t take long at all for any modern building, city, or society to look rundown, past its best days, trapped now into cycles of decline.   All that is needed is enough denial or inattention.  Against those tendencies, these photographs suggest how close the present can be to a future of decline.

Photographs by Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press and Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

December 12th, 2010

Sight Gag: In Memory, 1940-1980

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

John-Lennon-sniffing-coke

Credit:  All Hat, No Cattle

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.

December 10th, 2010

David Zimmerman: Portraits from the Gulf Oil Spill

Posted by Hariman in photographer's showcase

David Zimmerman is a photographer based in New York City & Taos, New Mexico.  Today we feature his work in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spil in the Gulf of Mexico.  David notes that “The explosion of the oil rig precipitated a catastrophic chain of events that endangered the waters of the Gulf and the people of the region.  The devastation I saw on the water was mirrored in the faces of the people, and at that point, the most important story to tell was the story of the people.”

Wanda Jackson.

(Photograph of Wanda Jackson, Plaquemines Parish resident working at Southeast Pass on BP oil cleanup.)

David’s has woven together portraits and audio clips in a short film entitled “Faces and Voices from the Gulf.”  (His description of the project is here.)  Despite the efforts of BP to turn everything in the Gulf into a prop for their own retelling of the story, David recovers both the complexity and the human cost of the disaster.  Not to deny the effect on the beaches, birds, fish, or tourists that were the subjects of so much of the visual coverage, but surely the tragedy has been felt most deeply and persistently by the people who live there.

David is the 2009 recipient of the World Photography Awards L’Iris D’or Grand Prize for his work in the deserts of the southwest U.S.  David’s studio in Taos, New Mexico is built to LEED certified standards for sustainability.  His web site is here.

December 8th, 2010

The Entombed Future, Like the Catastrophic Past

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

Not long after the mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978, a friend remarked casually, “That’s why we shouldn’t have space colonies.”  This was not the typical connection made at the time, and he spoke primarily as a critic of NASA’s “manned” space program, but it spoke volumes about the tendencies that had driven the unfortunates to their deaths: fleeing the center to create an enclaved community, the strange cult proved to be all too American after all.

The story came to mind again when I saw this photograph from the European Space Agency.

ISS crew member

He’s Italian, not American, and he’s all alone, not part of a group, and he’s working for an organization of highly trained professionals, not an authoritarian dictatorship, so what’s the point of the comparison?  Well, take a look.  The astronaut lies confined to his space suit, almost immersed in it, and moving, seeing, and even breathing now seem barely possible because of the equipment that allows him to live at all.  His head is framed by two portals: the round window behind him to the outside of the Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft, and the one in the foreground through which we peer into the dim interior with its cluttered material and garish lighting.  This is an image of confinement, and also of the long term consequences of confinement while being hurled, centrifugally, into space.  We see him both as he is now in the test space, and as his successors might become after many years of exploration far removed from Earth.  Grown into machines that both sustain and entomb them, cut off from all the interaction and change of social life outside the bubble, left to the growing madness induced by the repetitive immobility of the colony, anything becomes possible while the prospects of remaining human become ever more dim.

Thus, an image from the modernist dream of advancing humanity to the stars has a dystopian hue.  Instead of touching the heavens, space travel looks decidedly claustrophobic.  It looks, one might say, like the past.

Pompeii body

This image of a body cast from Pompeii has some obvious affinities with the one above, and also a few notable differences.  Again we see a single body immobilized, now with its head caught in a last effort to breathe and perhaps to see the cause of its destruction.  The body is framed by its rectangular enclosure of glass, which is mirrored by the framed figures in the background, and so we see it between two portals, one to the interior space and another to the society that had surrounded it.  The most important differences are that the trappings of modern civilization are here replaced with the decor of antiquity, and spectatorship has been changed from looking through a single aperture to several tourists also on display.  Here the past has been excavated, but only to be entombed again.  This is not Pompeii as it was then, a lively resort town, but the post-catastrophe ruin that silently cautions any civilization living on the edge of sustainability.

Not to put to fine a point upon it, but whether one looks to the future or the past, there is reason to see disaster as a real possibility–and one that exists not because of some unforeseen factor, but precisely because of who we are and how our society is organized.  Affluent Romans went to Pompeii to get away from the cares of the city–nothing wrong with that, but they couldn’t escape nature’s fury.  Space colonies are imagined as distant projections of our best selves, when they could become hellholes only likely to end well as monuments to isolation.  Neither are real options, but the tendencies they represent are constantly evident in contemporary decision-making.

The challenge today is not to stretch toward a distant future, no more than it is to merely stare at a long-dead past.  Far more difficult is the task of taking the present seriously, and to see the present as belonging to everyone rather than those able to move into enclaves of privilege.  Indeed, unless there is a significant re-orientation in public policy toward the concerns of a common present, the future will already be like the past: entombed by catastrophe.

Photographs by Sergei Remezov/Reuters and Roberto Salomone/AFP/Getty Images.

December 6th, 2010

What Are the Odds?

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

dog-frustrated

So what are the odds that the cable internet would go out in both Indianapolis and Evanston at the same time on Sunday evening, just as we were getting geared up to write the best NCN post ever  . .  . and that it would stay out well past our respective bedtimes?  But there you have it.  But not to worry, we will be back on Wednesday.

And for the record, did we get a bit paranoid for a minute?  Well, sure, but it was just a garden variety breakdown–or so they say!–at Comcast in the Midwest and in Boston and perhaps elsewhere as well.  Could we have gotten around it if we had to?  Sure, but we took the easy out.  We’ll make it up to you later.

The NCN Guys

December 5th, 2010

Sight Gag: Domestic Terrorism

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

12310sh

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.

December 3rd, 2010

Conference Paper Call: Making Sense of Visual Culture

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

VCS header

Making Sense of Visual Culture

University of Rochester

April 1st-3rd, 2011, Rochester, New York

The Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester invites scholars from across disciplines to discuss the evolving institutional and methodological contours of our field.  From April 1st-3rd, 2011, “Making Sense of Visual Culture” will address large-scale disciplinary questions as well the development of new approaches to an expanded range of sensory objects, phenomena, and practices.

We invite innovative work by graduate students and non-tenured faculty for a series of round-tables, workshops, and panels that will address the two major, interlinked concerns of the conference: sensory experience and the future of the field.

There are many ways to participate in this discussion, even if you cannot join us in April.

1. We are circulating a questionnaire.  All responses will be posted to an open access website to create a broad dialogue.  (Instructions for accessing the questionnaire are here.)

2. We solicit 300-word abstracts for 20-minute paper presentations on work that exemplifies, challenges and expands the field of visual studies.  Possible topics include, but are not limited, to: multi-sensory approaches to material culture and memory – the “hegemony of the visual” – the practice of visual culture as method, discipline or sensibility – visualizing sensory experience – cultural difference and the senses – epistemology of the senses – histories of perception – lending form to affect – synesthetia – the interface of vision and touch – changing practices of visualizing information – the present and future of medium specificity (in both artistic and scholarly practices) – the role of technologies in sensory perception.

Please include a brief CV with your submissions.  Deadline: January 15, 2011.   Please email these documents to submissions@makingsenseconference.com

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