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America in Black and White

Color photography has become so ubiquitous and so useful that I now am skeptical when a photojournalist resorts to black and white.  Color no longer is the medium of advertising alone, nor is black and white the medium of documentary truth.  You might say that we’ve learned to think with a color palette, and if a photograph is given a retro look, we risk losing information on behalf of artistic pretension, or assuming documentary truth that hasn’t been earned, or succumbing to nostalgia rather than learning something about the present.  To see what still can be accomplished, however, take a a look at a recent series by Charles Ommanney on the Republican primary campaign in South Carolina.

Substitute George Romney for his son Mitt, and this photo from Greenville could have been taken in the 1960s.  Perhaps there have been changes in public trash bin design, or in bus wheels, but otherwise her clothing, hair, and everything else in the picture could be built for time travel.  She may be wearing contacts, of course, and may have a much better job than would have been available to a woman fifty years ago, but I find it striking that so little seems to have changed in half a century.

And that, I believe, is a very important implication of Ommanney’s artistic choice to use black and white.  You’ll have to see the rest of the show at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, but I’m confident that many viewers will see what I see.  Other than a few very small details such as the occasional smart phone, the photos suggest that nothing has changed: ordinary citizens of a homogenous society listen to a wealthy, good looking candidate campaign in a one-party state.  The election rituals include flags, banners, signs, funny hats, and public speaking as the candidate presses the flesh and otherwise shows that he’s a man of the people.  The people don’t look too well off, but they’re proud, and the campaign is exciting but still a relatively humble, egalitarian process.

Of course, that process is run by men–and men who mean business.  And that is just one part of how there is something creepy, even downright ugly about the photographs, as you can begin to see with this shot from North Charleston.  This is not a welcoming image, but rather something much closer to a portrait of white resistance.  The photographs are astonishingly homogenous, and it becomes clear that the world of the Republican primary is a black and white world–and the primary process one that is for whites only.

Whatever his intentions, Ommanney has brilliantly captured how the GOP is trying with all its might to turn back the clock.  Against the reality of a multiracial, multicultural, pluralistic civil society and an African-American president, they want to make the present look as much as possible like the past.  That past ideal may be the ruinous economic policies of the last Bush presidency or the vicious social order recently illustrated in The Help, but it’s always a past that most Americans today want to leave far behind. Indeed, we can look to a photograph form another primary campaign in South Carolina to see just what a difference there is between the new America and the old.

Ommanney’s images do more as well.  There can be some reassurance in the thought that politics may have changed less than many pundits suppose.  Of course, the South is now a Republican stronghold rather than Democrat, the primary campaigns probably are financed more than ever before by a small number of wealthy donors, the media saturation is complete, and the struggle for the soul of the nation is as difficult as ever, but the process still is democratic, demanding, unpredictable, and revealing.  History may be more than a reactionary political vision or an artistic device, but rather something that is being lived and moved forward, however slowly and painfully, year by year, day by day.


SIght Gag: Jurassic Pac

Credit: Bill Day

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.


This Storm is What We Call Progress

This Storm is What We Call Progress

Ori Gersht

Imperial War Museum, London

25 January – April 2012

Opening in the week the UK marks Holocaust Memorial day, This Storm is What We Call Progress is a significant new exhibition of work by Ori Gersht, co-curated by Photoworks Head of Programme, Celia Davies. This exhibition, Gersht’s first major UK museum show, presents new photographs alongside two recent filmworks each reflecting personal experiences shaped by the Second World War.
Will You Dance For Me is a film depicting an 85-year-old dancer, Yehudit Arnon, rocking back and forth in a chair as she recalls her experiences as a young woman in Auschwitz. Her punishment for refusing to dance at an SS officer’s party was to stand barefoot in the snow, and she pledged that if she survived she would dedicate her life to dance. The film explores ideas about time, memory and movement. Towards the end of the piece, the elderly Yehudit begins to dance in her rocking chair; although her movement suggests she is suffering, Gersht’s film captures her spirit of defiance. This work was developed by Gersht in association with Photoworks.
The two-screen film Evaders explores the mountainous path of the Lister Route, used by many to escape Nazi-occupied France. The film references the ill-fated journey of Jewish writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin who fled Nazi persecution along this route, and whose own words give the exhibition its title. When Benjamin arrived at the Spanish border he found it closed and, distraught, he committed suicide. The border was re-opened the following day. Strongly referencing Benjamin’s texts, Gersht raises questions about history and progress. He uses the writer’s story and struggle with this dramatic environment as a means to explore ideas of transition and of physical, cultural and psychological borders.
Finally, Gersht’s photographic work Chasing Good Fortune results from the artist’s recent journey to Japan and examines the shifting symbolism of cherry blossoms. Initially linked to Buddhist concepts of renewal, the blossoms came to stand for Kamikaze soldiers during the Second World War. The photographs were taken at memorials to the Kamikaze, others at Hiroshima where the trees grow in nuclear contaminated soil. Many were taken with a digital camera at night and as a result of low light conditions, they often have a strange, fragmented quality, raising questions about the nature of their medium.
Ori Gersht says: “Scars created by wars on our collective and personal memories are at the essence of my practice. In my work I often explore the dialectics of destruction and creation, and the relationships between violence and aesthetics. Showing at IWM London felt like a unique opportunity to position my work in the context of this remarkable institution that reflects on wars, while attempting to draw a careful line between historic heritage and the horrific nature of violence.”
Kathleen Palmer, Head of Art at IWM London, says: “This is the first time that any of these works have been shown in the UK and since so much of Ori’s work deals with conflict, it’s fitting that his first major UK museum show should be here at IWM London. The films and photographs in This Storm Is What We Call Progress each pose powerful questions about memory and history which will stimulate contemplation and debate among our visitors.”


The Shame of Survival

The VA reports that 18 veterans commit suicide every day.  And last week the U.S. Army reported that the suicide rate among active duty soldiers has risen from 9.6 per 100,000 in 2005 to 24.1 per 100,000 in 2011. The number of attempted suicides is astronomically higher still and all out of proportion with the suicide rate among the civilian population.  Reports of all of this leak out from time to time, of course, but the tendency is to make the problem abstract by focusing on the aggregate and not so much on the individuals.  The numbers underscore the sheer magnitude of the problem, but at the same time they make it almost impossible to imagine the individual trauma … or perhaps the better word here would be “envision.”  And because the real effects of the problem are harder to see in the abstract, they are also easier to be blind to.  We are not inclined to quote totalitarians in the affirmative here at NCN, but Josef Stalin’s characterization of such situations is much to the point, “[o]ne death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.”  The situation is thus really something of a catastrophe: a problem that we don’t appear to know how to solve (assuming we exclude the obvious and refuse to eliminate the root cause, which is sending our young men and women to fight  such wars in the first place) and yet one that is so large and so present that the logic of its representation encourages us to acknowledge and ignore it simultaneously.

A large part of the difficulty is that it is virtually impossible to get photographs of actual suicides and one would surely have to challenge the ethics of taking such photographs if one could do so. And yet it is not sufficient to turn a blind eye to the situation.  A slideshow at the Denver Post titled “Welcome Home” is much to the point in this regard as it invites us to see into the life and mind of at least one contemporary war veteran and his struggles with readjusting to the civilian world.  Part of the story conveyed by the slideshow is the all too conventional tale  that the veteran’s return home is experienced as altogether lonely and alienating, and in any case anything but welcoming.  That narrative is no less true for being conventional, but the photograph above signals a second, more poignant and even more troubling story as well. Tattooed with what appears to be the face of death—a marking which it will turn out is probably not incidental—the wrist belongs to Brian Scott Ostrom, an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp’s Second Reconnaissance Battalion who served two tours of duty in Iraq.  Ostrom did not commit suicide, but as the fresh stitches that mark his wrist indicate, he made a serious attempt at doing so.  In fact, it was his second such attempt.  The question, of course, is why?

Like so many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ostrom suffers from PTSD, a psychological disorder that manifests itself in panic attacks and fits of rage that often lead to physical violence.  Frequently that violence is directed outwards at other people or physical objects, but just as often it is directed inward at an intractable guilt that simply never goes away—and, of course, that cannot be seen. Part of that guilt is a result of having voluntarily participated in a troglodyte world in which all empathy for the other is evacuated, a world in which there is no difference between doing’s one’s job and behaving in the most brutal ways imaginable … and yet, in Ostrom’s own words, not feeling bad for “anything I did over there,” but “for what I didn’t do.”

The words are as cryptic as is the face of death on Ostrom’s wrist.  But both take on an eerie and troubling significance when we recall something he said earlier in his narrative, reflecting on his PTSD, “I think it comes from the fact that I survived.  That wasn’t my plan.  It’s an honor to die for your country, but I made it home.”  And then this, “Every one of us has a suicide plan.  We all know how to kill, and we all have a plan to kill ourselves.”  What he didn’t do was to die for his country.  The words are as hard to hear as the photograph above is to look at.

But look at it we must, for in its own way it illustrates the problem faced by our returning war veterans writ large—a point emphasized by the fact that the hand itself is disembodied; it could belong to Ostrom (as it does) but it could belong to any of the thousands of returning veterans (or for that matter to those who might be inducted to fight in future wars):  Bred to kill and marked by death, our warriors are assimilated into a topsy-turvy world in which survival is a sign of failure, and doing one’s job well results in dishonor.  And there does not seem to be any way out except for one.   Perhaps the only wonder is that the suicide rate amongst our veterans is as low as it is.

Photo Credit: Craig F Walker/Denver Post.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Taking the Long View in Disaster Photos

Scientific imaging plays a limited role in photojournalism, but a role nonetheless.  X-rays, ultrasonic images, brain scans, electron microscopy, nanotechnologies, and other marvels reveal the many worlds underneath the surface of things, while telescopes peer ever more cannily into deep space.  So it is that you might wonder what is being show in this photo which was released last week.  Protoplasm?  A virus? A lesion?  Neural excitation for the smell of loam?

Or perhaps a satellite photograph of Isola del Giglio and the cruise ship Costa Concordia.  The ship is the bright smudge in the lower right quadrant, and the small bright spots  below it are other craft.  The photo was taken by the Italian Space Agency (A.S.I.).  (Those who like to sneer at Europe might want to ponder that concept while chewing on their freedom fries.)  Although I don’t want to do anything to diminish the suffering and other costs associated with the disaster, this photo nonetheless provides an object lesson in the limitations of seeing everything to human scale.

Even though I knew I was looking at photos about the ship running aground, I couldn’t help but see this image as something microscopic.  It looked too much like a scrap of the cellular world, or perhaps some bit of flotsam in a laboratory–“Scientists develop artificial skin,” or something like that.  And when I realized I was seeing a topographical image, it seemed more like a living thing that a promontory of rock.  And although a dot on the map and miniscule in comparison to other landforms, it dwarfs the ship, which then seems to be something less than a piece of lint in the natural order of things, which it is.  The image evokes an enormous, living planet, itself part of a cosmos that flows endlessly inward and outward.  Human life is part of that mystery but also microscopic within that outer world.

Perceptions of magnitude have a highly elastic quality within human consciousness.  Events can loom large and then whoosh back to the vanishing point is a second.  You are furious with a family member–until you learn the terrible news, and then everything changes.  The school board election is a disaster, until the phone rings late in the night.  The deficit is a national crisis, until tomorrow when it disappears from view.  Pain is real no matter what, but those of us watching at a distance have an opportunity to think about what we consider important.

But let’s not get too serious, either.  Here’s another satellite image, but one that transports us into the context of surrealism.  The ship is visible as a ship but cockeyed, laying on its side, and looking as if it is floating in space.  The land form is becoming more familiar as well and less attractive for that: lumpy structures clutter the terrain while any sense of of the whole has been obliterated.  The ship dominates the scene, but as if it were a toy or a dream.  The vessel’s importance is implied but also undermined.  Again, we are left to ask, well, what really should be important here?

I think that it is precisely because humanity is so small in the great scheme of things that we should be particularly attentive to caring for one another and otherwise living well together.  You may come to another conclusion, and that is your business.  Just don’t think that the difference is as big as it appears at ground level.

Photograph by ASI/Associated Press and DigitalGlobe/Reuters.  These and other photos of the wreck are at Alan Taylor’s In Focus photoblog at The Atlantic; there is some overlap with the archive of the same day at The Big Picture.


Sight Gag: The New Republican Strategy

Credit: Stuart Carlson

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.



Prison Photography Exhibition: “Cruel and Unusual”

February 18-April 1, 2012

Noorderlicht Gallery

The Netherlands

Drawing on the work of different photographers, Cruel and Unusual illuminates various aspects of the prison system and the ways it has been depicted in photography: social justice, crime and punishment, the boundaries of liberty.  The exhibition is curated by Pete Brook and Hester Keijser.

Pete is the author of the Prison Photography blog, and we’ve featured the recent Kickstarter/Creative Commons project where he took ‘Prison Photography’ on the Road.  “Cruel and Unusual” distills some of that work and other contributions as well.  You can read about how the project developed here.  Pete’s blog is a contribution to both social justice and photography, and he continues to work at finding the right means to raise awareness regarding the US incarceration complex.  “Cruel and Unusual” will provide another occasion to consider how the carceral system condemns those within and without, and how photography can reveal and build relationships where before there was only confinement, within and without.

Photograph by Deborah Luster: Pamela Winfield, Easter Bunny, Children’s Visiting Day, Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, St. Gabriel, Louisiana.


Flying Too Close to the Sun

The Costa Concordia is a floating resort. Larger than the Titanic by nearly seventy feet, it boasts 1,500 cabins, one third of which have private balconies, the world’s largest fitness center at sea (65,000 square feet), five restaurants (two of which require reservations), thirteen bars (in addition to cigar and cognac bars), a three level theater, a casino, a discotheque, a Grand Prix race simulator, an internet café, and much, much more.  It houses 4,300 passengers and an additional 1,100 crew members—that’s one crew member for every four passengers—on seventeen decks.  It is valued at just less than $600 million dollars.  And while we would probably not consider it a technological marvel in the late modern world, as we would have considered the Titanic or the Hindenburg in an earlier era, it is nevertheless something of a marvel, its sheer magnitude making it larger than life.

Of course, the photograph above doesn’t quite do it justice. Foundered on a rock off of the coast of Tuscany near the island of Giglio that left a 160 foot gash in its hull and listing to the starboard side, the marvel and magnitude of the Costa Concordia are somewhat diminished. The actual cause of the grounding has yet to be finally decided, though there is no evidence of bad weather or other emergency conditions that would have required bringing the ship this close to the coast line.

It is both a catastrophe and a tragedy. As of this writing the death toll rests at eleven with twenty or so others still unaccounted for.  And as with the mythological Icarus, the disaster is a result of sheer hubris.  In the days ahead the focus will no doubt be on the captain’s unauthorized deviation from the planned course and his lack of good sense animated by assumptions of unfounded pride in either his skills as a sailor or in the capacity of the ship. Or perhaps we will learn that he was intoxicated or otherwise distracted.  We are already hearing that much of the problem was due to the fact that passengers failed to participate in muster drills, as if the disaster was their fault.  In any case, “human error” will no doubt bear the weight of the burden.  And to be fair, a good measure of this may well be warranted.   But of course the hubris here extends beyond the human failings of the captain or the passengers and extends to a society that places its unfettered faith in its technological ability to master nature.

Elsewhere we refer to this faith as “modernity’s gamble”—the wager that the potential for catastrophic risks assumed by a technology-intensive society will be avoided by continuing progress.  Modernity’s gamble is most apparent in the building of airplanes and rockets designed to conquer the skies, or in nuclear power plants intended to free us from our reliance on fossil fuels, but it is no less relevant to things such as online banking and commerce, where the risk to economic catastrophe is no less disastrous—or likely.  It may be that we are passed the point that we can refuse modernity’s gamble, but surely we need to learn to respect it and to avoid challenging the odds for frivolous purposes. That here the wager was lost in a disaster involving a technologically advanced and sophisticated playground for the upper classes only underscores the hubris of a society that cares little for how it employs its resources and even less for how it respects its environment.

 The photograph above is telling in this regard, as it contrasts the  failure of an overextended and idealized technological mastery of nature (for fun and profit!) with the sustainable houses and buildings that occupy the coastline.  A storm could come along that wipes out the village, no doubt, but it wasn’t an unpredictable weather event that led to the disaster here.  It was the failure to respect modernity’s gamble.  And while those who built the village appear to have respected the natural crag of the outcropping, preserving it as a defense against the sea and the wind, but not trying to overcome it, those sailing the Concordia did not respect it, running aground in the process.  As Don Quixote’s sidekick Pancho reminds him, “whether the stone hits the bottle or the bottle hits the stone … its always bad for the bottle.” And so here, the ship once visually magnificent, is humbled; indeed, in its own way it appears to have settled into a fetal position of total resignation.  It is perhaps a subtle irony that the ship’s name—referring to the state or condition of agreement or harmony—is betrayed by the scene depicted in the photograph in which harmony rests with the village and not with the trappings of an unbounded hubris.

Photo Credit: Remo Casilli/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Aristocratic Dreams

Fashion Week will be with us for months.  The Milan show starts out low key by featuring the men. Even on the runway, menswear is far more restrained than the over-the-top experimentation that is typical at the women’s shows.  Like each of the big shows, however, some of the designers provide more than a glimpse of next year’s styles; instead, they project a vision of what society could become.  What’s interesting about the Milan show this winter is that apparently the future is going to look a lot like the 19th century.

Welcome to the Congress of Berlin. I’d say that aristocrats never looked so good, except that looking good is one of the few things that aristocrats actually do.  Here we have fashion models and–are you ready for a bold, even stunning innovation?–movie actors dressed in Prada’s costumes.  Gary Oldman leads the procession, as if having a real celebrity somehow lent some cachet to the historical fantasy.  The substitution of actor for model makes sense, in a way, as celebrities as a class are the late modern world’s aristocrats, and have the morals to prove it.

Bourgeois morality would not merit a sneer in this crowd, which looks like a melange of grand eminences, minor nobles, and retainers, all of them bound by deeply intertwined habits of calculation, deference, hauteur, indebtedness, and entitlement, with perhaps a dose of inbreeding thrown in.  Other models stand in the wings like servants let in for the show, while the focus is on Oldman’s rigorous control of his performance as he approaches some unseen ceremonial encounter.

Thus, one class would dominate the public space, legitimized by lavish performance while hoarding the society’s resources behind the scenes.  Not quite where the West is today, but not very far from where it was either.  The issue is not simply the distribution of wealth upward while making class mobility ever more unlikely, although that is happening, but also a shift in mentalities.  When respect for the social contract of democratic society is displaced by neoliberalism’s promotion of harsh inequalities that become permanent advantages, the 21st century will come to look more and more like the 19th.

On the runway, it’s just a fantasy, here for a few days and then forgotten.  But it is because the fashion shows are so explicitly aesthetic and so obviously set apart from the practical world that they can at times leap across the barrier between past and future.  What results, if we are willing to take the leap, is an act of political imagination.  And the potential future is not always one you would discuss in a political science class.

Nor is it entirely imaginative.  After looking at fashion or art or photography to discern potential worlds, the next step is to see how those alternatives may already be available in the present.  So, if you can’t be an aristocrat, you might think about what you could do to get by in their world.

Jobs may be opening up sooner than we think.

Photographs by Giuseppe Aresu/Associated Press and Erik De Castro/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.  The New York Times used the lead photo with this report on the show, which confirms that my read is not off the mark, unfortunately.

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Sight Gag: The GOP Ideal Candidate

Credit: Nedverse

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.