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. . . .

April 30th, 2012

Greece and the Two Faces of Austerity

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

It seems that Greece has become the poster child for social democracy–except that the posters are being made by those who want to dismantle it.  We Must Not Become Like Greece, conservative papers say as they preach the virtues of austerity.  Of course, they don’t mean that we should beware profligate private sector investments and other dangers of global finance.   No, no, the problems all stem from large public sector commitments backed by the foolish belief that government’s first priority should be providing for the general welfare.  Instead, the road to prosperity should be one that separates winners and losers. Thus, Greece is being pushed to get on the right path, and it seems that the whole world is watching.

He walks along the street in Athens dutifully, a picture of anxious, unhappy resolution.  The rumpled clothes don’t quite match the hard briefcase, as if he’s going back to the office on what should be his day off.  He looks like austerity in motion: “I will work harder, damn it, I will work harder, and I will spend less.”  Or is it, “If I work harder for fewer benefits, I might keep my job”?  Or “If I try again, I might get a job, any job, maybe”?  In any case, he is just passing through while the great, green eye stares impassively.  Two public arts have fused perfectly here: the mural remains unchanged on the urban wall while the camera can capture how the space changes moment by moment.  A man who might have seemed self-contained now appears to be small and vulnerable and perhaps disposable.  An image that might have seemed idiosyncratic now can symbolize the terrible gaze of godlike global institutions.

A man tries to get through the day but now is weighted with an additional burden: he has become an object to be viewed, scrutinized, and judged.  In that context, the mural’s Escape key is particularly troubling, as the otherwise human visage becomes at best a cyborg and more likely a soft illusion masking a hard technocratic regime.  One might hit the button, perhaps even as an act of defiance, but all that does is reset the system, not destroy it, and it will blink on again just as relentlessly and devoid of compassion as before.

One eye mirrors another, just as camera mirrors computer, and so the viewer reproduces the gaze emanating from the wall.   All eyes are on Greece.  Caught in the glare of transparency, it is exposed to the full force of market logics.   Enlisted as part of a neoliberal public demanding economization over all other values, the spectator is unwittingly complicit in an act of ritual humiliation at the alter of profit.

This is the first face of austerity: the face of the global financial system that stares and judges and punishes.  It is all eye, a single instrument of enormous power, and one that can stare unblinking at the storm that we call progress.  But there is another face as well.

This one is in Kalamatta.  It is a face of pain and rage.  These emotions have no one home, and so this image could be of the man’s enemy as it is about to devour him, or it could be ventriloquizing all that is pent up within him ready to explode as he is being beaten down by economic hardship.  He could be merely thinking idle thoughts on a cigarette break, and unaware of how close he is to destruction; or he could be finally and willingly sinking down into that dark bright place where everything changes because there is nothing more to lose.  Crouched as if waiting for the assault, his hoodie partially shrouding his face, he could be prey or predator.   Either way, we are seeing the other face of austerity: the face of the suffering and violence that is its gift to the world.

Of course, Greece had problems enough of its own making–stagnation and cronyism not least among them–and some reform certainly is needed.  But the artificial demands and phoney lessons now being promoted are more than simply mistaken and dangerous models for working out of the global recession.  By demanding austerity, one can literally lose sight of what constitutes prosperity. As The Economist recently reported when surveying five decades of economic convergence: “In fact, most countries that were middle income in 1960 remained so in 2008 . . . Only 13 countries escaped this middle-income trap, becoming high-income economies in 2008 . . . One of these success stories, it should not be forgotten, was Greece.”

Whatever the face of austerity, it remains a very open question whether anyone is really seeing Greece: what it is, where it is, how it got there, and how it can continue to prosper.  In fact, those questions could well be applied to any country.  Unless economic policies are crafted with an eye to specific histories of successful public and private sector cooperation, and with concern for both global markets and local consequences, too many countries might end up wishing they were like Greece.

Photographs by Cathal McNaughton/Reuters and Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP-Getty Images.

April 29th, 2012

Sight Gag: Class Warfare Hustle

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Credit: connect the dots usa

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.

April 27th, 2012

Exhibition: World War II Veterans

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

Jonathan Alpeyrie
World War II Veterans

Anastasia Photo

166 Orchard St.
New York, NY 10002
212-677-9725

April 11–May 12, 2012

Anastasia Photo is pleased to present World War II Veterans, featuring photographs by Jonathan Alpeyrie.  The exhibition features 210 rich portraits of veterans from 61 nations.

Anastasia-Photo specializes in documentary photography and photojournalism. The gallery also serves as a center for discussion and portfolio review. To connect these photographic images and the events they depict, Anastasia Photo endows each exhibition with a related, on-site, philanthropic organization. This exhibition supports Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America <http://www.iava.org/>.

Gallery Hours:
Wednesday–Sunday, 11:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.

April 25th, 2012

The Public Mirror

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public

The camera, we say, shows us the world it is pointed at.  A mechanical representation of the world, it nevertheless presumes a degree of agency in the assumption that the camera lens fragments and frames the world, and someone has done the pointing.  In this sense, it is an art.  The mirror, however, presumes an enhanced degree of objectivity and a  relative degree of passivity inasmuch as it literally reflects back everything within its purview. Lacking any obvious agency it is assumed to be fundamentally inartistic and thus arguably more “authentic.”   Or at least that’s one theory of the relationship between the gazes of the camera’s lens and the mirror.  But what happens when we photograph the mirror’s gaze?

Photographs of the mirror’s gaze are not uncommon and they are offer provocative examples of what W.J.T. Mitchell calls “showing seeing,” a pedagogical strategy for challenging the boundaries between nature and art, or what we might call the “real” and the “image.”  The two photographs below are a case in point.

This first image is of Palestinians “reflected in mirrors as they sat outside a store in Gaza City.”

The mirrors have been affixed to a wall, one set within an octagonal frame, the other a simple shard of glass.  Importantly, they are triangulated and connected to one another by what appears to be a broken picture frame, its matted image slipping out of sight.  The difference between mirror and photograph are thus accented; mirrors can be framed, just like photographs, but even when the mirror’s frame is broken or missing, as with the shard of glass, it continues to relentlessly reflect its gaze back to the viewer.  But even as the difference is underscored it is effaced, for what the photograph we are looking at shows is how the mirror is a medium for representing social relationality, framed by its very placement on a wall in a public place.  Put differently, mirrors—like photographs—are an artifice by which we take account of our self presentation to the world, and that abides whether the mirror is mounted in our private hallway or in the agora of public relations.

The point is made somewhat differently in this second image of people “reflected at a shopping center in downtown Tokyo.”

Here, the photograph displays the mirrors reflections of a shopping center as a fragmented panorama of people coming and going in every which way.  Because the glass is cut in a variety of geometric forms that are then welded together at odd different angles, the reflection is simultaneously real and imaginary.  Each fragment (or shard?) is accurate in its representation, but the articulation of those fragments leaves us with a scene that is chaotic if not altogether incoherent.  And so, once again, the viewer is confronted with the artificial—and hence artistic—representation of the mirror’s gaze.  And once again, the very public location of the mirrors puts us in position to take account of ourselves as social beings.

That social self in these two images seems to be very different, and there is no doubt that that difference bears careful consideration.  But the bigger point here is how these photographs of the mirror’s gaze remind us of the similarities between cameras and mirrors and the ways in which they function as artistic, reflexive spaces for monitoring ourselves, whether in private or in public.

Photo Credits: Mohammed Salem/Reuters; Koji Sashahara/AP

April 23rd, 2012

The Day After Earth Day

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Sunday was Earth Day 2012, and I spent part of the day in my garden.  If I had to live off of that garden, I’d die.  Fortunately, environmentalism is well past the back-to-the-land movements of the 1960s (or was it the 70s?).  Everyone recognizes that environmentally sound practices depend on complex networks of social interaction and economic interdependency.  Of course, unsustainable use of the planet also depends on vast networks of production and distribution, so negotiations can be complicated.  One way that humans deal with complicated realities is to turn to myth; a related option is to turn to art.  Garry Winogrand did both at once in this photograph:

Not your typical Earth Day image, but it was taken in 1964.  Those who know the 1976 film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, might wonder whether the photo inspired the desert scenes on the plant Anthea, which was suffering from a catastrophic drought.  Perhaps not, but the sci-fi reference seems apt anyway.  Winogrand has brilliantly captured American cultural modernism at one of its most unworldly moments.  Nor is the catastrophic implication entirely absent, as the photo was taken at the White Sands National Monument, which is not far from the White Sands missile range.

But I digress.  Of all that is remarkable about this image, I am most captivated by the contrast between the comprehensively barren landscape and the sense of sublime possibility extending over the horizon.  Instead of seeing the white desolation as the last place, the end of the line, a dead zone in which they could not possibly live, it has become instead a launch pad to another world.  Everything is pointed or aligned toward the vanishing point, while mother and son are already walking forward as if entranced, caught up in something like the narcosis of the deep.  The structure on the right could be a second vehicle, ready to hover and then glide through the desert air into the beckoning atmosphere.  The image captures how modernism is always about the future–a mythic current that can carry people to the ends of the earth and beyond, but also one that can make any environment no more or less than a place for moving on.  No matter how empty the place, no matter that one day a car will use up the last drop of gas on earth, the belief persists that humanity will keep moving forward, and that fuel-intensive technologies will have done no worse than to bring us to the point of transcendence.

Winogrand need not have thought of any of that when he took the photo, but his artistry nonetheless reveals how modernism is suffused with its own mythic yearning, an attitude that both motivates and rationalizes driving well past sustainable resource use.  Of course, one must give complexity its due, as well as acknowledge how many benefits have come from moving beyond perceived limitations–benefits ranging from this computer to lifting millions out of perennial poverty.  But other attitudes are needed as well, for prudential use of the planet will only come from balancing different perspectives.

Another artist is at work here.  Andres Amador creates giant sand sculptures on beaches.  Although it looks inked, he uses only a rake.  The beautiful designs suggest a deep correspondence of art and nature, technique and flow united in the universal movements of earth, air, water, fire, planets and stars, seashells and galaxies.  Not unlike scientific modernism, one might say, but with a difference.  The painstakingly crafted design that you see was intentionally created during low tide.  The artist labored knowing all the while that everything would be washed away, returning to the natural ebb and flow of the planet itself without human intervention.

There is Earth Day with all its good intentions and images of a better, greener life, and then there is the day after, when most people return to largely unabated, unsustainable consumption of non-renewable resources accompanied by toxic byproducts.  The question is not how are we going to stop doing that today–our current practices were determined some time ago and we have next to no choice otherwise.  No, the question is what is going to be done today and tomorrow that will shape what people are doing years from now.  The answer may depend on facing what artists in varied media have revealed.  One option is to see the arid plains and polluted waters as just another stepping off place to a dazzling future somewhere over the horizon.  Another is to realize that everything will revert to nature eventually no matter what, such that beauty and longevity alike depend on what we do in the meantime.

Photographs by Garry Winogrand (Estate of Garry Winogrand and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco) and Andres Amador, Ocean Beach, San Fransisco.

 

April 22nd, 2012

Sight Gag: European Geography 101

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Credit: Punditkitchen.com

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.

April 20th, 2012

Exhibition on the Political Image

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

Lüski | Azoulay | Efrat & Brutmann

STUK kunstencentrum, Naamsestraat 96, Leuven, Belgium
April 17 > June 3 2012
An exhibition featuring work by
Aïm Deüelle Lüski
Ariella Azoulay
Eitan Efrat & Sirah Foighel Brutmann

This exhibition brings together works by Israeli artists and a curator of different generations. They all reflect on the state of photography and the political image.

Since the mid-1970s, Aïm Deüelle Lüski has invented a variety of cameras, each conceived especially for a particular phenomenon or event to be photographed at a specific historical moment. His work is aimed at deconstructing the vertical structure of photography and generating different ways of thinking about the photographic encounter. Ariella Azoulay presents Potential History, a series of photos, texts and a video on the history of Israel/Palestine. This work articulates a new way to relate to history through what Azoulay calls “potential history”. These parts of te exhibition are curated by Ariella Azoulay. STUK also presents Eitan Efrat and Sirah Foighel Brutmanns Printed Matter, a film that displays the conflation of private lives and contemporary geopolitics. Brutmann’s father André was a freelance press photographer who captured images of his wife and children on the same film rolls he used to document the Israel-Palestine conflict.

opening | Tu 17 Apr • 20:00
open | We & Th 14:00-21:00, Fr – Su 14:00-18:00
closed on Sa 26 & Su 27 May

On Tuesday April 17, 18h30, STUK and the Departments of Arts Sciences and Philosophy of KU Leuven present a lecture by Ariella Azoulay and Aïm Deüelle Lüski. Participants can also join in for the opening reception afterwards.  For more information contact the STUK Arts Center, info@stuk.be.

April 18th, 2012

Never One Photo, Never-Ending War

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

All art relies on conventions and public arts especially so.  Shared assumptions and known patterns are necessary for artists and audiences to connect at all, while they also provide a basis both for more nuanced communication and for innovation.  Mass audiences are particularly dependent on conventional forms for the obvious reason that they have to span enormous differences in education, experience, and perspective.  Whether watching TV, going to the movies, reading a who done it, or looking at the photographs in the newspaper, you can expect to see things you’ve already seen many times before.  This character, that plot, another government official or another demonstrator.  Been there, done that, but what else is there to do?  Even so, those writing the stories and taking the pictures find a way to capture the event–and the audience–to articulate some important idea or emotion that can draw people together.

A soldier and his wife share a last tender moment before he ships out for a year long deployment in Afghanistan.  I don’t have to do a close analysis of this photo: you know what it means.  Heartbreakingly tender, her caress will not be felt again for a long time–if ever.  Her hands have to slip away, as if gravity itself were working against them, and she will know only emptiness in their place.  The delicate, intelligent tracery of her fingers can’t protect the head and neck that already seem exposed, vulnerable, all too susceptible to the unexpected.  As private life gives way to public service, coupling can be undone.  Thus, the image is both ideological and critical: citizenship is militarized and heteronormative while family and state mutually care for one another, but everything shared might be sundered and happiness lost to another sacrifice for a purpose that, like their faces, remains unknown.

The departure of the troops is a stock event within the conventional narrative of military service.  (That narrative runs visually from the recruiting poster to the war memorial, but that’s a topic for another day.)  Likewise, the kiss is a familiar part of private life, from the first kiss to the wedding kiss and beyond.  Here the photographer has artfully captured the pathos of a private moment in a necessarily public space, and the scene is both instantly recognizable and yet resonant with emotion.  Just like this photograph from 2007:

Let me be very clear: I am not criticizing either photographer.  The later photo very likely was taken with no knowledge of the first, and both are beautiful works of public art.  Each evokes the same pathos, relays the same obligations and ideologies, exposes the same conflicts and contradictions, and invites the viewer to a range of responses from direct identification to critical reflection.  A few differences remain, but that is not my point.  Instead, the pairing reveals two facts of public life: There is never only one photo, and this war has gone on too damn long.

The first point is simple, but bears repeating (one might say).  There is never one photo, because any photo is in part a repetition of prior images.  That’s why you can recognize it and respond to it reliably.  Despite the ability of the photograph to record a unique conjunction of time and space, photojournalism remains performative: that is, it displays patterned behavior and engages people in social relationships.  Its purpose is not singularity or even artistic uniqueness, but rather communication, which will have to rely on things taken for granted and held in common.  Indeed, to appreciate the photographer’s skill, one has to first understand how difficult it is to even reproduce the convention well, much less find some variation on a theme to achieve a distinctive capacity for thought, feeling, and connection.  Photography is repetitive because life itself is repetitive, and any cultural or political work has to begin there.

But not all patterns are the same.  There is a kiss, and then there might be a lifetime together.  There is war, and then there is endless war.  One photo is like another five years later because one deployment is like another five years later.  Five years of lives shattered and treasure lost forever, and for what?   Some things, it seems, never change.

Photographs by Bill Tiernan/The Virginian-Pilot/Associated Press and Mike Morones/Associated Press.  For another variant, see this post.

April 16th, 2012

The In/visible Costs of War

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

Among the most tragic costs of war are surely the suicides of veterans who appear to have returned home safely from the battle front, often without any visible injuries, only to be haunted by ghosts that make life unlivable.  We have commented on the problem in the past, but the magnitude of the problem was underscored yesterday by Nicholas Kristoff who noted that “[for] every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying of their own hands.”  You have to linger over that last sentence to let it sink in.

The sheer numbers are simply stunning:  one veteran suicide every 80 minutes, more than 6,500 per year or 24.1 per 100,000 (a ratio that is larger by more than a multiple of two for the general population which hovers around 11 per 100,000).  As Kristoff reminds us, the annual rate of veteran suicides is larger than the total number of U.S. military killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.  The tragedy, of course, is not just the loss of life, though that is tragic enough, but that so much of such loss could be avoided with therapy that is simply not available or forthcoming.  But even demands for access to more and adequate medical and psychological treatment, as true as they are, miss an important point:  the problem is in large measure a function of its in/visibility.

To mark a problem as in/visible is to notice the sense in which a phenomenon is simultaneously (and paradoxically) visible and invisible, available to sight but unseeable.  Sometimes it is a function of how the extraordinary is normalized, and sometimes it is a function of how the conventions of vision—of seeing and being seen—direct (or misdirect) our attention. The Ashley Gilbertson photograph that accompanied Kristoff’s editorial is much to the point.  The image is of a mother who lost a son to suicide, though it is not officially recognized as such by Veteran services, who treat the death as an accidental drug overdose.  That they could not see—or chose not to see—the death as a suicide is unclear.  What is clear is the mother’s grief as she struggles to maintain physical contact with her absent son by connecting with his things, including his shirt which retains his scent.  Her grief is tangible, made all the more so by the stark contrast of black and white tones of the image and the oblique  angle that simultaneously marks the viewer as a spectator even as it pulls him/her into the scene, and it is impossible not to empathize with this mother’s pain.  But of course, there is nothing in the photograph that distinguishes her pain from that of any other mother who has lost a child to war, whether from a sniper’s bullet or an IED.  And yet her grief and agony are different, which is not to say that it is more or less than that of others; but that difference, however intuitive, however palpable, however visible, cannot be seen.  And therein lies the problem.

Veteran suicides are not something that we don’t know about.  The numbers have been reported in the past.  And individual cases have been remarked upon from time to time.  And yet the problem itself lingers in a nether world of the in/visible, a region of consciousness that makes it difficult to recognize it as a cost of war that requires not just our empathy, but our active attention.

Photo Credit: Ashley Gilbertson/VII

April 15th, 2012

Sight Gag: If Only It Were Funny

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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.

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