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. . . .

June 17th, 2012

NCN Turns 5

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

 

And we’re no smarter for it.  Another year is history, however, and so once again it is a time to say “Thanks” and to take stock.  Thanks to all our readers, and not least to those who comment on the posts.  If anyone would like to give us any advice about the blog itself, now is a good time to do it.  We can’t say we’ll follow that advice, especially given our limited resources, but it always is appreciated and sometimes one thing can lead to another.  You can comment below or email us at rhariman@gmail.com and lucaites@indiana.edu.

We won’t be posting for a few weeks, but we will continue to read our mail and hope that you will return on July 9th as we start another year at NCN.

June 15th, 2012

Showcase: Kids, Life, Violence

Posted by Lucaites in photographer's showcase


Robert Gumpert’s “Take a Picture, Tell a Story” project is about as simple—and as complex—as its name, calling attention to the way in which the interaction between words and image amount to more than just the sum of their parts.  It is an extension of an earlier project called “Lost Promise,” documenting the closing of San Francisco County Jail #3.  The tale here is about Kimberly Waller, and it is part of the “Locked and Found” series, giving men and women incarcerated in the San Francisco County Jail an opportunity to  be seen and to be heard.  This post is tagged: kids, life, violence.

June 13th, 2012

The Frame’s The Thing

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

The woman in the photograph above is looking at an art installation called “Magic Ink” on display as part of an exhibit at London’s Hayward Gallery titled “Invisible Art—Art About the Unseen, 1957-2012.”  Interesting in its own right as perhaps a comment on the in/visibility of symmetry, what drew my attention to it is rather something of a personal conceit as it reminded me of my first visit to the Tate Gallery in 1986.

The Tate is one of the most popular modern art museums in the world (measured by annual attendance figures) and when I was there it was featuring a series of exhibits on various forms of neo-minimalist, pop art.  Everywhere one looked, the canvases, sculptures, and installations drew upon the ordinary objects of everyday life to pose radical challenges to our ways of seeing.  Leaving one exhibit hall and making my way to another I came across an empty hallway that had an empty, 4 X 6 foot gold embroidered frame hanging on a plain white  wall.

I was entranced and intrigued.  After looking at paintings of soup cans, and sculptures made from everyday trash, I was delighted by the museum’s playfulness as it sought to remind us of the conceptual importance of the frame for defining the artistic event.  For here we had an institutionally plain white wall  that otherwise would have been totally invisible made profoundly significant by the simple convention of locating it within and around a frame.  Indeed, I began to wonder if the frame framed the wall or if the wall framed the frame.   And more, I began to think about how the museum itself became something of a frame for all that was within its walls, lending artistic credibility to things that otherwise might not be seen as art at all, but rather as the simple, quotidian objects or random junk that it was.

There was a bench nearby and I sat on it for 10-15 minutes pondering the artistic genius of the “empty” frame and how it signified.  Just as I was about to get up to leave two custodians came along and unceremoniously removed the 4 X 6 foot frame from the wall, dumped it on a dirty and rusting dolly, and hauled it away. I was crushed, my ego altogether deflated as i recalled the words  often attributed to Freud, that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”  But the more I thought about it, that wasn’t quite right either, for here what had duped me into seeing the frame as a marker of invisibility was not just my own intellectual arrogance (though we should not discount that altogether) but the very fact that I was in a modern art museum featuring precisely the kind of art I thought I was seeing. Had I encountered this empty frame in a shopping mall or in a friend’s house I would in all likelihood have seen it for nothing more than an empty frame—if I had registered seen it at all. And so, in its own way, the lesson of the moment was all the more significant, for it helped me to recognize the complexity of framing: both how we bring our own frames to the world all of the time, and more, that where we see something is every bit as important as what we are actually looking at; indeed, it may well be that the where is even more important than the what in terms of “framing” meaning.

The point is perhaps not all that profound for those of us who live in a world that relies upon an advanced visual literacy, but even then it is no less significant for that fact, and certainly it is something we need to be reminded of from time to time.  For me, at any rate, the photograph above recalled the importance of the frame and the complexities of the ways in which it manages the tensions between the visible and the invisible, both what we see and what we choose not to see.

Photo Credit: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

June 11th, 2012

The Night Watch

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

There is something altogether haunting about this photograph.  Shot in the evening, it is illuminated by the starlight (and perhaps a bright moon) but animated by the green glow of night vision.  Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” was famous for its use of light and dark to suggest movement where we might otherwise imagine a static frame, but here we get natural and artificial light as it combines to suggest a lone and anonymous presence stuck in an altogether static frame in a scene where we might otherwise anticipate agency and movement.

To get the point contrast the image with the photograph of the Raising of Old Glory on Mt. Suribachi during World War II. There too the soldiers are anonymous, but their anonymity is masked by their collectivity; we may not know who they are individually, but they are working as a team to a common and coordinated purpose. And, of course, it is a clearly national purpose, as symbolized by their connection to and effort on behalf of the flag.  Here the soldier is an army of one and there are no markers of nationhood. Indeed, the only identifiable symbol in the photograph appears to be the top of a soda bottle (possibly a Coca Cola bottle, marked by the characteristic red cap, but there is no way of knowing for sure) which emerges from the bottom of the frame.  But surely this soldier does not serve and sacrifice in the name of sugared water.  Or at least one would hope that we are not fighting and dying in the name of commercial interests.  The bigger point, however, is that there does not seem to be any movement at all as the soldier is hunched over, motionless, immobilized as he appears to be gazing  trance-like into the past.  Once again, contrast this with the photograph from Iwo Jima, where the image not only captures the raising of the flag at the height of its extension  upwards, but also where the direction of such movement faces to the right of the frame, the more conventionally forward looking, future oriented direction.

According to the caption, this is a U.S. soldier sitting at an observation post in Afghanistan’s northeastern, Kunar Province.  We are not told what he is looking at, but Kunar is a largely mountainous area besot with muddy rivers and rock filled, craggy pathways that combine to make passage treacherous if not impossible and so it is not hard to imagine the landscape he is observing.  But what exactly he is looking for … that is hard to say.  The war in Afghanistan is, of course, the longest war in America’s history, and Kunar has been the site of some of the fiercest battles between U.S. troops and Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and various mujahideen, but even for all that it is not clear what has been gained or lost (except for human lives, American and Afghani alike; the displacement of millions of individuals; and a price tag conservatively estimated at 600 Billion dollars) by such engagements.  And yet, the photograph suggests, for all that we sit and watch.  Static.  Unmoving.  Transfixed, it seems, by an advanced technology that allows us to see into the dark even if it is unclear what we are looking for—or what exactly we should do if we find “it.”

What makes the photograph haunting is perhaps how it functions as an eerie cipher for American involvement in Afghanistan writ large: individual, not collective; transfixed by a backward looking tunnel vision; and altogether immobile.  In its own way, it perhaps encapsulates the current war in a manner similar to how Raising the Flag on Mt. Suribachi symbolized an earlier war–only in reverse.

Photo Credit: Tim Wimbome/Reuters

June 10th, 2012

Sight Gag: Your Tax Dollars At Work

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Credit: PSI.web.org

 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.

June 8th, 2012

Exhibition: Liberty & Justice (for All)

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

Fovea is celebrating its 5 year anniversary with the exhibition:

Liberty and Justice (for All): A Global Photo Mosaic.

The exhibition includes photographs and personal narrative from 68 photographers from 22 countries.  It will be on view from June 9 through August 5, 2012, Fridays to Sundays, 12-6 pm, 143 Main Street, Beacon, New York.  More information is available here.

The exhibition is a tribute to Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, who were killed while covering the conflict in Libya last year.  Fovea is a volunteer-run 501(c)3 educational charity dedicated to promoting public understanding of world events and social issues through the works of photojournalism.

Photograph by Alex Masi from Bhopal, India, the site of the 1984 Union Carbide industrial disaster.

June 6th, 2012

The Transit of Venus–from Optic to Image

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Yesterday was an astronomical occasion known as the Transit of Venus, which refers to the passage of the planet between the sun and Earth.  The passage occurs infrequently (by human standards) and won’t happen again until 2117.  You may already have seen images of the small black dot outlined against the larger golden disk of the sun–100s of them are available at Google Image and they will be featured in many slide shows today.

But you’ve seen that before–and not just during the transit of 2004–but in thousands of decorative designs in advertisements, on clothing and accessories, and throughout popular culture.  OK, the dot may not have been there, but smooth surfaces, solid colors, and abstract shapes were present, just as they are found throughout modern design.  Thus, a stock image of this relatively unique celestial event is already crafted according to a standard way of seeing–that is, according to the optic of modern design.  And in that optic, the world is already well under control and everything, including visual experience, has been made made manageable through processes of abstraction.

Perhaps that is why I prefer this image of the transit, which inverts many of the features of the modernist representation.

The sun appears to be the moon, and its power has been reduced further by the occluding clouds.  Likewise, the position of Venus seems less a matter of decoration and somehow almost as substantial as the sun itself, perhaps because it is continuous with the darkness surrounding and partially covering the sun.  The clean circular lines are the same, of course, but now they, too, are but cuts in the vast darkness rather than containers of light and movement.  Most important, the mood is darker, almost elegiac: the image activates deep, rich  emotions rather than sanitizing emotional response.  If the sun and planet are still somewhat abstracted–we see but shapes at a distance–that formalism is complicated by how they are covered, almost shrouded, by the clouds.  In place of timeless symmetries, we also see shifting atmospheric conditions.  In place of a visual spectacle, we are reminded that we see as through a glass, darkly.

We will never see the sun face to face, of course, but other images use other mirrors to get us close to its seething surface.  The image above is another shot of the transit, but now only the small planet is still a flat, uniform surface, while the enormous energies of the sun breach the surface of earlier abstractions.  Now Venus is precarious again, but not merely because of a difference in size.  As superheated gasses plume outward into space, Spaceship Venus becomes a vessel in constant peril.  It’s fine to contemplate another planet orbiting the sun in tandem with our own circuit through space, but now one can begin to see that the universe is a dangerous place.  Instead of formal unities, here you can begin to appreciate actual dangers.  Were we a minute closer to the sun, we wouldn’t be enjoying the view.

The last image is as crafted as the first, of course, but at least it is less familiar.  Each image contains an optic, but in some cases the image may challenge complacency.  The transit from optic to image is not from mediation to an authentic encounter or from a predetermined response to radical openness.  Likewise, each image and each way of seeing is valuable and particularly so in one setting or another.  But a transit is possible nonetheless, if only from an illusion of control to a sense of awe and gratitude.

Photographs by Bobby Yip/Reuters (2004), Adalberto Roque/AFP-Getty Images, and NASA/Reuters.

 

June 4th, 2012

Flying Through Photography’s Fourth Wall

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

I doubt that any title can quite capture the aesthetic intelligence contained in this photograph of an artwork by Arlés del Río at the 11th Havana Biennial.

I’ve referred to the fourth wall in order to highlight some of what the photographer has added to del Río’s remarkable installation.  The wall refers to the formal barrier between stage and audience in the theater, and by extension between the artwork and audience in any work of fiction.  The term is rarely applied to photography, which instead is assumed to either directly reproduce reality or immerse the spectator within visual experience.  By contrast, this photograph clearly discriminates a series of viewer positions in regard to both the artwork and the photograph: the direct, embodied, even imitative response; the more distant act of recording the event with a camera; and the still more distant act of viewing the photograph.  Each spectator is set out in a spatial array along the central axis–just off center right, back and further right, and then further back to center for your standpoint–and so you are oriented directly toward the art work but also zigzagging toward or away from it through these other viewers.  Thus, a question arises: you can see what they are doing, so what are you doing?

But perhaps this is backwards, for I have described the photographer’s framing of the scene in place of its central object: del Río’s artwork. And what a work.  The plane’s silhouette cuts through the screen with terrifying force–indeed, it is the presence of terror as it evokes the image of those planes hurtling into the twin towers on September 11, 2001.  The poles at the center of the screen make that point emphatically, for they need not be there and so remind us that in place of an ethereal image real aircraft collided with buildings of steel and glass.  Because this plane is but an outline and air, it becomes a ghostly sign of all that now is gone forever, from the planes to the buildings to the people within.  In the artwork, however, the plane both hangs in the air and has already cut into the wall of the building.  It is just at the other side of impact and already past that point, barreling past us in an invisible fireball.  We see a provisional structure of concrete blocks and metal fencing, and an impossible compression of time and space, and a terrifying emptiness.

But is it really a 9/11 image?  No one actually saw the outline of a plane cut into one of the towers–that image is entirely reconstructive.  Likewise, the woman entraining her body with the outline is being playful, not mournfully commemorative.  She seems to be channeling her inner child, as if running around the yard imagining that she’s a plane, although now also with something of the dancer’s body sense of weights, ratios, and coordinated movement that is available to an adult.  She imagines not horror but the beauty of flight, and perhaps also its fantasies of adventure, liberation, or transcendence.  By showing one viewer’s response, the photograph reminds us that meaning is characterized by plurality.

And what of the woman behind with the camera?  Whatever her attitude, it is confounded by the much more prosaic act of taking the photograph.  And is she trying to record the artwork or her friend’s imitation of it?  (Thanks to cheap imaging technologies, tourists now regularly play this life-imitating-art game in museums, as when kids will act out a sculptural tableau for the camera.)  Because either photographer could have taken a picture of the artwork alone, we have to assume that they are intending to foreground viewer responsiveness.  But is the artwork just a pretext for a little play in the performance of everyday life, or are art and audience being brought into view in order to question what they have in common?

And what about you?  The photograph clearly creates a space for the viewer: that is, it points backwards toward the space inhabited by the viewer.  In fact, each of the positions becomes calibrated as what we might call degrees of separation: the artwork from the reality it represents, followed by the direct response, followed by the documentary response, followed by the mediated response.  What is more important, however, is how the image can simultaneously mark and collapse those distances.  Photography has a fourth wall, but like del Rio’s artwork, it also can remind us that the task of art is not to reproduce the direct encounter.  Photography works by making things present, but also by evoking what is absent; by bringing things closer, but also by maintaining the distance needed for reflection.

Photograph by Jose Goitia for The New York Times.  The artwork Arlés del Río is entitled “Fly Away.”

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

June 3rd, 2012

Sight Gag: “Oh, the Humanity!” (Or is it “Oh Shit!”)

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Credit: Tom Toles; Oh, The Humanity!/Oh Shit!

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.

June 1st, 2012

Icon Dismembered!

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

You might say they loved till their dying breath.  And left everyone else to pick up the pieces.

“No, Nancy, no, we can’t do this any more–I, I’m just a stump of a man!”  “That’s OK, Biff, I’m not the woman I once was, but I’ll love you with everything I’ve got.”

Roy Lichtenstein it’s not, but it is the 25 foot tall statue commemorating the iconic photograph of the “Times Square Kiss” taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt.  The statue is being moved from the San Diego waterfront to somewhere in New Jersey.  Not to worry, however, as the LA Times has reported that $1,000,000 was raised in eight weeks to purchase a replacement.  So one version of the iconic image is being dismembered, but only temporarily, and the result will be two versions instead of none.  Iconic reproduction continues even when it appears that the image is being dismantled.

But can you really dismember an iconic image?  Doesn’t an icon have a unique singularity, such that you always get the whole instead of a part?  Isn’t it an icon because it has resisted the forces of fragmentation and dispersion that are constantly at work in the media environment?  Well, actually, sometimes icons are broken up into their parts, whether as citations of the whole work or for other reasons as well.  It’s only because the statue is gargantuan, urethane, and imitating human bodily form that this dismemberment is unsettling enough to merit a news photograph.

What is interesting, however, is that the piece in the foreground contains all the features that distinguish this particular icon.  Compare it with the two pieces in the background (one is largely obscured) and you’ll see what I mean: the kiss itself, their postures, and their hands tell most of the story.  The rest is all uniform–which, like their actual uniforms, provides the background against with the figural distinction occurs.  Once again, by breaking up the image, the image is reconstituted anew.

Or not.  For there is another sense in which the image is being dismembered or, more precisely, disremembered.  The caption at the Washington Post slide show yesterday included this description: “The statue of two Navy sweethearts kissing.”  Much as I’d like to think otherwise about the major paper in Washington DC–but why am I not surprised?–it seems that the editor knew nothing about the original photograph.  The sailor and nurse in that photo were not sweethearts, but rather completely anonymous to one another, and she was not in the Navy.  Instead of historical veracity, the statue has been recontextualized in terms of its location beside the USS Midway museum in San Diego.

Many spectators along the waterfront may have seen it much the same way, and so the icon had already been dismembered, taken out of context, made a part of another time and place.  A similar transformation applies to the title”Unconditional Surrender,” which had been supplied by the sculptor, Seward Johnson, and also referenced by the Post.  While it could still refer to the surrender of Japan in August 1945, for many today it will refer only to a fantasy of romantic love.  This wholly privatized meaning can get by even though the hands of both the sailor and the nurse, faithfully reproduced to adhere to the iconic template, make it pretty clear that restraint was still somewhat the order of the day.  But that was then.

Today, iconic images are as solid as ever, which is to say: more than most, but less than you might think.

Photograph by Gregory Bull/Associated Press.

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