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NCN on Vacation: At the Beach

There are many marvels, are there not?  We’ll hope that you can get away from the workflow for a few weeks.  By coming to see less of the usual routine, perhaps we can see more of the world in all its strangeness and beauty.

NCN will resume posting on August 20.

Photograph by Damien Meyer/AFP-Getty Images.

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SIght Gag: “Justice” or “Just Us”

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.


Brighton Photo Bienniel: Photography and the Politics of Space

Photoworks is excited to announce the fifth edition of the acclaimed Brighton Photo Biennial, once again bringing international and emerging photographers and artists to the city.  From October 6 through November 4, 2012, Brighton will be populated by free exhibitions, new commissions, events and interventions, at a host of established and more unusual venues across the city’s urban landscape.

You can read more about it here.

Photograph by Jason Larkin.

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Figure, Ground, and Self-Awareness

It’s not easy to take a distinctive photograph at the beach.  They’ve all been seen already, except perhaps for this one.

At first glance, I wondered what I was seeing.   Was it some strange species from the liminal realm between earth and sea: gooey, nearly featureless, and dumb, but able to survive for millions of years as something almost as much plant as animal?  On closer inspection, the correct species definition locked into place: toes, paired feet, human being (as Aristotle put it so aptly, a featherless biped).  And only later did I also notice the legs emerging from the sandy ooze in the background.  One fragment now was two having some figural continuity (although the line was still partially obscured), and it became easier to imagine not just the rest of the body but the person, someone not buried but rather soaking in the cool waters pooling along the shore, enjoying a day at the beach.

Now maybe you got that right away.  My obtuseness may be the problem.  Whether due to the fact that my beach time has been rather limited, lifetime, or that I’m easily smitten by surface effects such as the sheen of the watery sand, it may have been too easy for me to not see the obvious.  But if you weren’t mistaken, try to see it as if you didn’t know.  Look at that image as if it could be documenting another species, or as if it were a work of art where what mattered most was the way the smaller, darker, firmer shape emerged out of the lighter, liquid substance suffusing the visual field.

This figure-ground inversion may not be possible: as in the classic drawing, when you see the two heads in profile, you can’t see the vase.  But what you can do, I hope, is look again at the photo and see how the photographer’s adroit use of figure-ground composition has created an opportunity to see the human species as something a bit strange–as if it were not the “rational animal” but rather defined primarily by its ability to stay out of the primordial ooze by blind adaptation for sheer biological continuity.

Humans don’t often define their species by its feet, which are not seen as the basis for an exalted view of ourselves–but here they look almost sentient, if barely so.  Perhaps we should spend more time pondering them, and not just as one way to idle away the time on vacation.  And one might ask how odd the human body could appear when seen only as, say, an elbow, ear, or back.  And how is self-consciousness itself a protrusion amidst a bodily, behavioral field that is itself arbitrarily defined?  Which leads to another photo from the summer slide shows.

Again, the composition features a strong contrast between figure and ground.  The small fish protrudes out of the much larger body of the ray, which encompasses most of the visual field.  Like the liquid sand, the ray’s body is a subtly modulated light surface carrying  the power of nature.  There also are significant differences, however.  The figure of the fish is the more familiar sight than the closely cropped ray’s body, and the portion of the fish that is not seen is evidence of disintegration, not wholeness.  The fish is going into the maw, not peeking out, and if it is sentient–one can imagine a last shock of biological awareness that life is ending–that is about to end.  Consciousness, like any life form, can emerge, and it can be swallowed up again.  The photograph brings one to consider how the most ordinary of processes–animal eating animal–is also strange, violent, awful perhaps, while also being completely routine, natural, like gliding through the water and breathing.  The smooth, uniform body of the ray covers the digestive processes, just as the smooth, liquid surface of the shoreline covers the struggle for life that leads each species to find its niche or die.

Human beings are the strangest animals in that they have survived without yet finding their niche.  One might think of that as a figure-ground problem.  In any case, artworks such as those above provide one basis for rethinking self-awareness against the background of nature.

Photographs by Jeon Heon-kyun/European Pressphoto Agency and Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press.

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War’s Longue Durée

At a time when the quarterly report is becoming the long view, there is need to remember that some events will continue to be felt long after they have ceased to be the news of the day.  This recent photograph from a Bosnian reburial program seems suffused with sadness despite the bureaucratic uniformity of the victims’ coffins.

These green capsules contain additional victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre that were discovered this year.  Unfortunately, Bosnia has had to learn how to handle large-scale funerary responsibilities.  The coffins seem to stretch out behind the frame endlessly, as though part of some industrial process.  Or perhaps a similar operation in agribusiness: the green coloring and slight variations give the scene a ghastly similarity to some sort of hydroponic production facility.  The remains contained within will already have given much back to the earth, so the analogy may be more apt then we’d like.  No matter how you look at it, dignity is not easily restored to those who were butchered by the thousands.

And yet dignity is possible–as long as there is the sorrow of individual loss.  The lone woman provides that sense of proportion and more.  She could be a worker, but even so one who has become pensive by virtue of those around her.  More likely, she is a relative, for nothing needs arranging and she is empty handed, with one finger touching the box to her right.  That single gesture speaks volumes, saying at once how much we want to touch the loved one, and how impossible that is.  She can only gesture, and so her sorrow remains contained, as if her heart were in one of those green caskets.  And yet she is there, and they are restored to the human community, however belatedly, by her presence.

And by ours. The photograph is part of the memorial.  And memory needs to include not only the names of individuals but also the history that they suffered.  More yet: there is need to realize how that history is still unfolding.  The term “the longue durée” comes from an historiographic method that emphasized structural factors over events, and I’m not about to settle that argument here.  One might note, however, that for moral judgment “long” is defined in part by the span of a human life, and that war is one of those events that creates a harvest of sorrow for generations.  By looking at the photo above, one can begin to realize how nothing in modern society changes any of that.

Photo0graph by Dado Ruvic/Reuters.


Sight Gag: What’s All This Talk About “Global Warming”?

Credit: Clay Bennett

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.


Call For Papers: Visual Politics

As politics, especially electoral politics, has become more mediated, and subsequently, more digital, its visual aspects occupy center stage. However, political communication research remains relatively unfocused  where visual expression is concerned. Visual politics is often dismissed as mere spectacle, but such dismissal impedes a more thorough understanding of how political reality acts through visual representation and display.

Chapter proposals are sought for an edited volume that explores a range of political signification accomplished through visual means. Although the project is based on acknowledging  the rhetorical  aspects of the visual, proposals may represent a range of perspectives and methods. The goal of the book is to transcend the presentation of case studies and inform further research by building on theory and emphasizing the implications of case studies that may be used. While chapters that engage the 2008 and 2012 elections are desirable, broader aspects of politics are welcome as subject matter, as well.  Visual elements that might be investigated include: political cartoons, news photographs, White House photographs, nonverbal expressions by leaders and candidates, political ads, memes, and campaign symbols. Proposals should consist of a 400-500 word description of the chapter that includes the theoretical perspective to be employed or developed. A research c.v. and bio of the submitter should also be added. Preliminary inquiries are welcome. Proposals will be evaluated on the basis of scholarship and on their potential contribution to a cohesive collection. Details of chapter requirements such as length and format will be announced later.


Proposal Deadline: October 15, 2012

Chapter Deadline (projected): early 2013

 Inquires maybe addressed  to

Submit via email or hard copy to: Janis L. Edwards, Associate Professor, Department of Communication Studies, Box 870172, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0172

Photo Credit:  Evan Vucci/AP

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Photography’s Asylum of the Artificial

Mannequins typically are designed to serve a smooth process of consumption, so it’s a bit odd to see them behaving like madmen.

Of course, it’s a bit odd to see them behaving at all, much less as wildly emoting actors.  One can almost see the classical masks of tragedy and comedy, except that each is twisted in the direction of the other to become grotesque.  The bodies themselves are more familiar, but something is off there as well: they are both visibly pieced together and organically, athletically posed.  Beautifully molded and thoroughly expressive, yet obviously inanimate, and well muscled yet neutered, these human models are disturbingly uncanny.

The rest of the tableau is equally strange.  An antique robot and a plastic skeleton set out two variations of the theme of human modeling: the hidden structure of a person and an obvious substitute for the outer form.  These two are neutered, but also not gendered (unless you see sexual dimorphism in the pairing), unlike the other two pieces.  And I do mean pieces: the female body is present but never whole.  As each torso is cut along a different axis, you can’t even put the two parts together. A least one is clothed, so women still get to be decorative–that must be a relief!

There is just enough reflection in the window to indicate that the six actors in search of an author are behind glass.  They may look crazy at best, but at least they are interred, set apart, under surveillance, and otherwise locked up and off the street.  You can’t even hear the wailing, and so the asylum has done its job.  And that about wraps up the story.

Oh, yeah, except for the guy in the corner.  He adds another reflective element to the scene.  Were this a museum rather than a street in Shanghai, you might wonder if we were another statue.  Short of that, he must be human.  Like other people, he is both not alone and alone.  Positioned between the enclosed copies behind him and the viewer looking into the display case of the photograph, he becomes a representative figure, but of what?  Dominated by the alien species towering over him while cut off from anyone else, he seems merely human, not triumphantly so.

Sixty years ago, when The Family of Man exhibition was traveling the world, photography created a particular form of humanism–one that had its problems, but for all that was still egalitarian, pluralistic, and intentionally progressive.  By gazing at the ordinary person amidst the common routines of ordinary life, you could see humanity.  That vision has been criticized, co-opted, worn out, and displaced, but photographers continue to prompt reflection on what it means to be human.  Equally important, they do so in response to the emerging challenges that modern civilization presents to human dignity.

Photography is suited to this work because it is tied up so closely with both technological change and social consciousness.  The camera both records and prompts interaction, and does so through processes of mechanical duplication.  You might say it makes mannequins of us all.  Instead of capturing the human essence, it reveals the deep artifice dominating the human world.  But not completely: photography is not the camera alone, and so there we are, like the man in the corner of the image.  He’s a real person, an original, and all the more strange and sad for that.

Photograph by Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press.  For review of the debates about The Family of Man exhibition (and book), see Eric J. Sandeen, Picturing an Exhibition: The Family of Man and 1950s America.

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Wildfires, Taxes, and the American West

Every summer, it’s the same: forests flare up like kindling, tired emergency crews fall back along the firebreaks, home owners stand guard on their roofs with pitifully thin garden hoses, and the skies are crossed with planes and helicopters cutting through the smoke to drop the equivalent of a teacup of water on the blaze below.  Perhaps that’s why I liked this photograph from among the many more dramatic shots taken in the last two weeks.

Although cropped to feature the plane in action, the image still suggests that we are looking at a child’s toy, or at least a movie made for the younger set.  Although lacking the spectacular power of Air Force flyovers on July 4th, this nondescript supply plane would be thrilling to anyone still capable of being dazzled by simple technological prowess.  And the red fire retardant swooshing behind it bundles together work, warfare, firefighting, fire, drama, and good works alike into a visual emblem of adventure.  The West still evokes the majestic, thrilling chords of romantic heroism, even as it burns like the gates of Hell.

The photo doesn’t just play the old tune, however, for it captures as well the miniaturization of human effort when set against the vast backdrop of nature.  Westerners get that, although they also forget it from time to time.  How can you blame them, for modern civilization is a story of harnessing nature’s power and of living far beyond what the terrain alone would allow.  In the past 100 years, the US  has damned the rivers, pulled water, oil, and coal from deep in the earth, provided electrical power for everyone, and made the desert bloom.  All it takes is a good fire, however, to remind us that human scale is a small thing.

Until, that is, the cool rain finally falls and amnesia returns.  I’ve posted on the fires before (here, here, and here), and I suppose I will again.  Every summer it’s the same.  Except, of course, when it gets worse.  As Timothy Egan points out, the combination of global warming and Republican ideology can only lead to disaster.  Unrestrained growth while cutting government services (as for fire prevention and fire fighting) gives new meaning to hubris.  Need I add that currently these services are underfunded?  For example, the small fleet is aging and some planes have had to be grounded, and states and municipalities espousing low taxes once again are turning to the federal government for a bailout rather than burn to the ground.

By trying to live well on the cheap, people are playing with fire in more ways than one.  And when a political party or a society develops an excessive appreciation of its own powers, nature is sure to provide a harsh lesson in humility.

Photograph by Kim Raff/The Salt Lake City Tribune.