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When Beauty Is in the Eye of the Camera

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What do you see?  A beautiful golden artifact, or a gaudy piece of jewelry?  A work of art that could have come from any one of dozens of cultures, or a merely decorative visual contrivance reflecting hoarded wealth?

How about a spiral staircase in the Vatican museum, as seen through a fisheye lens?  Perhaps there are a few people who could recognize both the technical distortion and the specific staircase, but it is safe to say that most of us were not seeing a spiral staircase in the Vatican museum.  That tableau was merely the visual material for a process of technical distortion.   And artistic distortion.  There is no actual “eye of the camera,” but rather a creative process that includes a photographer, a camera, a lens, and several computers.   And now you.

I had not seen the staircase previously; or if I did see it on my Vatican tour, it left no trace in my memory.  I still haven’t seen it, you might say.  So what are we seeing?  A “striking visual effect,” and symmetry, and the Golden Ratio, and a microcosm, and rich colors of earth and sky, and light and darkness in perfect complementarity, and . . . .  ?  Some may call it beauty, and others may still see kitsch, but the aesthetic judgment is almost beside the point.  What is most striking, I believe, is the photograph’s assertion of photography’s creative capacity.

Consider, for example, how this image does not conform to conventional ideas about photography: It is not a direct representation of reality; it is not showing what those present will have seen; it is not the record of a specific event.  At the same time, the image also eludes stock criticisms of the medium: it is not hiding its distortion; it does not displace or dominate other views of the staircase; it does not demean the literal context or crowd out real beauty.

To fully appreciate what has been put before us by the photographer, we have to bracket conventional wisdom across the board.  What to do next is not as clear, but several options are available.  One is to consider how photography is not making copies of the world, but instead making images and statements about the world.  Another is to consider how photography is closest to realizing its potential when revealing patterns in the world, patterns expressed through its formal artistry.

There also might be something to the fact that this image is both cosmic and cosmetic: a self-enclosed world and a bauble.  The Greek word “kosmos” meant both universe and ornament, thereby capturing the irrelevance of scale to form.  Thus, when admiring the formal beauty of this small jewel of an image you are becoming attuned to a basic pattern found in sea shells and galaxies.  Curiously, you also are are getting inside the actual staircase.

I can imagine how the Vatican might have several reasons for liking the photograph.  I like it, too, and hope that you can enjoy it as well.  But have you noticed that something is a bit off at the top?  A slight imbalance, perhaps.  Something that could put a wobble into a top, or a planet.  But perhaps that is part of the pattern. . . . .   If, as Elaine Scarry has suggested, beauty prompts questions, then the questions here might go in several directions.  One is deeper into the technical mechanisms and decisions defining  photography.  Another is into our experience of beauty.  A third path, given the location of the staircase, would be into theology.   When beauty is in the eye of the camera, there is no telling where it will stop.

Photograph by Franco Origlia/Getty.  For more on this theme, see, e.g., recent work by Kaja Silverman, Joel Synder, Geoffrey Batchen, and the last chapter of The Public Image.  For earlier posts, you might look here and at others on beauty.  For an allusion that leads to a more complicated view of the church, see The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong.

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New Era, Less Light: Visibility in Trump’s America

Is it just me, or are the conditions of visibility changing?

Could be both, so let’s not bother with biographical angle: that I (or you) might be discouraged that a surreal blend of conservatism and chaos has hijacked the US government, or that we might be focused on private life now that it is both a more necessary haven and more at risk.

But it’s not just me or you.  If we sense something is changing, it probably is because something is changing.  The Washington Post seems to think so.  Their new slogan is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  Not exactly subtle.  Also too alliterative, and I love alliteration.  In this case it might be symptomatic: a defense of Enlightenment values is stated via a rhetorical flourish.  Both saying and showing are compressed into a text.  Slogans have to do that, but the question remains of how much can be seen.

The Trump regime is already shadowy, not transparent, absolutely not truthful while yet keeping its promises, and on the edge of darkness in the worst sense.  It got there by riding, as did no one else, a major shift from news media to social media: that is, it provoked and benefited from the transformation of the news into the logics, habits, and vices of social media.  CNN, I’m talking about you.  Those that didn’t follow along were left behind.  And now a lot of people are going to be abandoned.

So we get to the photograph above after all.  Eye catching, yet mournful: a visual art work of a sort.  Fire implies action, eventfulness, but here it is at a distance.  The spectator is separated from the burning lodges by a natural moat of prairie snow melt.  The people there have acted by setting the camp afire, but they are not present–at least not visible directly. This camp near Cannon, North Dakota, for those protesting the Dakota Access oil pipe line is being abandoned in advance of the federal order to leave the site.   One form of abandonment begets another: but only the second, lesser action leads to a distinctive image.

The snow flakes on the image make the photograph reflexive: we are aware that it is a photograph, and one that is part of the wet, cold, dismal scene.  Is it too much to say that we are looking through a glass, darkly?  Darkness is part of the picture: overcast sky, thick smoke, its dark shadow on the dark water, muddy earth in the foreground, leafless trees, featureless hills, and haze in the background.  Although at a distance from the burning, you are part of the much larger environment–one where darkness seems to have the edge.

I’ve posted before that visual coverage of the Trump campaign was not a factor in his election.  Part of the argument was that there just wasn’t much to work with.  Now, even less.  Too much of the damage is being done off-stage.  Brietbart, fake news hackers, and the rest are assaulting language itself: the basic medium of the public sphere and deliberative democracy.  Photojournalism has long been important because even good language wasn’t enough, and bad speech could be challenged with visual proof.  But those public functions benefited from a media economy that is no more.

Now it seems to me that the news photo too often is showing us only the aftermath.  Witness the photograph above.   The damage has already been done, and political resistance has turned into the paradoxical act of self-immolation.  That apparently is what you have to do to get public attention, even if it is too little too late.

By the way, I suspect that Trump also is disabling the effectiveness (though obviously not the incidence) of political parody and satire.  That’s another post, but probably part of the same larger process.  What has to be faced is that tried and true techniques may not be working as they should.  If that is so, darkness will spread and democracy really will be imperiled.

So what is to be done?  We have options: as photographers, writers, artists, advocates, scholars, curators, . . . . citizens.  We will need strong images, strong writing, and much more–not least strong collaborations and experimentation with new and old media forms.  As for how to do that: perhaps you can tell me, or show me.

Photograph by Terray Sylvester/Reuters.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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Getting Above the Chaos: Science, Photography, and Beauty

Astronomers travel to the high plateau of the Atacama Desert in Chile to get above the moisture, air-borne particulates, and ambient light that distort the night sky at lower and more populated altitudes.  Many of us need to get above pollution and distortion today, and I’m not talking about the environment.  In a political climate gone chaotic, ordinary experience can be awash in fear, anger, disorientation, and a pervasive sense of helplessness before forces beyond control or reason.   The world can seem lost to white noise and alternative facts, lurid emotions and garish displays of moral ugliness, miasmas of insinuation and threat that make even the brightest lights glow hazy in the gassy, swampy air.

Which may be why I find these images from the Observatory in Chile to be so comforting.

The Milky Way arcs across the sky above four of the telescopes at the Cero Paranal observatory.  (Yes, those large buildings are telescopes, which have come a long way from what used to be seen in hobby shops.)  Or we could say that the high-tech structures on the ground appear as stations on the way to a cosmic plateau, as if for pilgrims or astronauts ready to journey to the heavens.  Or perhaps that one type of intelligence is arrayed for contact with another, far larger and largely unknown, of which it is but a small part.

Or perhaps something else.  As Kaja Silverman has suggested, the genius of photography is that it schools us in learning through analogies: to see not what is but how each is like something else.  The photograph above is not showing us how our galaxy actually looks in some objective sense, or marking the proportions between that reality and our own, or doing much of anything except giving us a beautiful image: an image that prompts us to marvel, to wonder, to imagine something far grander and more ordered than the mess we make of our own world.

One of those analogies is between the beauty of the photograph and the beauty of the natural world.  Another is between science and beauty.  What might have seemed strange in the official dispensation in the mid-twentieth century now is becoming evident and ever more important.  When chaos has been unleashed by those who fully intend to benefit from its destructiveness, perhaps a commitment to the good life for all can draw strength from the idea that reason, beauty, and careful attention to natural order can be life-sustaining.

These photos and the telescopes they show are the work of the European Southern Observatory.  That’s right: European, but in Chile.  Obviously, someone forgot to build a wall.  The ESO is a consortium of fifteen nations, and it is a fitting example of what international cooperation can do.  The investments are huge, and for what?  It may be a job creator, but that’s not the point.  The advancement of knowledge, and with that of civilization, will come not from a reactionary nationalism, but from working together across borders.

If the result is a wormhole to another universe, that may be a good thing, but I don’t need to see it.  The better lesson is to take our cue from the streak of white light on the left, cutting across the grain.  Like an Afghan carpet that has been given a flaw to avoid vanity before God, the image can remind us that even our best efforts at order and understanding can lead to disaster.  The universe exceeds our images and our imaginations.  Where we want to see symmetry, there will be imbalance; where we want to see determinism, there will be contingency.

And yet we can see, and imagine, that our habitat glows with reflected light, and that we can live together in harmony.

Photographs by Miguel Claro/ESO and G. Lambert/ ESO.  Additional photographs can be seen at the slide show at The Atlantic’s In Focus website.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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Trump: Don’t Blame the Photographs

Several people have asked me which photographs were the most important for Donald Trump’s electoral victory.  The question makes sense:  Trump is a creature of the media.   We know that visual media can be influential.   Any political event that appears surprising or irrational is assumed to be due to emotional contagion, excess, or impact of the sort associated with photography.  The question almost answers itself.

Not even he expected to win, and yet here we are, careening down the rapids into the Jurassic park of Trump World.   What was the image that so distracted or dazzled the Trump voters?  What image framed the Clinton campaign so badly so that the election really did become a rigged game?

The envelop, please. . . .

There wasn’t one.  Or two.  Or twenty, including all those remakes of Hillary that Alt Right trolls consider so hugely creative.

Although it is a deeply ingrained habit of media criticism to blame photography for society’s problems, you can’t lay this one on the images.  Look at the data: identify the photos and track their circulation, and then take the Tweets and all the other sound bites, the little lies and the big lies, the alternative facts and the bald-faced denials, the slurs and the toxic memes and all the rest–and track that.  And ask the Trump voters whether unemployment has gone up or down in the last eight years, and how many votes in the presidential election were due to voter fraud, and whether they prefer Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act.

It is essential that this catastrophe be seen for what it is: a profound failure of language.  There may be arguments for Trump that bear consideration–most notably, that the system needed a shock and that the working class had been abandoned by both parties–but they are not directly pertinent to the damage that already has occurred and is likely to get worse.  Let me say it again and then some: Trump’s election is due to a relentless attack on and failure of language.

It is for that reason also an assault on moral seriousness: on what it means to care about more than power and reputation.  What it means to do the work needed to see the difference between reality and delusion, hope and fantasy, thriving together or fighting over the last boats on a sinking ship.

In Trump World, photographs may still be able of exposing lies, and for that reason they can be more important than ever.  Even so, the heavy lifting has to be done elsewhere.  Recovering political speech, political argument, the ability to respond to stupidity for what it is–both a cry for help and a will to power that can destroy everything–these are some of the tasks ahead.  It’s not a pretty picture.

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Activestills: Documentary Photography as Political Activism

It is becoming clear that photography is undergoing a paradigm shift.  Many things will remain the same, and perhaps look the same at first glance, but assumptions, attitudes, and ideas are nonetheless changing.  So John Lucaites and I argue in The Public Image, and one of the most recent examples to come to hand is a book that was published at the same time as ours.  Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel presents some of the work of the Activestills photography collective along with short essays, interviews, and statements to provide personal, historical, and theoretical context for the project.

The collective is a group of Israeli, Palestinian, and international photographers who are dedicated to supporting progressive social and political change in Palestine/Israel.  Their work focuses on “various topics, including the Palestinian popular struggle against the Israeli occupation, rights of women, LGTBQ, migrants and asylum-seekers, public housing, and the struggle against economic oppression.”  They work as documentary photographers, but on behalf of justice rather than press neutrality.  They distribute their work through mainstream, alternative, and social media, and as free exhibitions in those places where the photos were taken.  They sign their work collectively, maintain long-term relationships with the communities where they bear witness, and strive to “shape public attitudes and raise awareness on issues that are generally absent from public discourse.”

The collective also is attempting to open up the visual field to create new public encounters.  In place of showing victims, they feature agency.  Instead of trying to capture the decisive moment, they track the slower, more insidious forms of violence.  Rather than rely on icons, they develop an archive, and foregoing much of the iconography of protest (except on the book’s cover), they follow the odd, often chaotic angles of intimacy amid conflict and its devastating aftermath.  And rather than rely on the supposed power of the image to compel moral response, they assume that it has to work within complicated processes of interpretation.

The result is not eye candy, but it’s not another set of atrocity photos, either.  Alternating between two-page single image displays and many, many smaller images–often seven to a page–the viewing experience can be frustrating.  Even the large images are immersive: tightly copped, or with any background indistinct due to tear gas or desert topography, you may not know where you are unless you read the fine print.  The small images seem to call for a connoisseur, except that the optic is fundamentally banal–ordinary people, places, things, lighting–and the fact that time and again these are scenes of violence, destruction, and loss.

Activestills does not make spectatorship easy, but it is made worthwhile.  By working through the volume, one’s sense of inside and outside begins to shift.  Not to create the illusion that “you are there,” but to realize that violence extends beyond spasms of direct conflict to become a system of domination pressed into the fabric of life.  Likewise, instead of looking for one image or signature event,  you begin to appreciate the weight of the archive, the judgment of history, the profound need to work day after day, person by person, until justice and solidarity prevail.

This commitment is echoed in the essays in the volume, which also make direct contributions to revising the discourse on photography.  The break with conventional wisdom and implications for the future of photography are sketched deftly in Miki Kratsman’s Foreward and in the Introduction by the editors, Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum.  Ariella Azoulay identifies how Activestills is developing a civil language of photography to counter the imperial discourse of differential distributions.  Haggai Matar and Ramzy Baroud outline the project’s relationship to the media environment and the political environment, while Simon Faulkner discusses the role of the exhibitions on the street.  Vered Maimon explicates the shift in modality from representation to performance, from the indexicality of the image to the collective production of belief and affective community.  Ruthie Ginsberg and Meir Wigoder identify key shifts in temporality, i.e., from “what was there, then,” to “being there now” and signifying potential futures.  Sharon Sliwinski identifies the damning potential of spectatorship to reinforce the condition of standing “before the law”–as in Kafka’s tale, forever locked out of the institution of justice–but she does so to reaffirm the role of the public image in imagining a just political community.

These ideas acquire personal texture in the interviews and statements by photographers and other activists, whose understanding of their work, individually and collectively, reminds us of what may be the most important lesson of all: whatever the technology,  artistry, or means of distribution, photography at its heart is an encounter with the world.  And even, perhaps, one means for achieving a better world.

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