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Paper Call: Design, Sound, and Vision

The 8th William A. Kern Conference on Visual Communication

Rochester Institute of Technology

April 26-28, 2018

Design, Sound and Vision in Midcentury Media

Call for Papers

The 2018 Kern conference will be focused on the topic of “midcentury media.” The traditional focus of the Kern conference is visual communication, and this year’s aims to reveal how the visual intersects with broader dimensions of media, such as design, literature, and music. Further, we want to do some ‘looking backward’ to historicize visual culture by focusing on the midcentury period, roughly between the 1940s and the 1960s. We are looking for papers on topics of how media technologies were introduced, visualized and promoted; how design, photography, print, and other visual technologies created glamourous imagery, often of midcentury media objects themselves; how the midcentury literary and popular imagination elicited and relied upon visual displays and representations; and how Cold War anxieties, ideal lifestyles, and optimism for the future impacted midcentury media. We aspire to promote efforts to think about design and modernism within a larger frame of visual culture. We are particularly interested in under researched areas, case studies, and figures.

We encourage submissions that:
• Re-imagine and reassess midcentury media
• Explore the continuing significance of midcentury aesthetic production and material     culture, including graphic design, vinyl records, radio, television, film, popular media, and ephemera
• Interrogate identity – race, class, gender – and ideology
• Integrate approaches to communication, design, history, media studies, and visual culture

Preliminary list of invited speakers:
Greg Barnhisel, Department of English, Duquesne University
Michael Brown, Department of History, Rochester Institute of Technology
John Covach, Institute for Popular Music, University of Rochester
Keir Keightley, Faculty of Media & Information Studies, Western University, Canada
Kristin L. Matthews, Department of English, Brigham Young University
Monica Penick, School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin
Tom Perchard, Department of Music, Goldsmiths, University of London
R. Roger Remington, College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, Rochester Institute of Technology
Penny M. Von Eschen, Department of History, Cornell University


Following in the tradition of Kern conferences, we plan a rich program of interdisciplinary scholarship and conversation.

Conference Chairs: Jonathan E. Schroeder, William A. Kern Professor of Communications, Rochester Institute of Technology and Janet Borgerson, City, University of London

Submission deadline: January 15, 2018.  Additional information is here.
Send extended abstracts (500 – 2500 words) via email to Jonathan Schroeder: jesgla@rit.edu

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Paper Call: Image, History, and Memory

CALL FOR PAPERS

International conference on IMAGE, HISTORY AND MEMORY

Warsaw, 6–8 December 2017

The goal of this conference is to promote an interdisciplinary discussion of the relationships between image, history and memory. We welcome paper proposals from the fields of art history, history, sociology, cultural studies, political science and others. The papers should address images in their various roles: as witnesses to history, as means of materializing memories, as active creators of history or as producers of the contents of memory. Suggestive images can provoke historical events, just as they can influence memory. The latter role particularly affects those who did not directly witness historical events but became heirs to instances of post-memory. Thus, when members of subsequent Soviet generations ‘recalled’ the October Revolution, writes Susan Buck- Morss, what they really remembered were images from Sergei Eisenstein’s films. Thus, the arrangement of the three concepts of interest to the conference—image, history and memory—is circular rather than linear. We want to focus on the complexity of the triangular dynamics between historical narratives, their visualization and memories. These relationships are important to any effort to understand and describe interactions between history and biography, and the individual and collective processes and mechanisms of remembrance.

The conference discussion will focus on these issues from a regional perspective that will highlight questions about ways in which historical images fit into the dynamics of remembrance in Central and Eastern Europe, but they will make references to other historical, political and cultural regions of Europe and of the world.

Scholars of various disciplines are invited to submit paper proposals addressing, but not limited to, the following themes: A. Remembrance, history, image: Theories and cognitive perspectives; B. Image and historiosophy: Artists’ reflections on history and memory; C. Images of history vs. remembrance;  D. Monuments as images of memory; E. Image in popular culture and the new media: Medium of memory, fabric of history; F. Film: Medium of memory, fabric of history.

To apply to present a paper at the conference, please send (a) your abstract (300 words) along with your presentation title and if possible the panel topic, as well as (b) a short bio to: <genealogies@enrs.eu>.
More information is available here and here.   Deadline for submissions: 15 July 2017.  (NB: Late submissions are possible; contact me at <robert.hariman@comcast.net> if interested.  Full disclosure: I’m a keynoter for the conference.)

The list of the chosen participants will be announced by the end of September 2017. There is no fee for taking part in the conference.

Organisers: European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS); Institute of Arts History, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań; History Department, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań; Institute of Art and Visual History, Chair of Art History of Eastern and East Central Europe, Humboldt University of Berlin; Social Memory Laboratory, Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw.

Partners: Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw; The Committee on Art Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

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One Voice: Portraits from the Tibetan Diaspora

Photographer David Zimmerman’s One Voice offers beautiful testimony to the dignity of the individual person amid catastrophic displacement, abandonment, and loss.

This book of portraits of displaced Tibetans also includes two short essays (full disclosure: I wrote one of them) and several poems.  You can see some of the portraits at David’s website; the book is available from Kehrer Verlag in Germany and at Amazon.   Although part of an activist project, these images are contemplative: they offer a mindfulness that is another way to resist those forces that, given enough time, would make all of us refugees.

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Conference Paper Call: Helsinki Photomedia 2018

Helsinki Photomedia 2018

Reconsidering the “Post-truth Condition”: Epistemologies of the photographic image

March 26 -28, 2018

Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland

Contemporary photography takes place in a world where the relation between facts and values is a social and political issue which has repercussions in art and education as well. The public discussions on information warfare, fake news, and manipulated media contents have shaken the epistemology of news media and generally revitalized the questions of trustfulness of media representations. Problematic statements about the ‘post-truth condition’ symptomatically reflect this situation and pose new challenges to our understanding of the epistemology of the photographic image.

Helsinki Photomedia 2018 invites critical examinations, artistic reflections, and presentations of educational projects of photography after the ‘post-truth condition’, especially work which addresses the variety of ends that photographic truth, authenticity, indexicality, manipulation, and suspicion have to stand for. Photomedia 2018 will take up the multifaceted question concerning the photographic epistemology by focusing on topics including (but not limited to):

  • Evidence and testimony
  • Photography and knowledge
  • Technical aspects of photographic data
  • Visual information and counter-information
  • Strategies of authentication
  • Photography and education

Deadline for 500 word abstracts: October 31, 2017.  Guidelines for submissions are here.

Keynote speakers 2018:

Professor Robert Hariman (Northwestern University)

Professor John Lucaites (Indiana University)

Professor Barbie Zelizer (University of Pennsylvania)

Artist Keynote TBC by August

Helsinki Photomedia is a biennial photography research conference organized by four Finnish universities since 2012. The conference offers various platforms where artistic, philosophical, social, cultural, economical, and technological approaches to photography meet. We welcome submissions from all areas of photography research. Since 2016 photography education has been one of the areas and we welcome submissions for the educational panel for presenting educational projects and related research. The conference language is English.

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Helping Others: A New York Moment

ThIs image is my pick for photograph of the week.  Trigger warning for the sophisticated: I’m going to get sentimental.

The car plowing through the pedestrians in Times Square wasn’t a terrorist attack, but it could have been.  Same levels of surprise and senselessness.  Same aftermath of shock, injuries, death, disruption, and fear.  Unfortunately, we know the basic story too well.

But that’s not the only story.  This photograph reminds us of another: one that always is there but also is too easily forgotten.  The story of how ordinary people step up and lean in to help those around them.  To help those strangers around them–people they don’t know, whom they won’t see again, who can’t be expected to return the favor.

There are two helpers in the foreground of this photograph, each of them reaching out to the injured woman between them.  One places a hand to offer gentle reassurance while looking up as if to watch for another threat or additional help.  His balanced stance is protective and yet careful: he isn’t going to move her unnecessarily or otherwise go beyond his skill level.  He can only do so much, but he is there for her.

What makes the photograph, however, is the man on the right.  He mirrors the general sense of concern posed by the man on the left, but now responsiveness acquires incredible sensitivity and nuance.  He ever so carefully pinches the hem of her skirt to pull it back down over her undergarment.  His fingers, arm, and body are finely tensed in an act of precision, as if removing a mote of dust from a precious artwork.  He acts to protect her modesty, and so respectfully that he will not frighten her or add in any way to her sense of violation and helplessness.  She has been hit by a car and thrown to the pavement, but she will not be manhandled.

That lightness of touch is heightened by the contrast with his massive arms.  Nor does it end there: he is a picture of carefully styled masculinity.  Although he won’t be Forever 21, he is looking damn good.   Personal discipline and public display are fused in his self-fashioning, but it turns out that fashion is only one part of who he is, and of what it means to live among strangers in New York City.  His delicate gesture is an affirmation of the dignity of the individual person, no matter who she is or how she has been harmed.

And of course it is a New York moment all the way down the street: from people in costumes to that dude with the greenish jacket and backpack who could be a Ninja Turtle.  (Is he in costume or not?  You tell me.)  The scene could appear in the New York Times’ Metropolitan Diary, except for the fact that people were being injured and killed.

And, as happens in New York or in Naperville, Illinois or in many, many other places, ordinary people respond to disasters in a New York minute.  The police, fire, and other first responders are still crucial, as are the dedicated emergency room staffs and all the rest that locks into place to provide emergency care.  But let’s not forget these moments of simple caring that are there to be seen briefly.  They are acts and signs of the social trust and commitment to a common life that is essential for living together.

There is no art of the deal here.  No market exchange or competitive advantage or utility maximization, and nothing is monetized.   Instead, people are acting like fellow citizens.  And so they are, whatever their status otherwise.  Citizens of New York, and citizens of photography, visible yet unnoticed most of the time, yet ready to help one another without bidding.  Examples for us all.

Photograph by Jewel Samad/Getty.

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When War Becomes a Part of Life

This photo could be from a comedy skit, if the war in Syria were not so deadly.  The image is an odd one in any case, so let’s consider why.

It’s definitely a war photograph–without a war you are not likely to find an unexploded missile on your property–but it is not a conventional war photograph.  Instead of action, only stasis.  Instead of destructiveness, an inert object.  Instead of displacement, a strange addition to the landscape.  Instead of strategy and tactics in real time, a banal chore that might not get done for awhile.  It doesn’t even seem to be a good photograph: Instead of the decisive moment, only an indeterminate aftermath while time moves at a crawl.  We might ask what that guy is thinking, but it’s not clear the missile is even his problem, and the answer doesn’t seem to matter much for us.

Which may be why it has some resonance as a joke.  “Well , here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into,” or something like that.  Were it to blow up, we might think of Wilie E. Coyote having ordered it from Acme.  Or, “I survived the Syrian war for six years, and all I got was this lousy missile.”  Of course, I don’t want to make light of the terrible suffering that has been the norm in Syria for all that time.  The photo isn’t doing that either, but it is getting close to something uncanny, and that is why a comic undertone seems just out of hearing.

The image troubles because of how such terrible destructiveness has become so banal.  Without it’s nosecone, the missile looks like a non-military object, but one having no exact purpose and perhaps still a bit sinister for that–as if something seen by Kafka’s K.   It also looks like it could have been made in the 14th century, and so channels a distortion in historical time.  Which war are we in, or has it been one continuous war?  And instead of another marvel of modern technology, this failed weapon suggests war’s ancient brutality.

Except, perhaps, that it is an interlude.  He is safe for the moment.  The trees in the background have not been harmed.  The photograph is showing us war from the inside, but in a way that opens to other possible worlds.  Which is why the colors are so important and so ambivalent.

What strikes me perhaps most of all is how missile, man, and landscape share nearly identical shades of green and brown.  Only his jeans provide a single, mute sense of a wider range.  It’s as if land, people, and weaponry had been artfully coordinated–“that rug really tied the room together” (another bad joke, I know.)  Of course, it’s not quite an accident: culture reflects geography, local materials and camouflage are to be expected in a civil war, etc.  And war is not fashion and suffering is not funny.  But the image is both familiar and odd enough to seem uncanny, if you think about it, and that’s where the photograph makes a statement.

Is that strange object a bizarre addition to the rural landscape, or part of it?   Is war really the exception, or are we already too accustomed to it to avoid it?  Are war and peace already so interwoven that we can’t imagine much beyond the same two alternating colors?

During a week of poison gas attacks on civilians and of cruise missiles arcing through the sky to destroy enemy materiel, there were many photographs documenting both war’s terrible destructiveness and the continued allure of projecting power.   By contrast, a photograph that lacks action, trauma, and much else in the conventional iconography of war may have hit closest to the truth.  War is woven into modern culture, which then is sure to perpetuate barbarism.

Or perhaps not.  That odd duck of a failed missile is in the foreground, not the background, because war is not assumed (yet) to be normal.  By getting past propaganda and terror, we can see war for what it is: ridiculous.  Everything we make can be artfully coordinated because we make it–and so we can unmake it.  A photograph of an inert, discarded weapon might be refusing the inevitability of violence.

So, instead of action, questions.  As war is part of everyday life–there and here, wherever you are–it still is not easy to see or to understand.  Like the man in the picture, we may need to ponder the strange objects it has placed before us, photographs not least among them.  With help, and perhaps a joke or two, we might even do something to reduce war’s presence before it kills us.

Photograph by by Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.  (There is another shot at Getty Images by the same photographer taken from a different angle that shows buildings, other people, etc.–and other colors.  The image, not the place or event, is the most important source of the artistic statement.)

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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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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