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Silhouettes of Abundance

One might expect a silhouette to signify some deficiency, at least of knowledge.  Instead of detail, we see only darkness; instead of personality, anonymity.  When life is reduced to simple cut-outs, we seem to be in the realm of craft projects, not the sensuous intelligence of art.  Photography, however, can take us to a third place.

India Weather

This boy has been caught in a sliver of time, just enough to isolate his youthful figure before it returns to splash and flow, all movement and delight in the water.  We can see exactly the odd proportions that characterize the child’s body, and the awkward awareness of that body in space–something that will be completely dissolved as he enters the water.

Reducing the individual boy to an outline seems to essentialize something–the human form, perhaps, and, more likely, Childhood.  Thus the image reminds us that, whatever is there, is fleeting.  Likewise, although the hard surface of the water will return to liquid, that igneous surface reveals another reality beneath his simple pleasure.  Enjoy the moment, kid, because soon enough the world won’t be so giving.  The mood is nostalgic, and with that, all too conventional.

No visual technique need have a single emotional effect, and adulthood is more than the loss of innocence.  This second photograph suggests another, very different experience.

silhouette china

Visitors stroll around the National Grand Theatre in Bejiing.  Here even silhouettes have silhouettes.  The ground appears to be something like a fun-house mirror, and yet the shadows are as crisp as the standing figures.  As above, motion as been arrested, but here many small details suggest continual movement as each individual projects a specific inclination.  The various groupings tells us that we are in a public space, one where individuals go their varied ways, small groups congregate for varied purposes, and everyone is comfortable enough among strangers.  Again, the silhouette reveals something fundamental about both a place and a time of life, or, perhaps, an historical period.  The mood, which comes from both figures and ground, is at once peaceful and agitated, like the modern civil society that it mirrors.  And whereas the first photograph made water appear like rock, this photo suggests that the ground itself can melt like ice cubes in a world where all that is solid melts into air.

Silhouettes depend on darkness, but these photographs are distinguished also by the play of light.  Each can prompt meditation in either direction: toward a more pessimistic or a more optimistic end.  I guess I’m feeling optimistic today.  If the first image captures a state of nature and the joy of childhood, the second suggests that there is something luminous about adult life in a modern society as well.  If that is so, the better images will be those that help us see, not the outline, but the form.

Photographs by Rajanish Kakade/Associated Press and Andy Wong/Associated Press.  You can see other posts at NCN on silhouettes by using the search function in the right sidebar.  The light in the images is today is silver, but the title of the post continues a theme also expressed with gold.


Crossing the Border to the 21st Century

boy in suitcase

It is fitting that the first photograph of the 21st century includes an illegal immigrant.

Yes, scanner technology is there as well, and we’ll get to that, but let’s stop and consider what we are seeing.  A stunning image, to be sure, but also one that mashes up a half-dozen critical transformations in the global environment, and yet doesn’t look like a mash-up.  Because the photo has the autonomy of a work of art, it both prompts and resists interpretation.  We see the patterns that already are transecting our lives to construct a titanium cage of biopolitical social organization, and yet we don’t see anything clearly.  The gauzy colors and plastic emptiness of the scan are a parody of transparency, while the dark silhouette of the body blocks any identification above the primal level of embryonic species existence.  The suitcase seems to be a womb; even the placenta is visible.  The photograph itself seems to be floating in some larger womb, some larger context we can’t yet see but only feel all around us, as if the distant sounds of the world to come were reverberating through some invisible fluid.

It’s a boy, by the way.  He was being smuggled into Ceuta, a Spanish territory on the coast of Morocco, on Thursday.  He has a name (Abou), and a father who now is in custody, and we can hope that other family members can be located.  But we already know that his situation is not exactly ideal.  There are over 200 million migrants in the world, and you can bet that most of them are not medical doctors or engineers.  Millions of people have to move across the globe simply to work, while those left behind struggle with all the problems that come from separation within the family and fraying of the social fabric within the community.

There are many photographs of migration, migrant labor, and the like (and see The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis, by T.J. Demos).  This photograph, by showing less, shows more.  We are not shown this or that immigrant and the typical circumstances and deprivations of the diaspora.  Instead, the image points toward the global forces that are converging to make all labor migrant labor, and all of us illegal aliens.

The photo captures by turns the bare life of the human subject in migration; the emblematic equipment of global transportation and, with that, a powerful but harsh global economy that permeates everyday life; the vulnerable individual in neoliberal economic systems who has to be hidden and humiliated to acquire the means to live, and then is hidden and humiliated while working; the digital technologies for comprehensive surveillance of those subjects; the extent to which modern technologies that promised liberation can become cheap instruments of confinement; and not least, via the eerie suggestion of biomedical laboratory equipment, materials, and optics, the planned transformation of human nature.  Indeed, one can imagine that the photo wasn’t taken for a human being, but rather for another machine.

So it is that a digital image from a government scanner of an illegal immigrant can become the first photo of the new century.  The others of the past 15 years have been recording the passage of time, but this one has captured the brave new world that is forming, still largely in the darkness of a time we can’t yet see.   A world, perhaps, where the post-human laborer already is being incubated.

Photograph by Spanish Gaurdia Civil/HO/Associated Press.  A BBC report on the incident is here.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.


How Photography Supplements Secularization

Monks at sunrise

I guess we’re doing silhouettes this week.  And monks.  And springtime religious festivals–in this case, Makha Bucha Day at the Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple in Thailand.  As inquiring minds can learn by using the search function at this blog, I’ve posted quite a bit on all of these figures and events.  So what’s new?

Nothing, actually, and that may  be the point.  Modernity is all about novelty, change, progress, so much so that the news is its characteristic discursive form.  We want to know what is new, whether good or bad, and how it can be leveraged to move forward into something newer and better.  But that relentless forward drive has its costs, not least a need for the sense of stability, order, and serenity that can come from the deep cycles of ritual recurrence.  While modern life is not without its rituals, they are for most of us weak things, easily broken or ignored.  So it is that we turn to beautiful images to supply what is missing.

Ritual is rarely far from religion, which also has been progressively diminished as part of the relentless disenchantment of the world that characterizes modern societies.  Religion is still a strong force in the world, but the alignments are clear: although easily mixed with technological modernization, religious piety and obedience are at odds with the secularization everywhere evident in the more advanced societies.  But that comprehensive elimination of spirits and sacred places has its costs, not least a need for re-enchantment.  Advertisers and other media industries are more than happy to help, but the result is a very long way from a life of compassion and communion.  So it is that we turn to images of a religious dedication otherwise missing in our everyday life.

This photograph of the silhouetted monks at sunrise is hardly news, but it is a beautiful tableau of ritual reassurance and the possibility of holiness.  The thick, warm light is a medium not of sudden enlightenment, but rather of the radiance of being itself.  Each monk is isolated as a specific individual with a specific destiny, yet never one that is any farther away from sacred envelopment.  Their implicit community is confirmed by the cooperative gestures of the dyad in the middle, who double as tokens of attentive care and discipline.  Monks work, it seems, and yet the scene looks nothing like the  workplaces we know so well.  The scene is all too otherworldly, which is why we look at it, vaguely wishing that it might somehow–not literally, but somehow–be the mirror image our own experience.

Makha Bucha Day celebrates an anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment when an assembly of monks formed spontaneously at the sacred site, and it occurs at the time of a full moon.  Each of these senses of the event are reflected in the photograph above: the enlightenment has already happened, the community emerges naturally, and in accordance with a cyclic occurrence of reflected light.  The photograph succeeds, then, in respect to its initial context, but it travels because it is about something else: those of us who are not monks, caught up too much of the time in a different Enlightenment, organized every way but spontaneously, and missing though not really working for a deeper sense of the sacred in our lives.

Photography fills that need, and not just with images of the relatively few monks in the world.  (Search for “abundance” to see more about that in previous posts.)  It provides images of the sacred that can be fitted easily into the routines of a secular society.  One could criticize the medium in respect to every part of that sentence, but I won’t.  Modernity is here, even if not to stay.  The supplement adds to and may eventually displace, but that is another story.  For now, during a season of reflection in many religions around the globe, it may be enough to have a glimpse of another way of being that is at once simple and sustaining.  Even if, like the moon, it is farther away than it appears.

Photograph by Damir Sagoli/Reuters.


The Seeing Citizen

Camera + Silhouette

The scene borders on the sublime. A silhouette of a woman cast in the glow of a distant fire that appears to be burning out of control. The gulf between the woman and the blaze is altogether calm, inviting a clear contrast with the raging flames and by extension underscoring the space—simultaneously near and far—between safety and danger. And, of course, it is the silhouette that ultimately frames the photograph and its affect. To get the point, imagine the photograph without the silhouette? The contrast of golden hues would still register as beautiful for most viewers no doubt, but all measure of the distance between here and there, of the sublime horror invoked by the image, would be effaced – or at least largely so.

All that aside, it was not color or even the silhouette that initially drew my attention to this photograph, but rather the fact that it is a photograph of someone taking a photograph. Photographs of people taking photographs has become something of a convention in recent times, and all the more so now that many (if not most) people in the western world carry cameras with them in their pockets and seem inclined to take photographs of … well, just about everything. And the question is, why? Not why do people take photographs of everything. I think we have done that for a long time now, contemporary technologies simply making it easier and easier to do. Rather, the question is, why has the photograph of people taking photographs become something of a visual trope … and a trope of what? In the photograph above the camera’s brightly lit screen stands in stark contrast with the golden color cast of just about everything else in the image—including the silhouetted photographer—and thus perhaps invokes a sense of the tension between nature and technology, a point gestured to by the caption which notes: “A woman takes a picture of fires raging through the Los Alerces National Park … A lighting strike is believed to be the cause.” And so the photograph here might indeed be driven by a profoundly artistic and/or ideological sentimentality. There is of course no way to know, but the omnipresence of the technology in modern times simply cannot be ignored.

The trope is perhaps  a bit harder to explain in other, more common occurrences such as this photograph:

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 8.34.51 PM


Here the caption reads: “People take photographs as the body of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister is transferred form the Instana Presidential Palace.” One might wonder why we don’t just have a photograph of the body itself being transferred. Or, for that matter, of the crowds gathered to view the transference. What is it about the fact that people are taking photographs of this scene that makes the convention so affecting?

I don’t have an answer to this question firmly worked out at the moment, but my suspicion is that it has something to do with the relationship between actors and spectators. There was a time, not so very long ago, when the prevailing assumption was that citizen spectators lacked agency. They viewed events, but they did it from an altogether passive space that muted their political voice if it did not erase it altogether. The seeing citizen did little more than see. The advance of camera technologies, and in particular the utter ubiquity of camera phones and portable screens, as well as the capacity for digital circulation, has given citizen spectators a whole new way of registering their voice—or is it their gaze? It helps us to see how one person uses their spectatorship to accent the space between culture and nature, as in the silhouette above, or how others mark the importance of the passing of a revered leader.  In short, the seeing citizen is now also, and at least in some measure, an acting citizen.

We photograph people taking photographs perhaps because it marks an important shift in what it means to be a citizen spectator and, as with photojournalistic images in general, it helps us to understand how we see and are seen as citizens.

Photo Credit: Emiliano LaSalvia/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images; Tom White/European Pressphoto Agency.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.


White Swans and Photographic Seeing

Flying swan

The caption says, “A white swan (lat. Cygnus olor) flies over the Main-Donau canal in Bamberg, Germany, 06 October 2014.”  Not that you can see the canal, or Bamberg, or the sky, or anything except the bird suspended in a black void.  Nor are the feathers pure white, which you can see in the stock photos that will pop up on Google Image.   The bird seems to have been stained by mists of oblivion, as if it were a message traveling through some fantastic system of communication in Middle Earth.  Such fantasies may be invited by the stark contrast of the lighted figure and dark background, which makes the bird seem to be a silhouette despite still being visible as a specific individual.  The image is both the literal trace of a single animal in a single moment of time, and an abstraction in some undefined cognitive space.  There once was a bird passing over a canal, and there is the Swan, a Bird, token of Nature, passing through Life, again and again and again.

Many people spend their entire lives seeing swans without ever seeing a swan.  From the preschoolers’ first picture books to Disney movies to advertising to the arts and back again, swans are not rare birds.  They are tokens of culture, not a familiar part of nature.  One might hesitate then about focusing on photography alone, but the image above does provide an object lesson in photographic seeing.  Joel Synder has pointed out that cameras don’t capture images–they make them.  The image doesn’t exist until the camera clicks.  The image above is a near-perfect demonstration of that distinction.  There never was a swan suspended against a black background; those effects were created by the camera.  In fact, a swan was flying through a night sky, but the movement has been stopped and the details of the actual optical field have been abstracted out of the picture.  And a similar transformation is true of every swan photograph that you have ever seen.  Those swans never existed in the rectangular box of the photograph; they are found there only in the image.

Of course, as we have become habituated to photography, we also become accustomed to projecting images: to imagining how photographs could be taken and how scenes are more or less photogenic.  We also become accustomed to collecting images: to filling our phones and tablets and heads with expansive vistas, glorious sunsets, and thousands of small ornaments: raindrops on a leaf, leaves on the surface of a pond, the moon reflected in the dark water.

And that’s the hell of it, according to some critics of the medium.  Most notably, Susan Sontag argued that “so successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. . . . Photographs created the beautiful and–over generations of picture-taking–use it up.”  Perhaps that’s why we’re down to one swan.  Indeed, this “habit of photographic seeing–of looking at reality as an array of potential photographs–creates estrangement from, rather than union with, nature.”

Now that is a serious charge, and although Sontag offers no proof whatsoever, it would seem to be supported by Synder’s account of the image.  That silhouetted swan is pure culture, and although the photograph promises to bring you closer to nature, in fact you only are being brought close to an optical illusion.  The photo says, “Look, you can see a bird that you never would have seen otherwise,” but you still haven’t seen that bird as it actually moved through a material environment, much less while you were a part of that same environment.

But you have seen something, and something that was amazing, and what you would not have seen otherwise.  In that seeing, you have become part of a larger world, and one in which the most ordinary and distant and ephemeral of events–a bird flying across a canal–has acquired special significance.  Not meaning, perhaps, but significance, which may be all that we can hope for some of the time.  (Some readers may hear an echo of Walter Benjamin’s remark that Kafka “sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility.”)  Photography does transmute reality into images, but to create a common world, which now is one where a swan flies through complete darkness, like a message from a distant beacon.

Photograph by David Ebener/EPA.  Joel Synder’s argument is set out in “Picturing Vision,” Critical Inquiry 6 (1980): 499-526.  Sontag’s remarks are from On Photography, pp. 85 and 97.  Walter Benjamin’s insight is in Illuminations, p.1 44.  For an earlier post on this theme, go here.


Photography’s Victorian Future


A woman walks through Brookfield Place off Bay Street, on the day of their annual general meeting for shareholders in Toronto

This is one for the big screen.  Beautiful, eerie, menacing, it could be a sci fi movie.  (Stylish woman, mechanical system; all you need is the narrative.)  But I also meant the big screen in a more literal sense: the full effect of the image comes through when it is blown up to dominate your desktop.  Only then does the magnificent steel trellis suggest a cathedral vault, and the woman’s silhouette evoke a sense of foreboding, and the viewer sense that they are not far behind her on the ascending staircase.  The light overhead is in a space of surveillance, and an uneasy fate seems to await her at the end of the hall; nor are we far behind.

One thing it certainly is not is The News.  If you must know the literal details, the caption tells us that “a woman walks through Brookfield Place off Bay Street, on the day of their annual general meeting for shareholders in Toronto, May 7, 2014.”  A shareholders meeting is not often a general news story, and this was no exception.  Nor was it provided for expert analysis.  For example, if you were doing an anthropological study of Brookfield Asset Management, perhaps there would be important insights or representative details to be gleaned from this image–I certainly would not rule it out–but that was not the reason that the photograph was provided at several slide shows for public viewing.  Thus, this is an image without a story (a displacement that horrifies some critics of photography).  So why should it be featured?

One answer is that the image allows the artistic side of photography to come to the fore.  Any photograph is both record and artifact, and much of the time the artistry remains relatively hidden.  That’s the aesthetic norm for photojournalism and a principle for public art since at least Aristotle.  But both sides need to be expressed, and just as people will occasionally accept very grainy images for their sheer documentary value, they also at times will enjoy artistically intensive images without paying much regard to their news value.  Extremes here range from the Zapruder film to examples of so called “eye candy,” but short of those extremes there have been many remarkable images across the spectrum.  This would be one of them.

I don’t think that is a complete answer, however.  Consider how this photograph is about at least two general conditions: modernity and photography.  That is, it is not only a study of and in visual form, but through that lens the camera is focusing our attention on characteristic features of what it means to live within a modern technological society.

She could be Max Weber’s “man” in the iron cage, or the last organic trace once the machine has overtaken the garden (an anxiety identified by Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden), or a victim facing hideous mechanization in Metropolis.  These and other literary and cultural statements are each attempts to capture something fundamental about modernity, and they don’t so much explain the photograph as suggest what it is doing; it belongs in their company, albeit with the limitations and distinctive qualities it has by virtue of being a photograph.

The social theory and the artworks might provide important clues for further discussion, however: drawing on Metropolis, and noting how the spectator is almost looking up the woman’s dress, one can see both the tension between mechanization and eros, and consider also how well they can fit together for good or ill, and also why some modernists have celebrated an erotics of metal.  An initial invitation to the male gaze can lead to a form of aesthetic excess, which then pushes back and asks when the gaze was ever pure.

But I’m going farther afield than I had intended.  (Eroticism will do that.)  Let me suggest that the image does more than reprise familiar anxieties about modernity.  Very briefly, I think it offers two insights.  One comes from yet another comparison: she almost could be walking through the Crystal Palace that opened in London in 1851.   Let me suggest that the photograph hints at a different sense of time than the liner time of modernity: instead, it suggests that modern culture is always mashing up its inheritances and its dreams: cathedral or crystal palace, hall of mirrors or space ship, classical atrium or prison cell block, the choice doesn’t matter because they all are there.  And what is truly distinctive then remains to be seen, not least because it will be not familiar, but rather strange even to us.

Which is why it also is an image about photography.  I’ve suggested before that the single most important characteristic of photography is that its distinctive content is modernity itself.  This photograph is a particularly good example of that.  But it says more as well, and here the clues come from the human subject being a silhouette that is encased by a metal and class structure suffused with both darkness and light.  Consider, that is, how she seems to be an image inside of a camera, or how she could stand for the human subject passing through the machine of photography.  The silhouette is a distinctive type of abstraction, and its use here has a specific orientation.  We use the camera to see modernity, and thus to understand how we see modernity only from within: from within modern social structures, and from within the technology of photography.

Which makes this photograph’s question particularly interesting: Where is she going?

Photograph by Mark Blinch/Reuters.  A larger version of the image is in a recent slide show at In Focus.



Humanity Among the Ruins

It is understood that one of the challenges, and responsibilities, of photojournalism is to capture “the decisive moment”: that instant when intention becomes action or action becomes effect to define an event and perhaps change the course of history.  This encounter with history’s eventfulness is not the only task facing either the photographer or the viewing public, however.  To note another, perhaps equally daunting responsibility, we might ask how photography can represent history’s longer, more repetitive patterns.  What happens when suffering is prolonged, destruction becomes routine, war is normalized, and searing images turn into genres of catastrophe?

Aleppo ruins 2014

This photograph from Aleppo is one answer to this predicament.  It’s another scene from Rubble World, and images of wrecked urban neighborhoods in Syria have become so common that Reuters has gathered some of them into a slide show, which also helps the public face up to what is happening.  We need to admit to the frequency and redundancy of these images.  We need to grasp that war is now business as usual for too many people, and that no photograph is likely to change that.

So what can a photograph do?  Perhaps it can show us how much is at stake, and how much already has been lost.  It may have become too easy to see wrecked concrete as another occasion for urban renewal–hey, war is a job creator, come to think of it–or to see a broken city as merely a reason for pulling up the drawbridge–well, we don’t want that to happen here–or to accept the repetitiveness of the news as a reason to pay less attention rather than become more troubled.  The photograph above challenges all of that and more.

Admittedly, this image has more aesthetic quality than some of the others in the series, but that is precisely why it is the more important political statement.  The dark ruins on either side contrast with a stream of light flowing from the hazy shaft of space in the background to the muddy sheen of grey roadway in the foreground.  It seems that one can move through this space, albeit slowly and carefully, but that there is no chance that one could live there.  And so we get to the sole figure in the middle.  He is walking through, and looking, perhaps in stunned amazement, perhaps with a specific curiosity, but slowly and carefully.  What else can he do?  What else can we do?

This emphasis on his nomadic movement and contemplative gaze is underscored by that fact that we see him as the silhouette of a human being.  No more ascriptive marker is provided: you can’t limit his identity to Freedom Fighter or Aid Worker or Resident.  Instead, he is much closer to a philosophical figure: the Existential Subject who, with his civilization in ruins and only empty space for a god, now has no choice but to consider how civilization and barbarism are two sides of the same thing.  He could be that thing, the abstract human being that usually is clothed in this or that social identity, but now–like the city itself–has been stripped down to reveal how close it always was to desolation.

The war in Syria has gone on for four years.  Add to that ten years and counting in Afghanistan, plus the “sectarian violence” (i.e., continuing warfare) in Iraq, the many wars periodically erupting across Africa, the drug wars in Latin America, . . . . If any of this is to stop, something more than another decisive moment is needed.  The pressure for peace will have to be as it always has to be: slow and wide and insistent and then more insistent.  If that is to become a decisive process, it will need habits of representation and spectatorship to match.  Fortunately, some of what is needed is already available.  The question remains, what, or who, is still missing?

Photograph by Hosam Katan/Reuters.


Excess and Emotion in the Photographic Archive

Let’s start with one photo.


The caption reads, “Human remains are seen during the exhumation of a Stalinist-era mass grave on the military cemetery in the heart of the Polish capital Warsaw. The grave is believed to contain the remains of around 200 victims of a post-war campaign of communist terror.”

Perhaps the victim was screaming at the moment of death, but the gaping jaw could be an accident of decay or excavation.  Perhaps the lost individual will be identified, and perhaps the family can be notified.  Perhaps the remains will have forensic value, and maybe some remnant of justice can yet be done.

But, OMG, what an image.  The accidents of time have produced a howling, shrieking cry of pain and rage.  The body emerging from the earth is still shrouded with dust, as if still more ghost than material thing.  The immobility of being long buried is still binding the corpse, but it seems to be straining to be released, to rise up in glorious, savage revenge.  A revenge that will never come, as instead it will be interned again in a bureaucratic process constrained by a decided imbalance of power.

And so it has to settle for a more academic symbolism: there lies The Past, or Terror, or the Human Condition.  These are not small things, but they can have other emblems as well.  Yet, even so, I can’t help but think–or hope–that this image might haunt whatever idea is brought to it; that it might arise again in the night or at an odd moment, and that it might disturb, trouble, bring one perhaps to tremble for this lost soul from history’s slaughter pen.

OK, and now add a million more photos.  Start with the 10,000 that were sent to photo editors on the day this one was published.  Add another 10,000 for the many days before and every day after that.  Add also all the other images that you see every day in the news, advertising, and entertainment, and on Facebook, Flickr, and other social media.  Then add in what everyone else is seeing: the 200,000 photos that are uploaded to Facebook every minute, and the 27,00 at Instagram, etc.  And while you are at it, drop by a museum and see an exhibition of photographs.

Were you to do any of this, you might feel like Chloe Pantazi, who went to an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum on war photography.  Pantazi came away feeling “numb,” as if she had been anesthetized, and, not surprisingly came to the conclusion that “Susan Sontag Was Right” when she condemned photographs for dulling our ethical capacity.  Well, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, so I guess it could happen, but the declaration also provides an opportunity to think for a few seconds and say, “Really?”

I haven’t seen the exhibition, nor do I doubt for a minute that Pantazi had the experience she reports, so we need not disagree about her review on those terms.  That said, Pantazi’s reaction is not surprising for several reasons: First, it is a very understanding reaction to over 400 photographs about war taken in a single experience of dedicated viewing.  Indeed, I would expect the same result from reading 400 essays, or 400 pages, on the horror of war.  What most of us would not do in that case, however, is conclude that words were the problem.  And yet that is the point of the photography review, as the subtitle declares: “A troubling new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art throws into question the medium’s very purpose.”

Which leads to the second reason her conclusion is so familiar: it is exactly the reaction one is primed to have after reading Sontag, not to mention John Berger, Allan Sekula, Martha Rossler, and others who have crafted the conventional discourse of photography theory along the same line.  (See the first chapter of Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance for a provocative exposition on this point.)  What might be a normal–and temporary–reaction to intensive consumption of any medium becomes redefined as a universal failing of a single medium.  Once primed to be misused and disappointed by photography, it is easy to code one’s experience accordingly.  Let me add that putting the exhibition in a museum doesn’t help, as the fine arts context dominant there (as it is in Sontag’s work) interferes with correctly understanding a public art.

Again, the point here is not to reprove Pantazi for what might be a spot on review of a flawed exhibition.  But her reaction, the size of the exhibition, and even Sontag’s interpretative biases all point toward what is a very real condition of the image world today: excess.  And where there is excess, there will be exhaustion.

And as Pantazi rightly assumes (more so than the early Sontag, by the way), the emotions that come to be exhausted by images of horror are crucial for moral response, reflection, and engagement.  So this is no small problem.  But if we could set aside Sontag’s censorious tone, it is a problem that could lead to many creative solutions.

I’m out of time tonight, but let me close by suggesting that there is much more to excess than the likelihood of overwhelming us.  (And be sure to see David Campbell’s corrective argument about the much more manageable circumstances of actual practice.)  Indeed, photography as always been an abundant art: cheap, expansive, and ending up in every corner of the world.  (I have a bit more to say on rethinking abundance here, here, and here.)  What does need to be done is to take more seriously the curatorial function, which includes not only actual curators or editors, but also critics and citizens as they sort, select, and share images as part of their participation in the virtual world of public culture.

And we need to remember that at the end of any given day, what may be needed is not 400 photographs, but just one.  Like the one above, for example.

Photograph by Wojtek Radwanski/AFP-Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.


Waiting for the Cosmic Bus at the Australia Stop

Of course the fire makes the picture, but it’s the silhouettes that have the most to say.  Which is interesting, as they are enigmatic.

Firefighters take part in a backburning operation near Bilpin, in the Blue Mountains in New South Wa

Silhouettes often are, which may be why they can stand for a dimension of photographic representation that we often overlook.  Behind the realism, there is a formalism that is especially important for visual meaning; and behind the detailed textures of specific people and places, there is embodiment of the impersonal poses and attitudes that structure social behavior.

This is not to choose one dimension of the image over another, but to respond as prompted by the photographer’s art.  And by working into the image along that path, interpretation can lead to much more than documenting circumstances.  Those circumstances may support reflection or become irrelevant for the time being (and only that), but they no longer are the primary content of the image.

So it is noteworthy that this is a photograph of firefighters in a backburning operation in New South Wales, but they could be in LA or Arizona or Greece or many other places.  And if the poses still have the traces of British clothing and deportment, that may be fact or conjecture, but there is no need to make too much of it, even for a joke.  Jokes to come to mind, however, and so the trace might be a good clue that something interesting is lodged there.  Stiff upper lip and all that, you know.  Say, do ya think the coach is due, mate?  Aussies will howl, but like I said, the details don’t really matter.

So what does matter?  That’s a double question here.  First, what matters in the composition?  The answer seems to be the stark contrast between the holocaust in the background and the calm, silent, reflective poses of the people in the foreground.  Keeping their distance from one another, staring in different directions, hands in pockets, each seems to be lost in thought, while all of them seem to be standing as if waiting for a bus or train, strangers on street or platform, nothing out of the ordinary, just another day in the life.  They stand as many stand while enduring the obligatory routines of traveling through impersonal public spaces, safe but not familiar with the strangers around them, biding time until they can get to where they are going, each on a private journey made possible by but still separate from what they have in common.

Even when what they have in common is territory on fire on a planet that is getting hotter every year.  Which gets us to the second sense of what matters, that is, what the photo is about.  The answer to this question takes us both closer to those in the picture and farthest from the actual circumstances of the moment.  More detailed knowledge of the scene probably would verify that they are a close-knit, well-trained work crew, that the fire (which they set) is under control, and that no one is at risk because of their skill, knowledge of the terrain, available escape routes, and similar precautions.  My take on the image moves away from all of that, to get closer to what is being shown.

What matters is that people can get used to anything, that Western culture will follow its commitment to controlling nature to the gates of hell, and that denial of global warming comes as easily as waiting at the bus stop because it comports so well with maintaining the routines which are among the few anchors we have in an era of rapid change.  So, we can wait for the cosmic bus to come and take us away to some better place, or we can turn and look around, and look at each other.

What matters in the world today is that people stop pretending that there isn’t a fire raging in the background.  The photo shows us just how close we can get while still in denial.  “Just a back burn; we’ve got this one under control; move along now, these aren’t the causes you want.”

Even the beauty of the conflagration is there to help: if we could at least recognize that, it would be step forward.  Fire is beautiful, but cinders–not so much.  Take a look, while you still can.

Photograph by Brad Hunter/Newspix/Rex Features.  FYI, for other posts on silhouettes, go here; on wildfires, go here.


The Problem of Scale


I have been reading a good bit about “big data” lately (e.g., here).  The basic assumption is that when you expand the scale large enough last century’s concern with sampling as the basis for prediction becomes irrelevant, the value of accuracy or “rigid exactitude” is mitigated by the overall messiness of large data sets, and correlation becomes more important than causation.  The result is a capacity to see things we could never see before, such that algorithms based upon 45 carefully calculated search terms arrived at after processing 450 million mathematical models and based upon what individuals were searching related to “coughs,” “fevers” and the like allowed Google to pinpoint the path of a flu epidemic much more effectively than all the doctors in the world with tongue depressors and mouth swabs or the CDC with its wide ranging national networks of information.  We have always relied upon data, but “scale” it seems is the operative principle of the brave new world of judgment and decision making.

Scale, of course, has always been one of the things that photography marks particularly well. Animated by a technology that presumes a realist aesthetic, the photograph can call our attention to the relationship between large and small through the presentation of provocative comparisons and contrasts.  Consider the photograph above.  The caption notes that we are viewing the silhouette of a small jet cast against the background of a rising moon in Arizona.  The contrast in scale—the enormity of the moon and tiny speck of a jet—invites the viewer to consider the hubris in claims like “man is the measure of all things,”  or at the least it encourages us to recognize the irony in such claims.  But the photograph enables other considerations of scale as well.  As large as we know the moon to be, and as small as we know even the largest jet to be, the moon here might be seen to pale in the comparison; large, yes, but not so large that we can’t imagine blocking it out its view completely with relatively small number of jets.  And the point is, of course, that the value of scale is riven by the usages to which we put it and the questions we seek to answer.  This seems to be an attribute of the emphasis on scale that is always put on display by the particularity of the photograph, but is somehow too often  ignored or forgotten in the more abstract, quantitative representation of data.

And there is more, as the photograph below indicates:

Screen shot 2013-03-12 at 9.34.33 PM

Once again scale is the operative principle as large and small are juxtaposed with one another, as the large, former NBA basketball player dwarfs the little prince.  Or is it the other way around?  Does North Korea’s Supreme Leader dwarf the fading sports celebrity?  In the end, both readings of the image operate simultaneously such that the photograph challenges the particular meaning of scale by calling attention to the carnivelesque relationship between two public figures in ways that suggest that the stature of neither is very considerable.

Scale is important, to be sure, but it is best not to lose sight of the ways in which it always operates as an optic of critical judgment and in that register the data—big or small—is always subordinate to a more complex register of interpretation and usage.

Photo Credit:  Charlie Riedel/AP; North Korean Central News Agency via European Pressphoto Agency