Best wishes for a peaceful holiday. We’ll return to our regular schedule on January 12.
Architectural detail from St. Pascal’s Church in Chicago, via “A rare bird: the Art Deco church” at A Chicago Sojourn.
No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .
Best wishes for a peaceful holiday. We’ll return to our regular schedule on January 12.
Architectural detail from St. Pascal’s Church in Chicago, via “A rare bird: the Art Deco church” at A Chicago Sojourn.
I used to think that one didn’t have to be Christian to celebrate and appreciate the Christmas season. Yes, for the devout it marks the birth of Christ, and in that context it has an important spiritual significance that should not be scanted. But it also corresponds roughly with the winter solstice and, for the past century, at least in the West, it has been a secular holiday that celebrates the virtues of charity and selfless giving regardless of one’s religious affiliation. If it were only so simple!
Sadly, Christmas has also become a season for the gross accumulation of commodities under the sign of charity and giving. Children—in all of their innocence—are the primary beneficiaries of the holiday as they are indulged with all manner of toys and goodies distributed, somewhat magically, by an elfish deity who somehow distinguishes good from bad. And, of course, the more toys and goodies all the better. Or at least such is the myth of its representation in popular discourse. But truth to tell, there is something of a fetish to such giving that is more important to the adults who underwrite such indulgences than to the children who receive it—think of all the commercials you’ve seen where the parent’s satisfaction in observing their children far exceeds the joy of the children themselves. Put differently, the joy of giving in this scenario is more a justification for one’s own desire for the accumulation of goods than it is a desire to please the other.
The photograph above is only one of many representations of Black Friday, where adults camp out for hours in anticipation of the opportunity to accumulate commodities at a highly discounted rate. The supply always far exceeds the demand accenting the value of the goods and animating the desire for their possession, often leading to violence. Here, adults and children fight over a high definition television. There are many things worth fighting for, to be sure, but a television set? What is most revealing about the scene, however, is not so much the scuffle as it is the reaction of the spectators, some who have already claimed their own televisions. Some seem to be ignoring the scene altogether, not unlike the way they might walk past a homeless person as if they weren’t there, while others look on with a sadness that stands in marked contrast to what is supposed to be the joyousness of the season.
It is hard to know what to make of all of this, but perhaps there is a clue in the presence of the videographer who is capturing the scene for the nightly news. He knew exactly what was going to happen because what he is watching is a ritual event that takes place throughout the capitalist world (this scene is in a superstore in Wembley, England, but it could be in any Best Buy or Walmart in any city in the United States, or elsewhere for that matter), year after year, and as much as we might revile the greed that seeps through in such images we seem to celebrate it as well, casting such images each year as real time performances (advertisements?) of what we secretly value the most—and that is not the joy of giving but the accumulation of goods. As the bumper sticker says, “He who dies with the most toys wins!”
No, one does not have to be Christian to celebrate the Christmas holiday, and all I can say is … more’s the pity.
Credit: Luke MacGregor/Reuters
until morale improves.
News reports as I write are that the protest leadership in Hong Kong is divided over the question of whether to disband the demonstrations. Many students want to continue, as the objectives of the protest have not been met. Others want to stand down to stop the escalating violence that contradicts the movement’s original intention and values.
I wonder how this guy would vote?
We can’t even make a good guess, as violence can either break or stiffen resolve. The caption informs us that “A pro-democracy protester, with blood on his face, is detained by police during a confrontation.” The caption is a model of professional objectivity–and euphemism. How that blood got on his face, we apparently can’t say. And “detained,” well, that’s one word for it. And whether he is conscious, semiconscious, or out cold is left unsaid; perhaps he is resting. . . . .
Many of the photographs from the demonstration have been uplifting testaments to peaceful civil disobedience on behalf of democratic ideals. Not to mention the eye candy: colorful umbrellas, post-it note signage, and origami displays amidst a gleaming cityscape lend themselves to appealing images, and beautiful young people who look more studious than dangerous can even make politics look attractive. Throw in a few cellphones and a laptop or two, and you have a liberal techno-globalist dream come true. Thomas Friedman, start writing.
Which is why I admire this photograph. It is not pretty; it is disturbing. The boy has been beaten. The mask to avoid tear gas now signifies the hospital care that he needs and may not get soon. His youth has been turned as well: from future-oriented idealism and courage to sheer physical and psychological vulnerability. Almost everything else in the frame also is destabilized: the yellow metal could be a cage, the red bulb says both “emergency” and “interrogation,” the thin young man is rearing back as if threatened while being more exposed than he knows, the isolated face could be friendly or hostile, perhaps a traitor in the making as everyone seems subject to different vectors in the force field. Against this shuddering disconnection and ambiguity, only the policeman’s mass in the right foreground stands unchanged–and yet inchoate.
The photograph reminds us that government still is too often conducted the old fashioned way: with violence. And that bearing witness to common ideals will lead to brutality and pain that is borne not by all who believe, but by a few who are given far more than their share of the load. And if all we can do is watch, we should at least recognize that we have a responsibility to do so, all down the line.
The demonstrators may decide to stay, or not. (Frankly, I think they should leave–for awhile.) Either way, however, the beatings will continue.
Eventually, it might become too much to watch. I wonder what we will do then?
Photograph by Tyrone Siu/Reuters.
Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.
We’ll be offline for two weeks–some travel, a conference, and the Thanksgiving holiday–to return on December 1.
Twenty five years ago it was all concrete and mortar and barbed wire dividing east from west. Guards with their dogs stood their posts and friend and families were separated from one another. And then, as if in a blink of an eye, the wall came down, leading some to maintain that history itself had come to an end. Of course, such pronouncements proved to be little more than precipitous as wars quickly transformed from being cold to hot once again. But, at least in Germany, perhaps the most stable and prosperous economy in the world right now, the Berlin Wall is but a distant memory.
Photographic slide shows at numerous news outlets (e.g., here, here, and here) have featured the anniversary of this momentous event, comingling black & white images of the wall as a blockade separating a nation along military and ideological lines with black & white and color images of the frenzied destruction of the wall in 1989 and colored images of the current Germany where the least vestiges of what was once remain, mostly random slabs of concrete that once were covered with graffiti and now convey all manner of artistic murals. The transition from black & white to color, from then to now, is telling. But more so is the need to recover what once was if only to remember what had to be overcome. And, of course, public art plays an important part in such recovery.
Public art takes many forms, of course, such a statuary and murals, as well as more transitory forms such as Lichtgrenze 2014, a temporary “light border” of 8,000 illuminated balloons that follows the path of the original Berlin Wall. But most of us, of course, will never be able to experience Lichtgrenze 2014, except of course through the photographic frame. The photograph above is not just a medium for conveying the art project however, but it is its own version of public art. After all, even those who can walk among the lights traversing the path of the wall cannot see it from the god’s eye view that the camera provides, reminding us of the capricious and haphazard trail that the wall followed. Note for example how difficult it is to identify the path of the light border among all the other lights. If you didn’t know what you were looking for you probably would assume that the bluish lights snaking through the city were little more than an ordinary thoroughfare with nothing distinguishing the lighted city on either side of the divide. And so the photograph invites a somewhat unique perspective on the ways in which walls often follow a somewhat arbitrary logic, and how, once they (inevitably) come down, it is easy to forget they were ever there in the first place.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a world historical event, to be sure, so much so that slabs of the wall have been cast to the four winds. One can find them as scattered relics throughout the world in London, Brussels, Haifa, Kingston, Sofia, Moscow, Guatemala City, Porte de Versailles, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, and any number of locations in the United States, including a city block that includes ten segments of the Wall in Los Angeles. And the message, it would seem, is clear enough: However much energy we put into building it and maintaining it, however much we think it can keep things in or keep things out, however much we think it will last forever … in the end it will fall, shards of it preserved as a reminder of the folly that produced it in the first place.
And so, finally there is this photograph of a segment of the wall that sits in Simi Valley, California. Simi Valley is northwest of Los Angeles and the home of the Ronald Reagan Pres-
idential Library where everyone is reminded that it was President Reagan who implored Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.” Simi Valley is also not all that far from where the wall designed to “secure” the border between the United States and Mexico begins its journey from the Pacific Ocean eastward. And so the photograph takes on something of an allegorical quality: mysteriously (ominously?) out of place in what appears to be a scene from the American western frontier, it is hard to know if the sun is setting on a past in which the wall came down, or if it rising on a new epoch of the inevitably failed project of building walls for political purposes.
Photo Credit: Rainer Jensen/EPA; Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
The caption reads, “Head precinct judge Deloris Reid-Smith reads the voter’s oath to poll workers before opening the polls at the Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina November 4, 2014.”
A few people complain occasionally about the fact that voting is conducted in churches. Separation of church and state is more virtual than material some of the time, and so custom rules on this one. Besides, churches often look more like schools, right down to the basketball backboard above the multipurpose flooring. But I digress.
What really counts is how the election is conducted. If done right, the voting procedures will be impartial, without any hint of coercion or corruption, and accessible to all without great inconvenience or other disruptions. It should be so routine that it appears completely ordinary and even banal. At the same time, however, voting must have the safeguards that are applied to any activity that is essential for the survival of the community. Voting is crucial for many questions of collective material and ethical well-being, and it is an absolute necessity for democracy itself. You might even say that maintaining the integrity of the election a sacred obligation.
Which is why this photograph gets it exactly right. We see both the incredibly ordinary, routine, banal decor of everyday life, and the taking of an oath. A place that can be filled with a dozen different activities in the course of a week, now is being dedicated to a single civic duty. Ordinary people who will go their separate ways at the end of the day, are placing their hands together on a Bible in a common testament of their commitment to a fair election. They pledge only that, but it is enough.
Elections today–especially today–are fodder for cynics, and some may see the photograph as an other example of how voting in the US has become an empty ritual. To go further down that path, one might ask where the Koch brothers served as poll workers. The billions spent in the last year did nothing to enhance the integrity of election day, and it would be easy to conclude that the poll workers’ oath is the last, pathetic example of idealism, or niaveté, in the entire system.
That may be true, but at least they, and the photographer, have shown us what election day is supposed to mean.
Photograph by Chris Keane/Reuters.
It’s not quite a Monet, but I think it deserves to framed. Cezanne might be the better comparison, but this photo is more about distance than mass and volume. And curiously, just where it gets close to abstraction, it also gets closest to the stiff demarcations and solid identities of American folk art, which may seem stranger still for an image from Siberia.
The photograph was one of many in a slide show at In Focus on autumnal beauty. Fall is my favorite season, and In Focus one of the best photography sites on the Web, but even so I was prepared to be underwhelmed. I expected to see the same images we always see at this time of year, the same colors, the same sameness. Perhaps this photo seems no different to you; harvest scenes are part of the repertoire and the transition into dormancy and quietude is part of the seasonal mood, so the conventions still are in place.
Consider, however, how the image sits a bit off center, like the hay bales in the photo. The mood is not so much autumnal as more profoundly liminal. Not so much fall in all its glory, but as if we are on the edge of winter, just as the field is on the edge of the lake. And is that deep, solid blue a fall color? It seems to be something out of time, almost as that lake seems out of place in the midst of a harvest scene. For these reasons and more, the photograph strikes me as more distinctive than many of the stock images of the season. And both more beautiful and somewhat unsettling for that.
So what is unsettling, beyond simply deviating a bit from convention? Let me suggest that this image is a masterful study of photography’s subtle deconstruction of spatial perception. Notice how the composition is a series of borders: the strip of snow in the foreground, the strip of field immediately beyond that, the rest of the field, the beach, the lake, the far beach, the strip of trees, the sweeping uplands, the mountains (or are they clouds?), the sky. . . . The visual expanse is a continuous succession of separate, parallel spaces, each of which becomes a border between two others. As they eye transverses from front to back along the empty center axis to the vanishing point, one might conclude that there is no there there. More to the point, the swaths of color and dabs of light seem to have been laid down on the flat surface of a canvas: the distance is but an illusion, a trick of the eye.
And yet we also see the sheer particularity of the pieces of hay sticking out of the two bales in the foreground. They are unquestionably near, while the other bales are far away. So it is that reality and illusion continue to interrupt one another. The same holds across the visual field of the photograph. Every place within the scene has a sense of extension yet also is interrupted by another; each one is unique and yet unable to either connect with or subordinate the others to create a sense of unity. Hence the comparison with Cezanne, as the material autonomy of each part of the work reveals an underlying sense of form, but one that refuses to channel a transcendental unity, leaving instead the specific weight of each part of the painting itself and with that its autonomy, a substitute for transcendence, as a work of art.
But it’s not a painting. And those bales and Lake Belyo are actually in Siberia, which is a very long way from where I am writing this post. Photographs are valued because of how they can bring distant views close at hand, and they are faulted for introducing unnecessary distance between the viewer and reality itself. Both reactions capture important elements of photography’s geographic capacity. This photograph fits either one perfectly: it has brought a distant scene into view, and it encourages aesthetic habits that could buffer my experience of the seasonal changes happening right outside my door. I may become accustomed to scenes that are empty in more ways than one, and yet I have been given a view of a beautiful world that extends far beyond the borders of my daily life.
Let me suggest that the photo takes us beyond this standoff. It suggest not only that any photograph is both far and near (and we knew that), but also that what matters are not the distances but the relationships. The image reflects the compositional processes that create photography’s internal space, with each photograph a virtual world in which space–and time–can expand and contract almost at will, but not to obliterate the distinctions that had been laid down in reality. Likewise, each photograph can be thought of as a liminal space: a threshold between two worlds, each of which in turn can lie between two others in a continuous succession of experiences, none dominating the other. Some appear to be near, others far away, but that may be the most complete illusion.
Photograph by Ilya Naymushin/Reuters.
Photographs of protests from around the globe abound. But whether taken in Hong Kong, the Ukraine, Greece, or almost anywhere else—including the United States—it is often difficult to discern little more than an opposition between police clad in riot gear, wielding shields, batons, and tear gas or pepper spray squaring off against scantily clad dissenters seeking to maintain their presence in a public space. Some protestors prove to be violent, to be sure, though the cause of provocation is never all that clear. But the point is that at least in recent times there appears to be little that distinguishes the unrest that is unraveling state authority almost everywhere. Or to put it differently, it seems like the legitimacy of state power is increasingly pushed to the furthest limits of authority and required to use force to sustain its primacy. Isaac Asimov has one of the main characters in his Foundation trilogy note that “violence is the last resort of the incompetent,” and the point is doubly significant when it is directed at those entrusted with the maintenance of governmental authority.
The photograph above is of a “lego” display that appeared outside of the government headquarters in Hong Kong this past week and the yellow umbrellas clearly mark it as signaling the pro-democracy protests that have dominated news coming out of China for the past month. But apart from the umbrellas that signal the protests in Hong Kong, this could be a conflict anywhere in the world, positioning a faceless state authority against a diverse population of individuals (comparatively diverse, that is, but then there are limits to what one can accomplish with lego figurines). And notice the attitude of the opposition, with the military forces cast in the darkest of tones, carefully arranged in preparation for a military style assault and “the people” dressed in brightly arrayed, ordinary clothing with no particular order to their arrangement, rather as one might expect to find a democratic populace, each moving in its own direction without actually getting in the way of the other. What is most pronounced, however, is the barely visible fence that divides one side from the other and leaves no room for negotiation or compromise. The opposition between state and citizens is stark, and Order must be regimented and maintained at any cost, even at the risk of destroying the society that the state presumably represents and is consigned to protect.
That the meme represented by this lego display (and a scene reproduced in photograph after photograph from conflicts all over the world) is so easily recognizable—even for someone who has paid no attention to the protests in Hong Kong—should alert us to the possibility that there is something larger going on here than a local battle. Of course every particular conflict is rooted in local concerns and animated by very specific objections and complaints that need to be considered, but the larger point is that increasingly the opposition between state authority and the voice of a democratic polity seems to reveal few opportunities for accommodation. And it might leave some wondering if there is room for democratic dissent anymore. It is hard not to be pessimistic.
Occasionally, however, one encounters photographs that offer a more optimistic possibility, and this overhead view of demonstrators gathered in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district might be a case in point. Like with the lego display the vantage point is
from above, though the protest site is now at a greater distance from the viewer. And what we see is both more and less. The immediate sense of opposition is neutralized (or veiled?) by the fact that we see the protest framed by the larger cityscape. The markers of difference between state and citizenry are impossible to discern or distinguish, as one would hope to be the case in a properly democratic order. All are equally cast in a natural darkness, though all are equally illuminated by streetlights and buildings (and perhaps a bit of moonlight), and so the opposition of lightness and darkness loses much of its normative force, and more it is clear that the darkness will soon return all to the light of day, if only for a bit. More important, perhaps, is that the scene marks a high modern society that blends both skyscrapers (and notice the cranes, which indicate continued construction and development) and multitudes of people who appear to be in some measure of harmony with both the city and one another. Indeed, the protest notwithstanding, there is a degree of everyday orderliness to the display, with tents and shelters dispersed through the scene and people milling about as if at a street fair. Order here does not have to concede to rigid regimentation and oppositional dissent does not necessarily have to reduce to drawing a line in the sand.
Of course, the multitudes could become outraged by continued efforts to deny their voice or the state could choose to wield force to have its way, and tragic, bloody violence could easily end up being the order of the day. The point here is not a call for a Pollyanna sensibility about the possibilities for peaceful protest and democratic governance. Rather, it is to suggest that the photographic conventions that too easily pit the state against the people in simplistic terms (as demonstrated by the meme represented by the lego display) are not the only possibility (however “real” they might be in some register), and that taking a longer view (and at some distance) sometimes allows us to imagine other ways of imagining the possibilities available to us.
Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters; Philippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
The caption said, “Health workers enter the high-risk zone as they make the morning rounds at the Bong County Ebola Treatment Unit in Sgt. Kollie Town near Gbarnga, Liberia, Oct. 6, 2014.” Good to know, but not all that is being shown.
So what is being shown? A mirror image, but what is that? And what’s with the visual tricks: isn’t Ebola a serious threat, and shouldn’t the press be emphasizing transparency, clarity, and accountability rather than playing with artistic techniques? We need to know the truth, not be confused about the distinction between image and reality. Or is this a political ruse, taken to suggest that there are more emergency personnel available than is actually the case? Or a critical comment that the number of health care workers needs to be doubled?
Whatever the answers, it might help to ponder the fact that the photographer risked his life to create this photograph. And once at risk, he certainly could have concentrated only on straight-forward reportage, keeping any obvious distractions out of the picture. Yet here we have a photograph that comes with a built-in distraction: divided between a mirror image and the scene reflected, one’s gaze is pulled back and forth, never able to settle on one focal point without having the other as a peripheral vision that disturbs concentration.
Curiously, the second image is troubling precisely because it is too similar to what is being seen directly. Just about anything else could either be disregarded or given direct attention, but the double image keeps undercutting its own validity even as it demonstrates its representational power. Instead of demarcating reality, the image is too close for comfort, uncanny, and suggestive of a truly profound disorientation. Which side is real? How can we tell? What if the mirror has been mirrored?
This discomfort is part of photography’s DNA. Originally valued for its ability to replicate nature, the technology also has fueled anxieties about reality being displaced by an image world. When photographers feature mirror images, they automatically make viewing reflexive, bent back to include both the subject of the photograph and its techniques of composition. The double image reminds us that we are seeing an image rather than reality, and suggests how we can see more, not less, because of that.
The media panic about Ebola has involved massive injections of fear regarding viral replication, contagion, and the ultimate displacement of death, so perhaps an image of photographic doubling can channel or otherwise contain some of the excess emotion. Instead of panic, the doubled image is reflective, creating a space for a slower, more meditative response. Instead of death by contagion, we see an artificial replication that is benign and yet perhaps suited to representing the social system that develops quickly to contain the disease.
And yet, like the oscillation in the image itself, this reflective moment can’t be entirely comforting. The scene is doubly surreal: as if hazmat suits and goggles, emergency tents and water brigades, and the transformation of extraordinary suffering into routines of risk management weren’t enough to deal with, those many dislocations of ordinary life have been doubled, replicated, cast into a space of reproduction that could extend repeatedly around the globe without ever becoming a place one would want for one’s own.
You can decide how much of that picture is image, and how much is reality.
Photograph by Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times.
Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.
By some persistent, traditional accounts photographic representation is driven by a technological determinism that derives its power from the mechanical capture and reproduction of an event. Accordingly, the fundamental measure of a photograph is its indexicality, i.e., the photograph establishes that the thing was there to be photographed. This position has been critiqued by those who underscore the difference between analogue and digital photographs as if the question of indexicality could be reduced to measurement of a positive reality. But of course there are two problems with this that underline what seems to be a naïve and simplistic sense of “the real.” First, of course, we can never fully test the accuracy of the positive existence of the indexical reality presumably represented because every photograph is always a representation of a transient moment in the past. The best we can measure it against is human memory which, as we know, is fallible in multiple registers. Second, even the best analogue photograph offers a two dimensional representation of the scene recast which inevitably flattens the thing represented (and even stereographic representations, analogue’s predecessor to 3D digital technologies, was an illusion of two dimensional representation). If the “real” is to mean something useful in the discourse of photography it is going to have to avoid such naiveté and offer a more complex sense of photographic realism.
I cannot offer such a theory here today, though we begin to develop such an approach in forthcoming work, but the photograph above does offer something of a gesture to what such a theory might include. Here we have a photograph of a man painting a scene which is included in the photograph. The painting has an impressionistic quality to it underscoring the role of the imagination in recasting the scene before him. But the photograph is not simply about the painting of the scene or the man doing the painting, but rather calls our attention to how his creativity is important to making sense out of the photographic event itself. In an important sense the photograph is divided between foreground and background, of the man and his painting and of the scene that his being painted. The lens is wide open and so the depth of field is wide, teasing the eye to move back and forth between the shaded areas in the foreground and the natural light that illuminates the background. And in the end it is almost impossible to settle one’s vision on one vs. the other for very long. In short the photograph implores us to reflect on the relationship between the role of realism and imagination in making sense out of what we are seeing.
We might thus call this photograph a representative anecdote for the “photograph matrix” that always and already consists of both a referential (or indexical) orientation and an imaginative orientation. Any photograph is both more or less a record of what has happened, and more or less an artistically enhanced experience, both more or less empirical, and more or less interpretive, both more or less accurate, and more or less suggestive. The point here is that photographs –whether analogue or digital—operate in the interspace between reality and imagination. The camera records the surface of the world like no other instrument, but the truth of what is shown can be realized only through an act of imagination. Stated otherwise, the photograph is inherently not reducible to a simplistic realism, but is instead a heterogeneous object where different sources of meaning intersect, and the intersections are lodged in the formal design and explored through interpretation. How those intersections occur is the subject for another time, but for now it is enough to note the need for a complex photographic realism that is not reduced to a simple or naïve notion of indexicality and such a conception needs to think hard about the inherent– necessary–connection between the real and the imaginative.
Photo Credit: Carols Barria/Reuters (Caption: An Artist paints a picture of a pro-democracy site near government buildings in Hong Kong.)