NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

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. . . .

January 21st, 2015

The Serenity of Networks

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

containers & snow

It could be a circuit board, or a strip of DNA, or a bit of jewelry, or a painting.  Whatever it is, it is orderly, yet not too severe; colorful, but no riot of brash hues; uniform, yet also pleasantly varied; textured, but simply so; a collection of many things, but still a study in form; abstract, yet somehow familiar–almost like crayons in a box, although it may be much bigger than that.  Small/large, micro/macro, ordered/varied, colored/white, delighting the eye yet immobile, still, serene.

The caption said, “Snow covered containers decorate the port of Rotterdam, The Netherlands on January 15, 2013.”  You really don’t see a port, though, or anything quite so institutional.  The key is in the verb: “decorate.”  Exactly right.   And “snow covered” is right, too, even though it’s not literally correct: many of them are not covered with snow, but the phrase captures the feel of the image, the way in which the ordinary sense of things can be covered by a blanket of snow and seemingly transformed, as if by magic, into something quiet and beautiful.  Or, you might say, the way snow can damp down the ordinary way of seeing objects–that is, in all their detailed functionality–so that we can experience the quietude that always lies in the small spaces between things.

Let me suggest that there is another sense of serenity that also might be available here.  Like the snow, the shipping containers are only in a temporary repose.  They have moved and will move again, to flow though circuits of trade that span the globe.  The miniaturization achieved by the camera symbolizes the relationship of this one scene to the vast, dense circuitry of the global economy.  What it captures, however, is not the dynamic movement of goods, information, and capital, but rather the stability in the system as a whole.  That stability is not inert–like the weather, it is one feature of a system that is constantly changing–but there can be something to admire in its impersonal replication, week after week, month after month, like strands of DNA replicating again and again within a global organism.

From the view on the ground, this is nonsense, of course.  The shipping industry consists of thousands of variable decisions being made at every level, all while being buffeting by winds of change over which they have no control: government policies, market conditions, technological developments, even the weather.  But that’s why the view from above can be valuable.  Instead of seeing only competition, friction, and another day’s work, we can see the deep sense of decoration: how the small ornament can mirror a cosmos.

“The serenity of networks” alludes to one of the classic works on the Internet: The Wealth of Networks, by Yochai Benkler.  His title in turn alludes to The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith.  The relationship between digital networks and market economies is still being explored, but each has prompted the dream that we can find in the impersonal processes of large-scale exchange something more reliable than the political behavior that so often disrupts, destabilizes, and leads to want, anxiety, and anger.  The dream is not impossible, but it will not be realized without political organization.

If only that politics could start with an image such as the one above.  An image that is surely decorative, but not merely so, as it also suggests how abundance can be a stable resource, orderly yet varied, complex yet reliable, grounded in what we do well and not in ignorance, fear, and anger, waiting only to be distributed where it is needed.  Something that could be done, you know. . . .

Photograph by Robin Utrecht/EPA.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

January 19th, 2015

On Not Seeing the Homeless

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

sleep20

Homelessness in the United States persists. Estimates vary, but by most conservative accounts 3.5 million people experience homeless each year. That said, it is only a mere 1% of the population. And the number has actually declined a small bit in the past few years. No problem, right?

But consider this: 35% are families with children, 25% are under the age of 18, 23% are military veterans, 30% have been the victims of domestic violence, and, no surprise here, 25% suffer from some form of mental illness. The problem is significant, in other words, and many of the most vulnerable are in little position to do anything to help themselves. And so the socially conscious continue to pursue awareness campaigns.

The photograph above is from Cape Cod, MA, where 27 high school students “slept in cardboard boxes and took turns playing in a 10-hour continuous soccer game throughout the night.” The effort is well-intentioned and even honorable, but the question is: what do we see? Or perhaps, more to the point, what are we being shown? Not the homeless—or their condition—that’s for sure.

There is something of an irony here. At its heart, a huge part of the problem with homelessness is that it is a human condition that we are conditioned not to see; indeed, it is a social phenomenon that we actively turn our head away from: as children we are told not to stare and as adults we look through the homeless on our streets as if they were altogether invisible. And so, of course, the need for awareness. But there’s the rub: As much as we seem to try to animate awareness we do it by turning attention away from the thing itself and to those who no doubt feel righteous in their service to a larger cause. And as with this photograph we complicate the problem further by substituting faux homelessness for the real thing.

Look closely at the photograph. Those sleeping “in cardboard boxes” is a bit of a misnomer. They look more like children who have constructed a play fort in their living room or basement more than anything approximating a homeless person consigned to sleeping in a tattered and used cardboard box. They all look well fed. While they are surrounded by a wall of cardboard they are actually sleeping in what look to be clean and warm sleeping bags with more pillows than they know what to do with; comfortable and content, they rest with their faces fully exposed to the world as if without a care in the world. And why not. After all, they are not exposed to the elements. There is no rain or snow or cold to contend with and the bright lights of the gymnasium add an extra level of security that those sleeping in parks or alleys or under highway by-passes and bridges can rarely if ever rely upon. Those not sleeping are playing soccer, another sign that all is safe and secure. And, of course, when morning comes they will return to their homes—no longer homeless!—where breakfast and their own warm beds await.

So again, what are we being shown? The all too easy answer is the efforts of young people working to right a social wrong the best way that they know how. And the photograph certainly does that. But more than that it also shows how easy it is to sentimentalize a profound and complex social condition, to invoke the pathos necessary to action—and for that matter to access our very humanity—and at the same time to contain and direct such emotions away from the actual problem itself. Instead of seeing the homeless and the common problem that it poses for a liberal democratic society, once again we are encouraged to look elsewhere.

Credit: Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe Staff

January 14th, 2015

Where Can You Take a Visual Joke?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

ballheadman

One answer would be in India, as with this photo.  Why you would do so may be harder to say.  The visual joke has been one of the lines of demarcation between amateur photography and photojournalism.  Families and friends delight in them, but the pros avoid them for obvious reasons: the basic technique and typical examples are born cliched, and the practice of documentary photography is known in part by its attitude of seriousness.  When some journalists are getting killed, others know better than to goof off.

There are exceptions, however.  This photo was among those labeled “Editor’s Choice” at the Reuters website.  More significantly, Elliott Erwitt is a photographer of the first rank, and he always has had a fondness for the visual joke.  (See how easy it would have been to say “a weakness for the visual joke”?)  His gag photos–e.g., of a dog’s head in place of its master’s–are numerous.  More important, they are part of a social vision that is comic in the deep sense of the term: at once objective and generous, Erwitt depicts human frailty and social artifice as they are each the common lot and saving grace of our human condition.  From that perspective, visual jokes are not merely low level entertainment but also invitations to tolerate each others’ imperfections, and to find moments of accidental joy in what might otherwise be a dreary day.

In the wake of the murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff for publishing political cartoons, the question of “Where can you take a visual joke?” acquires additional significance.  It also has multiple meanings.  One might ask where you can create and publish such humor, and where the jokes can be taken for what they are (and not, say, blasphemy), and where you can take them to do other things (say, entertain your friends or engage in political advocacy), and where you can take them now that you have offended someone (as in the American idiom of “you can take that and shove it up your . . . “).  This last sense is not trivial, even if does have a range, e.g., from merely violating professional norms to risking death at the hands of evil men.

Perhaps this context contributed to the decision at Reuters to feature a photo of a man with a soccer ball for a head.  If so, the gesture can be appreciated, but there is reason enough without it to admire the photograph.  The substitution of the white ball with its geometric lines for a human face conforms neatly to Scott McLeod’s theory of the identification evoked by cartoon characters, which, because they are relatively featureless, match our interior and necessarily schematic sense of self rather than our experiences of how others look.  Thus, the faceless figure prompts the viewer to look at another person from a distant place as a way to see oneself.  What you might see is up to you, but it does matter that you can see it, or a hint of it, in someone who is not you.

That abstract sense of the individual is reflected in the simplicity of the rest of the scene.  The barren yet textured field creates the perceptual ground against which the central figure is defined.  The fences surrounding the athletic field create a sense of enclosure, almost as if it were a prison yard or military base, which is matched emotionally by the morning fog.  The man’s posture and hands suggest attentive focus of mind and body, just as the uniform, equipment, field, and the routine itself–keeping the ball in the air as he marches down the field–all are part of a disciplined practice. He is not joking, but he is demonstrating the intense involvement in a single activity that is the mark of play and of work at its best.  Some might say that the fusion of work and play is civilization at its best, and that excessive separation of the two is a downward path.  Jokes might be closer to our higher selves than we think.

The photographer was joking, just a bit, anyway, as the image involves taking delight in the obvious artifice of the camera.  In a week when there isn’t much to joke about, the small moment of levity provided here might be thought of as a moment of grace.  And as a reminder that life goes on, especially if you are in a place where you can take a joke.

Photograph by Jayanta Dey/Reuters.

December 14th, 2014

NCN on Holiday Break

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Chicago church angels

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.

December 8th, 2014

’Tis the Season …

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Xmas Joy

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

 

December 3rd, 2014

The Beatings Will Continue

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

until morale improves.

Hong Kong beating

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.

November 16th, 2014

NCN Fall Break

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Two guys3

We’ll be offline for two weeks–some travel, a conference, and the Thanksgiving holiday–to return on December 1.

November 10th, 2014

And The Wall Came Tumbling Down

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory


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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-

Screenshot 2014-11-09 21.51.25

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

 

November 5th, 2014

Keeping the Faith on Election Day

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

poll workers oath

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.

October 29th, 2014

What Is Near and Far in the Geography of an Image?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Hay bales, Belyo Lake, Siberia

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.

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