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. . . .

April 16th, 2014

Images of Spring: Prettiness or Presence?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

The slide shows now contain photographs of cherry blossoms, crocuses poking through the snow, and other Scenes of Spring.  The images are as predictable as the return of the season.  And perhaps just as welcome to many people.  (It snowed where I live yesterday, so I’m more than ready to see things bloom again.)  You won’t see many of those images being held up as models of Engaged Photography, however.  And that may be, if not a mistake, at least a missed opportunity.

Spring forest

This photograph is a wonderful image of spring, and we could just leave it there.  Let me use it as a case in point, however.  On the one hand, it is easy to disparage the image: It is merely pretty and so caters to “aesthetic consumerism”; it is a brief glance at a distant place seen without commitment, and so a form of “tourism” that sets up “a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world”; instead of bringing us closer to the world, it “anesthetizes” us to the real feelings of direct experience and contributes to “a depleted sense of reality”; instead of prompting artistic engagement or thoughtful reflection, it makes “distinctive and vivid artifacts out of cliches” and is “the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”  (If you guessed that all of the quotations came from Susan Sontag, you would be right.)

On the other hand, that’s not exactly a generous attitude toward either the medium of photography or the world it depicts.  Frankly, those are not the first trees or flowers that I’ve seen, so claims about a glancing encounter need to be recalibrated against the shared experience of a common world that is part of the context–and contribution–of photography.  And the fact that a stock image is being recycled needs to be put in the context of the cycles of nature: photographs, like flowers, may be following deep patterns of repetition but are no less remarkable or welcome for that.  And so it goes: the arguments can be dismantled, but sadly the attitude too often remains–and, we should add, is recycled as much as any other cliche.

So why don’t we take a breath and look at the photograph again?  You are looking at Bluebells carpeting a forest near Halle, south of Brussels, Belgium.  Doesn’t it elicit a sense of wonder: say, that natural beauty could be at once so delicate and so profuse?  (Philosophy begins in wonder, according to Plato.)  I think it offers something more as well: a sense of immanence, that is, of how the world is suffused with an abundant indwelling of energy, divinity, call-it-what-you-will: something that is beautiful and sustaining, a presence beyond understanding, beyond representation, that nonetheless suffuses all of reality.

Photography always can be faulted for mediating experience that could otherwise be apprehended directly.  (Philosophical arguments remain, but let the point stand in terms of relative levels of everyday experience.)  But it also can make us aware of what eludes attention precisely because it is so much a part of our experience of the world.  A sense of presence, for example.  Something that is offered to us every spring, and every time we look at a photograph.

Photograph by Yves Logghe/Associated Press.

April 14th, 2014

“… My Kingdom for a Drink of Water”

Posted by Lucaites in boots and hands, no caption needed

Water, Water, Water ...

Yes, I know, the quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard III concerns horses and not water, but then there was a time when horses were scarcer than water and at least arguably more important to survival.  Those days are gone. And we didn’t need the most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to make the point or to underscore its importance.  Such reports have been made over and again in recent years indicating that water shortages are accelerating throughout the world as patterns of industrial and agricultural usage are increasingly polluting both ground water and the water table, and consumption is outstripping renewable sources at progressively alarming rates. Nor is the problem one that is only taking place in underdeveloped regions or nations, as those living in California or West Texas can immediately and readily attest.

The photograph above is not from California or West Texas, but shows those living on the southern bank of the Yangon River in Myanmar using paint cans to collect drinking water during the annual dry season in which water shortages have led to the drying up of the reservoirs, forcing local elders to create rationing systems.  And yet, while it is not California or West Texas it is not all that difficult to imagine how it could be in the altogether near future—or perhaps one of the other 34 states that the GAO anticipates will face water shortages in the near term.  To get the point one needs to avoid focusing on the bare feet and rusted out paint cans that have been repurposed as water containers, let alone the brown skin, all of which underscore something other than a first world experience, and concentrate instead on how the photograph directs attention to the way(s) in which the need for water dominates everyday life in an otherwise visually indistinct location.  There was a time when we would look at photographs of exotic locations and imagine that “their present is our past”; what we see here, however, is the way in which water is the great leveler that perhaps predicts that their present is our future.

The photograph did not receive much attention in the national media.  I found it in a “pictures of the day” slide show at the Seattle Times nestled between images of a moving sculpture at a music festival in California and men warming themselves at a fire near the barricades at a Ukrainian security office proximate to the Russian border.  As one more sluice of life incidentally contrasting the hardships of life “there” to the fun and festivities of life “here,” it would be altogether easy to miss, or merely to glance past without paying too much attention to it. Indeed, there was a time, not so long ago, when photographs of this sort would show up in places like National Geographic where readers would be encouraged to view the “present” of indigenous people in such exotic locations as “our past,” the assumption being that one day they too can experience the progress that modernity promises; here, however, it would seem that their present is cast as “our future.”  Or more to the point, it is a future that is already present without our clear recognition of it.

What makes the photograph all the more poignant is not just the way in which it serves as a kind of foreboding prophecy, but more, as it functions as something of an allegory for how to imagine the very problem of water shortage itself.  Note how the scene underscores the necessity of performing a careful balancing act, both socially and environmentally, to make the system of water recovery work. More to the point, note in particular not just how feet and hands strain so as to maintain equipoise on the balancing beam, but also how both participants need to coordinate with the other so as to avoid disrupting the overall ecology in which each operates. Whether or not we can actually adjust our contemporary patterns of resource usage and consumption so as to effect a sustainable world is open to question. But it will take effort and strain, and surely the appeal to “balance” that makes this system appear to work is more than worth the effort; indeed, it seems altogether necessary.

The bigger point, of course, is that solutions to such problems are right before us if we are willing to see them.  And photographs such as this, however subtle or otherwise hidden within the visual landscape, can serve as a powerful optic to help us do just that.  Look.  See. Engage.

Credit:  Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

April 9th, 2014

Alien/Icon: When The Copy Helps Us See Anew

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Imagine that there had been no Eiffel Tower, and then one day we woke up and there it was, an alien structure planted on the banks of the Seine.  Had that happened, it might have looked like this:

Eifffel Tower Fleishman

The Tower has been up for 125 years as of this March, and it surely is one of the iconic structures of the modern world.  This can be faint praise, of course, because it also marks the fact that the structure has become one of the high water marks for kitschy knock-offs, from the tiny (and not so tiny) replicas that are hawked by street vendors every ten feet at the site, to the post cards, earrings, T-shirts, ceramic plates, and other merchandise you can find all over the world, to the giant replica (with hotel and restaurant!) in Las Vegas, to–not least–the billions of photographs that have been taken of what arguably is one of the most photographed monuments in the universe.

How, then, might one take a photograph that could somehow avoid being just another copy of the image that everyone already knows all too well?  The Tower is now always already a copy of itself, something that you can never see for the first time, an image of an image of an image that extends in every direction through media space, never to return to being a unique experience.  This was the problem that photographer Lauren Fleishman faced when she set out to commemorate the monument for Time.

Well, I think that with at least this one shot, she pulled it off.  (You can see the slide show here.)  In doing so, she may have gone beyond her own intention, which was “to show what the tower means to people, both Parisians and tourists alike.”  Now, let me be clear: that is exactly the right intention, as both icons and photographs are artifacts that acquire their meaning through use, that is, through the many ways that many different people use them to make sense of their world, enjoy their free time, or do whatever else needs to be done to get through the day or the era.  The Tower means what it means to people, and if that involves wearing it on your bracelet or embracing your lover in a gush of romantic sentimentality, I won’t be the one to say it’s been done before.

But that’s not what we have been given with the photograph above.  The Tower is too distant to be romantic, too imposing to be just another copy, too self-contained to be welcoming, and altogether too strange to be a familiar landmark in the cultural landscape.  Indeed, it has almost become somewhat illegible again, which really would get you back to the moment of origin, when people saw it being erected and then completed and were by turns astonished, enraptured, or appalled.  The strange achievement of lace-like ironwork, the fearful symmetry and incredible sweep from massive structure to sheer ascension as if into flight, the sense that it somehow represents modern, industrialized civilization but without any specific reference, message, or ideal being communicated, the uncanny lack of functionality in a structure that seems the perfect synthesis of form and function. . . . These and other features of the artwork will infuse in some small degree every encounter with the Tower, no matter how cliched, but here they are brought to the fore again, as if we were seeing it for the first time.

What is most important here, I think, is that “seeing it for the first time” requires seeing how it eludes comprehension, how its purpose is not obvious, how this most obviously constructed thing nonetheless appears to not be the work of human enterprise.  As much as modern culture elevates artistic creativity about mere functional values, we don’t like to think of ourselves as erecting monuments to meaninglessness.  And yet that is the beauty of this photograph: the city has all but disappeared, the monument towers above the few boats moored along the riverbank, and that gorgeous sky extends outward, as if for another civilization to arrive and inspect the ruins.

Icons provide familiar beacons for navigating the human world.  I suspect that one reason familiarity is so important is that we want to forget that we are the alien species.  That the human world is a built environment which is essentially meaningless on any other terms but our own.  That we make things meaningful both through invention and through endless copying.  That to understand humanity, we need to become strange to ourselves.  Such are the lessons that might be learned when a copy makes us see anew.

Photograph by Lauren Fleishman/Time.

March 31st, 2014

As Time Goes By

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory

Kiss in war

Two lovers caught in a passionate embrace.  He on the left, she on the right.  Their faces barely recognizable as their bodies meld into one another.  Oblivious to all that surrounds them, it is a tender, private, intimate moment in a public space.

At first blush it could be two individuals (once again) performing the now famous Times Square Kiss in a modern setting.  But look again.  The differences are both subtle and profound.  Neither is wearing a recognizable uniform.  She is actively engaged in the kiss, her arms pulling him towards her as much as (if indeed not more than) he is pulling her towards him. Notice for example how his right arm seems barely to be holding her while her arms reach fully around him, holding him in place. More interesting still is the fact that she is holding a slab of concrete in one hand, her finger nails giving the impression of being freshly manicured.  If the sign of the kiss in the original photograph was animated by an aggressive, masculine representation of state military power, here the kiss is no less a sign of aggression—it is hard to imagine that the concrete slab would be used as anything other than a weapon, particularly given that the caption tells us that this is taken at the site of a protest—but it is now no longer institutionalized by the state and it is gendered feminine.  Last, and perhaps most important, while the kissers are plainly and visibly in a public space, there are no onlookers who can channel a public attitude about what is going on.  Indeed, there is a clear sense of voyeurism here as we, the viewers, seem to be intruding on an altogether private moment.

 So what are we to make of this photograph?  The caption identifies the kissers as protestors in Caracas, Venezuela, the site of prolonged and massive public protests against rampant crime, protracted food shortages, and an altogether ineffective and authoritarian government.  The government crackdown against such protests has resulted in nearly forty deaths and hundreds of injuries, leading to demands for investigation by the Organization of American States (OAS).  That too has produced its own manner of controversy as the OAS leadership challenged the legitimacy of opposition leader Maria Corina Machado to address the body.  When she was finally allowed to speak, the sessions were held behind closed doors; one member of the OAS noted that the meetings would be conducted “With total transparency: In privacy.” The photograph above seems to mock this “war is peace, slavery is freedom” logic as it failingly purports to perform intimacy in a public space under the broken veil of privacy.  There may be no viewing public observable to legitimize the union, but then of course there is the camera and our own spectatorial gaze which gives the lie to the whole process.  Transparency in private is at best a comfortable fiction and at worst an intentional deception.

There is an additional dimension to the photograph that bears attention, and it has relatively little to do per se with the economic and political turmoil in Venezuela.  Instead, it concerns how we understand  Alfred Eisenstadt’s Times Square Kiss and all it stands for in our cultural memory.  The original kiss photograph took place on the occasion of VJ Day and the end of World War II.  It is often remarked as illustrating the return to normalcy.  But its contrast with the image above helps to reveal how constructed the conventions of such normalcy can be: men kissing women, women being kissed; the legitimation of violence as a manifestation of masculine, state governed military institutions; the forced separation of Eros and Thanatos; the performance of intimacy in public, and so on.  All such constructions—or should we call them “comfortable fictions”— indicate a particular worldview, to be sure, and perhaps even one that we might want to endorse, but the point is that it is particular, not universal.  Each photograph shows “a” truth, or many such truths, but certainly not “the” truth, however objective the photographic representation of the event on hand might be.

As the song says, a kiss is just a kiss … or is it?

Photo Credit: Christian Veron/Reuters

March 26th, 2014

What Is Photography’s Subject?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Well, cows, of course.  And cats and puppy dogs and little kids with ice cream cones.  And did I mention cows?

Cattle in Iceland

These beauties are crowding up to get a taste of that sweet, green grass, which smells soooo good.  OK, the photo probably was posed; that grass may have just been there, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  And is Cute really photography’s subject?  The short answer is no, despite the millions of cutesie images in family albums, on company bulletin boards, on Facebook pages, and elsewhere around the home, office, and Web.

And this blog stays away from Cute (OK, not entirely, there are exceptions, they can be explained. . . . ), so what’s with posting up these cows from a farm near Kirkjubæjarklaustur in south Iceland?   The not so short answer is that the image was selected because it’s a stretch from what I want to say about photography; if the argument can stick here, it will apply many other places as well.

So what’s the argument?  First, some context.  From its inception photography has been understood to be characteristically modern.  The photograph was a technological innovation, unknown to all prior civilizations, and it was experienced initially amidst “vast changes in society and in culture” created by startling advances in science, technology, industrialization, and urbanization (Alan Trachtenberg, Classic Essays on Photography, ix).  Nor has this representative aura diminished as modern life became saturated with images: successive developments from the hand-held camera to color photography to digitization have been symbols of progress and lightening rods for anxiety about change.  Where early commentators lauded its likely value to the sciences while debating whether it would help or harm the arts, today the scope of its influence is summed up in the claim that Photography Changes Everything.  In the supposedly innocent act of objectively recording the world, photography has changed the way people in modern societies see everything, and with that, it has changed how they think, feel, relate to one another, and otherwise share a common world, that is, a culture.

Such comprehensive change is what it means to become modern: the common world of photography is the world as it is observed and imagined within a modern society.  That culture is, by definition, ambivalent in respect to questions of value, for modernization has always been experienced as both creative and destructive, marked by both gain and loss, producing winners and losers, as these are inevitable outcomes of continuous and often radical change.  Famine disappears, but so does tradition.  Prosperity increases, but so does loneliness.  One can “see the world,” and watch jobs migrate to other countries.  So it is that photography bears responsibility for another burden, the weight of modernity itself as it presses down on society.  Both effect and cause of modernization, agency of both enlightenment and alienation, instrument of both civilizational progress and the deadening uniformity of a machine age, photography is in the curious position of being an inexpensive medium having very high stakes.

The quality of the discourse on photography probably turns on how it handles the medium’s relationship to modernity.  One reason the critical discourse authored by Susan Sontag, Alan Sekula, John Berger, and others has become so important is that it took photography’s relationship with modernity very seriously. What was equally important, however, was that the emphasis was on the negative consequences.  Whatever positive benefits had accrued were taken for granted, while the task of critique logically focused attention of what had gone wrong.  And apparently a lot had gone wrong:  As Sontag announced: “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.  Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution” (On Photography, p. 24.)

If that sounds a tad harsh, well, it is a tad harsh.  The authors of this blog believe the time has come for a paradigm shift, that is, for a more sophisticated discourse on photography that can better account for the full range of photographic experiences and effects, as well as the complexity of the relationship between photography and modernity.  It would take too long to do that in small steps, so let me set out a different proposition, one that doesn’t refute Sontag directly, but instead offers a different point of departure, different questions, and a different approach toward how those questions might be answered.  (Needless to say, that’s what this blog has been trying to do for several years, but perhaps success is just around the corner.)

And so we get to the argument: What is most important about photography is not that it requires machine age and now computer age technologies, or that its products can be reproduced cheaply (and now ever more cheaply) and widely (and now ever more widely).  Though shaped by these attributes, the single most important characteristic of photography is that its distinctive content is modernity itself.

Literature, painting, film and any other art are not locked in to the depiction of the present, and they are free to take up any topic or theme one might wish.  They are produced in the present and will inevitably reflect the conditions of their time, but they have the freedom to go where they will.  Their significance comes from being works of art, and only then from concerns about relevance.  Photography, however, is nothing if it is not about something, and about something that is happening now or that influenced the present or should be faced in the present.  Likewise, a literary or plastic art is defined primarily by its relationship to the history of that art.  Photography’s history, by contrast, is a very weak force.  Because the reality principle is primary, the aesthetic form has to cohere with that principle rather than bend the image too much along the lines of an artistic tradition.  More conventionally, most arts are valued as their work can become “timeless,” a transcendent status reflecting their mastery of artistic technique to fully realize a mode of perception or express an essential truth about human nature.  Photography is never timeless.  Instead, it is defined by its relation to the conditions of its making and always caught in the dilemma of recording a continually disappearing present.

These formal considerations are the least of it, however.  The relationship to modernity may be contingent, an accident of birth or development that bonded the medium to the self-awareness of its historical epoch.  It now is set, however: photography is the archive of vernacular life, displayed to allow reflection on how everyone is being affected by the ongoing changes that define modern societies.

Photography thus is a representative practice of modern life to a greater extent than Sontag and other critics imagined.  It not only carries all the defining features and troubling effects of modernization and democratization, but also casts all of modern life into a reflective space.  Photography doesn’t merely record modern society, it provides a performative re-enactment of how that society gets through the day, how it is made up of multiple ways of seeing from a stolen glance to satellite images of cities aglow at night, and whether it is moving into a future of continued progress or impending catastrophe.

Thus, photography puts the world on parade, and let’s hear it for parades, but its most important function is to mirror modern society.  Its subject matter is whatever is of enough interest to become framed by a viewfinder, but its content is the continuing and somewhat indirect discovery and questioning of what it means to be modern.

Which is why I decided to go with the cows. The photography may be Cute, or a sympathetic glimpse into a culture of animal husbandry, or an uncanny encounter with the idea that cows can be closer to pets than many people realize, or a direct contrast with the brutal feedlots of modern agribusiness, but it is something else as well.  It is another small part of the ongoing chronicle of modernity.  Of how modern civilization still includes living near large animals, and still has some space (albeit in Iceland) for them to be raised humanely, and yet clearly sees them as apart, more a part of nature to be managed for human use rather than participants within our social world, and (as alluded above) of how we know–but prefer not to think about–that most of them are used much more callously–and so forth and so on.  One could say it’s not really about cows at all, but about how modern society is disposed to think about and treat cows, right down to using the Cute Pet hook to get an audience in the first place.

In addition, the photo could be another, very small example of how photography changes everything, that is, how it is part of modern technological, economic, and cultural processes that continually destroy or transform the traditional world and then do the same to modern societies as well.  And an example of how those changes need not all be negative.  For example, we might consider how by becoming photographed the cows acquire a provisional equality of some sort with the species taking the photograph.  If so, perhaps a more advanced version of modernity, one of greater dignity for more species, is also suggested here, albeit as the exception during one of the great die-offs in natural history, a cataclysm caused by the unfettered expansion of modern civilization.

Like I said, the argument may come down to the cows after all.

Photograph by Erlendur Gudmundsson from the National Geographic Daily Dozen, March 11, 2014.

 

March 24th, 2014

Playing Jeopardy

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Sticks and Stones

Photographs of Palestinians hurling stones or aiming slingshots  at Israeli troops are a dime a dozen.  They are so common that we don’t even need to see the Israelis, or for that matter a caption, to know what it is that we are being shown.   Indeed, a week barely goes by without one or two such photographs appearing in this or that mainstream internet news slideshows, lodged, as the image above, in between images of pole dancers in Sydney, grief-stricken relatives of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a farmer racing his Oxen through a rice paddy at the annual Kakkoor Kalavayal festival (it is in India, look it up, I had to!), and sunbathers in Nice.

So what exactly is going on here? By one account the stone throwers are performing for the camera, and there may be some of that going on, but such an account begs the question as to why the photographers are so invested in the activity to begin with or why photo editors are so willing to pay heed to the images and to give them pride of place in their publications with such regularity.  One could argue that there is an anti-Israeli influence operating in the western media, as such images feature a stateless people fighting against a modern military state with the most primitive of weapons; but then again, one could just as easily also argue that there is a pro-Israeli influence in as much as what we are being shown are criminal malcontents disrupting the prevailing order of a legitimate, modern state.  And there is the rub, for in an important sense such photographs leave the question entirely open to discussion.

There are two thoughts worth considering here.  The first concerns the regularity of such photographs and their often random placement in slideshows that make them seem to be rather routine and ordinary events, if not also something like exotic curiosities on the order of annual pole dancing competitions, oxen races, or sunbathers.  From this perspective, of course, the viewer is cast as a passive spectator witnessing an event from afar with little real investment in what is going on.  There is something of a performative contradiction in this practice as the very regularity of the event, which should incline us to focus on its tragic significance—and I mean “tragic” regardless one’s particular political sympathies—seems to work against that understandng.  This is not a matter of so-called “compassion fatigue,” but rather an instance of turning attention against itself such that the regularity of the event normalizes it and thus mitigates its importance.  Ah yes, it’s springtime and so the sunbathers are out once again.  And the beat goes on.  And so the question might be, what is the point of the weekly slideshow and how are photos chosen for inclusion?

But there is a second and perhaps more pertinent concern:  If we take the time to look at the photograph as a singular event, what is it that our attention is being directed to?  Susan Sontag makes the point that photographs lack “a” narrative.  The article is important, for it is true enough that there is no single narrative animated by or contained by any photograph.   That is not the same, however, as saying that there are no narratives.  And indeed, as I’ve suggested above, there are at least two operative within this image, one which casts the Israeli state as the protagonist and one which casts it as the antagonist.   Perhaps both are correct.  And there are likely other narratives as well.  The point is that the photograph directs our attention to “an” event without necessary definition and encourages us—or more properly helps us —to imagine the range and register of useful questions to pose.

In a sense, engaging photographs is rather like playing the game of Jeopardy.  And the point, of course, is always to put your answer in the form of a question.

Photo Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

March 16th, 2014

NCN Taking A Break

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

hounds

We’re traveling this week and may even get some down time, so the next new post will be on March 24.  See you then.

Photograph by Daniel Karmann/AFP-Getty Images.

March 14th, 2014

What Happens When Photography Imitates Art?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Screen shot 2014-03-12 at 9.17.07 PM

You can see why I asked the question.  Like the caption itself (“Still Life”), every detail of the composition connects directly to the art of painting, and to its history and within that to a specific genre, and within that to a particular style.  And “composition” refers to both the technical values of the image and the careful arrangement of the objects that were photographed.  There is nothing accidental here, and so the intention seems clear: to create an image, and response, that would as closely as possible approximate the experience of viewing a work of fine art.

Which would be enough to make some critics go ballistic.  From Baudelaire to Sontag and beyond, the censors’ reactions have been clear.  It is only an approximation, and a cheap one at that, they say.  The skill that is supposedly on display–and that was reason for the existence and value of the genre in the first place–is in fact being supplied by the camera.  Oh, sure, some technical craft is involved, just as is the case with arranging the table, or for that matter a department store window, but it can be learned in hours, not the years that would be required to paint such an image.  Worse, that de-skilling is matched by a loss of value in the work and in the audience.  Finely wrought images become cheap things to be admired and as quickly forgotten.  Because of the easy reproduction of the image, the artwork loses the aura that comes from being experienced within a tradition, and with that loss we become less capable of being open to or improved by the art itself.  Instead, modern society becomes susceptible to kitsch and related habits of excessive consumption.  A still life on your desk top, or those cheap reproductions of Modern Art  in every hotel room, or it doesn’t matter: whatever they are, they are not really art.

I’ve argued against this attitude, and usually I take the angle of saying that photography is not a fine art and all the more important for that; instead it is a public art, among other things, all of which have considerable value for modern society and politics.  (By the way, you don’t win an argument with an attitude in a day.)  Today, however, I want to take a different tack.

My argument can be stated very simply: It’s beautiful.  You can tell me that it’s derivative or that it’s not authentic or that it’s more contrived that photography should be, but you can’t tell me it’s not beautiful.  (And I’m speaking for me, by the way, not you.  If I’m a sucker for elegance or any other social value evident in the image, that’s my problem, though certainly not one foreign to painting.)  My idle scanning through a slide show stopped the moment I say it, and my day is richer for having seen it.  Nor is it idiosyncratically or oddly beautiful; instead, its beauty comes in part from how well it has reproduced the conventions of the painterly genre.  Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of still lifes, and I’ve walked by a good number that did not catch me as this one did.  (Yes, this had the advantage of not being in a museum context, but frankly I think photography always is orienting us, to greater or lesser degree, to see as if we were in a large, open air museum.  Furthermore, it stood out at National Geographic, which is saying something as far as photography goes.)  Long story short, although I never would have set out today to look at still life paintings, this photograph provided one nonetheless, and it’s beautiful, and I’m grateful for that.

There also is a more complicated argument to be developed along the same path, but I’m running out of time.  One thing to consider is how the photographer has labored to put photography back into the tradition of painting, and how something like an aura may be one result.  At the same time, there is little likelihood that anyone would mistake this image at a photography website for a painting, so perhaps the art of approximation also is being featured, and with that the conventions and history of the artistic genre.  This image may be an imitation of a painting, but also an imitation of a photograph; and it may be about photography more than painting, which would move it closer to the work of art in any medium.  (Admittedly, this still life doesn’t stun me, enthrall me, and challenge me as the best art does, but in my experience that’s a problem of the genre.)  And if it is about photography, then it is about modernity.  If tired of defending the arts, you might to think about that.

It might also be a statement that simple elegance is more available than we might think–much like a photograph is less expensive and more accessible than a painting.  It could be a demonstration of how beauty can be shared easily via photography, indeed, how photography is pitched toward sharing while painting continues to be defined largely by hoarding in mansions and corporate hallways.  When a photograph imitates an older art form, such questions are brought to mind.  Surely that can’t be all bad.

Photograph: “Still Life” by Rucsandra Calin, Craiova, Dolj, Romania, from National Geographic’s Daily Dozen, March 11, 2014.

 

March 12th, 2014

Random Acts of Public Art

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Winter still hangs on in the Northern Hemisphere, with the occasional thaw only enough to bring up the accumulated dirt and trash.  In the Crimea, another democratic spring has been flipped within days into another authoritarian consolidation of power; the pattern is now all too clear, while the rapidity of the military response is becoming truly impressive.  In Malaysia, a 777 has disappeared into thin air; at least the UFO hunters will be thrilled, but everyone else who flies now lives in a slightly more uncomfortable world.  And if that weren’t enough disquiet, for some us the calendar has moved into Lent, a time for reflection on our many personal failings.  So perhaps you can appreciate why I am grateful for this photograph.

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The caption at The Big Picture said: “Reflected in a puddle of melted snow, people and dogs walk past umbrellas suspended from trees at Spanish Banks Beach in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Feb. 25.  The art installation, called the ‘Rainblossom Project’, was put up by an anonymous group to be a celebration of the rain the city receives.”

My favorite part of that caption is the word “anonymous.”  Whatever else happened on February 25th, there was someone in Vancouver who wasn’t working on branding, who wasn’t worried about others free-riding, who was willing to spend time and money and effort to improve the commons, and do it without any reward, much less making a profit.  Maybe it was a hedge fund manager on his day off, but I doubt it.  This was done by someone who cares about art and the general welfare in equal measure, and who is able to express those commitments generously.  We can call it a random act of public art.

The same can be said of the photograph.  “Random” may seem incorrect, for surely the photographer was acting on an intention, but the same is true of the red umbrella hangers and the other strangers signified by the allusion to “random acts of kindness.”  The act is, by definition, intentional, but “random” because not directed by the usual logics of economic exchange, competitive marketing, political persuasion, or even direct social reciprocity.  Yes, the photographer will have been paid for the image, but there was no guarantee of that happening, not least because there was little chance of finding hard news, or even soft news, on a beach in Vancouver in February.  This image barely qualifies as news at all, although it does inform us about the public artwork on the beach.  It’s something else: another work of public art, and one just about as incidental, unexpected, ephemeral, and generous as the other.

And what a fine work it is.  The photo is true to the work it depicts, while enhancing and extending it as well.  The red umbrellas hang improbably in the sky, and the trees, mountain, clouds, sky, and lake seem equally improbable and beautiful as well.  That lake, itself perhaps newly freed from the ice, reflects the figures above it, just as the photograph reflects the entire tableau.  Likewise, the deep blues balance the blossoms of bright red, as if they were low and high notes harmonizing.  These symmetrical optics evoke a sense of serenity, but not by pretending that the scene is any more solid than it is.  The reflection on the water can be broken by a single ripple, just as the scene can disappear the moment you turn away.

And we all will turn away.  Even those in the scene, who rightly seem to be enjoying it immensely, will walk on.  The clouds will thicken, and the rain will come–remember, the umbrellas are an offering of gratitude for the rain–and the umbrellas will deteriorate or be taken down.  Like the rain, this scene is not something that you can hold on to.  Only the photograph will remain, albeit probably forgotten.  But that’s OK, if we understand what it is teaching us today.

The world is more abundant that we know.  Not always, but too often the suffering that occurs is due to artificial scarcities: due to greed, hoarding, and the withholding of kindness.  Any decent society ultimately depends on more than natural abundance: on commitments to the common good, the general welfare, and sharing in both hard times and good times.  So it is that we ought to feel thankful for those artists and arts that are themselves acts of generosity for a public world.

Photograph by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via Associated Press

March 10th, 2014

Seeing Through the Colors of Carnaval

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

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Lent is upon us, and that means the Carnaval season, with its abundance of hyperbolic, bodily exaggerations and all around revelry that mark a world turned upside down.  And, of course, there is a profusion of lavish colors; a coordination of fluorescent reds and yellows and blues and greens, all of which underscore the festive nature of the event, but more importantly accent the relief from the regular conventions and constraints of everyday life.  Indeed, the combination of bodily excesses and explosions of color has made Carnaval a prime destination for photographers and every year the slide shows at all of the major news outlets comply by featuring a profusion of such images of the event in Brazil and around the world (see, e.g., here, here, and here).  If one didn’t know better the regularity and regular similarities of such slide shows might appear to be motivated by a commercial interest in advertising La Paz or Rio de Janeiro and other similar locations as sites for tourists in search of an exotic holiday.  What is missing, of course, is any sense for the history of the celebration or its close connection to nationalist sensibilities as it appears both naturalized and commodified.

But, of course, Carnaval is more than just a commercialized, global event designed to attract tourists with its outrageous revelry.  And so we have this image from the celebration in a rural community in Trinidad.

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Here too we have the appeal to bodily excess and exaggeration, and with it a marking (and mocking) of the conventions of everyday life, though the appeal is to a more localized history of colonial control. I am especially drawn to the tension between the exaggerated, historical costumes and the somewhat dainty parasols on the one hand, and the contemporary footwear on the other.  I don’t know if those are Nikes or Adidas or some other internationally marketed running shoe, but they are as uniform as the rest of the costumes being paraded about, and both no doubt speak to the colonial influences that have been imposed upon Trinidad from abroad, both then and now.  Few are likely to flock to rural Trinidad for an exotic vacation, but that doesn’t mean that the celebration of Carnaval that takes places there is any the less interesting or worthy of consideration.

But there is another point to be made, and it concerns the contrast between color and black and white photography.  There was a time not so very long ago that one would rarely if ever see a color photograph in a newspaper or in most magazines (National Geographic would have been the most notable exception).  That changed within the past twenty years or so, and now color photography has become something of the photojournalistic norm with black and white photographs relegated largely to the world of art photography. When black and white photographs were the norm, color photography underscored the ways in which the grey tones of black and white images were an artistic representation that was and was not the reality being displayed.  And now that color photography has become more-or-less the norm, black and white photography operates in something of the same register, albeit in reverse, reminding us that the tonality of an image—and no less the tonality of the society that we are seeing—implicates and is implicated by the manner in which it is constructed and represented.

Photo Credits: Juan Karita/AP; Pablo Delano/Trinity College

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