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 20th, 2015

The Costs of Gun Violence

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

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Since 9/11 there have been over 400,000 gun deaths in the USA from privately owned guns. That’s approximately 33,000 deaths per year – murders and suicides combined – and it doesn’t take account of the approximately 80,000 injuries each year. To put it all in context, the Congressional Research Service estimates that from the Battle of Lexington and Concord to the war on Afghanistan, 1,171,177 US citizens lost their lives in American wars; according to the FBI, since 1968 1,387,171 American have lost their lives to firearms. Most recently it was reported that the direct and indirect costs of gun violence amount to $229 billion dollars per year – that’s more than the estimated cost of obesity ($224 Billion) and nearly as much as the cost of Medicaid ($228 Billion). Or to make it personal, the per capita cost ranges from $234 per person (in Hawaii) to $1,397 per person (in Wyoming). The average national per capita cost is $750.

Now I know that attitudes about the 2nd Amendment are polarized across the nation, but whatever your ideological position is it is pretty hard to deny that we have a serious problem here. And the photograph above points to at least a small part of the trouble. That’s a Barrett .50 caliber rifle—often referred to as a “sniper rifle”—on display at the annual NRA meeting in Nashville, TN. It shoots ten rounds per second is a semi-automatic weapon that holds a ten round magazine, projects an effective range of 2,500 meters, and has been known to cleanly sluice through the engine block of a truck. The man wielding the gun is intense and focused. He seems to be having a good time. And therein likes the rub.

I realize that some will take exception to this claim, but I truly cannot imagine how a private citizen could possibly need quite that much firepower, whether for hunting or self-defense or … for what? The International Association of Chiefs first recommended banning the private ownership of such weapons in 2004 as a protection for law officers, a recommendation endorsed by strict regulations passed in the State of California and the District of Columbia. And yet, as the photograph above suggests, the rifles are still not only being manufactured, but promoted at national events … a phenomenon no doubt encouraged by the popularity of this past year’s biographical movie American Sniper. One cannot only see such weapons, but one can play as if they were actually shooting one. And to what end? To imagine assassinating a foreign leader? Or stopping an invading tank?

The question is, can we have a sensible endorsement of the 2nd Amendment without going to the extent of encouraging the purchase of or identification with weapons that clearly have no other purpose than to kill and maim at great distances. After all, weapons such as this are not used for target practice or sport and the thought that a rifle of this size and caliber might serve as self-defense is laughable. Perhaps its only virtue is that it is so large that it can never serve as a concealed weapon. The point, I guess, is that the debate over gun control has extended to such absurd limits that we have failed to produce any kind of sensible regulations on gun control at all. The Constitution grants the right to bear arms, just as it grants the right to “free speech.” But as we know in the later case, such rights are neither absolute nor without obligations. They have to balanced against the costs. And when the costs get too high the rights must, reluctantly, be restricted and restrained.

Rather than to endorse playing with guns, the bigger the bang the better, the NRA would serve itself and the nation more productively if it worked to think about how the 2nd Amendment might be sensibly adapted to a growing (and tragic) cost that seems to exceed its benefits.

Credit: Harrison McClary/Reuters

April 13th, 2015

Remembrances of Things …

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory

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We take lots of photographs these days. Photojournalists account for thousands every day and hundreds of thousands every year, but their output is dwarfed by the number of images taken by non-professional, most taken with a mobile device like a phone camera. The photograph above shows a printout of the photographs uploaded on Flickr in a single 24 hour period in 2011 and the number of images taken in a given day surely exceeds what we see in this one photograph.

There is nothing particularly new about taking lots and lots of photographs. We have been doing this for nearly a century since the camera became an affordable commodity and Kodak convinced us that it was a necessary accouterment to bourgeois life. The so-called “digitial revolution” has made taking photographs easier, not least because just about everyone carries a mobile camera of some sort, but also because photographs are now simpler to produce and to circulate—the darkroom is now an antiquity and the family photo album has been replaced by a website of one sort or another. It is thus a bit odd that some bemoan the new found abundance of photographs, such as we find in a recent NYT Style Magazine article titled “Remembrances of Things Lost.”

In the most general sense the complaint is not new. The reliance on photographs will undermine our capacity for remembrance. This, of course, was Plato’s protest against writing (see his Phaedrus) and which has resurfaced over and again across the millennia with the development of each new technology of mediation and representation. And, of course, it is at the core of the iconoclastic critique of photography that we can trace in almost a direct line from Baudelaire to Susan Sontag. And, equally of course, it is wrong—or at least grossly simplistic. Yes, changing technologies alter the ways in which we practice and experience memory. The shift from orality to literacy is a case in point, but what was lost was not memory per se, but a particular way or register in which memory was practiced and understood. And the same could be said for every subsequent development of a new technology or medium of representation. The bigger problem, however, is not that photography – digital or otherwise – has undermined our capacity for remembrance, but that the mindless repetition of this argument underwrites a critical discourse of photography that minimizes—if it doesn’t miss altogether—the power and capacity of the medium to help us think with and through such images as we encounter the problems and possibilities of modern life. And this is not least with respect to how the present—which in some measure is the only thing we can actually photography—functions to help us to (re)member the relationship between the past and the future in powerful and provocative ways.

Consider, for example, this photograph published on the front page of the NYT—both print and on-line—on the same day as the above article lamenting the loss of remembrance animated by contemporary photographic practices.

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Captioned a “shrine to defiance,” the photograph shows a small bungalow in Seattle that seems to have stood in the way of progress. Hemmed in by high rise buildings that all but touch its outer walls, and otherwise bordered by a busy public thoroughfare, the house is altogether out of place—and out of time. It gestures to a past – one can imagine a row of such houses that once stood here – even as it points to the inevitable future that will soon be upon us as modernity move relentlessly forward. But it does so with an interesting edge. Notice that it is the bungalow that offers up the slightest hint of color—of individualism—in an otherwise and uniformly muted, almost black-and-white world. It will not survive for long, at least not in that space, but what the photograph testifies to is the fate of the unique individual in an increasingly modern society where progress refuses to stand still. But more, it also invites consideration of the tension between a more colorful past and a more uniform, colorless present, and to the tint and tone of the future that it portends.

In short, this second photograph complicates our sense of what it means to remember and how we do it, and it does so in a powerful way. Not every photograph will do this, of course, but the potential is there and enough will achieve that potential that it is a profound error to repeat a tired argument about how the medium is a problem for remembrance without also emphasizing its powerful affordances otherwise. Our photographic practices have changed over the years—and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to do so in the years ahead; the more important point is that it is long past the time at which we should change the ways in which we talk photography as a cultural practice and phenomenon so as to understand it as the important mode of public art that it is in all of its forms.

Credit: Erik Kessels/Foam at Amsterdam; Ian C. Bates/NYT

April 6th, 2015

Can We Photograph the Future?

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Photograph the Future

It is commonly believed that the photograph is a limited medium that can only record the present. Without the capacity of time travel we cannot return to the past to record it as it actually was, nor can we stretch into the future to see what will be in a subsequent moment of time. Words—and even methods of non-photographic visual representations such as painting—don’t seem to face the same restrictions as they appear to allow greater reach to the imagination to recreate a bygone era or to envision what the world might become. But the photograph is tied to the here and now with little more than the recognition that at some future moment in time the present that it indexes will mark a past.   It can only record what “is” not what “was” or “will be.” We may take pictures to satisfy a future memory as to what was, but the camera, we believe, cannot exceed the moment at which the shutter opens and closes.

There is of course an element of truth to this set of assumptions, but they rely upon such a narrow conception of the relationship between reality and imagination that it may be worth our effort to reconsider the possibilities. The photograph above graced three quarters of the front page of the NYT above the fold this past Sunday (4/5/15) as part of a story reporting on the implications of the California Governor’s executive order that citizens cut water consumption by 25% in response to the drought that is now in its fourth year with no indication of ending. At first glance it appeared to be a diptych—two distinct images or plates that reflect upon one another even as they constitute a distinct whole—but reading the caption makes it clear that this is not a diptych but rather a single, aerial photography of a “lush” housing development that “abuts” a “bone dry desert.” And the question is, what do we see?

California has long been understood as the land of opportunity, the high mark of modern progress with a population that continues to grow and the seventh largest economy in the world. And the quality of life is, if not fully luxurious, at least generally among the highest in the nation. Not everyone lives in a housing development like Cathedral City, but many do and it surely underwrites the ethos of the California Dream. Look carefully at the image and you will note that each house not only sports a rich and verdant lawn, but that many of the homes feature swimming pools that consume hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a year. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in a state where the lakes are drying up and fields are increasingly laying fallow. And yet for all of that, the reaction by some ranges from incredulity to outright resistance. So, the NYT reports on one resident who insists, “I’m not going to stop watering.… The state does not know how to arrange the resources they have, and so we have to pay for it.” The allure of unfettered progress remains strong, and yet the right half of the photograph is a telling landscape of one possible future if we follow the lead of this one resident.

Can photographs show the future? If we assume that all a photograph shows is the literal world that it indexes and no more, then, of course, the answer is no. But as with the photograph above the reality on display is much more complex than a fundamentalist literalism would allow. And what we see is not just a world that has managed to sculpt nature to accommodate its own pleasures, with lush lawns and luxurious swimming pools in a desert climate ill-fitted for either, but what that world may well be destined to if wiser heads do not prevail. And in this context a photograph can well put the future on display.

Credit: Damon Winter/NYT

 

April 1st, 2015

How Photography Supplements Secularization

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Monks at sunrise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph by Damir Sagoli/Reuters.

March 16th, 2015

NCN on Spring Break

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

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We won’t be hitting the beach, but work and travel will take us away from the blog.  In the meantime, you might look at this photo taken on a Montana spring day and think of Henri Focillon’s insight that “Photography is like the art of another planet” (The Life of Forms in Art).  We’ll be back on March 30.

 

 

March 11th, 2015

Starship Troopers and the Astral Plane

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Say what you want about the US military, but–damn, they are good at what they do.  Not least when that includes looking good while they do it.

Airborne salute

The caption tells us that “A US soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) salutes his fellow Soldiers while jumping out of a C-130 Hercules aircraft over a drop zone in Germany on February 24, 2015.”  Good to know, as you might have thought you were seeing a superhero walking on air.  And if this image goes viral, I definitely expect to see both those boots and those sunglasses on the street and in upscale ads.  As for the athletic stance, crisp salute, and bad ass expression, not so much.  Fashion is one thing, and hard work, discipline, and attitude are something else.

Now the skeptics out there might point out that the photo is an Army photo taken to promote the Army, and that there is little need, if any, for paratroops anymore, and that we are witnessing an acutely aesthetic performance that is drastically different from the reality of war.  OK, so they would be right about that.  One might go further still to point out some of the cultural connections, which run from Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (and the truly awful movie that glories in the worst features of the novel), to the entire Marvel Comics pantheon of supercharged action heroes, to the militarization of space.  One could go farther still and see the blaze of sunlight in the distance as a nuclear explosion.  Airborne Apocalypse, the movie, coming to a theater of war near you.  The common threads are not exactly either pacific or realistic: if you think militarism and fantasy are a great combination, have I got a photo for you.

Still, I think any performer would have to tip the hat to Commander Airwalker, just as any photographer would have to acknowledge that the Army’s “Visual Information Specialist” nailed the photo.  In fact, any quick condemnation of the aesthetics involved in either military or media professionalism not only misses the necessarily complex and ambivalent character of war and representation, but also distracts from what really is at stake.  Military discipline can have an aesthetic payoff, but so does every other form of discipline, from gymnastics to dog training.  It is not enough to point out that military spectacles can be unrealistic propaganda, because one still needs to show what other spectacles might offer a sufficiently compelling alternative.  And what makes the Airborne image so difficult to match is that it already has colonized the heavens.

But not conquered them.

Monks Makha Bucha

The captions tells us that “Buddhist monks pray at the Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani province, north of Bangkok on Makha Bucha Day.”  Once again, we see professional dedication and discipline that comes from years of training.  Now the multitude rather than the individual is featured, but each monk still floats as a single individual in a specific space surrounded by emptiness.  If lamps may be the opposite of sunglasses, each photo nonetheless places the human figures against a background of sheer radiance.  To highlight the ambivalence of aesthetic appeals, consider how each photograph can illuminate the other: just as the comparison highlights the social organization and personal discipline of the monks (how seen as if an army), so does it highlight the self-sacrifice and devotion of the soldier (now seen as if a monk).

But they are not the same.  Even if both organizations are necessary.  Even if funding levels or other priorities may be out of whack in both cultures.  One spectacle is about war, but more than that, it is about extending the assumptions and deprivations of this world across all worlds, making them all the same, and leaving the imagination little to do but dream of additional threats and more exotic weapons.  Or is it more exotic threats and additional weapons?  The artistry is all in the present, with only an apocalypse offering any chance of greater transformation.

The other spectacle is about peace, but more than that, it is about recognizing how human finitude is like a single monk in a circle of space: that is, as a single dot of light surrounded by a radiant plenitude of countless Buddha Worlds.  This is a vision of how each node of consciousness is part of an endless plurality and infinite particularity.  Each point light is both unique and part of the greater light, separate and yet part of the harmony that is available to all everywhere.  The assumptions and deprivations of this world need not be anywhere else, but even if they were everywhere else, they would still be infinitesimal compared to what could be.  In this spectacle, the imagination is essential, as it is the means by which we really see.

Imagine, then, how we might see a future without war, and the dedication that is needed to get there.

Photographs by Jason Johnston/U.S. Army and Kerek Wongsa/Reuters.  Readers who like the monks might want to see this post as well.

March 8th, 2015

“The March is Not Yet Over”

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

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Credit: David Brown

February 2nd, 2015

“The Moral Arc of the Universe is Long”

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

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“… and it bends towards justice.”  Or as we say on the playground, “Cheaters never prosper!” Alas, tonight the moral arc did not bend quite far enough as the Patriots managed to eke out a victory against the Seahawks.  But it did take perhaps the worst call ever by the Seahawks on a second and goal from the one yard line with approximately twenty seconds on the clock to turn the moral universe on its head.  Or maybe it just extended the arc so that the Commissioner can complete his “deflategate” investigation.

What does any of this have to do with the above photograph? I could wax eloquent about how the finale of the Katy Perry halftime show was an allegory for how short the moral arc of justice is, just one more media spectacle designed to mollify and confuse the masses, but …. no.   Truth to tell, the photograph really has nothing to do with anything.  At 6:30 p.m. I had to decide between watching the Super Bowl or spending the evening working on a post for NCN. There is a time, not so very long ago, when I would have opted for the blog.  But its been a very long week and so tonight I simply wanted to be entertained.  And I was.  The outcome aside, it was an exciting diversion from the stresses and strains of ordinary living. And that’s what football is, right, a show, an entertainment, a spectacle, bread and circuses driven by powerful economic interests that, in the end, really do seem to trump all else and certainly anything as quixotic as moral justice. And yet, once again, truth to tell, I really did expect to see moral justice enacted on the gridiron. What could I have been thinking?  One only has to read the newspapers over the past year to know that the last place we might find anything like justice would be the NFL.  But as I said, it was a really good show.  And so it goes.

In any case, we will be back with out regular insights on the world of photography on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

January 26th, 2015

Nature’s Camera

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Blue Green

What struck me most about this photograph upon first seeing it was both its sheer beauty and the invitation to introspection and contemplation.  The contrast of the distant city lights sparkling against the night sky, illuminating the mountains in the background and the bluish cast of (what appears to be) the moon reflected by the water along the foregrounded shore line would seem to be a mediation on the cosmological relationship between nature and technology.  Or perhaps  it is a meditation on the relationship between the far (which is physically nearest to us, i.e., the city) and the near (which is physically the farthest from us, i.e., the moon).  It is both of these things in the abstract, but not for the reasons that might seem to be the most obvious.

What we are actually looking at is a timed exposure of the bioluminescent glow of a green marine dinoflagellate known as Noctiluca scintillans shot with Hong Kong in the background.  Sometimes called “Sea Sparkle,” the foregrounded luminescence is activated by farm pollution that—no surprise here—poses a serious threat to marine life.  The bloom itself does not produce dangerous toxins, but it is something of an index of toxic runoff that endangers the food chain.  In its own way, the bloom is something of a photorealistic representation of the relationship between culture and nature—nature’s camera, as it were—showing all that there is to see.  As with the photograph more generally, the trick is being visually “literate” enough to avoid being enchanted by what we want (or expect) to see and to reflect on the larger significance of what we are actually seeing

Photo Credit: Kin Cheung/AP

 

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.

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