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When Beauty Is in the Eye of the Camera

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What do you see?  A beautiful golden artifact, or a gaudy piece of jewelry?  A work of art that could have come from any one of dozens of cultures, or a merely decorative visual contrivance reflecting hoarded wealth?

How about a spiral staircase in the Vatican museum, as seen through a fisheye lens?  Perhaps there are a few people who could recognize both the technical distortion and the specific staircase, but it is safe to say that most of us were not seeing a spiral staircase in the Vatican museum.  That tableau was merely the visual material for a process of technical distortion.   And artistic distortion.  There is no actual “eye of the camera,” but rather a creative process that includes a photographer, a camera, a lens, and several computers.   And now you.

I had not seen the staircase previously; or if I did see it on my Vatican tour, it left no trace in my memory.  I still haven’t seen it, you might say.  So what are we seeing?  A “striking visual effect,” and symmetry, and the Golden Ratio, and a microcosm, and rich colors of earth and sky, and light and darkness in perfect complementarity, and . . . .  ?  Some may call it beauty, and others may still see kitsch, but the aesthetic judgment is almost beside the point.  What is most striking, I believe, is the photograph’s assertion of photography’s creative capacity.

Consider, for example, how this image does not conform to conventional ideas about photography: It is not a direct representation of reality; it is not showing what those present will have seen; it is not the record of a specific event.  At the same time, the image also eludes stock criticisms of the medium: it is not hiding its distortion; it does not displace or dominate other views of the staircase; it does not demean the literal context or crowd out real beauty.

To fully appreciate what has been put before us by the photographer, we have to bracket conventional wisdom across the board.  What to do next is not as clear, but several options are available.  One is to consider how photography is not making copies of the world, but instead making images and statements about the world.  Another is to consider how photography is closest to realizing its potential when revealing patterns in the world, patterns expressed through its formal artistry.

There also might be something to the fact that this image is both cosmic and cosmetic: a self-enclosed world and a bauble.  The Greek word “kosmos” meant both universe and ornament, thereby capturing the irrelevance of scale to form.  Thus, when admiring the formal beauty of this small jewel of an image you are becoming attuned to a basic pattern found in sea shells and galaxies.  Curiously, you also are are getting inside the actual staircase.

I can imagine how the Vatican might have several reasons for liking the photograph.  I like it, too, and hope that you can enjoy it as well.  But have you noticed that something is a bit off at the top?  A slight imbalance, perhaps.  Something that could put a wobble into a top, or a planet.  But perhaps that is part of the pattern. . . . .   If, as Elaine Scarry has suggested, beauty prompts questions, then the questions here might go in several directions.  One is deeper into the technical mechanisms and decisions defining  photography.  Another is into our experience of beauty.  A third path, given the location of the staircase, would be into theology.   When beauty is in the eye of the camera, there is no telling where it will stop.

Photograph by Franco Origlia/Getty.  For more on this theme, see, e.g., recent work by Kaja Silverman, Joel Synder, Geoffrey Batchen, and the last chapter of The Public Image.  For earlier posts, you might look here and at others on beauty.  For an allusion that leads to a more complicated view of the church, see The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong.

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Getting Above the Chaos: Science, Photography, and Beauty

Astronomers travel to the high plateau of the Atacama Desert in Chile to get above the moisture, air-borne particulates, and ambient light that distort the night sky at lower and more populated altitudes.  Many of us need to get above pollution and distortion today, and I’m not talking about the environment.  In a political climate gone chaotic, ordinary experience can be awash in fear, anger, disorientation, and a pervasive sense of helplessness before forces beyond control or reason.   The world can seem lost to white noise and alternative facts, lurid emotions and garish displays of moral ugliness, miasmas of insinuation and threat that make even the brightest lights glow hazy in the gassy, swampy air.

Which may be why I find these images from the Observatory in Chile to be so comforting.

The Milky Way arcs across the sky above four of the telescopes at the Cero Paranal observatory.  (Yes, those large buildings are telescopes, which have come a long way from what used to be seen in hobby shops.)  Or we could say that the high-tech structures on the ground appear as stations on the way to a cosmic plateau, as if for pilgrims or astronauts ready to journey to the heavens.  Or perhaps that one type of intelligence is arrayed for contact with another, far larger and largely unknown, of which it is but a small part.

Or perhaps something else.  As Kaja Silverman has suggested, the genius of photography is that it schools us in learning through analogies: to see not what is but how each is like something else.  The photograph above is not showing us how our galaxy actually looks in some objective sense, or marking the proportions between that reality and our own, or doing much of anything except giving us a beautiful image: an image that prompts us to marvel, to wonder, to imagine something far grander and more ordered than the mess we make of our own world.

One of those analogies is between the beauty of the photograph and the beauty of the natural world.  Another is between science and beauty.  What might have seemed strange in the official dispensation in the mid-twentieth century now is becoming evident and ever more important.  When chaos has been unleashed by those who fully intend to benefit from its destructiveness, perhaps a commitment to the good life for all can draw strength from the idea that reason, beauty, and careful attention to natural order can be life-sustaining.

These photos and the telescopes they show are the work of the European Southern Observatory.  That’s right: European, but in Chile.  Obviously, someone forgot to build a wall.  The ESO is a consortium of fifteen nations, and it is a fitting example of what international cooperation can do.  The investments are huge, and for what?  It may be a job creator, but that’s not the point.  The advancement of knowledge, and with that of civilization, will come not from a reactionary nationalism, but from working together across borders.

If the result is a wormhole to another universe, that may be a good thing, but I don’t need to see it.  The better lesson is to take our cue from the streak of white light on the left, cutting across the grain.  Like an Afghan carpet that has been given a flaw to avoid vanity before God, the image can remind us that even our best efforts at order and understanding can lead to disaster.  The universe exceeds our images and our imaginations.  Where we want to see symmetry, there will be imbalance; where we want to see determinism, there will be contingency.

And yet we can see, and imagine, that our habitat glows with reflected light, and that we can live together in harmony.

Photographs by Miguel Claro/ESO and G. Lambert/ ESO.  Additional photographs can be seen at the slide show at The Atlantic’s In Focus website.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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Trump: Don’t Blame the Photographs

Several people have asked me which photographs were the most important for Donald Trump’s electoral victory.  The question makes sense:  Trump is a creature of the media.   We know that visual media can be influential.   Any political event that appears surprising or irrational is assumed to be due to emotional contagion, excess, or impact of the sort associated with photography.  The question almost answers itself.

Not even he expected to win, and yet here we are, careening down the rapids into the Jurassic park of Trump World.   What was the image that so distracted or dazzled the Trump voters?  What image framed the Clinton campaign so badly so that the election really did become a rigged game?

The envelop, please. . . .

There wasn’t one.  Or two.  Or twenty, including all those remakes of Hillary that Alt Right trolls consider so hugely creative.

Although it is a deeply ingrained habit of media criticism to blame photography for society’s problems, you can’t lay this one on the images.  Look at the data: identify the photos and track their circulation, and then take the Tweets and all the other sound bites, the little lies and the big lies, the alternative facts and the bald-faced denials, the slurs and the toxic memes and all the rest–and track that.  And ask the Trump voters whether unemployment has gone up or down in the last eight years, and how many votes in the presidential election were due to voter fraud, and whether they prefer Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act.

It is essential that this catastrophe be seen for what it is: a profound failure of language.  There may be arguments for Trump that bear consideration–most notably, that the system needed a shock and that the working class had been abandoned by both parties–but they are not directly pertinent to the damage that already has occurred and is likely to get worse.  Let me say it again and then some: Trump’s election is due to a relentless attack on and failure of language.

It is for that reason also an assault on moral seriousness: on what it means to care about more than power and reputation.  What it means to do the work needed to see the difference between reality and delusion, hope and fantasy, thriving together or fighting over the last boats on a sinking ship.

In Trump World, photographs may still be able of exposing lies, and for that reason they can be more important than ever.  Even so, the heavy lifting has to be done elsewhere.  Recovering political speech, political argument, the ability to respond to stupidity for what it is–both a cry for help and a will to power that can destroy everything–these are some of the tasks ahead.  It’s not a pretty picture.

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Why Photographs Don’t Stop the War

Because it’s the photographs’ fault, apparently.

Today the New York Times featured Michael Kimmelman’s impassioned critique of the lack of public response to the carnage in Syria.  “They keep coming, both the bombs and the images from Aleppo, so many of them.”  The theme, and pathos, of the article is that while the bombs are effective, the images are not.  Worse, they are not as effective as other images from previous catastrophes.  Referring to photographs such as the Accidental Napalm icon from the Vietnam War, we are told that those images “drove news cycles for weeks, months, years, helping tip the scales of policy.”

The question naturally becomes, what’s wrong with us?  The usual suspects are trotted out: bigotry, social media, and compassion fatigue not least among them.  Well, sure, all of those factors could be in play, but once again photography is being framed.

Let’s start with the facts: First of all, coverage of the war in Syria–and the refugee crisis it has created–has motivated many governments and many individuals to help.  Hundreds of millions of dollars in government and charitable aid have been supplied, and thousands have opened their doors around the world.  The photographs probably had something to do with that.  The fact that some of them are as recognizable as earlier icons attests to their likely contribution, as do many testimonials.

But they didn’t do it all, which gets to the next problem.  Those great images from the past did not drive news cycles for years.  Those of us who have studied iconic photographs have learned that their value does not depend on a direct causal effect.  The news cycle moves on regardless, while the iconic images develop over time.  (If they don’t persist, they aren’t iconic.)  They come to have many uses and may have long wave influence, but they don’t end the war or the famine or otherwise stop history in its tracks.

And neither does anything else, which gets to the next problem with the conventional critique of photography’s ineffectiveness.  How many words have been written about Aleppo?  How many articles and editorials and blog posts?  How many special reports and pastoral letters and letters to the editor?  Why don’t these texts have to bear the burden of ineffectiveness?  They, too, are ephemeral, they don’t drive the news cycle for long periods of time, and although they bear witness they don’t provoke mass protests.

Nor does this mean that the public is hopelessly indifferent.  As we’ve argued before (here and here), for anything to be persuasive, a lot has to be in place.  A political process, just to take one example.  The public has not been indifferent, it still has stores of compassion, we are perfectly capable of using social media and caring at the same time, and support from the bigots isn’t needed.  But there have been massive failures of governance and diplomacy, and political leaders should be held accountable.

The catastrophe in Aleppo was not inevitable, and there still is great need to resolve the conflicts there and elsewhere in the region.  Kimmelman is right about the most important things:  We should feel horror and shame when watching the destruction of Aleppo.  The public should demand help for those are displaced and destroyed by war, and for an end to the war.  He also is wise in suggesting that an effective protest movement is likely to require “slow, brick by brick construction.”  It always has–and those doing the killing can count on that.  The problem is complex, and so many alternatives  large and small need to be tried.

If social media can help as well, so much the better.  If photographs can make a difference, we should be grateful we have them.  But let’s not kid ourselves.  The fault is not  primarily in ourselves or in our media.  Aleppo has been allowed to die, and while it has happened on our watch, those who are responsible have yet to be confronted.

 

UPDATE: Readers might want to see similar arguments set forth (in French) here and summarized here.

Cross-posted: a slightly adapted version is at Reading the Pictures.

 

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The Price of Milk

Post by guest correspondent Sarah Lingo

Presidential candidates are expected to know the price of milk. Do they? Do we?

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This photograph comes from a series by photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, taken during her visit to an organic farm in 2010. The photo-essay chronicles the aftermath of a calf’s birth at a facility for milk and veal production; of 30 photographs on McArthur’s blog recording this visit, this one in particular brings me up short.

Reading from left to right, we first see a cow nuzzling her iridescent newborn calf whose legs are still bent beneath it; this birth has just occurred. The mother’s attention is strictly on her calf. As our gaze moves right, we see an audience of three more cows who direct their own gazes toward the birth event. A gate and an expanse of hay and mud separate the cows; these divide the photograph diagonally. All three cows to the right stretch their necks through the gate, getting as close as possible to the birth event. Their desire to participate in the scene, as they stretch their necks to the limit, unites them in shared longing.

Although this photograph does not show us explicit suffering—no blood, no slaughter—suffering is nevertheless present. The photograph makes a particularly effective and damning argument against the dairy industry precisely because it only implies suffering; the photograph engages the spectator’s imagination, forcing them to participate in and complete a cycle of ongoing violence.

In this case, violence is the violence of separation, isolation, bewilderment, heartache, and loneliness. The photo’s caption tells us “Dairy cows who have had their babies removed from them so that we can drink their milk, watch the new mother bond with her calf.” The calf that will immediately be taken away so that the mother can be returned to milking and be impregnated again. The calf that will be taken to a crate, where she will spend the rest of her life until slaughtered for veal—unless she, too, becomes a dairy cow.

We might expect the intensity of the new mother’s gaze, fixed exclusively on her calf. As Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen explain, “the elements placed on the left are presented as Given … a familiar and agreed-upon point of departure for the message” (181)—here, motherhood and its presumed instincts. We tacitly accept a demonstration of mothering so commonly assumed to exist across all species.

But the focused gaze of the other cows reveals another intense engagement. Their interest might surprise us. What investment do these cows have in a birth that is not their own? For that, we can look to the right of the photograph as it “present[s] … something which is not yet known, or perhaps not yet agreed upon by the viewer, hence as something to which the viewer must pay special attention.” These cows are “‘problematic’ [and] ‘contestable’” even as “the Given is presented as commonsensical, self-evident.” What is “problematic” and “contestable” about this photograph is the future that awaits mother and her calf, a reality embodied by the cows to the right.

We see here the past, present, and future simultaneously. For the new mother and her calf, this is their present: a moment of intimacy before an inevitable separation. For the cows to the right, the new mother and her calf represent a past, as all three of these cows have almost certainly given birth themselves and have been subsequently separated from their calves. The gate creates a diptych, dividing the past and the future and telling the story of all the cows that give birth on dairy farms.

The still photograph perpetually delays the inevitable suffering experienced by these and other dairy cattle. It suggests but does not show those impending traumatic events—the separation of mother and calf, the calf’s death. I am reminded of Barbie Zelizer, who writes of about-to-die images that such photographs are “situated within the final moment in which it is still possible to hope, where the inevitability of death might yet be avoided” (58).

Instead of documenting a single event, this photograph presents the suffering that is always about to happen: the ongoing violence perpetuated within the dairy industry. Such violence is never over, never resolved. The spectator must fill in the blanks, extrapolate from the cows on the right—who also are spectators—to face what is to come. The photograph forces us to put the pieces together ourselves, to see what has been, what is, and what will be all at once. It reveals the emotional and moral costs hidden in the price of milk: a bill of suffering that we would rather not see.

Darkness presses in from above, and the spectator has to strain to make out the photograph’s finer details. This required effort is representative of the spectator’s larger task of making up for what is unstated and unintelligible about the photograph. We must work to make meaning, to carry the narrative presented here to its logical conclusion; the photograph requires an act of imagination to complete its narrative. Such engagement makes this photograph particularly persuasive because it calls the spectator to actively participate in the violence the image itself only implies.

As Zelizer writes, those “depicted may or may not die, [but] that is incidental to the fact that they stand in for those who do. Because death lingers as a potentiality only, it is up to the public to make the contingent death certain by inferring death from what is depicted” (72). The spectator, having participated in this violent narrative, is left only to wonder, what is required to disrupt this sequence of events, if not for these particular cows, for innumerable others?

 

Photograph by Jo-Anne McArthur/http://www.weanimals.org/gallery.php?id=90#ph1.

Sarah Lingo is a student in the doctoral program in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Northwestern University.  She can be contacted at sklingo@u.northwestern.edu.

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Now Available: The Public Image

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Our new book is out! We’ll hope that modesty does not forbid this moment of self-promotion. Thanks to an extraordinary commitment by the University of Chicago Press, the book includes 48 color photographs and yet is priced at $35, $26.77 at Amazon. It also is available as an e-book.

The Public Image argues for a fundamental shift in understanding photography and public culture. In place of suspicions about photography’s capacity for distraction, deception, and manipulation, we suggest how it can provide resources for democratic communication and thoughtful reflection about contemporary social problems.

As Suzie Linfield comments, “With intelligence and passion, Hariman and Lucaites challenge us to re-think what documentary photographs can and can’t do, what they hide and reveal, and how we do and don’t see them. Most of all, the authors make clear why these questions are of such great urgency to the violence-saturated world in which we live and to the future of modernity itself.”

You can read more about it at the Amazon page or the page at the Press, but, hey, why not see for yourself?

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Killing, Seeing, and Being Seen

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Let’s get a few things straight: the fish is being tagged, not killed.  The fish is a fish, and I’m not, so I don’t know what it is seeing.  Because the fish is a cod, it will eat lots of other fish, including other cod, many of them while their hearts are still beating.  If you want sympathy, don’t expect to get it from the fish.

But does the fish nonetheless deserve sympathy–or compassion, or whatever you want to call an act of moral resonance?  And should the fact that we can see it seeing be the basis for that sympathy?  Reason would suggest otherwise, but I’m not sure I want to be so reasonable.  Not at the moment, anyway.  There is plenty of time to revert to the more utilitarian arguments for not destroying the wild fish populations, for keeping the ecosystem in balance, for sustaining resources for future generations. . . . But this photograph requires a different answer, because it is asking a different question.

That question is, why kill?  Why should we kill, or at least, why should we kill those species we can live without?  Of course we slaughter micro-organisms by the trillions, but that consideration is largely a distraction from where morality really lies: that is, where individual and collective decisions are possible.

This photograph is as good an argument for vegetarianism as I’ve seen in awhile.  First, it got to me, and that has to happen if deep cultural habits are to be changed.  Second, it got to me for reasons that are easily dismissed and yet somehow persistent.  The large eye evokes cross-species identification, as if the eye is window to the soul.  That’s a cliche, but hard to shake.  The large head, open mouth, and sagacious visage suggests a capacity for self-consciousness, even reflection; no matter that the suggestion comes from those 19th century drawings and Kitchy paintings of animals in suits or sitting around the poker table.  The gentle, supporting embrace of the technician evokes an ethic that channels every sentiment of parenting or of loving care for one’s pets–even though he holds neither child nor pet and his work is geared toward increasing the fishing quotas.

Why, we might ask, should such compromised emotional attachments prevail?  Why should this photo push me further away from eating meat?  Let me suggest that the deep structure of the image is doing important work on behalf of overcoming our moral blindness regarding other species.  The clue to what might be happening is provided by Kaja Silverman’s remarkable book, The Miracle of Analogy: The History of Photography, Part I.  Silverman suggests that photography’s genius lies not in providing direct reproductions of what is seen, but rather in disclosing the many similarities that constitute the world in its deepest sense.   Instead of thinking of reality as something prior to the image, we should consider how reality is “a vast constellation of analogies” (11) that can be brought to light through the image.

Analogies between fish and human beings, for example.  Similarities that are not so much thought as felt.  Patterns of continuity that become expressed by many and often odd means: cliches, cartoons, and comparisons with pets among them.

And if you think about that, it might become harder to kill.

Photograph by Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe.

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Citizens of Photography Research Positions

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The Department of Anthropology at University College, London is seeking two MPhil/PhD candidates and two postdoctoral researchers to participate in an exciting project “Citizens of Photography: The Camera and the Political Imagination” co-ordinated by Professor Christopher Pinney. Participants will be required to conduct fieldwork in one of the following locations: Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Nicaragua. “Citizens of Photography” is an empirical anthropological investigation of the relationship between photographic self-representation and different societies’ understanding of what is politically possible. Prolonged ethnographic fieldwork will study how local communities use photography to represent individuals, families, and other identities and explore whether this plays a role in the manner in which people articulate their political hopes and demands.

Additional information is available here (for MPhil/PhD) and here (for postdoc).  Interested applicants are encouraged to contact Christopher Pinney at c.pinney@ucl.ac.uk for further details.

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Into the Twilight Zone in Nice

Again, yet again.  Another massacre in France.  This time with a truck.

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Next time perhaps with a boat or a bookstall or a suitcase. . . . As Elaine Scarry observed about torture, the use of everyday objects is designed to make all of reality terrifying, with nothing that can be trusted.  And something like that may be happening in the collective consciousness.  The politics of too many nations already is marked by too many symptoms of ethical dysfunction, and so one form of violence can resonate with all the others.  Even as the routines of containment also become more visible, more professionalized, and so obviously part of the system that is the real target of the attack.

Which may be why the photographers are on to something when they capture the strange, unreal, or uncanny aspect of the disaster.  These are not photos of emotional drama.  They could be from Invasion of the Body Snatchers or an updated Twilight Zone or any other sci fi movie.  Instead of the lifeworld being torn apart, its technocratic control system is revealed.  Instead of bodies torn apart, technicians in protective clothing and corpses under wraps, waiting to be tagged.

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And yet, there is nothing wrong with these photos, or with the conduct of the police and other first responders.  We live in both lifeworld and system, and we need both human connection and technologies for living together as citizens in modern cities rather than as clans in small scale tyrannies.  Nonetheless the images are showing something important.

The world seems to be pitching into another reality, one that is more unreal than real, both present and still to come, and defined primarily by separation and violence, and by madness and helplessness.

A world in which everything appears as if it could be in a movie–and the wrong movie.  Out of order, disjointed, and not for creative expression or bold endeavors, but for what?  Killing, and cleaning up after the slaughter.

As violence becomes familiar, the world becomes strange, even to itself.  Action is legible, behavior is disciplined, everything is handled with skill and often with care–and yet, it’s not right.  The mood is wrong, the atmosphere stained, and something is odd about the light.  These things are not easy to say, and harder to explain, but you can feel them.  And now they can be seen.

Photographs by Eric Gaillard/Reuters.

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