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 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 30th, 2015

The Seeing Citizen

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public

Camera + Silhouette

The scene borders on the sublime. A silhouette of a woman cast in the glow of a distant fire that appears to be burning out of control. The gulf between the woman and the blaze is altogether calm, inviting a clear contrast with the raging flames and by extension underscoring the space—simultaneously near and far—between safety and danger. And, of course, it is the silhouette that ultimately frames the photograph and its affect. To get the point, imagine the photograph without the silhouette? The contrast of golden hues would still register as beautiful for most viewers no doubt, but all measure of the distance between here and there, of the sublime horror invoked by the image, would be effaced – or at least largely so.

All that aside, it was not color or even the silhouette that initially drew my attention to this photograph, but rather the fact that it is a photograph of someone taking a photograph. Photographs of people taking photographs has become something of a convention in recent times, and all the more so now that many (if not most) people in the western world carry cameras with them in their pockets and seem inclined to take photographs of … well, just about everything. And the question is, why? Not why do people take photographs of everything. I think we have done that for a long time now, contemporary technologies simply making it easier and easier to do. Rather, the question is, why has the photograph of people taking photographs become something of a visual trope … and a trope of what? In the photograph above the camera’s brightly lit screen stands in stark contrast with the golden color cast of just about everything else in the image—including the silhouetted photographer—and thus perhaps invokes a sense of the tension between nature and technology, a point gestured to by the caption which notes: “A woman takes a picture of fires raging through the Los Alerces National Park … A lighting strike is believed to be the cause.” And so the photograph here might indeed be driven by a profoundly artistic and/or ideological sentimentality. There is of course no way to know, but the omnipresence of the technology in modern times simply cannot be ignored.

The trope is perhaps  a bit harder to explain in other, more common occurrences such as this photograph:

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Here the caption reads: “People take photographs as the body of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister is transferred form the Instana Presidential Palace.” One might wonder why we don’t just have a photograph of the body itself being transferred. Or, for that matter, of the crowds gathered to view the transference. What is it about the fact that people are taking photographs of this scene that makes the convention so affecting?

I don’t have an answer to this question firmly worked out at the moment, but my suspicion is that it has something to do with the relationship between actors and spectators. There was a time, not so very long ago, when the prevailing assumption was that citizen spectators lacked agency. They viewed events, but they did it from an altogether passive space that muted their political voice if it did not erase it altogether. The seeing citizen did little more than see. The advance of camera technologies, and in particular the utter ubiquity of camera phones and portable screens, as well as the capacity for digital circulation, has given citizen spectators a whole new way of registering their voice—or is it their gaze? It helps us to see how one person uses their spectatorship to accent the space between culture and nature, as in the silhouette above, or how others mark the importance of the passing of a revered leader.  In short, the seeing citizen is now also, and at least in some measure, an acting citizen.

We photograph people taking photographs perhaps because it marks an important shift in what it means to be a citizen spectator and, as with photojournalistic images in general, it helps us to understand how we see and are seen as citizens.

Photo Credit: Emiliano LaSalvia/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images; Tom White/European Pressphoto Agency.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

March 16th, 2015

NCN on Spring Break

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

xxx

national-park-montana-spring-nature-wallpapers

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 15th, 2015

Sight Gag: Democracy In Action

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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Credit: Chappatte/International New York Times

Sight Gag is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

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 9th, 2015

Fashionable Ordnance

Posted by Lucaites in fashion/fiction

Fashionable Ordnance

The spring/summer fashion season is upon us, and what would fashion be without a full complement of accessories, including handcrafted jewelry. Women are apparently the fastest growing segment of the gun buying market—approximately 20% of all gun permits were issued to women over the last three years—and so it is perhaps no surprise that fashion accessories of all sorts are being designed to meet the demand of women gun enthusiasts for bodily adornment and display. Bullet Designs is just one company catering to this demand, as with the medallion above crafted from spent bullet casings, and such offerings are made available at fashion and firearms shows all across the country.

Jewelry, of course, serves many functions, some quite instrumental, like the belt buckle or the watch, and others more aesthetic, designed either to coordinate the elements of one’s ensemble, such as a broach, or simply to accent various features of the body. Additionally, it also can serve as a symbol of social, cultural and/or political identity, as with a wedding ring or a lapel pin that marks one’s status or affiliation with a group or institution. And of course none of these more or less practical functions are altogether discrete, so that any piece of jewelry can (and generally will) serve two or more of these functions simultaneously. Regardless of how we think about such ordinary functionalities, however, there can be little question that jewelry (like a photograph) is meant to be seen—perhaps that is its supreme function—and the question then has to be: what exactly are we seeing?

The photograph above was part of a local news story about “How Women Can Look Good While Packing Heat,” and its ostensible purpose seems to be to illustrate one of the many accessories available for purchase at a local “fashion and firearms extravaganza.” And it does that pretty well, drawing upon the conventions of advertising and still life photography that highlight its features, accenting the relationship between the brass fitting, the sparkling jewels, and the bullet casings. But the photograph does more than that as it invites us to look carefully at the medallion as it is decontextualized from its more practical functions. In short, it asks us to consider what is being shown.

There is perhaps no shortage of answers to this question, but one answer must surely be that it shows us the beautification of a technology that was designed primarily for the purpose of killing and maiming. Bullets can be used for shooting at targets, of course, but it is hard to imagine that they would have been invented for that purpose alone. There may be good reasons to have bullets—I leave that topic for another time—but even if you believe that they are necessary to a civilized society it should give some pause to think that an instrument of death would be normalized as a fashion accessory. So what exactly do we see here?  Is it the conscious celebration of one aspect of a culture of violence? Or it is  a sign of a culture that lacks the capacity (or will) to reflect upon its unconscious tendency to animate the tragic cycle of violence that seems to haunt us?

Photo Credit: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

 

March 8th, 2015

“The March is Not Yet Over”

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

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Credit: David Brown

March 6th, 2015

Paper Call: Viscom 2015

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

29th Annual Visual Communication Conference

Cannon Beach Viscom
Tolavana Inn, Cannon Beach, Oregon

 June 24-28, 2015

The organizers of the 29th Annual Visual Communication Conference invite faculty and students to submit research and creative presentations from the varied and emergent field of visual communication. Topics may include, but are not limited to, graphic design, visual aesthetics, visual rhetoric, semiotics, still and motion photography, documentary and feature films, visual literacy, visual ethics, multimedia and new communication technologies, visual culture, and pedagogy in visual communication. While the range of topics and presentation modes is varied, authors and creators of all accepted submissions must present their work in a visual way.  In addition, video presentations of research will be considered creative work and reserved for the “creative work sessions.”

VisCom brings together a community of visual communication scholars and creative practitioners passionate about the visual. It is a plenary conference where everyone presents to everyone, and presenters are encouraged to stay for the entire time. The sessions take place in a visually stimulating environment with an afternoon off to enjoy the scenery. Works-in-progress are welcome and presenters can anticipate an environment that encourages lively discussion and helpful feedback. Finished papers are encouraged. The conference organizers will accept only one submission per person.

Additional information is here.  The submission deadline is March 15, 2015.

March 4th, 2015

When War Is a Memory That Won’t Go Away

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Those who romanticize war tell us that it is eternal.  The long, grey line; the camp fires glowing on the plain; the roar of battle, the loneliness of command–these and other verities are found in every era and clime.  The weapons change, but war offers the same terrors, the same fraternity no others can understand, and the same hard truths about the human condition.  There always has been war, there always will be war, and only fools think otherwise.  Thus, the full honor due to those in battle today can be paid only by placing their memorial within the unbroken continuity and epic scale of myth.

TOPSHOTS-UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-CRISIS-POLITICS-MILITARY

This photograph from the Ukraine might seem to be a step in that direction.  Taken only weeks ago, the cold, desolate steppe, abandoned, ruined weaponry, and grey scale tonality suggest that we are in World War II.  The distant line of trees could have been there then, the metal tower looks like it could have been on a Soviet era propaganda poster, and few of us know enough about tank designs to see much difference there.  This war, that war, any war. . . . The photo’s allusion to the past amplifies what is otherwise but a private catastrophe already lost to history.  By setting this war within that war, now a ghostly presence like the fog in the background, the specific wreckage becomes part of a much larger tragedy.

What the photograph does not do, however, is romanticize war.  It does not suggest that this war was inevitable or that character will be forged and tested or that valor will triumph.  Instead of being a lesson in the need for constant vigilance, the photo cuts through the fog of romanticism to suggest that the result in any case is the same: more waste, loss, and oblivion that will lead only to another cycle of violence.  War seems less like mythic ground, and more like a bad memory that just won’t go away.

TOPSHOTS-PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-GAZA

Or for those still living in the war zone, a nightmare that persists after you wake up.  This very different scene is another repetition of the same.  Now the civic infrastructure supplies the wreckage, while the donkey carts take us back to another time long before tanks and airstrikes.  This neighborhood in Gaza City is in ruins, and feels more empty for that than the open field in the first photo.  This is another scene from Rubble World, which is the home front of our time.

Once again, the photograph places one war within prior wars: here we can see the line go through the bombed cities of WW II all that way back to the Roman occupation of Palestine.  This war, that war, any war.  The armies wreak their havoc, and those still alive struggle to live among the ruins, and perhaps history will be kind enough to rebuild again before another onslaught.  Whatever the outcome, it remains very clear that there is no glory here, and never was, and never will be unless enough people can discover the heroism of peacemaking.

Two photos, two wars, and something more.  Each image has respected the dignity of its subject, without allowing that respect to be hijacked–as it so often is–by the romance of war.

The problem with war is not that it is eternal, but that it is persistent.  Like a traumatic memory, it haunts us, often to pull entire societies backwards into a time of darkness and agony.  At least now perhaps we can begin to see that memory for what it is: the door though which war enters the future, where it will be waiting for our arrival.

Photographs by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images and Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

March 2nd, 2015

Fifty Shades of Contemporary War

Posted by Lucaites in Uncategorized

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 8.44.34 PM

The photographic record of the ruins of contemporary war are everywhere to be seen. Buildings once cast as monuments to modernization destroyed in the blink of an eye, homes completely devastated as if hit by a tornado, dead bodies strewn amongst the debris of what was once thought to be civilization, and much, much more. We have written about it previously under the sign of “rubble world” (here in 2008 and here in 2012).” And truth to tell, even now in 2015 it doesn’t seem like it is getting much better.

The photograph above is from Debaltseve in the Ukraine. According to the caption “an elderly woman collects water from a puddle” and then goes on to detail the “particularly intense” fighting that is going on in and around the city. Of course the fighting is not immediately present in the photograph, but what we see might be more demoralizing for that very fact as what we are witnessing is not the death of individuals (which is tragic enough and in its own right) or the demolition of buildings (which can and in all likelihood will be rebuilt by whatever regime takes over), but the utter destruction of civil society. The surrounding buildings mark a modern society, as does the road on which the woman stands; but for all of that she apparently has no water running in her home and so she is reduced to scooping what she can from the ice melting on the street. The garbage strewn around her makes it clear that this is not without its risks, but the will to survive is strong and one cannot live without water; so she does what she can. And when winter gives way to spring and summer and the ice is gone, who knows what she will do.

War’s horrors and tragedy comes in many shades, but as this photograph testifies its effects ripple throughout a society at the most fundamental levels, their most devastating effects implicated by the day-to-day demands on subsistence that stand as a constant challenge to the human spirit and make it hard to imagine the reconstruction of a vibrant and colorful society. The color cast of the scene in this photograph is grey and dreary, and it seems to offer little hope for the future—indeed, multiple shades of grey give little respite, but then this isn’t a movie in a fictional world.  That said, what the photograph may well be showing us is the future—or at least one possible future—that could well test the limits of human resilience.

Photo Credit: Sergey Polezhaka/Reuters

 

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