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Sight Gags: Figures of Speech


 With the holidays upon us we have decided to take off the next ten days to rest and be with our families.  We will be back on January 3rd.  We want to invite our readers (or those who just happen to stumble upon us) to browse through the pictures and posts we have put up since we began in June.  We also want to thank all who have visited these pages, and especially those who commented or sent us pictures to post and talk about.   WIth the photo below we offer you “Peace on Earth.”    


Photo Credit: Art Rogers © 2002 Pt. Reyes Light

Our primary goal with this blog is to talk about the ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital democratic public culture. Much of the time that means we are focusing on what purport to be more or less serious matters. But as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert often remind us, democracy needs irony, parody, and pure silliness as much as it needs serious contemplation. For our part, we will dedicate our Sunday posts to putting some of that silliness on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the carnivalesque. Sometimes we will post pictures we’ve taken, or that have been contributed by others, or that we just happen to stumble across as we navigate our very visual public culture. And we won’t just be limited to photography, as a robust democratic visual culture consists of much more. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.


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Conference Call: Society for Photographic Education

Society for Photographic Education
45th National Conference – March 2008

March 13-16, 2008 in Denver, Colorado

Agents of Change: Art and Advocacy

The work of a photographic artist took center stage during the 108th United States Congress. On the agenda was the fate of drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). According to Secretary Gale Norton ANWR was “a flat white nothingness.” In response, Senator Barbara Boxer denounced drilling and held up a book of photographs by Subhanker Banerjee that showed the refuge brimming with life. Congress voted to save ANWR from drilling for two more years.

Lens-based artists have been catalysts for change with imagery that advocates social and environmental awareness. Artists bear witness, interpret, expose and address problems ranging from the Aids epidemic and stereotypes in race and gender to the plight of refugees in war torn countries. In what ways are artists responding to the local and global challenges that are reshaping politics, cultures, economies and the planet? As educators, artists and scholars, what has been the historical impact of our advocacy? What role will we play in shaping the future?

Joann Brennan
Conference Chair

For additional information go to http://www.spenational.org/conference/conf2008/index.html


Hollywood Censors Torture?

Of course not. Where would the movie industry be without Saw, Hostel, and similar delights? So it might come as a surprise to learn that the Motion Picture Association of America has censored this movie poster:


According to Variety, the Association was put off by the hood. We can’t have children seeing a prisoner wearing a hood, can we?One wonders where to begin. Will the MPAA also be firing off a letter to the Bush administration protesting their treatment of prisoners? Since the hood is seen via a photograph of can actual event (and not an illustration or a staged image of a fictional scene), one might ask why the MPAA is prohibiting visual documentary–indeed, depiction of the practice of detention that is the subject of the film. And if children are to be protected from seeing hooded prisoners, does that mean that we should also censor the daily newspapers that have been carrying such photos for the past several years? If so, we also had better protect those tender eyes from this photograph, which received a World Press Photo Award in 2003:


There are two sides to the normalization of violence in the US. On the one hand, fictional protrayals of beatings, rape, torture, and murder are standard fare in the culture of popular entertainment (TV, film, video games). The viewing public is constantly rewarded for suspending disbelief and ethical revulsion about the conduct of violence; just play along and you get all the pleasures of the show. On the other hand, actual violence being perpetrated by the government is minimized, sanitized, or outright censored. Let it not be said that the MPAA does anything in half measures.

Second photograph by AP/Jean-Marc Bouju. Thanks to Steve Perry at The Daily Mole for the heads up. Additional links are available at Movie City Indie.



Diane Arbus: Humanity without Humanism

Yesterday the news in the art world included a New York Times story on “A Big Gift for the Met: The Arbus Archives.” The paper reproduced two of her photographs, the deeply affective “Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room on 100th Street, N.Y.C.,” and the more often reproduced “Woman with a Veil on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C.” (The later is doubly jarring today, when “veil” is taken to refer to something quite different than an affluent white woman on Fifth Avenue.)

If you follow a link provided by the Times, you can see several photos that were revealed at a major retrospective of a few years ago. They are pure Arbus, and all the more stunning for that. This is art, and I won’t presume to add to what has been said to celebrate her achievement. It is enough to look:


He is no freak and the more exposed for that. Although composed for and confidently presenting himself to the camera, we see a profound vulnerability. Dressed for going out in public or to the office, he seems almost naked. Covered, even layered, he seems thin, at best a thinking reed. And can anything that gentle not be mowed down? It seems that the wind could cut through him like a bullet, and won’t the many snubs, rejections, and disappointments to come do the same?

That may be too morbid, however, an homage more to the Arbus aura than to the art itself. Perhaps he already is well armored. Look at the formal perfection that she captures: the arced lines of his eyelids are paralleled by his eyebrows and the brim, band, and top of his hat. The long oval of the face is mirrored by the ears, their protuberance now an aesthetic virtue. Likewise, the arcs of the lower lids, lower lip, and chin are mirrored by the V-lines of the collar, coat, and his arms. Eyes, mouth, hands; ears, lapels, hands–the incredible candor and goodness in his direct gaze at the camera is buttressed by these symmetries of composure. What should be a confrontational stance is instead a moment of pure openness. He, not just the photograph, is a work of art.

Except for the cigarette. That’s the punctum for me. The term was coined by Roland Barthes to describe the part of an image that punctuates or punctures interpretation to create a more intense or troubling emotional effect. The cigarette puts this young man back into time. He is living in a particular time and place and social world, and time is passing as surely as that cigarette is going up in smoke. Thus, the photograph brings him, and us, back to all the desires and vicissitudes and erosion of real life. He doesn’t have it all together; he’s imitating a movie star. He isn’t composed and armored and capable; he’s playing a part for which he is ill cast and cheaply costumed. He’s not open to a life of possibility; he’s already caught in an epidemic. The wind won’t blow through him, but he could end up thinner yet as cancer wastes him to the end. He’s really one of us.

Young Man in a Trench Coat, N.Y.C., 1971, by Diane Arbus/The New York Times, “Unveiled (September 14, 2003),” and Diane Arbus: Revelations.



Santa Claus, Child Abuser

This blog keeps to the straight and narrow much of the time, by which I mean we cover photojournalism with the occasional art photo or advertisement thrown in. We don’t range across Flickr, YouTube, MySpace, and the rest of the digital spectrum, much less put up snapshots from our own social networks. But one of the characteristics of media (and not just in the digital age) is that they all flow into one another. So it is that the Chicago Tribune website is inviting people to send in their snapshots of kids who are scared of Santa. And people do:


Cute, huh? Actually, I don’t think so. This photo probably is a good example of how one’s emotional response to images depends on context. The parents can chuckle because they know that this behavior was momentary and aberrant—the kid was fine in a minute and had lots of fun with the Santa myth otherwise.

It’s also a good example of why there should be some distinction between private and public media. Snapshots do many things, and photojournalism does many things, and they often can overlap and at times each do the work of the other. But you don’t have to look at many snaps to be relieved that they are not in the paper every day.

What interests me about these Santa images is that something does happen when they are collected for public viewing. Not one or two, but over a hundred and counting. Images like this:



And this:


And that’s more than enough, isn’t it?

The question arises, what does the series of images show that might be overlooked in any one? The answer is, the social form–that is, the custom, and who it serves, and what it costs. The visit to Santa is revealed to be something done not so much for the kids as for the adults. Frankly, the kids would never miss it, don’t need it, and in some cases would be better off without it. And isn’t this a lesson in the tyranny of social forms? A very, very minor example, of course, but an example nonetheless of how people can be pushed into fixed scenarios before they are ready for what social goods might be conferred there. You might say that the visit to Santa is the first step toward middle school.



The Presence of the Dead

I guess the war in Iraq turned out OK after all. That’s the conclusion to be drawn from recent newspaper coverage. The photos are devoted to showing Iraqis relaxing in the park or shopping, or US soldiers who don’t seem to do anything except dispense medical care or play with kids. The verbal reports are much the same. Oh, some bad news is there. On Saturday 11 people were killed in several incidents, but you had to read page 21 of the New York Times to know it. While US deaths are at 3893, the tally for November was only about one per day; down from four a day in May and two a day in September, just a trickle really.

So it is that we are on the verge of another betrayal: it is becoming all too easy for the American public to pretend that the war is winding down successfully and that the losses really weren’t so bad. I’d suggest we take another look at the war. This, for example:


This is from a story in the December 2006 National Geographic. That magazine is no longer the epitome of middlebrow distraction that it once was. The photographs by James Nachtwey provide wrenching witness to the horrific price paid by so many soldiers who die or are horribly maimed despite the heroic efforts of the medical corps to save them.

This photo of damage done by an IED blast is somehow intensely intimate. Perhaps because the boots look like Converse high tops, or the open wounds on the bare legs, or the fact that he doesn’t look too banged up, almost as if these were legs scraped badly in a game of sandlot baseball. You are instantly brought to care for the wounded boy and to be grateful that he will receive first rate care. He did receive first rate care, and he died anyway.

Just like this guy:


I saw this photograph a year ago, and it has been with me ever since.

In his odd, haunting novel about the Vietnam era, A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, Peter Dimock’s narrator sets out to “invent some public speech with which to make the presence of the dead visible: some other history, some practical method by which to be able to speak capably concerning those things which law and custom have assigned to the uses of citizenship” (p. 29). It is the citizen’s duty to keep the dead present in memory, especially when they have died in a mistaken war. To do so requires some ability to resist official discourses and other forms of inattentiveness and amnesia. This can be done with speech and thus with the resources of classical rhetoric featured in the novel. Nachtwey demonstrates how it also can be done with photography.

The Right is crowing that the surge worked, while the Left is resigned to point out that it worked only because force levels were brought closer to what the Pentagon had requested and the Bush administration denied for the previous four years. And what is forgotten in this distorted debate? The simple fact that the surge can never restore what has already been irrevocably, senselessly lost.

There may be no harm in recognizing small victories, but good news should never be used to deny the presence of the dead. It is one thing to take credit where credit is due, and quite another to avoid responsibility for the past. And we do worse yet if we forget about those still to die.

Photographs by James Nachtwey for National Geographic. For the record, this month the total casualty figure for the occupation of Iraq exceeded 25,000 US troops, with an estimated Iraqi death toll at 1, 132, 766.



Sight Gag: Duck and Cover


If you want to see the movie short that brought Bert the Turtle to public fame in the late 1950s, click on the photo.

Photo Credit: Posted at Anemic Royalty

Our primary goal with this blog is to talk about the ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital democratic public culture. Much of the time that means we are focusing on what purport to be more or less serious matters. But as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert often remind us, democracy needs irony, parody, and pure silliness as much as it needs serious contemplation. For our part, we will dedicate our Sunday posts to putting some of that silliness on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the carnivalesque. Sometimes we will post pictures we’ve taken, or that have been contributed by others, or that we just happen to stumble across as we navigate our very visual public culture. And we won’t just be limited to photography, as a robust democratic visual culture consists of much more. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

 1 Comment

Democratic Image Report

Democratic Image Report

You can download a report on The Democratic Image Symposium of 2007 here.

redeye.gifFrom Redeye, The Photography Network:

It will be essential reading for anyone concerned with the current popular explosion of photography, and its use as a social and political tool.

The report features an extended essay by John Perivolaris covering the major themes and speeches of the event, which was the centrepiece of Look 07 in April 2007.

It includes a summary of the blog essays written either side of the symposium, all of the links referred to at the conference, and a selection of the photographs shown.

You’re also able to read the original blog hosted by openDemocracy.

And, most importantly, contribute to further discussion on this report.

All contributions on the report, its themes, or the event itself are very much welcome.

A remarkable photographic event.” – Pedro Meyer, Founder of Zone Zero

“This symposium … has altered my ideas about contemporary photography.” – Professor Esther Leslie, University of London

Symposium contributors include Pedro Meyer, Bill Thompson, Suvendu Chatterjee, Celina Dunlop, Mark Sealy, Anna Blackman, Tiffany Fairey, Geert van Kesteren, Mark Haworth Booth, Marysa Dowling, Irene Lumley, Francis Hodgson, Sarah Fisher, Clare Grafik, Greg Hobson and Paul Herrmann.

Contributors to the blog also include David Levi Strauss, Esther Leslie, Giuseppe di Bella, Mark Fonseca Rendeiro, Mary Fitzpatrick, Eivind H. Natvig, and many others.


The News from Photos

It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.

These words by William Carlos Williams stand as a critique of the news media and a challenge to the reading public. Even if the mainstream media cannot change, the question remains of what one should be reading and how one should read. Williams suggests that we are either reading the wrong things or reading the right things obtusely. Certainly the wars go on and men die for not knowing what they should know.

That said, I have never trusted the distinction between poems and news, political deception and artistic truth. You can find both artistry and bad behavior on both sides, and no democratic society can live on poetry alone. One place where art and news intersect is photojournalism. Applied there, Williams question acquires more precise reference: Are we getting the news–the real news–from the photograph? To do that, it would seem, we have to learn to recognize its poetry. And the difficult task would still remain: to see what can be found there that is not available in the photo’s reportage.

This is the ideal to which this blog strives, however fitfully. It should be applicable to any photograph. Today, I’m taking one that has been sitting on the desktop for two months. I’m not sure what I was waiting for, but one answer is that I was waiting for what has happened: amnesia. The photograph was featured item in a New Yorker report on the demonstrations against the brutal dictatorship in Burma.


Certainly there is ordinary news here. Monks really were killed, whatever the government might say to the contrary. But what lies deeper than that? The New Yorker commentary provides one answer: the image “shows totalitarianism in its most physical form: the elimination not just of an individual’s life but of his value.” This observation followed a vague comparison to other atrocity photos. I think there is another, more patently artistic comparison that reveals a second truth.

The force of the photograph comes in part from comparison with standard images of Buddhist serenity. All the elements are there: the still pond, isolated reeds, monk in repose, all composed in simple aesthetic harmony reflecting alignment with the cosmic order. Surely this monk is undisturbed by desire, surely he is in harmony with his natural surroundings. Although his stillness is foreign to us, there is no doubt that he is close to God.

But, of course, the photo depicts not that image but rather its terrible perversion. The pond is still but filthy; the monk is serene because dead; his union with the cosmic order has begun via the body swelling with putrefaction. In place of the harmonious life, he has died miserably.

Cynics could say that he died because he did not understand the poems he had been reading. Would Buddha have taken to the streets? Well, Buddha did take to the streets, in Burma, and now the question is what we are to learn from that. I think the news of this photograph is that Burma has been turned into an ugly, brutalized semblance of what it was. The totalitarian society is one in which everything is the same and yet brutally perverted, violated and then recomposed as if the same as before. The news goes further. This process of violent, destructive, brutalization is going on across the globe. Not everywhere, but in too many places. As with totalitarianism in the 20th century, it happens when modern technologies are placed in the service of a primitive will to power, and when the rest of the world stands by and watches or forgets.

And so there really is no news here after all. And that may have been Williams’ point.

The photograph is a video still taken by a reporter for Democratic Voice of Burma; the epigram is from Williams’ “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”



The Familiy of Man in a Digital World


Writing in Newsweek recently (12/1/07), Peter Plangens reprises an argument that seems to emerge every now and then about the death of this or that medium or art form as it is confronted by newer and different technologies that somehow undermine its “aura.” Walter Benjamin probably made the most famous, recent version of the argument in “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” but let’s not forget that it has a lineage that goes back at least to Plato’s critique of the technology of “writing” and its impact on the importance of the spoken word.

Plangen’s concern is photography, and his claim is that the “explosion” of digital technologies has created a medium that has “lost its soul.” Photography’s “soul,” apparently, is its connection to the “real,” for, as he puts it, “no matter how much darkroom fiddling someone added to a photograph, the picture was, at its core, a record of something real that occurred in front of the camera.” That was the original allure of photography, of course, but it was more a hope (or a faith) than an objective reality. And it didn’t take take avant garde photographers like Cindy Sherman to show us otherwise. Indeed, from the beginning the history of photography is replete with a wide range of examples that make the point, not least the work of prominent and important documentary photographers like Alexander Gardner during the Civil War (with his sharpshooter photograph) or Arthur Rothstein during the Great Depression (with his skull photograph). And these are not lone instances.

That said, while the advance of digital technologies has altered the way in which we think about and use photographs—and very clearly has reinforced a postmodern cynicism about realist representation that seems to worry Plantgen—it has also arguably invigorated photography as a cultural practice, enabling something of a rebirth out of the ashes of modernism. That rebirth includes not only a much wider democratization of the use of photography—witness the millions of digital cameras in everyday usage, many contained in cell phones that are carried about as a matter of course like one’s wallet or purse—but also in its capacity (in the words of Patrick Maynard) to “enhance and filter human power” in a broader spectrum of visual possibilities.As an example, consider the photograph above that was recently published in the on-line version of the Washington Post. It is a stand alone photograph of 55 year old Angel Lopez, the patriarch in a family of five who were unable to find refuge in a Bronx city shelter and were forced to spend the night on the streets.

It is a compelling and affective photograph, all the more so given that there is no story that accompanies it other than the caption which identifies Angel and his family members as “A Family in the Streets.” Shot in a middle space between the camera and a long street that invokes the conventions of classical perspective, distance is privileged as an aesthetic, bringing us closer to the homeless than we might imagine that we need – and perhaps would prefer – to be. Angel is in the very center of the image, his eyes making contact with the camera in a manner that demands recognition and a response. But what could his demand be? Clean and neatly dressed, he doesn’t seem to be the stereotypical homeless person or skid-row bum, and in any case the crutches make it clear that he has a hard time helping himself and thus stands in need of our care. In its own way the photograph is vaguely reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” with its projection of social responsibility for others. But, of course, it is hard to know.

Now click on the picture. A quick time movie should open in a new screen. Give it a moment to load. What we have here is a 360º panorama of the scene. Now we see not just Angel, but all of the members of his family. We are now pulled into the scene more directly as we see (and hear) Angel and his family briefly reflect upon their plight. While they all appear to be looking at the camera in their turn, they also seem to be interacting with one another as well, thus suturing the viewer into the scene in a manner that dictates a more complex social register. This last is underscored by the interactivity of the medium itself as the viewer can zoom in and out of the scene by manipulating the “+” and “-“ buttons on the screen.And with each click, of course, the social and political dynamic changes, pulling us in or pushing us out. But even as we zoom out and distance ourselves from the scene we are forced to take account of the full panorama.

No more “real“ than the earlier photograph, the panorama nonetheless invites and invokes a different affect, a different social and political interaction with the image; and I would argue it is at least potentially a more progressive kind of interaction because it doesn’t allow for a simple passive turning of the page. The image is still controlled in some measure by the camera and the photographer – the frame remains as a constraint on what we can see and know – but as a technology the photograph now filters the relationships between Angel and his family, the street, and the absent state in a somewhat fuller and more engaging fashion. Whether this increases or decreases our sense of compassion or willingness to work to make sure that such situations don’t persist is hard to say, but it would be interesting to consider how such usage would have altered the affect of 1930s FSA photography or Edward Steichen’s 1950s Family of Man exhibit (not to mention, say, the scene of a bombing). But however we evaluate the particular affect of this panorama, the larger point here is that the “soul” of the photograph is not contained by the particular technology of mediation per se, but is rather a function of how such images are received and used (or abused).

As long as we actively make and use photographs – engaging them and talking about them, drawing from them as markers of our sociality, as well as questioning and challenging their politics and affect – they are not likely to lose their soul as a simple function of the particular technologies through which they are enacted, be it framed in terms of the the “magic“ of the nineteenth-century daguerreotype or what Plangens blithely refers to as the “fairy tale” fantasy of Photoshop.

Photo Credit: Travis Fox, Washington Post; and with credit to Patrick Maynard, The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography (Cornell UP, 1997).

Update: For another critique of Plangens at American Photo go here.