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The Enjoyment of Poverty

This past week the NYT ran a brief story on an agreement struck between the Los Angles City Council and the ACLU of Southern California that will allow homeless people to sleep on the streets anywhere in the city (with some minor restriction), not just on skid row, between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Although the Times does not comment upon it per se, the compromise has turned out to be quite controversial, particularly among those who think that the very presence of the homeless outside of skid row would be unsightly, especially if they were to congregate near the “late night restaurants” in the downtown area or in front of Ralph’s (a high end supermarket) near the Staple’s Center. The Times’ story did not include any photographs. However, on the bottom right corner of the web page on which the story appeared there was an ad for the New York Times Store urging people to buy this photograph:

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The caption/ad copy reads, “A Bag Lady in Times Square – 1965” and if one clicks on the image they discover that it is a photograph taken by Larry C. Morris and is part of the New York Times Buildings and Landmarks photo archive. Priced at $600 for an 11 x 14 exhibition quality print ($755 framed), the Times entreats its readers: “Give someone a unique gift that will last a lifetime or decorate your home and office with distinctive photography …”

The irony here is rich and it really is hard to know where to begin. Homelessness is among the biggest problems we face as a nation; and yet it is also a problem we steadfastly choose not to see. Who among us has not averted their gaze at one time or another from those sleeping on park benches or beneath underpasses, or those holding signs seeking money for food, as if to imagine that if we don’t see them then they aren’t really there. And what better way to avert our collective vision than to romanticize the homeless person as the “bag lady”—the eccentric and often addled but loveable older woman, carrying her possessions from spot to spot, refusing the help of social services, and often driven by a maternal instinct that fights its way through the layers of mismatched, threadbare and disheveled clothing she dons. Never mind that this is no longer the face of poverty and destitution—if it ever was; it helps us put a public veil on what is otherwise too hard (or inconvenient) to confront. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. Seeing is believing.

Writing in 1934 Walter Benjamin noted that photography “has succeeded in transforming even abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment.” It may not just be a function of photography, as we find the commodification of poverty in other places as well, such as in the figurine culture; but as the Times demonstrates, it is very much at home in photography, and no less so than when cast in the black and white aesthetic of fine art photography and produced as an archival quality print that lends the aura of historical authenticity and the tinge of nostalgia to the image. As with another famous photograph from Times Square, this image seems to say, “that’s the way we were.” Here, it references a world where the homeless were bag ladies, and where bag ladies blended in with the commerce and culture around them, noticeable, but not uncomfortably so. We need not avert our gaze (as the man in the back looks on), but neither do we need to break stride to assist or intervene (as no one seems bothered by the woman’s presence). And what is left unsaid, but implied, is that we can salve our guilt by framing our awareness of poverty and homelessness through a lens that renders it as a fashionable “object of enjoyment.” So, you can donate $755 to a local homeless shelter or you can hang this picture on your wall. After all, it has an “enduring quality” that will “last a lifetime.”

Photo Credit: Larry C. Morris/New York Times

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The Enjoyment of Poverty

Discussion

5 Responses

  1. Melanie says

    I really enjoyed this post, and by way of extending the discussion, offer some thoughts about other uses of the same image of the bag lady.

    I’ve seen the ad for the bag lady in Time Square photograph paired with a couple of NYT stories on homelessness, most recently with a story about Felix Najera, a homeless man set on fire earlier this month in East Harlem: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/06/nyregion/06homeless.html?ref=nyregion

    Here I think the effect is quite different. The ACLU/skid row story says little about homelessness; it’s more about advocates and laws than people experiencing homelessness. It leaves us to fill in who the homeless are and how they must live (a gap, as you point out, filled so troublingly by the overly nostalgic print for sale).

    But that gap doesn’t exist in all stories about homelessness. In the article about Najera, we know exactly who the homeless are (defenseless citizens at risk) and how they are treated (cruelly murdered through a total disregard for their humanity, both literally and figuratively). When a story of this kind offers such a characterization, the print for sale takes on a radically different meaning: it seems to me that it’s no longer about making poverty a commodity for enjoyment, but about critiquing the unwillingness to look at the homeless, to engage individuals in a way that asks who they are and what their fates will be if we continue to ignore them. In the print, the bag lady walks away from the viewer, suggesting to me that we have long allowed the problems of the homeless to get away from us, and we do so to our own peril. In examples where the print is paired with a story about cruelty against the homeless, it seems to offer us a choice: we can continue on an outdated path of indifference or blissful ignorance of the problem, which may turn us into monsters, or we can get involved, make a difference, strive for justice. In this way, the photo memorializes the moment when we have to make that decision. The homeless woman is always there, but always just about to get away. In these cases, her fate as well as ours hangs on the decision we make.

  2. Lucaites says

    Nicely put, Melanie. And yet another instance of how capitalism inadvertently deconstructs itself. Or do you mean to suggest that the Times recognizes that it is positioning the photo as a memorialization of the moment of decision?

  3. Melanie says

    I think it’s most likely that the Times has some sort of plug-in that automatically inserts an ad for a print topically related to the article, with unpredictable results. But it’s interesting how the pairing of the print for sale with particular stories can change the argument of the story. With the Najero piece, you wonder what drives people not just to ignore the homeless, but to actively hunt them down, and when you scroll down the page to the ad for the bag lady print, you get the answer: a long history of America’s indifference to the homeless.

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