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Photography and the Visual Recession

I’d like to consider why this is a good photograph:

We start by noting how it is a bad photograph: a dull, static, poorly lit shot of a dull, featureless, commercial building in an unknown location on a cloudy winter day. The building itself is of no obvious significance, and the image does nothing to elicit and direct our attention. Even when a caption is supplied–this is the plant of the Manchester Tool Company in New Franklin, Ohio that has been shuttered for ten months–nothing remains of visual interest.

In fact, the photo actually diffuses the viewer’s gaze. Your eye might be caught by the bright colors on the large sign, but it then is pulled along the left-to-right diagonal to the next sign that is smaller and less legible, and then instead of converging on a point it spreads out along the shadowed wall of the building, and from there it wanders right and left trying to draw things together into a coherent whole except that the building continues beyond the frame in each direction. Worse yet, the flag lifts the gaze up on the left but then leaves it hanging there, looking above everything else in the picture to the empty sky, and what is the purpose of having a flag waving over an empty building?

Even if you were one of the perhaps two readers worldwide who might be interested in buying a plant in Ohio at this time, this photo wouldn’t grab you. And it certainly is not one likely to be seen on someone’s desk or in a family album or even in the newspaper. So, what is it doing?

At some point last year a friend got in my face and said that I needed to be posting about the economic downturn. I gave a grumpy reply to the effect that doing so was easier said than done: a fragmentary medium such as photography wasn’t suited to depicting structural problems, and the news media limited themselves to a few stock images such as executives before Congress and workers at factory gates. But I knew he was right, and since then John and I have put up a number of posts on the economy. What I’ve noticed, however, is that the best photos have been uniformly bland images. Examples have included customers leaving a restaurant, an empty auto showroom, furniture dumped along a sidewalk, and others as well. They provide visual parables, but they do not feature the art of photography.

By contrast, the visual archive contains many images of both economic power and economic catastrophe. Think of the World Trade Center or famous images of the Great Depression such as Dorothea Lange’s White Angel Breadline. Even government response to the Depression was captured in monumental imagery, as in the photograph of Fort Peck Dam on the first cover of Life Magazine. But it seems that the economic mudslide we have experienced so far requires a different iconography.

What I like most about the photograph above is how the building seems to be withdrawing from view, receding into its minimal state of dull banality. Of course, it wouldn’t look much different in good times. Commercial real estate like this is not built for looks. But the “For Sale” sign wouldn’t be there, and the windows might be open and the walk shoveled, and, most important, the photograph wouldn’t have been taken at all. The image seems dull, cold, and aimless, but that is exactly what it is documenting: how the plant closing leaves nothing but an empty building, forlorn signs, and workers who are left out in the cold without work or opportunity when they need it.

Recession may include not only cutting back on luxuries but also cutting back on the optical extravagance of towering skyscrapers and dramatic action shots. The photojournalist’s task now includes documenting dispersion, retraction, erosion, and sad quietude. In doing so, it may bring us to dwell on the dull surfaces of ordinary life. Those surfaces were easily overlooked when driving down the road in an SUV using cheap gas to get to the mall. Now, however, they may be all that remain.

Photograph by David Ahntholz for The New York Times. See also the Times article, Months After Plant Closed, Many Still Struggling.


Photography and the Visual Recession


6 Responses

  1. John M. says

    I know that it’s just an oversight, but you should correct the text: The photo of Fort Peck Dam, on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine, is by Margaret Bourke-White.

  2. Janet Reyes says

    Our country was also hit hard by the Economic Recession. At least we are seeing some signs of economic recovery now. I hope that we could recover soon from this recession.

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