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It’s A Small World After All (After All)

The point is a simple one, and perhaps not all that new, but hopefully no less profound for all that.  The camera offers us a way of seeing, and with it a reminder that for all its realist  pretensions, the cliché that “seeing is believing” must always be measured against the register or scale from which sight itself always begins.  And so it is that the photographers’ lens can take the simple and make it appear complex (or visa versa), just as it can render the ordinary altogether exotic (and the reverse).  The photographs below of last week’s lunar eclipse, which have been featured at a number of slide shows (here, here, and here), do both while also underscoring magnitude, indicating how what otherwise appears large is truly small, and how the small can be truly gargantuan (or maybe it is the other way around).

It will certainly not solve the world’s problems in realizing how small it is (or alternately, how small we are in it), but then again, as a new year is soon upon us it would not be a bad place to start.

(In order, the photos were shot from New Delhi, Sydney, Amman, Jerusalem,  Rome, San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, and Seoul.)

Photo Credits:  Saurabh Das/AP; Tim Winbourne/Reuters; Ronen Zvulun/Reuters; Ali Jareki/Reuters; Tony Gentle/Reuters; Beck Diefenbach/Reuters; Bazukl Muhammad/Reuters; David Gray/Reuters; Jo Yong-Kak/Reuters

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Seeing Infrastructure

Slide shows of the Best Photographs of 2011 are beginning to appear.  They contain some great images, some eye candy, and another opportunity to think about the public world.  One thing you won’t see much of this year, unless it’s in ruins, is infrastructure.

This photo of prosthetic eyeballs is not going to appear in any of the “Best of” shows, nor should it.  And technological mimicry on behalf of cosmetics doesn’t quite qualify as old-school infrastructure, either.  Once images of factories, bridges, and other examples of industrialization were an important genre of photography–for example, the cover of the first issue of Life Magazine featured a photograph by Margaret Bourke-White of  Fort Peck Dam.  Modernism articulated a strong affinity between the design arts, the machine age, and photography, and all three elements are fused in the Life cover with a good dose of national pride on behalf of progress and the American Century thrown in.  That’s a lot harder to come by these days, and so one might settle for a case of machined eyeballs.

But perhaps the photographer isn’t settling.  The image of mechanical eyes refers simultaneously to the human organ of sight and the camera, a visual prosthetic.  The eyes in the photograph appear somewhat uncanny: one intuitively senses that they can’t see and yet one can’t help thinking that they can see–that they might even be little orbs of sight at this moment.  They might be each looking in only one direction to see only one thing, but intelligent in at least that way.  Although not really.  Like a camera, one might say.  These  won’t in fact see anything, but a cyborg future awaits the civilization that mass produces eyes and other body parts, while the present world is already one in which we see virtually everything virtually, so much so that we forget that seeing itself requires its own organic, technological, social, and cultural infrastructure.

Once you start tracing the complex intersections that create photography’s ongoing contribution to the shared seeing that sustains modern societies, it’s not clear where to stop.  Certainly not before you consider the role of the city and all that makes it work.

This is another photo that probably won’t win any contests but is nonetheless distinctive, and in this case eerily beautiful.  The rectilinear grid pattern is etched in silver across the warm-toned base material, and it seems at once serenely ordered and yet strung with potential surges of energy.  But what is it?  A circuit board, or a laboratory apparatus, or an industrial park seen from above, or a work of art?  The metal pieces actually are train tracks in Chicago.  It’s an image of relatively low-tech infrastructure that is essential to life of the city and, with that, the economic health and cultural development of the nation.

But how often do we see that, much less look at it?  Obviously, an image such as this one isn’t going to be sufficient for deliberating about transportation policy, any more than an image of plastic eyes is going to provide all that is needed to think about how we see.  But each image is more than merely striking.  They ask us to consider how much we depend on things that are taken for granted, and how those things might be not only necessary and in need of care but also strange and provocative and beautiful in their own right.  Indeed, they are examples of how photography itself is part of the infrastructure of social thought.

Photographs by Lucas Jackson/Reuters and Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune.

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Sight Gag: “… led by an invisible hand”

 Credit: Jeff Danziger

“The rich … are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants; and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.”  — Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759, Part IV, Chap.1, p. 264.

Sight Gags” 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.


Zoe Strauss at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Zoe Strauss: Ten Years

Philadelphia Museum of Art

January 14, 2012-April 22, 2012

“Zoe Strauss: Ten Years is a mid-career retrospective of the acclaimed photographer’s work and the first critical assessment of her ten-year project to exhibit her photographs annually in a space beneath a section of Interstate-95 (I-95) in South Philadelphia. Strauss’s subjects are broad but her primary focus is on working-class experience, including the most disenfranchised people and places. Her photographs offer a poignant, troubling portrait of contemporary America.”

We’ve been proud to feature Zoe’s work previously and to plug her terrific book, America.  You can learn more at her blog.

“Woman with Red Hair,” photograph by Zoe Strauss.


Double Images: When the Copy Says More than the Original

It’s odd that we don’t have a word for the visual equivalent of the figure of speech.  You can’t get through high school English without learning about alliteration, metaphor, personification, and a few other verbal techniques for styling up your prose.  In art class you might learn a few basic design principles, and there or in music or a lit class someone might identify a motif or two, but that’s not quite the same.  There are a number of words to aid pattern recognition–form, schema, template, outline, ring construction, and others–but they apply across media and often are used to give a visual inflection (or, to apply one’s visual intelligence) to verbal interpretation.  Of course, the design arts have highly developed technical vocabularies and many shared terms or concepts, but few if any of those are in general circulation.  “Entabulature” and “foreshorten” can be found in a Saturday crossword puzzle but not in the rest of the paper.  There just isn’t anything quite like “alliteration” for common visual techniques–say, like this:

The photograph of a double image is a stock technique that regularly produces arresting photos.  The most common example probably is capturing a natural figure and its reflection, as with this photo of a spoonbill.  There isn’t a common term for it, however:”double image” refers more broadly, including both natural mirages and material doubles such as two photos side by side.  Nonetheless, the visual figure is both instantly recognizable and yet compelling.  As it should be, for the photograph of a near-perfect reflection captures both the surface appeal and philosophical depth of photography.  You might say it is one of photography’s most reflective moments: the photograph of a reflection asks us to consider how photography itself is a copy of nature: a point-to-point reproduction, an inverted duplication, an optical illusion, something as flimsy as the surface of a pool of water.

Photography has from the start been plagued by doubts about its authenticity.  How can a copy share in the nature of the original, when it is but a thin sheen of molecules and something that would never exist but for the object it mimes?  I won’t rehearse the arguments here, but by looking again at the double image one can consider how the question can be reframed more helpfully.  Rather than asking what something is–say, is it a copy or the thing copied–we might ask what we can learn from each.  There are some things that you can learn only by looking at the real spoonbill: how it moves, for example, or upon dissection, the exact size of its organs.  But other information can be more available in the copy.

More to the point, you can learn from the copy precisely because it is not exact.  Look closely at the two birds above, and you’ll see that the differences can be illuminating.  The reflection allows us to see more of the undercarriage, and with that its vulnerabilities, while the angle of the face and its softening by the water allows more emotional identification with the animal.  As one’s imagination awakes, one can begin to see the lower bird as the bird’s mortality enacted: about to vanish, it is closer to death, while the inverted suspension and subtle mottling of the feathers places it closer to a specimen than a living organism.  Without the copy, our understanding of and relationship to the bird would be diminished.  That is all the more true when you realize that the only way most of us are likely to see a spoonbill any time soon is through a photograph.

And so of course we get to politics.

Presidential candidates are not quite so rare, but they, too, are largely seen as images.  So it is that the double image of the politician is another example of how the visual figure is both familiar yet compelling.  The technique has been available at least since Garry Winogrand’s brilliant photo of JFK and his televised image speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 1960.  Rick Perry is no JFK, but this photograph from his “Response” prayer meeting at Reliant Stadium in Houston does some of the same work as Winogrand’s photo.  For example, each photograph shows both the speaker and some of the media apparatus to suggest how the candidate operates as both person and image.  It is interesting that in the 1960 photo, the image in a portable TV was much smaller than the candidate, while in 2011 it has come to loom over him.  By staying the same, stylistic conventions record social change.  (Note the alliteration.)

The ascendency of a politics of the image almost goes without saying today.  The question remains of what else this double image might teach us. Because the larger Perry looks almost like an illustration rather than a photograph, it seems to offer something a bit more traditional than the slickness of the real thing.  Could the double actually reveal a good intention otherwise lost in the obviously strategic calculations of this latest play on the faith-family-flag motif?  Or does it suggest that the persuasive techniques of that old time religion have been repackaged in the glitsy media spectacle of the modern electoral campaign?  And shouldn’t it remind us that the “real” Perry in the lower front is actually a photograph, and that most voters have no exposure to the candidate himself?

In any case, if we have to put up with the original, there is good reason to examine its image.

Photographs by Jim Damaska/St. Petersburg Times and Richard Carlson/Reuters.


Gesturing Towards the Costs of War

We have discussed the costs of war on many occasions.  And as we have noted, such costs cannot easily be calculated as they are variously and incommensurately measured in dollars and cents, lives interrupted and lost, the disruption of social and civic norms, and so on. Photography, with its capacity to enact a realist aesthetic—the so-called “window on the world”—offers a powerful optic for how to see these costs in bodily terms, and occasionally in ways that challenge our normative assumptions about where the bottom line might reside.  The photograph above is a case in point.

The liberal assumption is that we identify individuals by their faces—or maybe by their clothing.  But here the camera focuses on the hand to the exclusion of any other bodily identifications.  In fact, what we see are two hands grasping one another. Gender is effaced, but so too nationality, or for that matter, any obvious political, or ideological differences.  But more to the point, is that there do not appear to be any clear signs of pain and injury—but somehow we know that both are present.  Ultimately, it is the caption that clues us to the particularities of the scene as it indicates that one hand belongs to  U.S. soldier who how has suffered the effects of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province, while the other belongs to a U.S. flight medic giving comfort and aid. But in a larger sense it is the grasping embrace itself—tight but also tender—that makes the point; perhaps it is something on the order of a universal sign of support and connection, of contact at a moment of crisis or distress, that underscores the  fundamental humanity that is at stake.  The hands touch one another and in the process they touch us.

The hand, of course, with its opposable thumb, is uniquely human. As such, photographs that feature only the hand become synecdoches for the human experience and by extension models of human polity.  Indeed, the gestural iconography in which hands are employed to communicate the sentiments of public life is far ranging and complex, but at its heart is a collective rather than idiosyncratic or personal experience. The reaction of one person to an event might be a human-interest story, and the deeply personal experiences of private life can achieve profound resonance in literature or other arts, but photojournalism typically depicts experiences that are created by common conditions.  A photograph that focuses solely on the hand can intensify and amplify those conditions.  What matters in the photograph above, then, is that care is being enacted at a moment of distress.  It matters little that we know the individual identity of the people involved.  The photograph communicates the experience of caring and connection, and so offers the realm of collective experience as a model for human engagement.

But there is more, for when such a photograph is placed in comparison with other “similar” photographs, as in a slide show on the Casualties of War, the “gesture” operates in multiple registers that serve not only as models of behavior, but also invite social and political judgments.  So then, we find this photograph:

Once again all measures of identity are effaced and one would not know that this was a young Afghan girl suffering from a shrapnel wound but for the caption.  Nor in one sense, at least, does it really matter, for now the context has changed, and not just because the gesture within the image itself seems a bit more clinical, but because together the two photographs (and others in the same slide show) serve as a gesture to the real cost of war—this war or any war—as fundamentally human.  When faces and uniforms are foregrounded it is hard to lose sight of the fundamental humanity at stake; when focusing on hands alone it is clear that the photograph itself is not simply a window on the world, but indeed is a mechanism for gesturing to aspects of the world that are otherwise difficult to see.

Photo Credit:  Johannes Eisele, AFP/Getty Images


Sight Gag: We Are the Many

Photo Credit: Unemployed Graphic Designer, Father and Husband Unable to Find a Job for a Year

 Sight Gags” 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.




Ariella Azoulay: From Palestine to Israel

This blog periodically cites the work of Ariella Azoulay, whom we consider one of the most important writers on photography in our time.  Azoulay directs the Photo-Lexic project at the Minerva Humanities Center at Tel Aviv University.  She is the author of Civil Imagination: Political Ontology of Photography (forthcoming), The Civil Contract of Photography (2008), Once Upon a Time: Photography Following Walter Benjamin (2006) and Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy (2001). She has received the 2002 Infinity Award for Writing, presented by the International Center for Photography for excellence in the field of photography.

This month Pluto Press has released From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950.  The work is the most recent articulation of a continuously unfolding project of critical exegesis on behalf of democratic citizenship.  Azoulay’s analysis of ordinary photographs from both state and private archives explicates the administrative mechanisms and tragic consequences defining the early period of Israeli state formation.  In place of the myth of the state, Azoulay exposes the architecture of the regime-made disaster, a distinctive mode of power that can co-exist with but ultimately undermines democracy.

Additional work by Azoulay is cataloged here.  For an example of her commentary on current events, go here.


How Does One Survive a Moral Virus?

The above photograph was taken while we were on a brief hiatus but I figured there would be plenty of time to write about it once we returned after the Thanksgiving Holiday.  Little did I imagine that it would go viral, become a meme, and basically disappear from attention in a period of ten days.

One of the things that we’ve learned in writing this blog for the past three years is that the news cycle can be brutal.  Blink and it has moved on to something more immediately interesting, as if our attention span is incapable of pondering the rightness and wrongness of human behavior for more than the time it takes to click through a slideshow.  But one would hope that genuine acts of unrepentant moral turpitude would not be cast aside so easily or so quickly.  Maybe it is because the image of Mary Anne Vecchio wailing in distress at the murder of Jeffrey Miller at a different student protest in the 1970s is so seared in my consciousness that I find the photograph of Officer Pike assaulting students who are the very image of nonviolent rectitude to be so appalling. I taste bile in my mouth every time I look at the image, even now, ten days after first seeing it.

Others have commented on how casual Office Pike appears as he sprays the students, and the point is all the more pronounced in the various U-tube videos that provide live documentation of the event.  Indeed, he looks rather like the weekend gardener in ads I’ve seen selling weed spray, killing the chickweed that has infested his otherwise perfectly green lawn as if it doing so makes him a good neighbor by maintaining property values.  It is no doubt in large measure that sense of nonchalance that has animated the “Officer Pike” meme that became the basis for literally hundreds of appropriations that show the pepper spraying of everything from cuddly kittens to the founding fathers, as well as inserting him into virtually everyone of the major iconic photographs of 20th century U.S. public culture, such as the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, the Times Square Kiss, accidental napalm, the Tiananmen Square tank man, and the photograph of Mary Anne Vecchio at Kent State.

One could go on at some length to analyze these many appropriations, though their production in such a compressed time period, coupled with how quickly they seem to have become irrelevant, makes it difficult to know quite what to make of it all.  There is outrage being expressed at Officer Pike’s nonchalance, to be sure, but also equally heavy doses of adolescent irreverence and cynicism that might lead one to think that the response in general is as much a conditioned, knee jerk reaction as anything at all.

But there is an additional point to be made and one that seems to have been missed by the many commentators and appropriators of the Officer Pike meme.  What makes the scene captured here so morally outrageous is not just that the behavior of the police officer is casual, but that it lacks any moral concern at all, despite the fact that it is being witnessed by hundreds of photographers and videographers.  It is one think to behave casually in ways that might be morally questionable, it is something altogether different to do so in the full light of day and with the knowledge that the world is watching.  Indeed, if anything Officer Pike’s behavior is marked by a conceit that reminds me of the photograph of a lynching that took place in Marian, Indiana in the 1930s where the townspeople are smiling for the camera as they direct attention to the hanging black bodies in the background.  Lacking any sense of shame for the scene in which they found themselves, they pointed with pride to what their community had “accomplished.” The officers in the photograph above—and here I mean to call attention to all of the officers—know that they are being photographed and yet they proceed as if there could be no question but that it is appropriate to shoot pepper spray into the faces of citizens sitting on the ground and posing a threat to no one.  It is, in short, an image of moral hubris that should be anathema to a liberal-democratic public culture that relies for its life blood on civil (and civilized) dissent.

And yet for all that, we seem to have moved on, the viral video little more than one of the millions of u–tube videos that seem to serve the contemporary role of bread and circuses, the Officer Pike meme  an online joke that is on the verge of becoming a trivia question.  And the moral outrage that should haunt us all is lost to the news cycle.

Photo Credit: Louise Macabitis