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Sight Gag: The Income Gap

Income Gap

  Credit: KAL/Baltimore Sun

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.

 1 Comment

Last Stop: War/Photography at the Brooklyn Museum


WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath is an exhibition of 400 photographs that was organized by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and now has come to the Brooklyn Museum, where it will close on February 2, 2014.

The exhibition “explores the experience of war with an unprecedented collection of 400 photographic prints, books, magazines, albums, and camera equipment, bringing together iconic and unknown images taken by members of the military, commercial portraitists, journalists, amateurs, artists, and numerous Pulitzer Prize–winning photographers.

“Including the work of some 255 photographers from around the globe who have covered conflicts over the last 166 years, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY examines the interrelationship between war and photography, reveals the evolution of the medium by which war is recorded and remembered, and explores the range of experience of armed conflict: recruitment, training, embarkation, daily routine, battle, death and destruction, homecoming, and remembrance. In addition to depicting the phases of war, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY includes portraits of servicemen, military and political leaders, and civilians and refugees.”

More information on the exhibition and the museum is available here.

Photograph by Walter Astrada. Congolese women fleeing to Goma, from the series Violence Against Women in Congo, Rape as Weapon of War in DRC, 2008.



Gun Laws and Visual Rhetoric: Shooting Open Carry Advocates

Molly Ivins, where are you when we need you?  I’ve got to think Texas’s own progressive columnist would have loved to sink her teeth into this story.

Open Carry Advocates front

It seems that a local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was meeting in a suburban Dallas restaurant.  But before we go any further, I’ve gotta say that MDAGSA is not exactly a snappy acronym, and the name itself is no better.  Maybe people weren’t thinking about name ID when they formed the organization in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting.  Still, a strategic element is missing, which, as we shall see, is not limited to MDAGSA.

OK, where were we?  Oh, yeah, the meeting.  And then one of the moms looked up and saw people walking around outside carrying long rifles, including AR-15s and Ak-47s.  They had no reason to be worried, as those carrying the guns were law abiding citizens peacefully exercising their gun rights, but since the women were liberals, they of course felt threatened.  According to the New York Times report of the story: “I was terrified,” said one who was so scared she wouldn’t even give her name.  “They didn’t want to talk.  They wanted to display force.”

Which is just what the president and founder of Open Carry Texas expected to hear: “No matter what we do, they’re going to label us intimidating.  It doesn’t matter how we carry, where we carry.”  And there you have a perfectly good and all too typical example of how advocates on both sides of this contentious debate talk right past one another.  Guns are in fact differentially intimidating, and so those who are more scared are less likely to make distinctions that appear self-evident to those within a gun culture, who then are insufficiently empathetic.   And so it goes: liberals are then likely to reify gun violence in the gun–a claim countered by the bumper sticker that says that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”–while conservatives sneakily try to have it both ways–claiming both that guns will scare hardened criminals, terrorists, and tyrants, and that ordinary, unarmed citizens have no reason to be afraid of the armed strangers in their midst.

Which is why the photograph above is so interesting.  Open Carry Texas has a weekly gun walk, apparently to show citizens that they have nothing to be afraid of.  They decided to double the payoff for their weekly walk by staging a brief protest at the MDAGSA meeting.  The photo is obviously posed, and it would seem to be at once completely conventional and strategic.  It’s conventional because, other than for the guns, it conforms completely to the social and visual conventions of the social event group photo.  This is exactly what you would see at the family reunion or neighborhood Fourth of July picnic.

It’s strategic because by including the guns along with the ordinary guys, gals, kids, and smiles all around, the Open Carry message is communicated perfectly:  See, we’re just ordinary folks, wouldn’t hurt a flea, just like you.  Think of us as hobbyists, not as a horrible accident waiting to happen.  Frankly, most gun owners are just ordinary folks, and until liberals figure out a way to accept and acknowledge that fact, they aren’t going to get very far with gun control.  Even so, the argument doesn’t carry much weight (or ammo, if you will).  Open Carry might think of it this way: I’ll accept the claim that you should be allowed to do as you please because you are ordinary folks, if you grant the same to the jihadists, beastiality buffs, and other groups that make the same argument.  Until then, we need to talk about the difference from ordinary conduct, not all the other, irrelevant similarities.

And the difference in this case is that they are carrying very dangerous weapons, and doing so to advertise the right to fire those weapons in public if suitably threatened.  (Why else should the public accept the risk, if not to prevent or respond to violence?)  So there actually is something a bit odd about the first photograph after all.  It may not be as threatening as the MDAGSA member said, but it does invite questions: are they a force to be reckoned with, or not?  If not, why accept the risk that comes from accident?  If they are, then is the flag waving and kid posing just an act?

Which brings us to a second photo that was included with the Times story.  A photo that I think is a brilliant example of strategic representation.

Open Carry Advocates side

Here’s the same group shot from the side.  And I do mean “shot,” for now we are seeing their exposed flank. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help seeing this point of view as a targeting, and exactly the angle that a real enemy would take.  More to the point, we can see how the potential for violence invites a greater potential for violence.  Guns not only give fire, they draw fire; something that Open Carry may not have considered fully.  And if their spokesperson were to reply that they actually engage in military training and can operate as an armed band, I suspect that they would find out in a hurry that even the state of Texas doesn’t smile on militias other than its own.  In any case, paramilitary organization would make that first photo even more suspect.  But this photo does more than comment on the first one.

I think the most important point here is how those with guns are still all too vulnerable, still flesh and blood individuals who could be easily caught unawares and cut down in an instant.  Don’t think they don’t know as much, for that is one reason they are willing to pay for something that will give them a sense of security; who among us has never done that?  They may forget just how vulnerable they are, however, not least by having a gun in the house and by being around others in public whose gun management skills may not be top-tier.  And maybe it’s just me, but I’d like to think that if everyone involved in this controversy could acknowledge their common vulnerability, perhaps a small but sure step could be taken toward a more sensible gun policy.

As with guns, photographs can have unexpected consequences.  It’s one thing for advocates to use visual displays strategically, but it’s quite another to be able to control all of the imagery.  In posing for one photo, Open Carry Texas set itself up to be ambushed by another.  Fortunately, anyone can carry a camera.

Photographs provided by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, taken last Saturday from inside a Dallas-area restaurant.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


And Life Goes On

Life Goes on 1

The Civil War in Syria rages on.  More than 100,000 have died by so-called “conventional means,” plus however many thousands more by chemical means.  Horrific images abound of bombs exploding, burned out buildings and vehicles aflame, child warriors, tortured and dead bodies, random limbs strewn about and more.  In some ways, however, the most disturbing images are not those that put the conflict on display in all of its goriest details, but rather those photographs that slip through to show a society that seems to have accommodated itself to the war as if it were a normal and ordinary event.

The photograph above is from the north of Syria near the Turkish border in the city of  Ras al-Ain.  According to the caption his living room has been “damaged” by an attack perpetrated by Kurdish militia and we see him rehanging a painting of Jesus Christ on his wall.  It would be easy to make a good deal out of the iconography of Jesus as we view this conflict from the Christian West, but there is a different and more subtle point to be made.  Buildings are “damaged” by storms and floods and earthquakes and fires; although there are exceptions, these are typically natural phenomenon over which humans have little if any control. Often they cannot be anticipated or predicted with any precision, and their main effects are primarily material and economic.  War, of course, is different.  No less physically disastrous than natural phenomena, its effects are as much psychic—if indeed not more so—as they are corporeal. Such psychic trauma is often difficult to see, marked usually in images of demonstrable grief or the now famous “thousand yard stare.” Or as in the image above, it can be altogether invisible, made to appear as part of the natural, ordinary business of cleaning up as if after a storm or an earthquake.  Yeah, sure, there was a mortar attack.  But now we just fix the windows, pick up the furniture, put the painting back on the wall and go about our day.

The point is driven home by the photograph below of a father and daughter making their way through the city of Aleppo on a cart. The caption says that they are in the process of

 Life Goes on 2

migrating from the war torn city. The physical effects of the war are present everywhere, from the rubble that covers the alleyway to the burned out bus stacked on top of another vehicle in the background.  But what makes the photograph so potentially disturbing—horrifying even—is that no one seems to notice.  The father and daughter make their way through the city without any sense of distress or particular attention to the ruins that surround them.  Others go about their business as well, apparently unimpeded by the physical destruction.  It is just another day in Aleppo.  Indeed, the young girl seems more interested in the person taking the photograph than anything else in her environment, a sign no doubt that she has fully incorporated the apocalyptic state of war into her consciousness as an ordinary and everyday event barely worth paying attention to.  The caption underscores the point, noting that she is “blow[ing] a bubble” as if to signal that she really doesn’t have a care in the world.

The real horror of war may well be the way in which those in its midst are forced to assimilate to its damage and destruction as a function of the sheer everydayness of ordinary life.  The real horror of war, in other words, may well lie in the ways in which its effects are invisible to the naked eye.  And that is what photographs can often put on display.

Photo Credits: Ras al-Ain/Reuters; Karam al-Masric/AFP/Getty Images


Sight Gag: In Search of the Deserving Poor



Credit: Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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.


PRO Photographer App Trial Offer

There’s a new app in town, and it’s got a lot of sauce.  Full disclosure: NCN is one of the not so secret ingredients, along with features from other blogs and bloggers and much more as well.  The press release is below, along with a one-month free subscription for NCN readers.  We’re happy to be involved, and hope you will give it a try.

Download app

Introducing a new media hub for the connected photographer: PRO Photographer, an app released this week for iPad, iPhone and Android phones, represents a game-change in the presentation of content, bringing together for the first time premium magazine articles and live, curated news feeds. It allows photographers to browse in-depth features on the craft and business of photography while keeping up with a best of the blogosphere in one free app.

“As solo creatives and business-owners, professional photographers are always scratching for inspiration; it’s their stock-in-trade,” says James Frankham, publisher of PRO Photographer and himself a professional photographer since 1998. “But while the internet is awash in great imagery and helpful ideas, photographers don’t have the time to sift through it all. This app does that for you, featuring the opinion-leaders in the world of photography and sensational content to gnaw on, all in one place.”

On iOS and Android phones the PRO Photographer app offers expertly curated, free news content syndicated from PetaPixel, Feature Shoot, Wonderful Machine, PhotoShelter, Conscientious Photography Magazine, Unless You Will and more.

The free iPad app goes a step further. In addition to the daily news feed, it features new product announcements from leading photography brands and premium content from PRO Photographer magazine (unlocked with an in-app purchase) including long-form articles, exclusive galleries and videos from the world of photography past and present.

And in the latest issue, the future also: Celebrated blogger and academic Jorg Colberg investigates the changing landscape of digital imagery, the move from the press to the screen, and the burgeoning opportunities for photographers ready to exploit both. PRO interviews Cristina De Middel on the Zambian space race and the nature of truth, and we go aboard a foiling AC72 in San Francisco to witness the imaging technology arms race that ultimately decided the outcome of the 34th America’s Cup. GoPro cameras were mounted on hulls to analyse the performance of hydrofoils and 800mm lenses aimed at the competition in a game of spy-versus-spy where small observations created the big gains required to win the oldest trophy in international sport.

From articles on the craft of photography to deconstructions of complex studio shots and discussion of the ongoing challenges of professional practice, this is an app relevant to every pro.

Special offer for No Caption Needed followers: free one-month subscription to PRO Photographer premium content in the iPad app. Within a feature article, select LOGIN and enter NoCaptionNeeded in the surname field and subnumber 11526113 to gain full access to the latest issue. This is not an auto-renewing subscription, you will not be charged. If you like what you see, subscriptions can be renewed after the trial period using your iTunes account from within the app.

iPad: https://itunes.apple.com/app/pro-photographer-for-ipad/id675858687
iPhone: https://itunes.apple.com/app/pro-photographer/id662782098

• Free app
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News feeds and new product announcements are entirely free. Subscriptions can be purchased to premium content using iTunes from within the app. Premium content is updated every two months with each new issue. Back issues of premium content can also be purchased on a per-issue basis.
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PRO Photographer is published in New Zealand by Kowhai Media Ltd, also the publisher of New Zealand Geographic. A kowhai (pronounced ko-fy in Maori) is a native tree with brilliant golden blooms that flowers in incandescent glory among the deep-green trees of New Zealand’s temperate rainforest. Similarly Kowhai Media seeks to be a stand-out example of quality, creativity and originality in digital publishing. See more at www.prophotographer.co.nz


Fashion Week: When Human Being Becomes a Commodity

Perhaps it’s progress if a woman now can be an empty suit.

Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week S/S 2014 - Day 5

And it’s certainly gets to the bare bones of the fashion show, where the models are there solely to display the clothes.  Living mannequins, they are not supposed to be seen as individuals, or even as persons, so why not use an artistic technique to capture that social fact and put it on display?  This specific technique of overexposing the film has even been used before on the runway, and I guess it bears repeating–this time at the Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2014 show.

The picture is striking, of course, and that alone is a prompt to ask what might be on display or if the image has anything unexpected to say.  Actually, quite a bit is there: we see the dress, and how the model has been reduced to pure functionality, and an audience that we can imagine could quickly become accustomed to actually seeing models that way, and a set of modernist design principles, and an environment created for the express purpose of showcasing aesthetic appeal and innovation, and a commercial system (back to the audience again) that will convert those experiments into a global network of clothing manufacture and sales, and a history of fashion with citations of 1940s couture (the dress again) and Orientalist accessories (the shoes), and with that an allusion to photography’s black & white past. . . .  That’s a pretty good haul for a single photo.

And there might be one more thing.  That reference to “Mercedes-Benz” provides the clue, because the auto industry continues to be a solid example of how commodity production can be hidden under fashionable styling.  No, cars are not like wheat or iron, but they’re closer than you might think, not least when the few differences among them are a small part of an industry built on robotics and branding.  And even if I’m wrong about cars, I think I’m right about the truth that is being exposed in this photo: Once incorporated into a global system of mass production, the human being becomes commodified–one in a series of uniform units as interchangeable and decontextualized as a model on the runway.

I’m not going to argue the point today, not least because I’m channeling a tradition of social thought that is part of a larger debate about modernity, and that doesn’t have all the answers anyway.  What is interesting is that the idea can be presented to vividly in a photograph of a routine event.  (Yes, even Fashion Week is routine, occurring throughout the year around the globe.)  Furthermore, another image from the same event by the same photographer adds yet another dimension to the argument.

Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week S/S 2014 - Day 5

Same show, even the same collection (Hu Sheguang Haute Couture), except now we are backstage.  This would seem to offer an additional series of contrasts with the first image: darkness instead of too much light, figure present instead of absent, primitive instead of moderne, African instead of Orientalist detailing, encumbered or even caged instead of in empty, abstract space, etc.  True enough, but also on behalf of the same insight.

What you see here is the return of the human figure, but now encased in an apparatus instead of a dress, and situated downward, in darkness, almost as if in an infernal factory.  She appears to be immobilized, as if awaiting activation.  She may be subjectively immobilized as well, although it probably would be worse if she were self-conscious.  If the first design draws on the past to inflect the present, this one alludes to a more distant past to suggest a future without enlightenment.

In both images, however, our fate is the same: to become defined entirely by the system of production.  Erased or encased as needed, the only requirement is to be interchangeable and thus individually expendable.  And the result is the same whether working in the full glare of the spectacle or hidden deep in the hive.

Fortunately, absolute domination is impossible and the modern world-system is much more complex than social theory.  Even so, fashion houses and photojournalism have developed an intriguing working relationship on our behalf: images such as these expose tendencies that already are at work, and possibly refashioning what it means to be human.

Photographs by Feng Li/Getty Images.


Connect the (Iconic) Dots


As a young child I loved playing  “connect the dots” and “color by numbers.” I still remember one kit I received as a present that included the famous battles of the Civil War.  It was my introduction to Gettysburg, Bull Run, Shiloh, and Antietam.  I knew very little about the Civil War when I started, but by the time I was done I had a strong sense for the difference between Yankees and Rebels, i.e., the blue and grey, the North and the South, and more a somewhat romanticized sense of national, military heroism.  What made it especially engaging was the way in which connecting the dots and then coloring in the scene as scripted by the numbers cast the illusion of my active participation in the artistic process and, by extension, the historical moments being represented.  I remember my parents framing the four pictures and they hung on my bedroom wall until I was a teenager and the artistic remnants of my adolescence were replaced with posters of rock ‘n roll stars.

The photographs reproduced in connect the dots fashion by MacDonaldStrand as part of the Most Popular of All Time exhibition operate in a somewhat similar fashion as they rely on what those who study rhetoric call an enthymematic sensibility.  An “enthymeme” is a socio-logical argumentative form that suppresses one part of an argument—usually the major or minor premise—with the assumption that it is more or less implicit and the audience will recognize and supply it; the key effect of enthymematic reasoning is that it requires the audience to become actively involved in the production of the argument  by providing the missing part and thus, in some measure, forcing them to identify with and own the argument. MacDonaldStrand’s “drawings” rely on what we might call a “visual” enthymeme inasmuch as the images are largely recognizable but they also require (and enable) the audience’s active participation in making them complete by supplying the suppressed and missing  information.

The point is a simple one, but worth stressing: These iconic photographs are typically treated as signs of national identity. They mark important historical moments, are  recognizable and meaningful across generations and a wide array of demographic stratifications, and invoke strong emotional identifications that can range from civic piety to cynicism. And yet for all of that, one does not need to know the particular details surrounding any of them to recognize their cultural significance or the civic meanings that they impute and/or perform. Recasting them in connect the dots form, suppressing most of the visual information that one finds in the photographs themselves—color, shade, sharpness, definition, focus, etc.—as well as some of the key figures performing the central action of the images underscores their cultural significance by calling attention to the enthymematic logic upon which they rely and the ways in which their meaning is animated by the audience’s participation in making them whole.

Critics often wonder what it is that makes an iconic photograph iconic.  One answer to that question might be the way in which the visual/rhetorical  logic of such images invite–and perhaps even rely upon–a broad public of active spectators to supply the missing or implied information or knowledge that completes the photographic and gives it is cultural resonance. Spectatorship is often seen as a passive activity, but with the iconic photograph it may well be that spectatorship takes on a more performative role in which the viewer is cast as an active participant in the making of meaning … as well as the making of history.







Sight Gag: How Many Have Died From Handguns in the Last Year?*


* Click here for the answer.

Credit:  Margulies

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.


Aesthetics, Morality, Politics, and Disaster

Perhaps not every drought is beautiful, but this one is.

Yangtze dried-up riverbed

The dried riverbed of the Yangtze looks like gracefully aged wood.  The undulating landforms perfectly match the sinuous water.  The great river must be powerful, yet here it suggests a quiet serenity, as if the basins were holding a gently receding snowfall.  Water and earth lie woven together; as they extend to the horizon, one can easily sense how the scene is the result of vast natural forces seamlessly, namelessly unified.  In the words of Wallace Stevens, “the swarthy water/That flows round the earth and through the skies,/Twisting among the universal spaces, //Is not Swatara.  It is being.”

Against such a backdrop, the human figures in the foreground appear small, tentative, and very temporary.  The motor is out of the water, already becoming useless as the waters disappear in yet another year of drought on a steadily warming planet.  This species may poke around for awhile longer, but once they’ve burnt enough of their ecosystem that will be that.  And the forces that made the river will flow on without a ripple registering our moment of disruption.

So how on earth can we say that the drought is beautiful?  Nor can you evade the issue by saying, oh, it’s just the photograph that is beautiful, not the drought itself.  Yes, there is artistry involved in making the photo, but the aesthetic reaction is to the material forms themselves.  Few would be dead to this tableau if standing there, but then light up with delight when looking through the viewfinder.  Indeed, no one would think to take the photograph at all, if not already marveling at the scene itself.  It’s not the art or culture alone, but a human capability for seeing the world, a capability that then leads to arts and other products of the human imagination.  So this drought can be beautiful, as are firestorms, floods, and melting glaciers.

And that’s a problem, right?  When the waters dry up, people suffer, and as heat waves spread people are suffering around the globe.  To then take a picture and admire the view would seem to be obscene.  Aesthetics and morality must be two very different modalities, and if the former can interfere with the latter, shouldn’t we be wary of that risk?

And we’ve even been here before.  Recognition that these two powerful dimensions of human being are in fact not seamlessly coordinated was one of the traumatic experiences of the twentieth century.  Nazis listened to classical music while overseeing genocide, and so Adorno drew the terrible conclusion that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”  (Go here for a good brief explication of the quote.)  If art could be used so easily alongside of evil, and worse yet to aid its operation, surely the only ethical option was a severe renunciation of aesthetic pleasure.

With the passage of time, it has become easier to reconsider the problem.  Perhaps the separation was artificial, a crucial construction for a particular phase of modernity, but one that is becoming increasingly untenable.  The two modalities are still not coordinated explicitly–as if, for example, bad would be ugly and good delightful–but there may be an ecology to human consciousness that we are just beginning to understand.

Instead of being wary of our aesthetic responses, perhaps they could contain hidden resources for solving the very problems they seem to deny.  Perhaps aesthetic and moral responses can work together like water and riverbed.

To see that, we would have to shake off the old suspicions that come from the prior distribution of our aesthetic and moral senses.  Unfortunately, those suspicions are still the dominant habits in most of the humanities and qualitative social sciences.  Not everyone, of course, and that list includes scholars working in political theory and in visual culture: for example, Jacques Ranciere, Frank Ankersmit, Roland Bleiker, Davide Panagia, Crispin Sartwell, Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards, David Levi Strauss, Ariella Azoulay, and others (including moi).

Wallace Stevens knew as much.  In the same poem he says, “And these images/these reverberations,/And others, make certain how being/Includes death and the imagination.”  Disaster and imagination here are continuous, both part of that great stream, and perhaps each able to say something about the other.

So, perhaps the time has come to admit to how beauty is part of both the best and the worst that can happen, and perhaps particularly so when facing environmental catastrophe.  The effort involves nothing less that trying to bring all human capacities to bear on the most pressing problems of our time.  That can’t be such a bad thing.

It’s just a pity that it took so long, as time may be running out.

Photograph by a stringer for Reuters.  The poem by Wallace Stevens is “Metaphor as Degeneration,” and can be found in Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by Holly Stevens.  You can read an earlier post on the topic here.