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Remembrances of Things …

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We take lots of photographs these days. Photojournalists account for thousands every day and hundreds of thousands every year, but their output is dwarfed by the number of images taken by non-professional, most taken with a mobile device like a phone camera. The photograph above shows a printout of the photographs uploaded on Flickr in a single 24 hour period in 2011 and the number of images taken in a given day surely exceeds what we see in this one photograph.

There is nothing particularly new about taking lots and lots of photographs. We have been doing this for nearly a century since the camera became an affordable commodity and Kodak convinced us that it was a necessary accouterment to bourgeois life. The so-called “digitial revolution” has made taking photographs easier, not least because just about everyone carries a mobile camera of some sort, but also because photographs are now simpler to produce and to circulate—the darkroom is now an antiquity and the family photo album has been replaced by a website of one sort or another. It is thus a bit odd that some bemoan the new found abundance of photographs, such as we find in a recent NYT Style Magazine article titled “Remembrances of Things Lost.”

In the most general sense the complaint is not new. The reliance on photographs will undermine our capacity for remembrance. This, of course, was Plato’s protest against writing (see his Phaedrus) and which has resurfaced over and again across the millennia with the development of each new technology of mediation and representation. And, of course, it is at the core of the iconoclastic critique of photography that we can trace in almost a direct line from Baudelaire to Susan Sontag. And, equally of course, it is wrong—or at least grossly simplistic. Yes, changing technologies alter the ways in which we practice and experience memory. The shift from orality to literacy is a case in point, but what was lost was not memory per se, but a particular way or register in which memory was practiced and understood. And the same could be said for every subsequent development of a new technology or medium of representation. The bigger problem, however, is not that photography – digital or otherwise – has undermined our capacity for remembrance, but that the mindless repetition of this argument underwrites a critical discourse of photography that minimizes—if it doesn’t miss altogether—the power and capacity of the medium to help us think with and through such images as we encounter the problems and possibilities of modern life. And this is not least with respect to how the present—which in some measure is the only thing we can actually photography—functions to help us to (re)member the relationship between the past and the future in powerful and provocative ways.

Consider, for example, this photograph published on the front page of the NYT—both print and on-line—on the same day as the above article lamenting the loss of remembrance animated by contemporary photographic practices.

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Captioned a “shrine to defiance,” the photograph shows a small bungalow in Seattle that seems to have stood in the way of progress. Hemmed in by high rise buildings that all but touch its outer walls, and otherwise bordered by a busy public thoroughfare, the house is altogether out of place—and out of time. It gestures to a past – one can imagine a row of such houses that once stood here – even as it points to the inevitable future that will soon be upon us as modernity move relentlessly forward. But it does so with an interesting edge. Notice that it is the bungalow that offers up the slightest hint of color—of individualism—in an otherwise and uniformly muted, almost black-and-white world. It will not survive for long, at least not in that space, but what the photograph testifies to is the fate of the unique individual in an increasingly modern society where progress refuses to stand still. But more, it also invites consideration of the tension between a more colorful past and a more uniform, colorless present, and to the tint and tone of the future that it portends.

In short, this second photograph complicates our sense of what it means to remember and how we do it, and it does so in a powerful way. Not every photograph will do this, of course, but the potential is there and enough will achieve that potential that it is a profound error to repeat a tired argument about how the medium is a problem for remembrance without also emphasizing its powerful affordances otherwise. Our photographic practices have changed over the years—and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to do so in the years ahead; the more important point is that it is long past the time at which we should change the ways in which we talk photography as a cultural practice and phenomenon so as to understand it as the important mode of public art that it is in all of its forms.

Credit: Erik Kessels/Foam at Amsterdam; Ian C. Bates/NYT

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Sight Gag: The Shot Seen ‘Round the World

21st Century PolicingCredit:Rogers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

 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.

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Waiting for Peace at the Syrian Bus Stop

Buses upright Syria

This scene is so astonishing that I don’t know where to begin, so we might as well start with the caption: “Civilians walk near upright buses barricading a street, which serve as protection from snipers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo’s rebel-controlled Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, on March 21, 2015.”  The description helps, although it, too, is disorienting: What civilians?  Oh, yes, those Lilliputian figures to the left and right.  They are well off center for a reason, for this photograph is not about them but rather what looms over them: the towering construction blocking the view like a bizarre work of street art.

Three buses–or their mechanical carcasses–have been placed on end.  How did they do that?  “With a crane, probably,” says the practical reader, and I’ll bet you’re right.  But however it was done, it is a monument to human resourcefulness.  The buses may have been ruined by warfare already, or too vulnerable to rocket attack to be used anymore, or they may have been stripped down for their new role because those in the neighborhood have learned the hard way that staying alive is more important than getting to work on time.  Whatever the back story, the moral is the same: warfare demands exceptional resilience and inventiveness to survive, and people respond in kind.

Which is why the scene is heartbreaking.  The buses are a monument to resourcefulness, and to waste.  The waste of material, of time, of productivity, of human creativity.  These things are still there in Aleppo, but now they all have been taken hostage by the war.  What could have been an ordinary day on an unexceptional street as people went about the business of getting on with their lives, is instead a study in interdiction, blockage, obstruction, and stasis.

By not getting too close to the action, the photograph creates a space in which we can see inaction, inertness, lost lives and lost years.  Buses that should move along their designated routes now prevent traffic.  A street free of gunfire should be something that one can take for granted; in Aleppo, it requires a Herculean effort, and with the added cost of not being able to use the street.  Instead of the unexceptional habits that can be the bedrock for a good life, this war-torn society is subject to chaos.  And it seems to be a strange, gradual, grinding chaos that persists by turning the city against itself and making disorientation normal.  It looks like life is merging with art, but only to hold off the viciousness and futility characterizing civil war in our time.

Susan Sontag claimed that photography was surreal.  What she failed to appreciate was that reality is surreal, and that photography’s supposed limitations as a medium allow it to capture how that is so.  This photograph of vertical buses in Aleppo suggests a ready-made sculpture in the spirit of Duchamp.  By shearing the scene of purpose which then has to be supplied by the caption, we are sure to be startled, perhaps astonished, but not too quick to rationalize what we see.  The buses will block sniper fire, but still–it’s just crazy that they are the means to that end.  Of course, the more sensible political, diplomatic, economic, social, or cultural means to stop the killing are not working, or not even being tried, so here we are.

Waiting for peace to arrive at the Syrian bus stop.  It could be a long wait.

Photograph by Ammar Abdullah/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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Can We Photograph the Future?

Photograph the Future

It is commonly believed that the photograph is a limited medium that can only record the present. Without the capacity of time travel we cannot return to the past to record it as it actually was, nor can we stretch into the future to see what will be in a subsequent moment of time. Words—and even methods of non-photographic visual representations such as painting—don’t seem to face the same restrictions as they appear to allow greater reach to the imagination to recreate a bygone era or to envision what the world might become. But the photograph is tied to the here and now with little more than the recognition that at some future moment in time the present that it indexes will mark a past.   It can only record what “is” not what “was” or “will be.” We may take pictures to satisfy a future memory as to what was, but the camera, we believe, cannot exceed the moment at which the shutter opens and closes.

There is of course an element of truth to this set of assumptions, but they rely upon such a narrow conception of the relationship between reality and imagination that it may be worth our effort to reconsider the possibilities. The photograph above graced three quarters of the front page of the NYT above the fold this past Sunday (4/5/15) as part of a story reporting on the implications of the California Governor’s executive order that citizens cut water consumption by 25% in response to the drought that is now in its fourth year with no indication of ending. At first glance it appeared to be a diptych—two distinct images or plates that reflect upon one another even as they constitute a distinct whole—but reading the caption makes it clear that this is not a diptych but rather a single, aerial photography of a “lush” housing development that “abuts” a “bone dry desert.” And the question is, what do we see?

California has long been understood as the land of opportunity, the high mark of modern progress with a population that continues to grow and the seventh largest economy in the world. And the quality of life is, if not fully luxurious, at least generally among the highest in the nation. Not everyone lives in a housing development like Cathedral City, but many do and it surely underwrites the ethos of the California Dream. Look carefully at the image and you will note that each house not only sports a rich and verdant lawn, but that many of the homes feature swimming pools that consume hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a year. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in a state where the lakes are drying up and fields are increasingly laying fallow. And yet for all of that, the reaction by some ranges from incredulity to outright resistance. So, the NYT reports on one resident who insists, “I’m not going to stop watering.… The state does not know how to arrange the resources they have, and so we have to pay for it.” The allure of unfettered progress remains strong, and yet the right half of the photograph is a telling landscape of one possible future if we follow the lead of this one resident.

Can photographs show the future? If we assume that all a photograph shows is the literal world that it indexes and no more, then, of course, the answer is no. But as with the photograph above the reality on display is much more complex than a fundamentalist literalism would allow. And what we see is not just a world that has managed to sculpt nature to accommodate its own pleasures, with lush lawns and luxurious swimming pools in a desert climate ill-fitted for either, but what that world may well be destined to if wiser heads do not prevail. And in this context a photograph can well put the future on display.

Credit: Damon Winter/NYT

 

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Sight Gag: Back Home Again in Indiana

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.14.52 AMCredit: Tom Stiglich

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.

 

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How Photography Supplements Secularization

Monks at sunrise

I guess we’re doing silhouettes this week.  And monks.  And springtime religious festivals–in this case, Makha Bucha Day at the Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple in Thailand.  As inquiring minds can learn by using the search function at this blog, I’ve posted quite a bit on all of these figures and events.  So what’s new?

Nothing, actually, and that may  be the point.  Modernity is all about novelty, change, progress, so much so that the news is its characteristic discursive form.  We want to know what is new, whether good or bad, and how it can be leveraged to move forward into something newer and better.  But that relentless forward drive has its costs, not least a need for the sense of stability, order, and serenity that can come from the deep cycles of ritual recurrence.  While modern life is not without its rituals, they are for most of us weak things, easily broken or ignored.  So it is that we turn to beautiful images to supply what is missing.

Ritual is rarely far from religion, which also has been progressively diminished as part of the relentless disenchantment of the world that characterizes modern societies.  Religion is still a strong force in the world, but the alignments are clear: although easily mixed with technological modernization, religious piety and obedience are at odds with the secularization everywhere evident in the more advanced societies.  But that comprehensive elimination of spirits and sacred places has its costs, not least a need for re-enchantment.  Advertisers and other media industries are more than happy to help, but the result is a very long way from a life of compassion and communion.  So it is that we turn to images of a religious dedication otherwise missing in our everyday life.

This photograph of the silhouetted monks at sunrise is hardly news, but it is a beautiful tableau of ritual reassurance and the possibility of holiness.  The thick, warm light is a medium not of sudden enlightenment, but rather of the radiance of being itself.  Each monk is isolated as a specific individual with a specific destiny, yet never one that is any farther away from sacred envelopment.  Their implicit community is confirmed by the cooperative gestures of the dyad in the middle, who double as tokens of attentive care and discipline.  Monks work, it seems, and yet the scene looks nothing like the  workplaces we know so well.  The scene is all too otherworldly, which is why we look at it, vaguely wishing that it might somehow–not literally, but somehow–be the mirror image our own experience.

Makha Bucha Day celebrates an anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment when an assembly of monks formed spontaneously at the sacred site, and it occurs at the time of a full moon.  Each of these senses of the event are reflected in the photograph above: the enlightenment has already happened, the community emerges naturally, and in accordance with a cyclic occurrence of reflected light.  The photograph succeeds, then, in respect to its initial context, but it travels because it is about something else: those of us who are not monks, caught up too much of the time in a different Enlightenment, organized every way but spontaneously, and missing though not really working for a deeper sense of the sacred in our lives.

Photography fills that need, and not just with images of the relatively few monks in the world.  (Search for “abundance” to see more about that in previous posts.)  It provides images of the sacred that can be fitted easily into the routines of a secular society.  One could criticize the medium in respect to every part of that sentence, but I won’t.  Modernity is here, even if not to stay.  The supplement adds to and may eventually displace, but that is another story.  For now, during a season of reflection in many religions around the globe, it may be enough to have a glimpse of another way of being that is at once simple and sustaining.  Even if, like the moon, it is farther away than it appears.

Photograph by Damir Sagoli/Reuters.

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The Seeing Citizen

Camera + Silhouette

The scene borders on the sublime. A silhouette of a woman cast in the glow of a distant fire that appears to be burning out of control. The gulf between the woman and the blaze is altogether calm, inviting a clear contrast with the raging flames and by extension underscoring the space—simultaneously near and far—between safety and danger. And, of course, it is the silhouette that ultimately frames the photograph and its affect. To get the point, imagine the photograph without the silhouette? The contrast of golden hues would still register as beautiful for most viewers no doubt, but all measure of the distance between here and there, of the sublime horror invoked by the image, would be effaced – or at least largely so.

All that aside, it was not color or even the silhouette that initially drew my attention to this photograph, but rather the fact that it is a photograph of someone taking a photograph. Photographs of people taking photographs has become something of a convention in recent times, and all the more so now that many (if not most) people in the western world carry cameras with them in their pockets and seem inclined to take photographs of … well, just about everything. And the question is, why? Not why do people take photographs of everything. I think we have done that for a long time now, contemporary technologies simply making it easier and easier to do. Rather, the question is, why has the photograph of people taking photographs become something of a visual trope … and a trope of what? In the photograph above the camera’s brightly lit screen stands in stark contrast with the golden color cast of just about everything else in the image—including the silhouetted photographer—and thus perhaps invokes a sense of the tension between nature and technology, a point gestured to by the caption which notes: “A woman takes a picture of fires raging through the Los Alerces National Park … A lighting strike is believed to be the cause.” And so the photograph here might indeed be driven by a profoundly artistic and/or ideological sentimentality. There is of course no way to know, but the omnipresence of the technology in modern times simply cannot be ignored.

The trope is perhaps  a bit harder to explain in other, more common occurrences such as this photograph:

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Here the caption reads: “People take photographs as the body of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister is transferred form the Instana Presidential Palace.” One might wonder why we don’t just have a photograph of the body itself being transferred. Or, for that matter, of the crowds gathered to view the transference. What is it about the fact that people are taking photographs of this scene that makes the convention so affecting?

I don’t have an answer to this question firmly worked out at the moment, but my suspicion is that it has something to do with the relationship between actors and spectators. There was a time, not so very long ago, when the prevailing assumption was that citizen spectators lacked agency. They viewed events, but they did it from an altogether passive space that muted their political voice if it did not erase it altogether. The seeing citizen did little more than see. The advance of camera technologies, and in particular the utter ubiquity of camera phones and portable screens, as well as the capacity for digital circulation, has given citizen spectators a whole new way of registering their voice—or is it their gaze? It helps us to see how one person uses their spectatorship to accent the space between culture and nature, as in the silhouette above, or how others mark the importance of the passing of a revered leader.  In short, the seeing citizen is now also, and at least in some measure, an acting citizen.

We photograph people taking photographs perhaps because it marks an important shift in what it means to be a citizen spectator and, as with photojournalistic images in general, it helps us to understand how we see and are seen as citizens.

Photo Credit: Emiliano LaSalvia/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images; Tom White/European Pressphoto Agency.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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NCN on Spring Break

xxx

national-park-montana-spring-nature-wallpapers

We won’t be hitting the beach, but work and travel will take us away from the blog.  In the meantime, you might look at this photo taken on a Montana spring day and think of Henri Focillon’s insight that “Photography is like the art of another planet” (The Life of Forms in Art).  We’ll be back on March 30.

 

 

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Sight Gag: Democracy In Action

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Credit: Chappatte/International New York Times

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.

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Starship Troopers and the Astral Plane

Say what you want about the US military, but–damn, they are good at what they do.  Not least when that includes looking good while they do it.

Airborne salute

The caption tells us that “A US soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) salutes his fellow Soldiers while jumping out of a C-130 Hercules aircraft over a drop zone in Germany on February 24, 2015.”  Good to know, as you might have thought you were seeing a superhero walking on air.  And if this image goes viral, I definitely expect to see both those boots and those sunglasses on the street and in upscale ads.  As for the athletic stance, crisp salute, and bad ass expression, not so much.  Fashion is one thing, and hard work, discipline, and attitude are something else.

Now the skeptics out there might point out that the photo is an Army photo taken to promote the Army, and that there is little need, if any, for paratroops anymore, and that we are witnessing an acutely aesthetic performance that is drastically different from the reality of war.  OK, so they would be right about that.  One might go further still to point out some of the cultural connections, which run from Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (and the truly awful movie that glories in the worst features of the novel), to the entire Marvel Comics pantheon of supercharged action heroes, to the militarization of space.  One could go farther still and see the blaze of sunlight in the distance as a nuclear explosion.  Airborne Apocalypse, the movie, coming to a theater of war near you.  The common threads are not exactly either pacific or realistic: if you think militarism and fantasy are a great combination, have I got a photo for you.

Still, I think any performer would have to tip the hat to Commander Airwalker, just as any photographer would have to acknowledge that the Army’s “Visual Information Specialist” nailed the photo.  In fact, any quick condemnation of the aesthetics involved in either military or media professionalism not only misses the necessarily complex and ambivalent character of war and representation, but also distracts from what really is at stake.  Military discipline can have an aesthetic payoff, but so does every other form of discipline, from gymnastics to dog training.  It is not enough to point out that military spectacles can be unrealistic propaganda, because one still needs to show what other spectacles might offer a sufficiently compelling alternative.  And what makes the Airborne image so difficult to match is that it already has colonized the heavens.

But not conquered them.

Monks Makha Bucha

The captions tells us that “Buddhist monks pray at the Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani province, north of Bangkok on Makha Bucha Day.”  Once again, we see professional dedication and discipline that comes from years of training.  Now the multitude rather than the individual is featured, but each monk still floats as a single individual in a specific space surrounded by emptiness.  If lamps may be the opposite of sunglasses, each photo nonetheless places the human figures against a background of sheer radiance.  To highlight the ambivalence of aesthetic appeals, consider how each photograph can illuminate the other: just as the comparison highlights the social organization and personal discipline of the monks (how seen as if an army), so does it highlight the self-sacrifice and devotion of the soldier (now seen as if a monk).

But they are not the same.  Even if both organizations are necessary.  Even if funding levels or other priorities may be out of whack in both cultures.  One spectacle is about war, but more than that, it is about extending the assumptions and deprivations of this world across all worlds, making them all the same, and leaving the imagination little to do but dream of additional threats and more exotic weapons.  Or is it more exotic threats and additional weapons?  The artistry is all in the present, with only an apocalypse offering any chance of greater transformation.

The other spectacle is about peace, but more than that, it is about recognizing how human finitude is like a single monk in a circle of space: that is, as a single dot of light surrounded by a radiant plenitude of countless Buddha Worlds.  This is a vision of how each node of consciousness is part of an endless plurality and infinite particularity.  Each point light is both unique and part of the greater light, separate and yet part of the harmony that is available to all everywhere.  The assumptions and deprivations of this world need not be anywhere else, but even if they were everywhere else, they would still be infinitesimal compared to what could be.  In this spectacle, the imagination is essential, as it is the means by which we really see.

Imagine, then, how we might see a future without war, and the dedication that is needed to get there.

Photographs by Jason Johnston/U.S. Army and Kerek Wongsa/Reuters.  Readers who like the monks might want to see this post as well.

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