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Currently Under Construction: Gray World

Several months ago in a post entitled Shades of Gray, I suggested that the use of gray tones in photojournalism could make a subject appear otherworldly. Thus, the photograph could alternately buffer the viewer from the those being depicted or reveal an inability to reach across the gulf between different cultures. Even if I got that right, there is more to be said about seeing gray. For one example, take a look at this photo:

The wildfires burning around Los Angeles this week were so hot that they could melt steel. Here a wheel rim has puddled into globs of dull metal. It’s as if the vehicle were being smelted back to its original elements, reversing the long process of civilization that turned iron ore into a truck. The fire might have been started by a match stick–or, more likely, a random lightening strike, one among thousands that happen in the area every year–yet it can become a raging inferno capable of devouring cities. In the aftermath, green shoots will appear amidst blackened devastation and the great cycle of life will continue. But nothing there will put that wheel rim back together. Nature, it seems, is no respecter of machines.

The image is a color photo, of course, and that makes the point all the more poignant. The gray metal isn’t an artifact of the photographic process. Instead, a color print reveals how gray has flowed into view. What had been hidden behind chrome has been released into the environment like lead or some other industrial toxin ready to leach further into the landscape. What had been crafted to help a society hum along now is neither artifact nor nature but that third thing: waste.

Like this:

Again, a color photo reveals a world turning gray. It actually took a moment for the colored shirts on the Iraqi police officers to assert themselves into my focal vision, rather than merely providing a felt and uneasy sense of contrast. The wreckage from a car bomb dominates the foreground of the picture and is reinforced by the second smashed vehicle in the center rear. The scene as a whole is tonally consistent with these gray/white wrecks. But for one taillight and other minor reddish hints, this is a world of grays, greens, and other dull surfaces. Whether war zone or concrete yard, it’s a world being given over to gray. No wonder the police seem out of place: colorful, nonchalant, they imply domestic peace and all the life that can be a part of that. They are balanced and then some by the soldiers opposite them, who seem more of a permanent fixture. By contrast, the police are just passing through.

People like to think that wars, like fires, are accidents; and that fires, like wars, could not have been prevented. In reality, the California conflagrations are predictable outcomes of poorly regulated housing development. And the war in Iraq–well, we know that story, and it was no accident. The truth is that for all the art and energy that goes into building up modern societies, they also carry within themselves powerful forces that are continually turning people, places, and things into waste. Alongside familiar scenes of peace, prosperity, and color, another world is also under construction: Gray world, inert yet dangerous, making waste seem like second nature.

Photographs by Phil McCarten/Reuters (thanks to The Big Picture) and Karim Kadim/Associated Press. Note that because NCN doesn’t have a style sheet or a copy editor to keep my erratic spelling in check, I use both “gray” and “grey”; something I learned, somewhat to my embarrassment, when I searched for the Shades of Gray post and turned up more entries under “grey” than “gray.” Both terms are correct, but consistency would still be a virtue were it to be found here. For that, readers will have to look elsewhere.


Summer and the Moral Equivalent of War

It’s summertime and the news is breezy. No paper can seem to muster the energy to do more than go through the motions, and who can blame them? The political class is laying low–for good reason–while most of us are either on vacation or looking forward to going there. We all know that not much is going to improve in the short term and a lot could get worse, so why not take a break?

Or better yet, take in a blockbuster cinematic epic of heroic scale, like this:

You didn’t know that a World War II movie was playing in the multiplex, did you? And you were right: good wars are out of fashion at the moment, so I substituted this image of an air tanker dropping fire retardant over one of the 1000 wildfires burning in California earlier this month.

This cinema-quality image could be from a WWII movie. A vulnerable prop plane carries its payload right into the maw of the battle. Great clouds of destruction loom all around but the crew are undaunted; they’ve got a job to do, a war to win. The red chemical streaming from the plane could be streaked with fire or blood, and perhaps they will have to make it home on a wing and a prayer. The plane looks fragile yet dauntless, as if already on its way to becoming a scale model of itself, ready to fly again and again in a child’s imagination.

If such simple scripts are too distant now, the California firefighters still have a role to play:

This image could be from the Vietnam War. The helicopter became the symbol of that tragedy, and once again we see a chopper lowering itself into an inferno. The aircraft is farther away than in the image above, smaller, more likely to disappear in the smoke and crash unseen rather than bank toward the sun or go down in a ball of flame. A craft designed for mobility seems almost mired in time, and instead of heroic action on behalf of a great national effort, this is a picture of being dwarfed by historical forces. But bad war or worse, the crew will do their best to complete their mission.

What I wish for America this July is not that we would get serious and turn our attention back to a world in flames. What I would rather see is a lot more images like this one–that is, images of the government turning its powers for organization and action to attack real problems like fire, floods, depletion of natural resources, bad health care, poor schools, poverty, crime, and more. We spend a billion dollars every three days in Iraq, which would fund a lot of work at home. Firefighters, cops, social workers, construction workers, and many more people take risks for others every day, and they could be doing a lot more good if there were a real national commitment to building a good society, which can only be a society that is good for all.

Jimmy Carter is still excoriated on the right for referring to the moral equivalent of war in a speech on energy policy. In the speech he is quoting a union leader–I can explain that term later to some of our younger readers. The union leader was well read, as he was alluding to William James’ essay by that title. You don’t have to like Carter or buy all of James’ arguments to recognize that we could have all of the good side of war without killing, maiming, or otherwise ruining lives. Call it the aesthetic equivalent of war: let’s get a good story and enjoy the show, one where we don’t have to look away.

Photographs by David McNew/Getty Images.  A slide show of these and other images of firefighting is at The Big Picture.

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Observing Nature's Way

The coverage of the flooding throughout the Midwest this month will have brought more than one reader to wonder why people just don’t move to where they can stay high and dry. Easy to say when you are high and dry, and before the mud slide or water shortage or hurricane or wildfire or other so-called natural disaster occurs closer to home. It’s not easy to move a city, of course, nor can home owners pack up the neighborhood en masse without losing their shirts. More important, people live where they do because it once was beneficial to put the city where it is, and because it often is beneficial to continue to live close to nature. Getting too close is one problem, but we should remember that becoming too insulated from our environment is equally dangerous, physically and spiritually.

Rather than feel superior or even fortunate for being above the floods, let’s take a minute to simply marvel at nature.

This photograph gives us both the awesome power of natural forces and the beauty of the earth, the incredible gift of new growth and the fury of destruction. That thunderhead can appear out of nowhere, gather together wind, water, and fire, and wreak havoc on the work of a year or a lifetime. Yet that crop can come up seemingly by magic, teased out of the ground by the sun and rain which feed it and without which none of us would live. No one wants to be battered by the storm, but why would anyone want to get too far away from this?

Or this:

This shot from the San Juan Islands near Seattle is a picture in serenity. But the islands were created by the same massive, impersonal forces that were visible over the wheat field. And that water is no safer than the Mississippi, colder, in fact, with deadly currents should you capsize. But we don’t worry about that when looking from such a privileged place as that provided by this photograph. And it is beautiful. We should ponder why it is so beautiful, for that is another gift: our human ability to see it as more than forage or shelter or simply what it is. Instead, we see the beauty of forms, whether undulating shapes or shimmering shades of luminescence. And form is the trace of prior activity, the natural forces molding the land and channeling the waters.

Photographs by Steve Hausler/Associated Press and Bruce Dike/The Daily Dozen at nationalgeographic.com


"… the Shadow Knows"



Last week over at BAGnewsNotes Michael Shaw featured a picture of President Bush leaving the oval office in preparation for a trip to Southern California to “view the damage done by the wildfires in Southern California.” Difficult to see in the predawn shadows cast on the West Wing of the White House, but nevertheless physically present, the president is pictured in sharp contrast to the brightly lit window of the Oval Office through which we see Vice President Cheney who apparently has stayed behind to handle whatever everyday business might need tending to – say the war in Iraq. The photograph was a poignant comment on who might actually be running “the show” in Washington, D.C. these days. There was a time when the president would stay close to the Oval Office during times of crisis, and the vice president would function as the official emissary of the White House, but in this image the roles are clearly reversed.

I was reminded of that image when I saw the above photograph posted at the New York Times this past week. Once again the president is leaving the White House, this time on a trip to campaign for a Republican senate candidate and to visit troops graduating from boot camp at Fort Jackson, SC. And once again he leaves via the west portico of the White House in almost the exact location as in the previous picture. But there are important differences that deserve comment.

First, of course, this later image is taken not in the early morning hours when darkness still shrouds the White House and when one would hardly expect to see a great deal of pomp and circumstance as the president moves about. Rather, it is shot in the light of day, sometime in the early afternoon judging from the length of the shadows. And yet the president is completely alone – no entourage, no secret service, no military honor guard. Indeed, he appears to be slinking off in broad daylight – which may in fact be what he is doing given the gravity of national problems and the partisan, photo-op purposes of his trip. In this instance there are no lights on in the Oval Office—it is completely dark— and so it is hard to know if anyone is attending to business at all. The key difference between the two photographs, of course, is that here we don’t actually see the president, but rather his silhouette, a gossamer-like presence that recalls the flickering images in Plato’s cave. And notice too that his spectral stature, relative to the door he has just passed, suggests that the man casting the silhouette is a mere shadow of his appointed, presidential self, certainly not someone who is apparently up to rigors of his high office. No longer even just an emissary for the White House, here he is reduced to a shadowy existence that borders on political nothingness.

The salience of this most recent rendition of Lil’ Bush is emphasized by contrasting it with a photograph of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, which appeared on the Washington Post website on the same day.


Shot at an oblique and low angle, the image catches the hint of an LED screen in the lower right corner, thus foregrounding the political theater being performed. Normally we might imagine this as a somewhat critical move, but notice how it distinguishes this image from the picture of the president. The image of the president is shot straight on and without any attention to the camera capturing the scene; it thus implies an ironic realism to the image that underscores the fact that this is not George Bush playing the role of being president, here he is off-stage, and … what you see is what you get. A mere shadow.

But there is more. For while the Speaker is the focal point of the image, her presence looms large relative to the ceremonially adorned rostrum at which she stands—and notice that she is speaking, literally acting out her role for the American people, and as the caption tells us, in defiance of the president’s threat to veto a revised version of the SCHIP —her physical body actually occupies only the left third of the screen. Behind her, and dominating the remaining two-thirds of the image is a bank of six American flags. The pomp and circumstance altogether absent in the Bush image (thus again emphasizing the realism of the image) is here in spades. And just left of center is the shadow of the Speaker cast on the screen of flags. Her shadow is smaller than she is (just like Lil’ Bush), but here it appears with economy and force, situating her visually where she might prefer to stand politically – acting in the name of the American people, in the full light of day (or at least in view of the media), and in a decisive but moderate stance, again, just left of center.

There are numerous points that could be made here, not least the extent to which those of us on the progressive Left should feel more or less uncomfortable with the second image and the ways in which it blends speaker and nation, visually understating the row of flags (which really do seem excessive) displayed as the source of national identification and authority. But for now I want to call attention to how the “shadow” can function differently as a conventional, visual marker of power and presence, at once minimizing or maximizing one’s stature, inviting either alienation or identification.

Photo Credits: Matthew Cavanaugh/European Pressphoto Agency; Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News


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Firestorm on the Blue Planet

As the California wildfires burned this week, online papers put up dozens of photographs to document the who, what, where, and when of the disaster. (They said less about why; can you guess what might be a factor?) Stock images soon emerged: firefighters standing amidst the blaze or sagging from exhaustion; homeowners fighting back with garden hoses or staring in numbed disbelief at the extent of their loss; buildings exploding into flames and charred cars lying aslant in the streets like ad hoc tombstones. Then there were a few that somehow caught sight of something deeper. This one, for example:


If nothing else, this image highlights one cause of the blaze: the wind that can make embers from a burning brand stream wildly across the open country. But the image is more elemental than that. We almost could be looking at a physics experiment. What is in fact fire also appears as electrical currents arcing outwards, crackling and flowing with the same chaotic necessity found in the atom or in the sun. The transmutation of nature’s surging energies is suggested by both the light of the full moon above, reflected from the sun, and the seething intensity of the little fire pits burning into the earth.

I had moved on from this image, thinking it merely unique, until I saw this:


Again, the wind whips the fire forward. Again, along the course of the firestream we can see nature’s underlying structure. The fire races through the tree the same way it arcs through the air. The bright tracery of limbs and branches reveals how water, wind, and fire flow. Nature’s order is but a snapshot of energy’s relentless surge and spread.

And so we get to this:


The caption said, “A picture released by the European Space Agency shows fierce desert winds blowing smoke from wildfires Monday in Southern California.” Another imaging technology, another view, but one with the same capacity for insight. The harsh energy of the fires now is seen as smoke being carried along by winds capable of circling the earth. The scene is at once gentler and yet all the more conclusive: natural processes are ever present, enveloping, and flaunted only at our peril.

And there is something else in this photo that might be a sign of hope: the blue, blue water. Now the tableau is complete. Hot, arid land, as if bleached by the fires on its surface, produces the white ash of the smoke, which flows across the cool waters that soothe the planet. There is irony, too, as the land burns with all that water nearby, but the conclusion should not be that we need bigger helicopters for water bombing the canyons.

I see a beautiful, beautiful planet. How sad it would be look back someday as we stare in numbed disbelief at the extent of our loss.

Photographs by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2007; Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2007; AFP/Getty Images, October 23, 2007.