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Rebuilding One World Trade Center Hollywood Style

Shot from ground level somewhere in nearby Battery Park, the photograph above features the construction of One World Trade Center (OWTC) as it nears completion slated for sometime in 2013..  This past week it grew to 1,271 feet high, making it arguably the tallest building in New York City. By the time it is completed it will sprout an additional 505 feet, to a height of 1,776 feet, and will lay claim to being the tallest building in the United States.

We will no doubt be seeing many pictures of OWTC in the coming year, but I was especially struck by the juxtaposition of this photograph with another in a slideshow on the building of the tower at Totally Cool Pix, shot from the 90th floor and looking out over the Empire State Building and lower Manhattan.

Although the two photographs are separated by a number of others depicting construction workers on the job, their proximity is nevertheless close enough to invoke the effect of a cinematic technique known as “shot reverse shot.”  In this technique the camera reverses back and forth between two subjects so as to create the seamless appearance that they are looking at one another along a common eye line in a common space. The shot reverse shot is symptomatic of what is often characterized as the classical Hollywood style, a realist style that erases the role of the camera in the production of meaning and emphasizes a narrative structure driven by linear, chronological, and logical continuities that animates a rational, goal-oriented conclusion to a problem.

The effect here is to anthropomorphize the new tower as it both sees and is seen.  In the first image the tower is an object of desire that looms over the surrounding cityscape, even as it absorbs it in its mirrored surface.  It is seen from a human perspective that underscores its magnitude—sleek, polished, and standing tall— even before it achieves completion.  In the second image the tower is no longer seen, but rather becomes the site for seeing.  Sharing the line of sight of the new tower one looks out over Lower Manhattan, and all that one sees, including the Empire State Building, once thought of as a marvel of modern technology, is dwarfed in its presence.  But more than just accenting the magnitude of scale, the view naturalizes the logical rationality of the new tower’s location within what is generally understood to be the center of U.S. business and commerce.  A place for everything and everything in its place.  A building was tragically destroyed, but now it remerges, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of an earlier tragedy.  Nature restores itself.

The shot reverse shot logic of the relationship between the two photographs invites the viewer to locate the (re)construction of the edifice as not just another technological wonder, but as a seamless, natural event.  But what exactly is the event we are being encouraged to witness?  That the new building is dubbed “Freedom Tower” is not incidental in this regard, and neither is the fact that when completed it will be 1,776 feet tall—a number that recalls the origins of the new nation.  In short, the relationship between the two photographs reinforces a narrative that frames an allegedly natural (re)birth of the nation in which freedom is defined as a fundamentally capitalist enterprise.  That may or may not be a good story to tell, but it is perhaps equally important to note that a different photographic array—or a different visual style—might underscore the arrogance of our deification of that relationship and the implications it has for how those around the world view us.

Photo Credits: Andrew Burton/Reuters; Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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Sight Gag: If Only It Were Funny

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.

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Caught in the Shadows

The woman above is a beggar.  The scene is Pamplona, Spain, but there is nothing that marks its location per se.  In point of fact, within the last six months I’ve seen the almost identical scene in New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis.  And my guess is that others have seen it in many other cities and towns as well.  Or maybe not.  For while such scenes are all too present we have conditioned ourselves not to notice, to be blind to the situation.  Indeed, we teach our children that it is impolite to stare at such people, and I fear that we learn our lessons all too well, choosing as adults not just to avoid staring but to take comfort in not seeing them at all.  The problem that is created is a vexing one, as the photograph illustrates:  The poor, the unemployed, the homeless are compelled to perform their abjection in public as a means of survival, but at the same time they must shroud themselves under the veil of a shadow, seeable but not noticeable, observable but not seen.  It is hardly a situation conducive to encouraging public assistance, but then that doesn’t seem to be its purpose. Indeed, it seems to underscore a public-private dichotomy that forces (enables?) us to imagine (but never really see) the downtrodden as private individuals and not as members of a public, civic community.

What makes this photograph provocative is how it reminds us that we are all subject to the veil of the shadow.  Notice how those passing by, whether walking to or fro, cast (or are cast in?) their own shadows. There is a difference, of course, as the shadows of those walking are dynamic, exuding a sense of agency, while those of the beggar are altogether static, belying any sense of intentional action whatsoever.  In an  important sense, however, the difference is minimal, no more really than a function of how the light casts its rays upon us—illuminating or hiding us by turns.  And when we see the photograph in this context it is not difficult to imagine how quickly the roles played by the actors in the scene above can be reversed as casting a shadow morphs all too easily into being contained by one.  In a sense, one might say, the photograph stands as a visual reminder of the cultural aphorism, “there but for the Grace of God …”

It is a humbling lesson, but one all the more important for it if we are to recognize and attend to the precarious and  profound economic differences that seem to separate us.

Alvaro Barrientos/AP Photo

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On the Invisibility of Class Warfare; Or, What if They Gave a Class War and One Side Refused to Showed Up?

According to spokespeople for the political right, such as Representative Paul Ryan, President Obama, emboldened by the occupy movement and fighting for his political life, has declared divisive class warfare on the 1%.  We’ll ignore for the moment the recent CBO report that indicates that after-tax income for the top 1% is up 275% since 1990, while it has risen 40% for middle-income houses and 18% for those at the low end of the economic scale.  And while we are at it we will also ignore the absolutely insane spate of “flat tax” plans being promoted by the various candidates of the week running for the presidential nomination of the republican party who seem to think that economic “equality” means lowering taxes on the 1% while raising taxes on just about everyone else so that we are all paying an equal proportion of our income.  In short, we’ll ignore the fact that class warfare had been declared long before President Obama decided to challenge a “do nothing Congress” on jobs creation and Occupy Wall Street protestors took to the parks and the streets—and it wasn’t declared on the 1%.

Rather, I want to focus attention on the way in which the class warfare is being visually represented, or perhaps more to the point, the sense in which it is more or less invisible in news reports.  As the photograph above suggests, the primary skirmishes are occurring in the street and the ground troops standing in opposition to the 1% are the occupy protestors.  And as readers of this blog no doubt know, the web is awash with photographs of the “occupy” protests. And the scene is pretty much the same everywhere you look. Tent city encampments; protestors—young people mostly but not entirely—gathering in crowds, holding hands, marching, shouting (sometimes angrily, but not always so), and so on; protest signs that call attention to the economic disparity between the 1% and the rest; all manner of street theater, including men dressed in suits and ties while wearing pig masks, individuals with dollar bills taped to their mouth or covering their eyes, and men and women wearing Guy Fawkes masks; police dressed in riot gear (lots of police dressed in riot gear!); and of course the police rousting and arresting protestors, presumably in the name of safety and public order.

What is missing for the most part is any clear visualization of the 1% themselves.  And the question is why?  Part of the answer, of course, is that its not that kind of war.  Class warfare is not fought with guns and bombs—though of course the history of anti-union strike breaking in the 20th century might suggest otherwise.  It is fought primarily with tax codes and all other manner of rules and regulations designed to promote the interests of the moneyed classes.  And those simply can’t be photographed.  One might call it an invisible war but for the pesky facts that I started with and the myriad problems exacerbated by the lack of regulations on the financial industry that led to the debacle of 2008, including house foreclosures, double-digit unemployment, and anemic economic growth despite the fat that corporate profits are up.

But part of the reason, I think, is that those who stand with the 1%  simply don’t want to be seen.  They know what they are doing and the effects that it is having or will have, and they are simply willing to go on doing it anyway.  Unlike Gordon Gecko, they are not willing to announce piously that “greed is good,” but by the same token they aren’t willing to give any ground. They refuse to engage with the protestors, perhaps with the assumption that if they ignore them they will eventually run out of energy and disappear, once again allowing the war to continue in all of its invisibility.  And so they stay outside of the view of the lens of the camera.  This, by the way, might be one of the key difference between Occupy protests and Tea Party Protests; in the later we typically see the opposition joining the debate, but here that almost never happens.  The other difference, of course, is that we rarely if ever see the police arresting Tea Party protestors.

Every once and awhile, however, the masters of the universe slip up and allow themselves to be seen, such as in this photograph taken last week at a protest outside of J.P. Morgan Chase in Manhattan.

The image is altogether telling.  Taking a break from the world of high finance, they gawk at the protestors below.  They don’t seem to have a care in the world, and they surely don’t seem to have any real concerns for what is taking place on the street below as anything other than a passing curiosity.  The guys on the left are snickering.  The man in the middle appears to be texting a friend.  The man and the woman on the right seem altogether bored.  In another such photograph a women uses her phone to photograph the crowds below.  The overall attitude is one of  nonchalant and bemused indifference.  And in a few moments they will no doubt return to their desks and computer screens secure in the belief that this is a war that can be won simply by not showing up. After all, the law seems to be on their side—literally.

One can only wonder how long the class war will remain that kind of a war.

Photo Credits: Michael Dwyer/AP; Mario Tama/Getty Images

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How The Other Half Lives – 2011

In 1890 the immigrant social reformer Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, a searing photo-textual expose of the appalling and inhumane living conditions of the 300,000+ residents packed into a square mile of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  The Lower East Side (LES) consists of a number of neighborhoods, including Chinatown, Little Italy, the East Village, and most notoriously, New York’s version of skid row, the Bowery.  And as is the case with many impoverished inner cities neighborhoods, the LES has undergone significant gentrification in recent years.  So it is that the NYT recently reported on the renovation of The Prince Hotel, a nearly century-old flophouse located in the Bowery that continues to offer rooms—actually “cramped cubicles topped with chicken wire” —for $10 a night to a few men who continue to need a place to live and can actually afford the rent, but which also has converted several “upper” floors into a “stylish,” and “refined version of the gritty experience” for $62-$129 a night that includes “custom-made mattresses and high-end sheets.  Their bathrooms have marble sinks and heated floors.  Their towels are Ralph Lauren.”

There is something tawdry about the whole endeavor, to be sure.  The real estate developers who came up with the idea of promoting a “flophouse aesthetic” believe that it embodies a “living history vibe” that is as much a museum experience as it is a hotel for “stylish young men and women.”  Indeed, the NYT reports that the down-on-their luck individuals who live in the dilapidated cubicles on the lower floors are “an asset to the property,” apparently because they give some authenticity to the experience of “slumming”—a word, alas, which has returned to something like its original usage.  We could go on at some length to criticize the industry of slum tourism which, at least until now, has been more prominent in developing nations like India, Brazil, and Indonesia than the U.S., but there is really a different and more important point worth making.

The two photographs above, which show one of the “nicer,” lower-level squalid rooms on the left and one of the upper-level, renovated versions of the “gritty experience” on the right invite us to see the direction of America’s economic future.  Those who live in the room on the left have barely enough to get by (click here for a larger view). The room is dimly lit, and while neat and orderly, it is stuffed full with all of this person’s worldly goods. This is not the room of a destitute street person, after all, for they do have a television and other electronic equipment, including a jury-rigged ceiling fan, and they have enough money to pay the rent which implies some very minimal resources; but it is equally clear that their piece of the American Dream has eluded them.  And a look at their bathroom facilities makes the point all the more.  Those who live in the room on the right (here) seem to have arrived.  They not only survive, but enjoy the luxuries of an aristocratic class, with designer towels and sheets, and black bathrobes (that apparently bear The Bowery House monogram: TBH).  Their bathroom stands in marked contrast to those living on the floors below.  The developer describes the clientele for rooms like this as “people who might choose a cheap cubicle  for their city accommodations, yet go out for a $300-a-bottle table service.”

What we are given to see in these two images when put side by side (and by the hotel-museum aesthetic more generally) is a glimpse at a possible—and all too likely—economic future, a world divided between the haves and the have nots with little room in between.  In short, we see a world in which the middle class itself has been erased.  There are many reasons why this spells tragedy for our future—and somewhat ironically, not least the inability for a capitalist economy to sustain itself— but surely at the top of the list is the simple fact that  a society defined by such stark and radical economic inequality will never be able to sustain a vibrant democratic political culture.

Photo Credit: James Estrin/New York Times.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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An Economic Model of Greed (Or, the Legacy of Gordon Gekko)

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Before Deepwater Horizon there was Thunder Horse, a fifteen story oil platform that cost over $1 billion dollars to construct and was characterized as a marvel of modern technology.  According to then Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, “It is amazing that so large a structure … will have such a tiny environmental footprint, leaving almost no trace of itself in either the sea or the sky.” The photograph above shows it pitching in the seas of the Gulf of Mexico following Hurricane Dennis in 2005 before it had become fully operational. The efficient cause of its near sinking was not the storm however, but the improper installation of a check valve that “caused water to flood into, rather than out of, the rig when it heated during the hurricane.”  A simple enough mistake, perhaps, until we learn that the platform was hastily rushed into production “to demonstrate to shareholders that the project was on time and on schedule.”  And it was later discovered that the shoddy welding of underwater manifold pipes could have led to a catastrophe that would have made the current disaster seem small in comparison.

But there is more, for in the same year a BP refinery in Texas City, TX exploded, killing fifteen and injuring nearly 200 more.  And again, the cause was “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of BP.”  The next year BP was responsible for the leaking of 267,000 gallons of oil on Alaska’s North Shore. And yet, once again, the accident was foreseeable and avoidable.  In total BP ended up paying over $300 million dollars in fines.  No small amount until you compare it against their net profit for 2007 of $20.84 billion dollars (admittedly, a sharp decline from the previous year but more than enough to absorb the fines and still leave enough to pay investors a substantial dividend, aka, “the cost of doing business”).

There are two points to be made. The first and more obvious point concerns what the photograph above (and others like it from the Texas City explosion and the leak in Alaska) actually shows.  The evidence of the impending disaster of Deepwater Horizon was literally before our eyes at least as early as 2005, but we chose not to see it.  After all, progress entails bold risk, and where would we be without oil.  It is just the most recent iteration of modernity’s gamble, the wager that the long-term dangers of a technology intensive society will be ultimately avoided by continual progress.  Sure, safety is important, but … And as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, as we dole out fines that amount to little more than a slap on the wrist.

The second point is less obvious precisely because it is harder to visualize, and it is all the more important because of that fact:  the economic model that is driving such decision making is not guided by anything even approximating the rationality of free markets or the law of supply and demand, but by the same culture of greed that has driven the world economy to its knees in recent times.  As one British economist put it, BP was run like “a financial company, rotating managers into new jobs with tough profit targets and then moving them before they had to deal with the consequences.  The troubled Texas City refinery, for example, had five managers in six years.”  Without putting too fine of an edge to it, we’ve learned in recent times that that is no way to run the financial sector, let alone an oil conglomerate.

In the end, the photograph of the listing Thunder Horse Platform might be a proper visual rebuttal to Gordon Gekko’s now famous declaration, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

Photo Credit: NYT.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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