Oct 21, 2013
Sep 21, 2009
Dec 13, 2007
Jun 12, 2011
Jul 16, 2014
Oct 05, 2011

Seeing and Being Seen Through the Eyes of Anja Niedringhaus: In Memorium

Screen shot 2014-04-06 at 12.50.21 PM

I was saddened—and more, really, thoroughly distressed—to learn of the tragic death of photojournalist Anja Niedringhuas in Afghanistan’s Khost Province, murdered by a rogue Afghan police officer as she was preparing to photograph the upcoming elections in that country.  Her photography was a testament to what photojournalism at its best enables, which is not simply an objective view of the world, but a complex realism that acknowledges its reliance on a  capacious sense of imagination.  “Imagination” is not mere fancy—the mind at play with things it already knows—but rather a way of extraordinary seeing that allows us to project our sight beyond the horizon of ordinary observation or conventional belief.  Put differently, the photograph is always an indexical imitation of some part of  reality, but also a way of seeing that reality more extensively, whether as through the lens of a microscope or a telescope.

The photograph above is in many ways emblematic of Anja Niedringhaus’s considerable archive of photographs (e.g., see here, here, and here) from Afghanistan.  What makes it interesting for me is precisely how it puts seeing and being seen in tension with one another.  On the one hand we have a child playing as if she were an adult (no different in this regard than a young girl in the US trying to walk in her mother’s high heeled shoes), and thus being seen, and at the same time underscoring what it might mean to see from that perspective, one’s sight obscured by the screen that alters what can be seen. And indeed, the photograph shows the young girl adapting to the change in perspective as her hands frame what the screen in the burqa already limits and obscures.   The photograph below, shot at a separate moment in time, provides the reverse shot, focusing more on seeing than being seen.

Screen shot 2014-04-06 at 1.42.19 PM

One could make much from these two photographs about how women are seen and what they are able or allowed to see in Islamic cultures, but there is a different point I want to emphasize here as these two photographs double for how the photograph as an optical medium itself works, always and already positioning us as those who see and those who are seen. And as the two photographs above demonstrate, seeing and being seen are not altogether innocent activities (think again of the young girl walking around in her mothers shoes), but are traversed by vectors of power and colonized by societies and their institutions.  And it is when the photograph accesses its capacity to energize the imagination in this capacity that it removes us from the world of simple questions of who, what, where, when, and why—all important questions, to be sure—and helps us to see questions of relevance, resonance, and engagement.  In short, they can help to pull us out of our ordinary indifference, and perhaps to challenge—or at least acknowledge—conventional wisdom or denial.  It shows us as “seeing” and “seen” subjects.

Anja Niedringhaus was a master at employing her art—and let there be no mistake, photojournalism is a public art— to display a more nuanced realism that prodded us to see the world in extraordinary ways and thus to imagine what it might mean to associate with others—to see and to be seen—in a more humane fashion.

RIP

Photo Credit: Anya Niedringhaus/AP Photo

 0 Comments

Playing Jeopardy

Sticks and Stones

Photographs of Palestinians hurling stones or aiming slingshots  at Israeli troops are a dime a dozen.  They are so common that we don’t even need to see the Israelis, or for that matter a caption, to know what it is that we are being shown.   Indeed, a week barely goes by without one or two such photographs appearing in this or that mainstream internet news slideshows, lodged, as the image above, in between images of pole dancers in Sydney, grief-stricken relatives of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a farmer racing his Oxen through a rice paddy at the annual Kakkoor Kalavayal festival (it is in India, look it up, I had to!), and sunbathers in Nice.

So what exactly is going on here? By one account the stone throwers are performing for the camera, and there may be some of that going on, but such an account begs the question as to why the photographers are so invested in the activity to begin with or why photo editors are so willing to pay heed to the images and to give them pride of place in their publications with such regularity.  One could argue that there is an anti-Israeli influence operating in the western media, as such images feature a stateless people fighting against a modern military state with the most primitive of weapons; but then again, one could just as easily also argue that there is a pro-Israeli influence in as much as what we are being shown are criminal malcontents disrupting the prevailing order of a legitimate, modern state.  And there is the rub, for in an important sense such photographs leave the question entirely open to discussion.

There are two thoughts worth considering here.  The first concerns the regularity of such photographs and their often random placement in slideshows that make them seem to be rather routine and ordinary events, if not also something like exotic curiosities on the order of annual pole dancing competitions, oxen races, or sunbathers.  From this perspective, of course, the viewer is cast as a passive spectator witnessing an event from afar with little real investment in what is going on.  There is something of a performative contradiction in this practice as the very regularity of the event, which should incline us to focus on its tragic significance—and I mean “tragic” regardless one’s particular political sympathies—seems to work against that understandng.  This is not a matter of so-called “compassion fatigue,” but rather an instance of turning attention against itself such that the regularity of the event normalizes it and thus mitigates its importance.  Ah yes, it’s springtime and so the sunbathers are out once again.  And the beat goes on.  And so the question might be, what is the point of the weekly slideshow and how are photos chosen for inclusion?

But there is a second and perhaps more pertinent concern:  If we take the time to look at the photograph as a singular event, what is it that our attention is being directed to?  Susan Sontag makes the point that photographs lack “a” narrative.  The article is important, for it is true enough that there is no single narrative animated by or contained by any photograph.   That is not the same, however, as saying that there are no narratives.  And indeed, as I’ve suggested above, there are at least two operative within this image, one which casts the Israeli state as the protagonist and one which casts it as the antagonist.   Perhaps both are correct.  And there are likely other narratives as well.  The point is that the photograph directs our attention to “an” event without necessary definition and encourages us—or more properly helps us —to imagine the range and register of useful questions to pose.

In a sense, engaging photographs is rather like playing the game of Jeopardy.  And the point, of course, is always to put your answer in the form of a question.

Photo Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

 1 Comment

Seeing Through the Colors of Carnaval

Screen shot 2014-03-09 at 9.09.04 PM

 

Lent is upon us, and that means the Carnaval season, with its abundance of hyperbolic, bodily exaggerations and all around revelry that mark a world turned upside down.  And, of course, there is a profusion of lavish colors; a coordination of fluorescent reds and yellows and blues and greens, all of which underscore the festive nature of the event, but more importantly accent the relief from the regular conventions and constraints of everyday life.  Indeed, the combination of bodily excesses and explosions of color has made Carnaval a prime destination for photographers and every year the slide shows at all of the major news outlets comply by featuring a profusion of such images of the event in Brazil and around the world (see, e.g., here, here, and here).  If one didn’t know better the regularity and regular similarities of such slide shows might appear to be motivated by a commercial interest in advertising La Paz or Rio de Janeiro and other similar locations as sites for tourists in search of an exotic holiday.  What is missing, of course, is any sense for the history of the celebration or its close connection to nationalist sensibilities as it appears both naturalized and commodified.

But, of course, Carnaval is more than just a commercialized, global event designed to attract tourists with its outrageous revelry.  And so we have this image from the celebration in a rural community in Trinidad.

Screen shot 2014-03-09 at 9.57.16 PM

Here too we have the appeal to bodily excess and exaggeration, and with it a marking (and mocking) of the conventions of everyday life, though the appeal is to a more localized history of colonial control. I am especially drawn to the tension between the exaggerated, historical costumes and the somewhat dainty parasols on the one hand, and the contemporary footwear on the other.  I don’t know if those are Nikes or Adidas or some other internationally marketed running shoe, but they are as uniform as the rest of the costumes being paraded about, and both no doubt speak to the colonial influences that have been imposed upon Trinidad from abroad, both then and now.  Few are likely to flock to rural Trinidad for an exotic vacation, but that doesn’t mean that the celebration of Carnaval that takes places there is any the less interesting or worthy of consideration.

But there is another point to be made, and it concerns the contrast between color and black and white photography.  There was a time not so very long ago that one would rarely if ever see a color photograph in a newspaper or in most magazines (National Geographic would have been the most notable exception).  That changed within the past twenty years or so, and now color photography has become something of the photojournalistic norm with black and white photographs relegated largely to the world of art photography. When black and white photographs were the norm, color photography underscored the ways in which the grey tones of black and white images were an artistic representation that was and was not the reality being displayed.  And now that color photography has become more-or-less the norm, black and white photography operates in something of the same register, albeit in reverse, reminding us that the tonality of an image—and no less the tonality of the society that we are seeing—implicates and is implicated by the manner in which it is constructed and represented.

Photo Credits: Juan Karita/AP; Pablo Delano/Trinity College

 2 Comments

All That There Is To See

bp29

The weather has been in the news a good deal lately.  Snow storms, sub-zero temperatures, ice dams, and so on, and of course each such weather event makes for all manner of beautiful and otherwise comforting photographs ranging from frozen water falls to children catching snowflakes on their tongues to individuals making snow angels in the street on Times Square.  There are also troubling photographs, such as those that feature the homeless forced to sleep on steam grates to capture any manner of warmth. And there are many others as well.  The photographs that have captured my attention, however, are those that call attention to the medium of photography itself, as with the photograph above (or here and here) that underscores the paradox in how the photographic image simultaneously shows and veils its subject.

According to the realist perspective, the photograph—at least in its pure form—is fundamentally the result of a mechanical, chemical, and/or digital process that captures all that there is to see within the frame of the lens.  A split second, captured and frozen in time.  The “truth” of the image is thus an objective reproduction of what was there to be seen, nothing more and nothing less.  Photographers point the camera, of course, and photo editors choose which photographs will be seen by others, and so we can’t avoid authorial intentions altogether, but nevertheless what the camera captures within its frame was there to be seen.  All of this is true enough, but what it is often missed from such a perspective is the way in which the photograph shows us how to see the world as caught in the tension between revealing and shrouding what there is to be seen.

The ice encrusted automobile is a case in point.  There is no question but that this is an automobile, the windshield wiper, the logo, and license plate all too obvious to anyone with a modern sensibility.  The object is clearly revealed as an automobile; but then again, not all that clearly so, for the actual manufacturer and the license plate themselves are veiled by the ice that coats everything and distorts the specifics of the vehicle beyond recognition.  What the image shows then is not just the effects of weather on the objects of everyday life and all that that implies—depending upon your perspective, i.e., aesthetic, sociological, meteorological, etc.—but the way in which the photograph itself envisions its own capacity—both its strengths and its limitations—to put the world on display.  In short, it shows all that there is to show, both what can be seen and what cannot be seen.

Photographs such as the one above are unique inasmuch as they emphasize the process of revealing and concealing when weather events get in the way of ordinary life, but the point to be made is that the same process is inherent to all so-called realistic photographic representations.  That is to say, realist photographic representations, like all representations in general, both enable and invite us to see some things to the exclusion of other things;  and that is one of the things that they are always showing us however much we fail to see it.

Photo Credit: Devon Ravine/AP

 0 Comments

Aperture Gallery Workshop on Photographic Collaboration

Collaboration: Revisiting the History of Photography

Wendy_Ewald

Saturday, December 7
1:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Aperture Gallery and Bookstore
547 West 27th Street
New York, NY
FREE

Join Ariella Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, and graduate students from Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design for an Open Lab at Aperture Gallery, as they develop the first draft of a research project that reconsiders the story of photography from the perspective of collaboration. The team will map out a timeline of approximately one hundred photography projects—in which photographers “co-labor” with each other and with those they photograph—on the walls of the Aperture Bookstore.

“The timeline includes close to one hundred projects assembled in eight different clusters. Each of these projects address a different aspect of collaboration: the intimate ‘face-to-face’ encounter between photographer and photographed person; collaborations recognized over time; collaboration as the production of alternative and common histories; as a means of creating new potentialities in given political regimes of violence; as a framework for collecting, preserving, and studying existing images as a basis for establishing civil archives for unrecognized, endangered, or oppressed communities; as a vantage point to reflect on relations of co-laboring that are hidden, denied, compelled, imagined, or fake.

“These clusters are taped to the walls as a large modular desktop, susceptible to multiple readings and changes. The different projects are ‘quoted’ through small reference prints in a laboratory mode, and juxtaposed on the wall with verbal quotations from the participants in the event of photography, as well as other archival documentation. This display format is a first draft that will be extended and modified following the discussions with the audience in the space.

“In this project we seek to reconstruct the material, practical, and political conditions of collaboration through photography and of photography through collaboration. We seek ways to foreground—and create—the tension between the collaborative process and the photographic product by reconstructing the participation of others, usually the more ‘silent’ participants. We try to do this through the presentation of a large repertoire of types of collaborations, those which take place at the moment when a photograph is taken, or others that are understood as collaboration only later, when a photograph is reproduced and disseminated, juxtaposed to another, read by others, investigated, explored, preserved, and accumulated in an archive to create a new database.”

This one-day event is a unique opportunity to engage with the project. All gallery visitors are invited to see the Open Lab in progress, and encouraged to contribute to the informal discussion about photography and collaboration.

The Saturday schedule and additional information is here.

Photograph by Wendy Ewald: Harshad, Hasmukh, Chandrakant, and Dasrath learning to hold the camera.

 0 Comments

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.

 0 Comments

Halloween and the Human Imagination

Just in case you wondered where the concept of the gnome came from, take a look at this.

Nightmares Fear Factory

This is one of hundreds of photos from The Nightmares Fear Factory in Niagara Falls, Canada.  Visitors walk through a former coffin factory, and a camera catches their reactions at the moment that they see a car full of ghosts barreling toward them.  Personally, I’d like to send Dick Cheney through, just to see if he is capable of any emotions other than disdain, contempt, arrogance, anger, and all purpose meanness, but that’s just me.

And this is really about the little people.  Very ordinary people, enjoying a thoroughly mindless pleasure, so much so that they will pay to be safely scared out of their wits.  That’s hardly new, of course, as we know from amusement park rides, horror movies, and Fox News, but here we get to see it.

Which gets us back to the gnomes, and gargoyles, and other mythical creatures, and eventually to Halloween masks.  All involve distortions of faces–human, animal, imaginary hybrids–but it may not have been obvious that they could hew close to direct imitation more often that not.  Compared to the facial masks that accompany public behavior, which typically stay within the narrow expressive range from blank to pleasant, the fantastical creature appears obviously distorted, deviant, alien, and perhaps dangerous.  But they really are among us, part of each of us, expressive beings waiting to be released through surprise, folk festivals, theater, and other forms of play.

Where you don’t see them often is in the public square as we know it, in the broad daylight of the Enlightenment.  So it is that the popular media and amusement parks like the Fear Factory can do a good business in letting these other creatures have their day in the–well, not the sun, but at least in the flash of a camera.

Photography is at bottom a form of mimesis, that is, imitation of a given reality.  (We don’t say that the photographer creates the thing photographed, only the photo that records the thing, but the artist creates a painting or a poem that need not refer directly to anything outside of itself.)  Imitation in the modern era was thought to be inferior to art, and the more “mechanical” the imitation, the farther it was from having artistic value.  This did not bode well for photography.

Look at the image above, for example: it probably was taken automatically, without human action, and it merely recorded what actually happened.  Of course, it does more than that: the happening lasted less than a second but now is permanent, framed, and otherwise presented for the entertainment and edification of a spectator.  And more as well, but that is not the point today.  It is enough for now to consider how the fundamental slavishness of the medium to an exterior reality might actually be a clue to how the imagination works.

Imagine that gnomes, gargoyles, and the like came from observing the iconography and physiognomy of human expressiveness, the plasticity of the human face, and our kinship with the uncanny.  You could almost think of them as a premodern sociology, one (appropriately) worked out in visual media.  (For a different but related example, consider the 71 stone faces at the Cathedral of St. James in Sibinek, Croatia.)  In other words, artistic expressiveness in the folk arts need not come from distortion of a basic, blank face, but rather from imitation of actual expressions, which could be enhanced further via formal extension of the tendencies revealed there.

Consider also that the blank face might be more widespread and normative today because of the prevalence of a global camera culture that had its origin in norms of bourgeois deportment.  Those tendencies were then inflected toward a uniform visage of pleasantry through visual practices such as advertisements selling happiness, family members saying “cheese,”and so forth all the way down to the smiley button.  Which then lead to the mildly transgressive fun to be had in a photo booth or with a camera phone: underground, carnivalesque, like the gnomes.

In other words, the fantastical products of our imaginations are, like gnomes and ghosts, imitations of reality.  They come from taking what often is overlooked and making it the basis for further elaboration.  No wonder that they then can carry so much other meaning and lead to discovery and transformation, which they do.  If that is so, then photography is in fact squarely aligned at the center of the human imagination.  It is an medium not merely for recording reality, but for finding a basis for creative imitation and elaboration of human expressiveness.

 0 Comments

The Work of Art in the Age of Photographic Memory

Joy of photo 2013-10-27 at 8.37.29 PM

We live in an age of Photoshop, where the even the slightest adjustment to a photograph can call forth charges of dishonesty and all sorts of teeth gnashing and acrimony.  And at the same time, as this photograph suggests, there is a part of us that appreciates the power of the art of photography to remake the world the way we want it to be, even if it is something of a fantasy and we know it.  You wait your whole life to visit Hong Kong and you want a picture for the family photo album to prove that you were there that is worthy of the effort, one with blue skies and puffy cumulous clouds, not a haze filled skyline that casts a scrim like veil over the city that casts everything in grey scales.  And what is wrong with that anyway?

The photograph above does not answer this question, but it does help to identify the problem that it poses.  As we frequently note at NCN, one of the chief things that photographs do is to put the habits of social and civic life on display for reflection; and because these are habits of everyday life we tend to see them literally as normal, more or less natural and, as a result, altogether unremarkable features of an image.  So it is that one might focus on the man taking the photograph and see nothing that is particularly noteworthy, as do most of the other people in the image who pass by without so much as a notice.  And the reason for this would be patent, for what we are seeing is precisely the habit of casting and controlling our memories for posterity, and in particular how natural it seems to be—indeed, I suspect that many of us can imagine ourselves doing something similar given comparable circumstances—even as it stands in stark contrast to what we know the truth of the matter to be.

And there, I believe, is the rub, for what the photograph above also features is the contrast between the memory we produce that exists within the frame of the image that is preserved for posterity—here the photograph we see being taken that we can only imagine in all of its bright colors—and what occurs outside of that frame in the haze-tinted smog of the real Hong Kong.  It would be easy, of course, for us to assume that such a problem applies only to snapshot photography and the conventions of crafting and preserving family photo albums where the primary goal is the production of a nostalgic and happy memory for subsequent generations.  But that would be an error, for every photograph, amateur or professional, analog or digital, black and white or in living color are subject to the same constraints.  That does not mean that we should reject the “truth” of the image, but it does mean that we should recognize that the truths that we see are always partial and that the meaning of any image is subject to change as we extend the dimensions of the frame we are enabled to see.

This is something we all know.  In its own way it points to an attitude that is something of a habit of modern life.  And in that context the virtue of this photograph is how it puts this habit on display as both a reminder and a site of reflection concerning its importance.

Photo Credit:  Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

 0 Comments

Museum Photography: Syria’s Lost Civilization

There is an art to taking photographs of artifacts or artworks in a museum.  Think of all the images you’ve seen in photography books or magazines or newspapers–and how you didn’t even think of the fact that they were photographs–or of how those snaps you took with your camera didn’t turn out so well.  It takes skill to put art into circulation.  Even so, there is little reason not to take it for granted, and in any case photography’s most important museum is found outside the gallery walls.

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position inside a house in Deir al-Zor

But not necessarily outside.  This dark interior contains no light of its own, as if it were a cave.  The weak shaft of light seems to have to bend to get there, as if refracted along canyon walls before entering this animal’s den.  The animal seems to be human, although his shadow looks like a rat, and that feral insinuation might be closer to the truth of his circumstances.

The caption says, “A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position inside a house in Deir al-Zor.”  One could almost say, “what had been a house.”  The place seems to be returning to darkness, to an inchoate void that soon will absorb everything there.  Imagine how much has been lost already.  Walls that will have been decorated and echoed with conversation and laughter now are pockmarked from destructiveness.  What had been a table or chair now is the soldier’s stepladder.  What appears to be clothing and other domestic goods are piled on the floor, thrown perhaps because they couldn’t be taken to a refugee camp, or so they wouldn’t be in the way of the fighting.  Whatever the story, it’s one of lives being undone.

And so we get to the washing machine and the window.  Each is remarkably salient, each has a presence as if it were something uncanny, each is both where it is supposed to be and yet dramatically out of place.  In other words, each now has the properties of a work of art.  The machine stands there like a surrealist found object, a machine of domesticity framed as a thing in itself, or perhaps as a historical curio–say, a Soviet capsule intended to send a monkey into space.  Such options are far-fetched, but compare them with the impossibility of the washer simply being what it was: a banal part of ordinary life.

And that window!  Was it ever banal?  Perhaps there are many like it, and on close inspection it looks like a machined knockoff of merely decorative designs.  But still, it is at once beautiful and so vulnerable.  You can’t believe that any soldier on any side in this street fight is going to hesitate to shoot through it the second they see a target.  And such a shame, as the stained glass and abstract pattern resonate across art history, sacred and secular, from Gothic cathedrals to Islamic calligraphy to modern art.  Of course, it was just a nice window in someone’s house, admired occasionally and ignored much of the time, but that’s how a good society works.  When ordinary life is well above the level of living in a cave, it’s because ordinary things are continuous with so many fundamental achievements in art, science, government, and the other arts of civilization.

If a tank fires, the entire room will be obliterated.  At that point, all that will remain of these remarkable works of art will be the photograph.  I’ve said recently that photography can provide an archaeology of the present: the images that would remind us of how close we can be to becoming ruins.  We could also say that photography is creating a virtual museum: a vast, continuously unfolding gallery of those things that are already becoming part of the past.  Ordinary things that are becoming precious, useful things that are becoming junk, sentimental things that now can only be the set up for irony.

This is the best kind of museum photography, precisely because it is there to document lost civilizations that still have a chance of survival.  In Syria’s case, much already has been lost to the darkness.  There is still time, perhaps, to find a way peace and the restoration of something like a normal life for the millions currently suffering from the civil war.  What seems to be lacking is a sense of urgency.  Perhaps it might help to take a walk through photography’s museum.  Take another look, and ask yourself if any part of the present is as secure as it might seem.

Photograph by Khalil Ashawi/Reuters.

 1 Comment

Exhibition on The Social: Encountering Photography

NEPN / Sunderland

The North East Photography Network is sponsoring The Social: Encountering Photography, which is a month-long series of photography exhibitions, installations, and talks in Sunderland and North East England, UK.  The program (OK, the programme) is listed here.

Photograph by Simon Roberts, Penshaw Monument, Penshaw, July 2013 from The Social: landscapes of leisure.

 0 Comments