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Ready, Aim, Shoot!

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Much of what we do here at NCN is a celebration of photography.  And among its many virtues are that it slows the world down, indeed, it stops the world in ways that normal sight is often hard pressed to do—at 1/800th of a second, for example—inviting  us not just to look at the world around us, but to see it, sometimes with fresh eyes.  It operates as such in many registers, but sometimes it invokes what the philosopher and literary critic Kenneth Burke called a “perspective by incongruity,” literally encouraging us to “see” things in terms of things that they are not. Or perhaps, as in the photograph above, encouraging us to ponder the similarities between things that on the face of it we assume are altogether different.

According to the caption we are viewing a member of the Free Syrian Army who is simultaneously “pointing” his weapon and his camera at a “scene” in Deir al-Zor, one of the largest cities situated in the eastern part of Syria.  Of course, he is not just “pointing” his rifle, and the purpose of the gun is not to so much to capture a “scene” as to contain or intrude upon a strategic space.  And so, one might think that the language of photography somehow masks and moots the language of weaponry.  But, of course, the language could be reversed as we might say that he is “aiming” his camera and “shooting” at his enemy.  And if that seems like too much of a stretch, don’t forget how cameras have become one of the primary “weapons” in the war on terrorism—and more—surveying public spaces, authenticating identities, and so on.  And indeed, if nothing else the image of the Syrian freedom fighter is a stark reminder of how entangled the language (and, as it turns out, the history) of the camera and the gun are, each calling attention to the capacity of the respective technology to aggressively intervene in, capture, and control a situation.

There is no question that I would rather be “shot” by a camera than by a rifle, and I have no doubt that the world would be a better place if we could truly substitute “pixels for pistols.”  But for all of that,  we should not lose sight of the potential predatory power of the lens or the ways in which a camera can serve as a weapon, however good or ill the purpose to which it is put.

Photo Credit: Stringer/Reuters

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Andrew Fisher’s Images of Emptiness Beside the Seaside

One might ask why a public art would have a place for emptiness.

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Photography certainly does.  Whether looking across a Civil War battlefield, or at a road in the Crimea, or at the desolate streets and empty storefronts of urban decay, or at grasslands burnt down to dust by drought, scenes of desolation have played an important part in photography’s history.

One result is that it is easy to see another exhibition of empty places as verging on cliche; haven’t we been here before, and what is to be gained by looking again?  When the loneliness is part of an amusement park or boardwalk or beach, one can feel manipulated: isn’t it just a cold day or off season?  What’s to be learned when we know the people are just somewhere else and perhaps having a good time anyway?  Is the point merely to contrast the artist’s work from the Happyville aesthetics of commercial media?  That very likely is one motive behind a lot of documentary photography, but is that all we have here?

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These questions were part of my initial reaction when looking at Andrew Fisher’s exhibition, Beside the Seaside, but something else keep me looking a bit longer.  What I like about these images is that they don’t just show a degraded public space, even though the decay on the posts in the first photo hints at that.  What I get instead is a complex sense of public space that says several things at once: that pubic life requires a built environment, however minimal that might be; that minimal is often good enough, because of how much will happen simply by people being present to enjoy a bit of leisure in a largely uncoordinated fashion; how it really is about the people and how they can share a common space, something we can forget when dazzled by newer construction or when isolated in our places of media consumption; and how association can lead to abandonment of the place and of each other as people follow their different interests to go elsewhere; and how even that sadness need be only for a while and can become a basis for reflection and repose.

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So we need images of emptiness after all.  Public culture is not just a story of bustle, excitement, conflict, change, and progress.  It is all of this, but they all are prey to time, which is in fact something that Andrew is trying to tell us.  We experience the amusement or the conflict or any specific event as if it will always reverberate across our lives, and some do.  But there also is the down time, the emptiness, which was there before and will come again and is within us right now, always.  Sometimes it helps to see that.

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Reflections on a Scene (or Two)

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We don’t write about sports very much here at NCN and today will be no different.  After all, what is there to say here.  The photograph pictures the Miami Heat’s  four time MVP LeBron James about to take the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler to the basket.  The only suspense is whether it will be a three point play or not.  No, what makes this photograph notable has almost nothing to do with the actual action taking place and everything to do with the way in which the camera has captured two scenes at once—one on top, the “real” scene, and the other, on the bottom, a reflection from the highly polished floor.

Of course, one might argue that this is only one scene, the inverted image on the bottom a natural extension of the top image.  And that would be true also.  The question, really, is how one wants to “read” the image.  We typically think of a mirror reflection as an inverted but otherwise identical (re)presentation of the original.  It is one of the reasons we are so often challenged to “look at ourselves” in a mirror, so as to see what is “really” there, or at least what others purport to see  But here, while the original and the reflection bear enough points of similarity that one might identify them as the same scene, they are not identical.

The top image is sharp and clear, consonant with the photojournalists avowed dedication to the realist aesthetic that purports a sort of mechanical objectivity—everything to scale, the light natural, the natural plane of the image represented as if one were actually there witnessing it. The bottom image has more of the quality of an impressionist painting, the appearance of thin brush strokes that call attention to texture, especially as it relates to human movement; emphasis on the quality of light as it effects the scene; and finally notice of the unnatural angle that resituates the viewer, underscoring the sense in which what we are looking at is clearly a representation that needs to be decoded and not the thing itself.

The effects of the image and its reflection are different as well.  Note, for example, how the realist image locates the contest between James and Butler in a multiplicity of scenes that first calls attention to the game itself as we see the coach calling out orders and other players positioning themselves to respond to the central action, and then calls attention to the immediate crowd watching the event.  The focus is clearly on the two principles, but they are part of a larger event.  By contrast, the impressionist image focuses our attention almost entirely on the central actors, giving them an almost epic significance, everything else cast with a spectral patina that suggests that they are both there and not there (perhaps like the external viewer of the image).

Whether you see one scene or two either (both) is (are) shot with the same camera, with the same aperture, from the same vantage point, and at the same moment in time. And yet what we see are two potentially and palpably different (albeit related) events, each calling attention to the otherwise taken for granted conventions that underscore both what is present and what is absent in the other and thus animating the possibilities of meaning.  What makes the photograph particularly interesting then is how it schools the viewer concerning the everyday necessity of visual literacy, always “reading” an image, not just glancing at it, seeing it for what it always is: an artistic construction.

Photo Credit:  Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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Seeing Consciousness: Embodied, Machined, Photographed

Photography can’t represent everything, or many things, or perhaps even any one thing.  It is profoundly emotional and relational, but that leaves a lot of thinking unaccounted for.  If you want to know what it is like to work through a long set of logical problems, or go back and forth about a difficult decision, or understand the subtext in a negotiation, you should go elsewhere.  When it comes to depicting mental complexity, one page of a Henry James novel does more than any hundred slide shows.

Even so, this binary between emotion and cognition also misses something, or many things, and perhaps even something important.

Shenyang, China: A woman practices tai chi with a fan after a snowfall

“A woman practices tai chi” in Shenyang, China.  A human being is shown in a moment of controlled movement.  Against a background of winter stillness, she creates an intentional act of repose.  Feet apart, knees bent, arms lifted, hands cocked, head turned, every part of her stance was created through movement that has been momentarily stopped.  She is a portrait of concentration, as she exhibits both mental focus and a gathering of energy.

This fine photograph is relatively unusual in that it takes us close to a moment of sheer consciousness.  She is doing something, but in the absence of action and social context it seems close to doing nothing.  Just as the winter scene of inert trees and snow around her seems to be doing nothing, although it actually is doing something as part of the wheel of the seasons.  The difference between doing nothing and doing something in the landscape is filled in by our knowledge of natural processes.  The difference between her lack of movement and her doing something is filled in by our recognition that her pose is intentional, deliberate, practiced, and all-absorbing.

Photographs can show so much about social relations, material conditions, and much else in the human world, but few get as close as this one to pointing directly toward consciousness itself.  Although consciousness–that incredible, profound, yet evanescent subjective awareness–can never be seen as such, but it can be communicated, and sometimes even by an image.

And by considering how this photo may be unlike many others, we also can recognize how the many others are nonetheless like it.  For if the photograph only points toward or takes us to the outer edge of consciousness, it also does something much more important, which is show us that mind (and mindfulness) is also embodied.  The idea of pure thought or sheer awareness is itself largely a fiction–or shall we say an extension of one part of us at the expense of the rest.  By acknowledging that the photograph above shows us embodied consciousness, thinking as it is realized in the controlled use of the body in an actual place with specific props, we can recognize that photography is doing that all the time.  In fact, that is what it does exceptionally well: the traces and textures evident on the surface of things can be remarkable signs of how we are aware of ourselves and the world as we are living in and moving through it.

And for that reason, photography also can raise questions about what is happening to human awareness.

Tokyo, Japan: An employee at a foreign exchange

This image trades on the cliche that the eye is the window of the soul, but for good effect.  “An employee at a foreign exchange trading company looks at monitors” in Tokyo, Japan.  The photograph also is showing seeing (and for more on that concept see W.J.T. Mitchell’s book, What do Pictures Want?); thus, as above, we are cued to the intentional mental activity that can’t be seen directly.  This, too, is a photograph of consciousness, and of embodied consciousness, although now the body is reduced to an eye.  An eye, moreover, that sees through a lens while looking at several machines.  Whereas the first image places the whole (albeit clothed) body in a garden, here we have the cyborg self–a scrap of face enclosed in a carapace of optical equipment.  Consciousness, like seeing, is still the focal human experience, yet it also has been enhanced and dispersed through an apparatus of instrumentation.

But we were already there, of course.  That’s what photography had already accomplished: placing each one of us within powerful technologies of vision and communication.  Consciousness is embodied and machined, in the flesh and prosthetic.  These are different states and significant tensions, to be sure, but perhaps it can be reassuring that photography is part of each, and that it can help us become more aware of our complexity.

And of how consciousness can be understood, extended, shared, and perhaps even found where we might not expect it.  To that end, take another look.

Photographs by Sheng Li/Reuters and Toru Hanai/Reuters.

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Civil Rights Photos and How NOT to Repeat History

As I write this the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments regarding California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state.  Many other states have done the same, including North Carolina, which voted last May 8 to pass a constitutional ban by a 21 point margin.  Only recently, however, have I learned of an ingenious visual advocacy campaign against that measure:

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Get it?  Other images do the same: for example, separate and not so equal water fountains are labeled “straight” and “gay.”  The images were the work of Every1Against1, an advocacy group opposing the ban.  (The group’s name reflects the name of the ban on the North Carolina ballot: Amendment One.)  By putting gay rights into the visual template of Jim Crow signage, these photos perfectly illustrate how the struggle for–and resistance to–social justice can be a case of history repeating itself from one era to the next.

What the images didn’t do is turn the tide of votes for the ban.  It’s not likely that any one form of advocacy could do so.  One has to wonder, however, if failure wasn’t preordained in the images.  Their basic assumption is that the Jim Crow signs were wrong–a cruel, immoral practice that no modern society would allow to stand.  In the case of North Carolina–and dozens of other states–that assumption may be mistaken.   I’d like to think otherwise, and the times they are a-changing again, but exactly when will a majority of ordinary citizens come to their senses and prove that they really do believe in the constitutional principle of equality?

Fortunately, the founders recognized that majority rule needed to be balanced with judicial oversight.  And so now all eyes are on the Court.  Let’s hope that the justices have a suitable sense of history, one that would help these images become relics or curiosities–and not something that we ever have to see again.

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Nature’s Image: Finding Unity in Deception

This weekend the photojournalism community was flooded with debate regarding an exposé at BAGnewsNotes.  The charges included deception and plagiarism and, in response, unprofessional reportage.  Along the way, a number of people remarked that, aside from the specific case, the issues reverberated across wider circles of concern, from norms of photojournalism to the role and impact of new media forums to basic questions about the relationship between image and reality.  When extended to this outer arc, one might want to encourage a more vital relationship between photojournalism and fine art photography.

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“Artistic license” is, of course, nothing less than a license to fabricate, whether in stone, words, or images.  It is for precisely this reason that photojournalists are trained to keep their work firmly grounded in recording what is, rather than fabricating what might be.  Along the way, this discipline on behalf of the public interest can lead to a doctrinal hostility to artistry, and good photojournalists then become very skilled in an art whose name can’t be spoken.

The division of labor between documentary and fine art photography has many institutional forms, and is replicated in blogging as well: for example, one reason we do so little with fine art is that it is covered so well at Conscientious. But today is different.

Is it a seahorse?  A worm?  Some small animal that may have inspired the image of a dragon?  Or is it imitating some other organic form in order to hunt or escape predation?  This beautiful image presents something that at once seems to be uniquely itself and yet also allusive, enigmatic, or evocative.

You are looking at a pod of the flowering legume Scorpius muricatus (common name “Prickly Caterpillar”).  What might have seemed animal is vegetable.  What might have seemed to be a parasite is part of a plant.  What could have been an ornament from fantasy fiction or perhaps even some ancient culture is just a tiny fleck of nature.

But, of course, it is a fleck of nature that has been depicted artistically, framed for a special act of perception, capable of creating its own resonance with a much wider, deeper, richer sense of being.  One can sense that animal and plants alike are all emanations of  a beautiful, endless flow of form and energy.   If there is any deception in the plant or its presentation or (most likely) in the mind of the spectator who can’t help but see several possibilities at once, this trick is in the service of opening the viewer to a profound sense of connectedness.  Indeed, “deception” and the very idea of a hard discrimination between appearance and reality is no longer the appropriate framework for understanding.  Sometimes that distinction matters a lot–it can be everything–but sometimes we can set it aside on behalf of other ways of being in the world.

The dissension and debate of public life is a very good thing, but we need repose and unity and wonder.  And not just as individuals, but as a way of living together.  Fortunately, photographers are providing the images that are needed for that as well.

Photograph by Viktor Sýkora.

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Science, Fashion, and the Post-Human

“Science” and “Fashion” are not often found in the same sentence, but welcome to the 21st century.  As the design arts and sciences become the central constellation in a new organization of knowledge, the older distinctions between science, art, technology, fashion, engineering, entertainment, and other domains of modern culture will become increasingly outmoded.  To get a sense of how things are changing, take a sniff of this.

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You are looking at a synthetic nose in a petri dish.  By coating a polymeric cast with human cells, the University College London’s Department of Nanotechnology and Regenerative Medicine can produce organs that can be transplanted without risk of immune reactions leading to bodily rejection and other complications.  Noses, ears, and even a windpipe are now possible, with much more to come.  (For a frothy, not very informative report on the lab, go to this story by the Daily Mail.)  Gives new meaning to getting a nose job, doesn’t it?

Jokes aside, one does wonder where it could end, and what strange sights might become commonplace along the way.  The artist Stelarc has already been cutting a trail in that direction, not least with through the surgical construction of a prosthetic ear on his arm.  (I’ve had dinner with the guy and seen the thing myself.)  But we expect that from artists, right?  Well, not exactly, but after the fact we come to believe that was the provocation we might expect.  And despite the lengths to which artists will go to break through to the other side, their efforts can remain merely provocative precisely because they are still framed by the cultural category of art.

Which is one reason to look again at fashion.  Although an even more limiting categorization, it also is a form of visionary design that can slip under the radar precisely because it is assumed to be so superficial and ephemeral.  Which it is, but not before it can be downright disturbing precisely because it might be modeling the future.

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These creatures are from the Erdem collection during London’s Fashion Week.  Don’t they look like they could come from a vat in the lab?  The gush at The Daily, the industry publication for the show, got it exactly right: “Clone-like, robotic girls made up a beautiful model army at Erdem. The pièce de résistance? A dusting of neon orange to the inner lip. ‘It’s as if they are grasping a neon bulb in their mouth and it’s glowing,’ explained the show’s make-up man Andrew Gallimore.”  And some day we’ll be able to design for that more extensively.  Plug and play, you might say.

Which brings up the matter of gender, doesn’t it.  Just where will designing women end?  Equally chilling is the idea that the lab would select for such extreme whiteness.  Now that we have an image of the cloned body, and not just the part, we can realize once again that the real problem may not be the technological capability, but how it could be used to reproduce a retrograde politics.

That’s the kind of reflection that art is supposed to provide.  As one design art is used to reflect on another, perhaps the post-human can become a future that is not only possible, but worthwhile.

Photographs by Seamus Murphy and Morgan O’Donovan and Shaniqwa Jarvis.  FYI, I’ve mentioned the post-human before here, here, here, and here; as you can see, I haven’t even settled on the spelling yet.  I’ll hope that my understanding of the subject is, well, evolving.

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World Press Photo Contest: Why is the World not Weary of War?

The 2013 World Press Photo Contest Winners have been announced, and the news is not good.  I’m not referring to the quality of the judging or the photographs–far from it–but rather to what they show us about the world today.

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Frankly, the world revealed by these photographs is a shit hole.  All too many of the images depict the ravages of war or of other conditions that are war by another name (gang violence, the brutal subjugation of women, poverty).  And as you can see above, a common denominator to these many sad stories is that a place where people were just trying to live decent lives is being wrecked, with little hope that anything good will come of it.  Or to put it another way, what seemed to be a modern world, or at least a part of the world on the way to full modernization, may in fact be going in the opposite direction.

I think it’s also telling that many of the slide shows featuring the winners–here, here, and here, to mention just a few examples– have selected images that don’t avoid this emphasis but may soften it a bit.  Certainly they haven’t led with the most horrific images, and neither have I.  Few of us really want to look at how awful life can be, and there is a great deal of peace, prosperity, and beauty in the world, and not much we can do about the rest anyway, right?

Right.  Sure.  Whatever you say, boss.  And that’s part of the problem.  In a period of time when in fact most of the world is at peace, in fact far too much of the world is at war.  And while terrible social, cultural, economic, and political degradation is spreading across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere as well, the rest of the world goes about its business, as if business were all that there was to living with others.

That’s why I picked out the image above.  It was not a big winner–second prize, Spot news stories–and it’s certainly not a particularly striking image or one that with sharp emotional intensity.  It’s not even quickly legible, and you have to peer at it to see the lone rebel fighter aiming his grenade launcher in the direction of Syrian forces.  But for the same reason, I think it captures something important about the world being revealed by all of the photos.  A place where people have lived for millennia is being ruined, and with not much more than emptiness and the smoke of another battle on the horizon.  Just as bad, the lone human being in the picture is a puny part of the scene–a bit player, really, as larger historical forces crash together to create continuing upheaval.  Sure, he has the power of action, but even justified revolution turns too easily into just another cycle of violence.  At the end of the day, all we may be left with is a long night.

Of course, there may have been a bias in the contest toward bad news.  That is the nature of news, and so we should not be surprised that the stories told here are harsher than those at, say, National Geographic.  And this comparison reminds us that the quality of photography need not depend on its subject, so perhaps more of the winners could have been taken from the sunny side of the street.  But that would miss the point, which is the reason World Press Photo exists.

There comes a time when the most important thing is not how well the photo was taken, but what it reveals about the world.  In the words of William Carlos Williams, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”  These photos are the poems for our time.

Photograph by Fabio Bucciarelli.  The William’s quote is from his poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”

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Remittances: Images of Migrant Labor by Robert Gumpert

Given the date, I’m tempted to label this one, “Valentine’s Day, The Day After.”  It’s a beautiful, beautiful image of what love is all about: the deep bond and real beauty that can be found when people face life’s struggle together.

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I could go on about the richness of this image–the fruit on the table on the left, as if out of a Dutch still life; the varied cultural associations, all powerful, caught up in her red shirt; the tension between repose and anxiety in her clasped hands. . . . But these and the other details, both light and dark, in this remarkable photograph are not there for merely artistic appreciation.

The photo is one from the Remittance series by Robert Gumpert, a photographer working out of San Francisco on behalf of prisoners, migrant laborers, and other human beings.  (Warning: this link to his website will take you to some heart-stopping photos.)  This series is a meditation on migrant earnings–the remittances–that flow back across borders as yet another form of alienated labor.  Gumpert notes that, according to the World Bank, remittances to developing countries are expected to increase 7 to 8 percent annually, reaching $467 billion by 2014.  Thus, capital flows at the bottom of the economic hierarchy much like it does at the top: transnationally, and in a manner that can abstract, displace, or destabilize social relationships.  The difference, of course, is that the flows at the top hurt other people, while the social costs at the bottom stay there.

Gumpert Remittance 6

Which is one reason why this highly enigmatic image is so moving.  It could be a work of performance art, but it’s not.  The decor suggests that she is doing fine, but the mask, well, that’s another story yet to be told.  Asthmatic?  Factory worker?  Sex Worker?  (In fact, she works in a nail salon.)  She is both present and concealed, and somehow alienated from us and even it seems from her own environment.  She seems too enclosed for her own good, and yet that enclosure may be all she has left of herself, with her money, chance of getting ahead, and control over her own life already sent elsewhere.

Gumpert Remittance 2

I don’t know what Robert Gumpert had in mind when he took these images, but I do know that he has given us something to think about, and something to think with.   Each image captures a profound sense of reality without out telling us exactly what that is.  What is unsaid is as important as what is being said; if, that, each side of the image is used to understand the other.  This back and forth is not an arbitrary exercise in interpretation, however, but essential to understanding a reality that is defined by people and capital constantly moving back and forth across so-call borders, and often leaving only desolation in between.

Photographs by Robert Gumpert.  The series is not yet available for public distribution, but I’ve provided these examples with his permission.

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Repurposing Public Arts

Statues of civic heroes are not placed in the town square to become splattered with bird shit, but that is what happens.  In fact, birds pay attention to the monuments long after human attention has faded.  Once the work has become part of the background of daily life–not to mention an antique artform–it takes a second act of dedicated looking to capture the initial sense of monumentality.  And even then, the birds can alter the visual effect.

Birds roost on the rifle of a statue of Benjamin Milam at dusk

You might say they’ve become part of the picture.  (You can see another example here.)  What’s remarkable about this photograph is how it captures simultaneously both the original intention of the art work and its mildly comic appropriation by the birds.  Indeed, it blends intention and use in interesting ways.  The defiant gesture is beautifully highlighted by the contrast between the dark silhouette and blue and grey sky, while the bird’s behavior also makes perfect sense, not least as they are spaced evenly almost as though part of the original design.

This blending of different perspectives (gun or perch) is reflected symbolically as well.  On the one hand, the doves could seem to be an implicit criticism of the martial citizenship that has been set in stone.  Instead of the Sturm und Drang of history, they seem to have admirably simple concerns.  Instead of battling for sovereignty, they represent another kind of liberty.  Instead of trying to make a statement in stone, they alight and fly away as they please.  And at the end of the day, it seems that war is trumped by peace.

On the other hand, that bird on the end almost seems to be shot from the gun, and one could say that war buys peace and liberty.  This monument in San Antonio to Benjamin Milam celebrates the Texan war of independence, and that political act might acquire the aura of natural law once it is seen as so easily coordinate with a cloudy sky, the symbol of peace, and an act of soaring into space.  If you don’t think so, just consider how opinions differ on gun laws.  The fact that this image appeared in a slide show during a time of renewed debate about those laws may not be entirely coincidental, and it may well capture a basic dilemma at the heart of that controversy.

Public arts can be used in more than one way.  Birds use the statue in ways not intended, and humans do the same.  More to the point, the artwork never has only one meaning, even at the moment of dedication.  No design can compel only one response, and the meanings vary because viewers vary.  The passage of time works in more than one way as well: the public artifact becomes increasingly part of the background, seen but not seen, while the society’s range of possible responses becomes ever larger and more complex.

Photography is a public art, and it records other artworks.  Thus, it is subject to all the problems that come with being placed in the public square, but it also can reactivate awareness of what can be seen and how we see in civic spaces.  I hate the word “repurposing,” but it captures exactly what has become a common habit of a media-intensive society.  Images and other fragments of public culture are continually being put to additional use that may go far beyond what was originally intended.  So it is that the image above need not be about the birds or the stature, but about what it means to look at a photograph.

Photograph by Eric Gay/Associated Press.

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