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It is All in the Eyes of the Beholder

One of the complaints against the photograph as a medium of representation is that offers a partial view of the world that distorts reality.  The complaint is spot on, though to be fair we have to acknowledge it recognizes a burden that every mode of representation bears.  A more useful approach is to recognize the capacity of photographs to offer multiple views of the world that frame and underscore the complexities of the universe.  Consider the photograph below, an image that circulated widely on mainstream slideshows last week.

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Without a caption it is hard to know exactly what we are looking at, but it is also hard not to look at it.  Shot from a distance and on high it appears to be a landscape of some sort, and the contrast between the horizon and the body of the image invites our attention. The lights below appear to twinkle, lending something of a human quality to the image, perhaps marking something like civilization, but it is the aura that marks the boundary between the horizon and the body of the image that gives the image its distinctive quality.  Perhaps the sun is setting, or maybe it is about to rise, but in either case, the image invokes what we might call a sense of “tranquility” that is altogether aesthetically pleasing.  It is a beautiful image, and whatever it is that is being represented, the perspective calls attention to that beauty.

From a different perspective, however, the affect is somewhat different.

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 Shot now from a much closer vantage, the field of vision straight on, the contrast between lightness and darkness is not gradual but stark, and as a result the image does not invite a sense of tranquility but rather a sense of violent disruption.  It is still hard to avoid looking at the image, however, but what in the earlier image appeared to be a quiet and restful twinkle is here blazing hot.  Indeed, one can almost feel the heat consuming what appears to be a tree, and in its own way it reaches out to whomever stands in front of it, at once pulling them in and warning them off.  It is what Edmund Burke characterized in the 18th century as an instance of the sublime, a representation of a natural scene that manages the contrast between intense lightness and darkness so as to invoke simultaneously a sense of horror and pleasure.

What is important to acknowledge is the fact that both photographs are of the same scene at roughly the same time.  In each instance we are observing a wildfire burning out of control in Banning, California.  Is the scene tranquil or violent?  Is world represented here harmonious or out of control?  Is it beautiful or is it sublime?  The answer to all of these questions is, in some measure, yes!  The event being represented is simultaneously tranquil and violent, harmonious and out of control, beautiful and sublime.  And it is the capacity of the camera to show us  how such apparently contradictory qualities can (and regularly do) co-exist simultaneously in a single event or phenomenon that makes it such a powerful and important technology of representation.

In short, what might be understood as the weakness of photography as a medium of representation might well be its greatest strength.  It is all a matter of how you look at it!

Photo Credit: Gene Blevins and David McNew/Reuters

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The Winters of Our Discontent

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I wish I could claim sole authorship of the title for this commentary, but in fact it is an adaptation of a recent article in Scientific American (which adapted it from the title of John Steinbeck’s last novel who in turn borrowed it from Shakespeare’s malevolent characterization of Richard III).  But for all of that it is no less a compelling characterization of our current state of climactic affairs as we find ourselves confronting the acceleration of what has become known as “slow violence.”

Slow violence refers to environmental disasters that occur so gradually that we barely see them, but which reap long-term, catastrophic outcomes.  Recent global warming trends top the list and what makes such phenomena all the more problematic is how they can often appear to be incredibly, breath takingly beautiful, approaching what we might even call the sublime—representations that in some measure transcend reality, transporting us to a place that defies the very capacity for representation itself.  The photograph above is perhaps such an image where sky and water bifurcate the horizon of here and there as variations in lightness and darkness mark the temporal distance between now and then (or perhaps past and future).  The orange and magenta tones of the sky cast a calming shadow upon the sea which masks the mysteries of who knows what within its otherwise murky depths.   And overall the image invites both our approach and avoidance as if a heavenly and sanctified location.  It is hard to not look it and to be in awe.  Only the protuberances that emerge from the bottom of the frame call attention to the fact that this is a photograph and not a scene that fully transcends human occupation.

What we are actually looking at is “haboob,” a white shelf cloud of dirt that has been stirred up by a ferocious dust storm in the Indian Ocean off of the coast of Western Australia.  This dust storm, one of many that has caused brush fires over nearly one million acres is the result of uncharacteristically hot temperatures peaking at more than 119 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of Australia.  The result of those brush fires invites consideration of sublimity’s counterpart, the grotesque, as a second photograph from New South Wales pictures the carcasses of sheep incapable of breaking free of a fence that contained them while a wildfire consumed the earth on which they stood.

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The bodies are not human, and so the tragedy is not as pronounced as it might be—not that we should scant the lives of sheep or other living beings—but it is not hard to imagine that they could be human bodies.  The image is hard to look at, but that would seem to be the point, as it works as a powerful, visual counterpoint to the awe-inspiring beauty that all too often and all too easily diverts our attention and placates (gratifyingly so) our acceptance of slow violence in the first place.

This is the third winter in a row that we have faced extreme weather patterns throughout the world.  These are the winters of our discontent. How much longer will they go on before we respond responsibly as global citizens is the real question we need to be asking.

Photo Credit: Brett Martin/Reuters/fishwrecked.com; Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

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