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When Cotton Was King

Memory32

Photographs serve many purposes, not least witnessing and memory. Here we have a photograph of a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta near the town of Money. But what is being witnessed or remembered?

You probably have never heard of Money, Mississippi, but you probably have heard of Emmett Till. An African American born in Chicago, he visited relatives in Money at the age of fourteen during the summer of 1955. While there he allegedly “flirted” with a married woman—a white, married woman—in a local grocery store. And for that “crime” he was stripped, beaten and shot in the head, his face mutilated beyond all recognition, and his bodied tied to a cotton-gin fan and deposited in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral and the now famous photograph of the disfigured Emmett Till appeared first in Jet magazine before being picked up by the mainstream media. The two perpetrators—Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam—were found “not-guilty” by an all white jury who deliberated for less than an hour in a segregated courthouse in nearby Sumner, Mississippi.

One might imagine that a contemporary photographer seeking to memorialize the lynching of Emmett Till might photograph the dilapidated grocery store—or its historical marker—where Till violated the rigid codes of the Jim Crow South, or perhaps the spot on the river where Till’s body was eventually discovered. Or maybe even the Sumner, Mississippi courthouse. Instead, Andrew Lichtenstein chose to photograph a nearby cotton field.

It is hard to know if the sun is rising or setting here, but whether you imagine that the camera is facing east or west there is no question that cotton is cast within a metaphorical timescape. The sun is either setting on cotton and hence a reminder that by the 1950s the economy that relied upon it was in full decline, or the sun is rising on it, and a reminder of the new day soon to be be ushered in by the nascent Civil Rights Movement. In either case, the photograph of a cotton field in Money, Mississippi is a poignant testament to the fact that while Bryant and Milam lynched Till and tied his body to a rusted cotton-gin fan, it was truly cotton—and the economic and social order that it animated—that killed him.

Andrew Lichtenstein, Forgotten Moments

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Remembrances of Things …

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We take lots of photographs these days. Photojournalists account for thousands every day and hundreds of thousands every year, but their output is dwarfed by the number of images taken by non-professional, most taken with a mobile device like a phone camera. The photograph above shows a printout of the photographs uploaded on Flickr in a single 24 hour period in 2011 and the number of images taken in a given day surely exceeds what we see in this one photograph.

There is nothing particularly new about taking lots and lots of photographs. We have been doing this for nearly a century since the camera became an affordable commodity and Kodak convinced us that it was a necessary accouterment to bourgeois life. The so-called “digitial revolution” has made taking photographs easier, not least because just about everyone carries a mobile camera of some sort, but also because photographs are now simpler to produce and to circulate—the darkroom is now an antiquity and the family photo album has been replaced by a website of one sort or another. It is thus a bit odd that some bemoan the new found abundance of photographs, such as we find in a recent NYT Style Magazine article titled “Remembrances of Things Lost.”

In the most general sense the complaint is not new. The reliance on photographs will undermine our capacity for remembrance. This, of course, was Plato’s protest against writing (see his Phaedrus) and which has resurfaced over and again across the millennia with the development of each new technology of mediation and representation. And, of course, it is at the core of the iconoclastic critique of photography that we can trace in almost a direct line from Baudelaire to Susan Sontag. And, equally of course, it is wrong—or at least grossly simplistic. Yes, changing technologies alter the ways in which we practice and experience memory. The shift from orality to literacy is a case in point, but what was lost was not memory per se, but a particular way or register in which memory was practiced and understood. And the same could be said for every subsequent development of a new technology or medium of representation. The bigger problem, however, is not that photography – digital or otherwise – has undermined our capacity for remembrance, but that the mindless repetition of this argument underwrites a critical discourse of photography that minimizes—if it doesn’t miss altogether—the power and capacity of the medium to help us think with and through such images as we encounter the problems and possibilities of modern life. And this is not least with respect to how the present—which in some measure is the only thing we can actually photography—functions to help us to (re)member the relationship between the past and the future in powerful and provocative ways.

Consider, for example, this photograph published on the front page of the NYT—both print and on-line—on the same day as the above article lamenting the loss of remembrance animated by contemporary photographic practices.

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Captioned a “shrine to defiance,” the photograph shows a small bungalow in Seattle that seems to have stood in the way of progress. Hemmed in by high rise buildings that all but touch its outer walls, and otherwise bordered by a busy public thoroughfare, the house is altogether out of place—and out of time. It gestures to a past – one can imagine a row of such houses that once stood here – even as it points to the inevitable future that will soon be upon us as modernity move relentlessly forward. But it does so with an interesting edge. Notice that it is the bungalow that offers up the slightest hint of color—of individualism—in an otherwise and uniformly muted, almost black-and-white world. It will not survive for long, at least not in that space, but what the photograph testifies to is the fate of the unique individual in an increasingly modern society where progress refuses to stand still. But more, it also invites consideration of the tension between a more colorful past and a more uniform, colorless present, and to the tint and tone of the future that it portends.

In short, this second photograph complicates our sense of what it means to remember and how we do it, and it does so in a powerful way. Not every photograph will do this, of course, but the potential is there and enough will achieve that potential that it is a profound error to repeat a tired argument about how the medium is a problem for remembrance without also emphasizing its powerful affordances otherwise. Our photographic practices have changed over the years—and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to do so in the years ahead; the more important point is that it is long past the time at which we should change the ways in which we talk photography as a cultural practice and phenomenon so as to understand it as the important mode of public art that it is in all of its forms.

Credit: Erik Kessels/Foam at Amsterdam; Ian C. Bates/NYT

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Imag(in)ing the World Now and Then

 

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The scene could be a community beach front almost anywhere in the world. Cabanas set up for those who can afford them. Tents and umbrellas for others. White sand, small dunes, and blue sea for everyone—swimmers, sailors, and those who just want to sit and catch the breeze coming in off of water. Sun bathers intermixed with children, families coming and going. Soon, one can imagine, the sun will be down, the tide will be up, and only a very few will remain on the beach. A quiet, restful place, with only the rhythmic sound of the waves beating on the surf, lights perhaps shining from the windows in the buildings lining the beach as a reminder of a living community.

But for all of that, it is not just anywhere. It is Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, France. Seventy years ago this past week it was known as Juno Beach, one of the primary landing zones in the D-Day invasion. Taking this beach head was necessary to provide flanking support to the operations at Gold and Omaha beaches and to give the Allied forces a direct route to a German airfield near Caen. The beach was heavily fortified by two German battalions armed with over 500 machine guns plus numerous mortars, a defensive position enhanced by weather patterns that made it necessary for landing crafts to come as close to the fortifications as possible before releasing troops and equipment. The responsibility to take the beach head fell to the 3rd Canadian Infantry division, which suffered over 1,000 casualties by day’s end—the highest ratio of Allied casualties for anyone other than those landing at the more famous and costly Omaha and Utah beaches.

Photographs, of course, only mark a sliver of time—typically only a fraction of a second that frames the here and the now in stark and radical terms. One cannot know what happened moments (or months or years) before this photograph was snapped, let alone what might happen even seconds after the shutter has opened and closed. Temporal continuities with the past, let alone alternate future possibilities can only be surmised. Such limitations don’t mitigate the value of images, but instead only emphasize the need for us to be imaginative in how we understand the reality that they put on display. And too, it requires us to recognize the ways in which the historicity of an image operates in tension with what it was then (or it what it might be later). It is, in short, part of an archive that has to be curated and engaged.

And so here we have Juno Beach shortly after the D-Day invasion. A crashed fighter plane where families today luxuriate. The detritus of battle washed up against fortifications that protected Axis forces from the landing Allies. The appearance of a solitary ghost town cast in somber grey tones where today colorful commerce flourishes, marked by the flags of multiple nations.

-Day Then

This too, of course, was only a stark sliver in time. A scene of courage and fortitude, of death and destruction that can only remind us that what was before the lens when it clicked was there and then, even as it only framed a reality that could survive only in imagined memories.

Credit: Chris Helgren/Reuters; National Archieves of Canada (for other “before” and “after” pictures of the D-Day invasion click here.)

 

 

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As Time Goes By

Kiss in war

Two lovers caught in a passionate embrace.  He on the left, she on the right.  Their faces barely recognizable as their bodies meld into one another.  Oblivious to all that surrounds them, it is a tender, private, intimate moment in a public space.

At first blush it could be two individuals (once again) performing the now famous Times Square Kiss in a modern setting.  But look again.  The differences are both subtle and profound.  Neither is wearing a recognizable uniform.  She is actively engaged in the kiss, her arms pulling him towards her as much as (if indeed not more than) he is pulling her towards him. Notice for example how his right arm seems barely to be holding her while her arms reach fully around him, holding him in place. More interesting still is the fact that she is holding a slab of concrete in one hand, her finger nails giving the impression of being freshly manicured.  If the sign of the kiss in the original photograph was animated by an aggressive, masculine representation of state military power, here the kiss is no less a sign of aggression—it is hard to imagine that the concrete slab would be used as anything other than a weapon, particularly given that the caption tells us that this is taken at the site of a protest—but it is now no longer institutionalized by the state and it is gendered feminine.  Last, and perhaps most important, while the kissers are plainly and visibly in a public space, there are no onlookers who can channel a public attitude about what is going on.  Indeed, there is a clear sense of voyeurism here as we, the viewers, seem to be intruding on an altogether private moment.

 So what are we to make of this photograph?  The caption identifies the kissers as protestors in Caracas, Venezuela, the site of prolonged and massive public protests against rampant crime, protracted food shortages, and an altogether ineffective and authoritarian government.  The government crackdown against such protests has resulted in nearly forty deaths and hundreds of injuries, leading to demands for investigation by the Organization of American States (OAS).  That too has produced its own manner of controversy as the OAS leadership challenged the legitimacy of opposition leader Maria Corina Machado to address the body.  When she was finally allowed to speak, the sessions were held behind closed doors; one member of the OAS noted that the meetings would be conducted “With total transparency: In privacy.” The photograph above seems to mock this “war is peace, slavery is freedom” logic as it failingly purports to perform intimacy in a public space under the broken veil of privacy.  There may be no viewing public observable to legitimize the union, but then of course there is the camera and our own spectatorial gaze which gives the lie to the whole process.  Transparency in private is at best a comfortable fiction and at worst an intentional deception.

There is an additional dimension to the photograph that bears attention, and it has relatively little to do per se with the economic and political turmoil in Venezuela.  Instead, it concerns how we understand  Alfred Eisenstadt’s Times Square Kiss and all it stands for in our cultural memory.  The original kiss photograph took place on the occasion of VJ Day and the end of World War II.  It is often remarked as illustrating the return to normalcy.  But its contrast with the image above helps to reveal how constructed the conventions of such normalcy can be: men kissing women, women being kissed; the legitimation of violence as a manifestation of masculine, state governed military institutions; the forced separation of Eros and Thanatos; the performance of intimacy in public, and so on.  All such constructions—or should we call them “comfortable fictions”— indicate a particular worldview, to be sure, and perhaps even one that we might want to endorse, but the point is that it is particular, not universal.  Each photograph shows “a” truth, or many such truths, but certainly not “the” truth, however objective the photographic representation of the event on hand might be.

As the song says, a kiss is just a kiss … or is it?

Photo Credit: Christian Veron/Reuters

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Connect the (Iconic) Dots

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As a young child I loved playing  “connect the dots” and “color by numbers.” I still remember one kit I received as a present that included the famous battles of the Civil War.  It was my introduction to Gettysburg, Bull Run, Shiloh, and Antietam.  I knew very little about the Civil War when I started, but by the time I was done I had a strong sense for the difference between Yankees and Rebels, i.e., the blue and grey, the North and the South, and more a somewhat romanticized sense of national, military heroism.  What made it especially engaging was the way in which connecting the dots and then coloring in the scene as scripted by the numbers cast the illusion of my active participation in the artistic process and, by extension, the historical moments being represented.  I remember my parents framing the four pictures and they hung on my bedroom wall until I was a teenager and the artistic remnants of my adolescence were replaced with posters of rock ‘n roll stars.

The photographs reproduced in connect the dots fashion by MacDonaldStrand as part of the Most Popular of All Time exhibition operate in a somewhat similar fashion as they rely on what those who study rhetoric call an enthymematic sensibility.  An “enthymeme” is a socio-logical argumentative form that suppresses one part of an argument—usually the major or minor premise—with the assumption that it is more or less implicit and the audience will recognize and supply it; the key effect of enthymematic reasoning is that it requires the audience to become actively involved in the production of the argument  by providing the missing part and thus, in some measure, forcing them to identify with and own the argument. MacDonaldStrand’s “drawings” rely on what we might call a “visual” enthymeme inasmuch as the images are largely recognizable but they also require (and enable) the audience’s active participation in making them complete by supplying the suppressed and missing  information.

The point is a simple one, but worth stressing: These iconic photographs are typically treated as signs of national identity. They mark important historical moments, are  recognizable and meaningful across generations and a wide array of demographic stratifications, and invoke strong emotional identifications that can range from civic piety to cynicism. And yet for all of that, one does not need to know the particular details surrounding any of them to recognize their cultural significance or the civic meanings that they impute and/or perform. Recasting them in connect the dots form, suppressing most of the visual information that one finds in the photographs themselves—color, shade, sharpness, definition, focus, etc.—as well as some of the key figures performing the central action of the images underscores their cultural significance by calling attention to the enthymematic logic upon which they rely and the ways in which their meaning is animated by the audience’s participation in making them whole.

Critics often wonder what it is that makes an iconic photograph iconic.  One answer to that question might be the way in which the visual/rhetorical  logic of such images invite–and perhaps even rely upon–a broad public of active spectators to supply the missing or implied information or knowledge that completes the photographic and gives it is cultural resonance. Spectatorship is often seen as a passive activity, but with the iconic photograph it may well be that spectatorship takes on a more performative role in which the viewer is cast as an active participant in the making of meaning … as well as the making of history.

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The Work of Art in the Age of Photographic Memory

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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

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All’s Well That Ends Well?

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If we take the photojournalistic slideshows at the major newspapers as evidence, the news for the past two weeks has been dominated by protests, both large and small around the world—though oddly enough hardly any that apparently warranted documenting in the United States—and a wide array of American patriotic displays, ranging from ersatz celebrations of red, white and blue to reenactors playing out the battle of Gettysburg on its 150th anniversary.  The photograph buried amidst all these images that caught my eye, however, had nothing to do with any of that and instead showed four children “playing” on a burned out armored vehicle in Kabul.

The vehicle is unmarked, and so it is hard to know who originally brought it to this spot. It could be American or British or even, however unlikely, a left over from the occupation of the former Soviet Union.  But none of that seems to matter as the particular history of this weapon of war has been erased.  What does seem to matter is that it has become a part of the “natural” landscape and that these children, young, innocent, and altogether happy, seem as comfortable climbing on it as we might imagine an American child climbing in an oak tree in his own back yard on a bright summer day.  There may have once been a war in Afghanistan that put these children at risk, but as this photograph suggests, there is now something like a return to normalcy.  Once there was a war, but now all is well.

Of course, notwithstanding the claim the U.S. has accomplished its combat goals in Afghanistan and turned military control back over to Afghani security forces, we know that the hostilities are not over, nor is it likely that we will see the significant downturn of U.S. or NATO military forces—whether we choose to call them combat troops, security forces, or military advisers—in Afghanistan for sometime to come.  In short, all is not well.  That said, what makes the photograph disturbing has less to do with the implication of a return to happier times, and more to do with the way in which it functions to make the past invisible by removing specific markers of the occupying forces and by naturalizing what has been left behind. And this all the more so as it appears in the midst of images of continuing conflict and social protest and American celebrations of its own exceptionalist past.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

 

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“Oh Happy Day”

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This past week marked the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University.  “Oh happy day,” announced the former president.  And as is the convention with such dedications, it was a grand celebration of the past president’s legacy.  And for the most part photojournalists followed the script, featuring numerous images of the five living presidents collected together in fraternal solidarity, as well as snapshots of various library exhibits such as the dedication to “free people” shown above, or in photographs of Barney and Miss Beazley’s food dishes and the former president’s baseball collection.

The dominant theme for the library is “What would you have done?” inviting visitors to participate with interactive displays allowing them to second guess the president’s various controversial policy decisions, from the search for weapons of mass destruction to the handling of Hurricane Katrina to addressing the debacle on Wall Street, and more.  Ironically enough, such judgments were rarely if ever solicited during the president’s two administrations and when they were expressed by various publics (or “free peoples”) they were systematically ignored.  But it is of course impossible to visualize something that did not occur—and in any case is not featured in the museum—and so the best that photojournalists were able to do was to call attention to the glitz and glamour.

One photograph, however, broke through the veneer of praise and acclaim that dominated the day’s festivities, although it was not featured in very many places.

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The prosthetic leg belongs to Army 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell (Ret.), the first female American soldier to lose a limb during the war in Iraq. She is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the Bush family standing in the background.  Interestingly enough, neither of the former first ladies is looking directly at Lt. Stockwell, each carefully averting their eyes, while former President George W. Bush appears to be staring at her with a befuddled and confused look on his face.  We can only imagine what he might actually be thinking, but his gaze clearly directs our attention to her star spangled, red, white and blue prosthesis, an ersatz symbol of the personal and private cost of the war in Iraq that contrasts with the shape and contour of her remaining, normal leg.

We cannot see Lt. Stockwell’s face, but perhaps that is altogether appropriate, for while she is without doubt a hero and the cost to her has been inestimable, she is not alone. Indeed, she stands literally to represent the more than 1,300 military personnel who have lost an arm or a leg (with more than 40 triple amputees and 5 quadruple amputees) in Iraq or Afghanistan (and with more than 63% from the war in Iraq alone).  Perhaps this photograph and those statistics should be featured at the museum exhibit which announces: “No stockpiles of W.M.D. were found.”

After all, if a “free people” are truly to “set the course of history” they should have access to all of the facts.

Credit: Allison V. Smith/NYT; Alex Wong/Getty Images

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Strange Fruit in California

So what do you see in this photograph?  Look closely and carefully.  The tree is knotted and gnarled, its branches reaching out like so many arms, going this way and that, almost as if it were a human being thrashing about in a hostile world.  At first blush it reminded me of the tree in The Wizard of Oz that throws its apples at Dorothy and her troupe.  Then again, it looked like might be from a more recent movie, perhaps one of the episodes of The Lord of the Rings or maybe even the fantasy world of Harry Potter.  But whatever you think you might see, look closely and ask yourself: What is missing?

The photograph was once the scene of a brutal lynching. Lynchings are a part of American history, and as James Allen helped us to understand a few year back with his Without Sanctuary project, they were not simply events that took place in the dead of night and away from the public eye.  Indeed, lynchings  were often carefully planned activities—spectacles really—with the trains adjusting their schedules so that church goers could attend the “festivities” and numerous photographs taken to mark the occasion, many of the later converted into postcards to be sent to friends and family.

Lynchings of this sort no longer take place in the U.S. and so it is all too easy to locate such events in a distant past, a time we might imagine as long, long ago. And perhaps that is so inasmuch as such lynchings have been exceedingly rare since the early 1950s. But the problem with such consignment to a once malignant but now benign past is that it invites us to ignore the depths and ignominy of such behaviors.  Most, no doubt, think of lynching as an activity used by southern whites to discipline blacks in the reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.  That it was, but we should not forget that such lynchings also occurred in many places north of the Mason-Dixon line (one of the most famous took place close to where I write from in Marion, Indiana) and as Ken Gonzales-Day, has recently demonstrated, several hundreds of Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians suffered a similar fate in California between 1850 and 1932.

And so, back to the photograph above.  It is one in a series of photographs taken by Gonzales-Day called Searching for California’s Hang Trees and is part of his attempt to witness an aspect of our national past that it has been all too easy to erase from our public and collective memory (see also his Erased Lynching series)—both geographically and otherwise.  The “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sung about is nowhere to be found in these photographs, but that would seem to be the point. The tree could really be anywhere: north, south, east or west. And those tortured while hanging from its branches could have been men, women and children of many different ethnicities and colors. It is not a part of our past of which we can be proud, but it is a part of our past and it needs to be remembered.  And visualized.  So, once again, what do you see when you look at the photograph?

Photo Credit: Ken Gonzales-Day

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