All posts by kukkurovaca

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The Mirror in our Memory

(Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle)

(Julla Carrie Wong)

(Joe Vazquez, KPIX)

These striking photographs are from a protest against police violence that took place about a week ago in Oakland. Some of the protestors brought mirrors with them to hold up to the police, and the resulting news photographs present striking images.

“I was holding up the mirror because I wanted the police to just look at themselves. Especially if they were about to take some kind of action just so they had to acknowledge what they were doing,” protester Nichola Torbett told KPIX 5.

Demarco Robinson, also a protester, said, “We want that person to look at themselves so that they can realize they’re not a badge. They don’t have to follow the system that they don’t agree with.”


These mirrors are emblematic of a part of the national reaction to police conduct particularly in Ferguson, MO (but not only there): an acute sense that police are acting in a way that should be impossible for people who understand that they are visible.

Don’t they know they’re on camera? Don’t they know we see them? Can’t they see what they’re doing?

Race, Privilege, and Visibility

My first thought was to say, “we are shocked,” at the seeming obliviousness of, for example, police officers explicitly threatening violence against journalists while on camera. But that suggests that these things are universally surprising, which is not true. The degree to which “we” are surprised is on a spectrum, correlated to the degree to which each of us has to live with the reality of police violence.

For some, these things are totally shocking, and can only be interpreted by analogy to distant times and places — thus the spate of comparisons to police conduct during prior decades of civil rights struggle in the US, as well as comparisons to war-torn regions in other parts of the world today. But for others, what we are seeing is neither a revival nor alien: it is everyday lived reality.

Note: I am not referring just to shock at the extent or severity of racially based police violence against citizens, but also and more specifically to our reactions to the apparent lack of concern over its visibility.

In institutions, there is usually (or should be) a significant gap between levels of misconduct that are accepted or tolerated (or even encouraged) depending on whether or not they are subject to prominent public attention, news coverage, and perhaps future legal action. The default level of citizen cynicism expects bad behavior to be pointedly (and temporarily) suspended or made covert in the wake of a public relations crisis.

And yet, what we’ve seen recently in Ferguson is an apparent eagerness of police to repeatedly double down on illegal behavior, all while in the public eye. They seemingly believe that they can get away with almost anything while the world watches — and the gap between mainstream coverage and what twitter has surfaced, along with the appalling racial gap in public perception, show that (depressingly) they might not even be wrong.

How surprising this is (or isn’t) probably has a lot to do with how accurate an intuition you have of the relationship between white privilege, white power, institutional racism, and police authority. We aren’t talking about a certain percentage of police officers having personal racist pathologies — and we aren’t even just talking about certain police agencies having baked racism into their policies.

Privilege and power shape perception across a society. Racism, as a societal process, tends to blind those involved to its effects.1 So, for the police, racism acts as a kind of invisibility cloak, screening actions against people of color from scrutiny and exempting the police from self-reflection.

This runs counter to assumptions we tend to form in the absence of an awareness of racism. We know, bone deep, that being seen changes how we behave. This knowledge expresses itself constantly in our interactions with each other. Institutions utterly rely on it for purposes of social control. The panopticon is the sociological and philosophical specter of our time. And remember that it does not even necessarily matter whether we are actually being watched; the point of the panopticon is that just the idea of being watched influences behavior.

But racism changes what it means to see and to be seen. And power determines the meaning of observation in any (real or metaphorical) panopticon.

Racism is a Defect of the Eye

I don’t know whether holding up a mirror to a police officer in riot gear is likely to reveal anything to them.2 Racism is a defect of the eye — both the collective public eye and the individual gaze. It is not suspended just because the eye is turned back on itself. The kind of self-reflection that reshapes self-image and behavior is unlikely to be triggered by a single provocative gesture in a charged, antagonistic setting.

But it forms an eloquent gesture for the journalist’s camera, crystallizing in one physical moment a complex and for many people counter-intuitive critique.

In a sense, it is also an implicit critique of the journalist’s camera, and of its inadequacy for changing our understanding of events. The mythologies of journalism and photography want us to feel that images change minds and shape understandings. We want to believe the camera has that power — we want to believe that when a photograph shows others what we see, they will be able to see it, too.

The photograph is supposed be “the mirror with a memory,” and in the hands of journalists, it is supposed to be able to induce personal and societal reflection. But if the mirror with a memory had that power, would people have to be in the streets holding literal mirrors up to the helmets of riot cops?

As John Edwin Mason recently pointed out in two great posts on iconic photographs (Part 1, Part 2), our mythology of photojournalism’s purpose and power is far from the reality. The meaning and significance of even the most powerful, disturbing photographs depends on what viewers are willing and able to see in them.

Time had to catch up with the photographs. More correctly, attitudes had to change, and change they did. But they didn’t change without struggle.

The civil rights movement, the American anti-apartheid movement, and, of course, South Africans, at home and in exile, created movements that convinced the vast majority of Americans that segregation and apartheid were wrong. The anti-Vietnam War movement (and the utter futility of the war itself) led a majority of Americans to support its end.

The photos of King and those of Phan Thị Kim Phúc became icons retrospectively. They don’t reflect the past, they reflect what we now think about the past.

The photos that I posted here are unlikely to become iconic in any case, because (despite the national character of the struggle over police brutality, of which Oakland owns a huge part), these particular photos are at the edge of what’s happening in this historical moment. But there are photos that have come out of Ferguson that should be and hopefully will be iconic — if they can come to stand for a change in how America sees what is happening now.

  1. Think of it as meme, in the original Dawkins sense. More like an idea parasite than an outdated view. (IMPORTANT NOTE: Even though memes are a useful idea, Dawkins is still an asshole whom you should always ignore.) 
  2. And of course, this protest happened in Oakland, not in Ferguson. OPD doesn’t exactly have a spotless record, but they tend to get treated as a proxy for cops at large, much as Oakland’s residents do. 

Reader’s Block

For a variety of personal reasons (health, mental health, family, dayjob, etc.), I’ve pretty much dropped out of the blogosphere, and in particular the photoblogosphere, over the last several months. This happens sometimes with me. It probably won’t stop happening.

Things in my life have eased up a little, and I’m trying to get back in touch with the photo world. I posted something new here for the first time in forever, and I’m catching up on some fraction of the stuff that’s been clogging my Newsblur and Instapaper accounts.

As I started going through these feeds, I was initially feeling super guilty about not having tried to keep up. I mean, even though I legitimately was not able to write anything meaningful during that time period, I didn’t ever stop reading — so why wasn’t I reading about photography? I was reading plenty of stuff that is less important to me.

As I read further, I began to observe a surge of anxiety and mental fatigue. So I tried to follow closely what was happening in my mind as I read, and I came back with a very minor, but useful, epiphany:

Vivian Maier, via

Performance and Circulation

Note: This post was started way back in May. Welcome to @kukkurovaca time.

Vivian Maier, via

Vivian maier, via

In one of those entertaining instances of RSS synchronicity, two items hit my feed reader at practically the same time: one pointing to a Wall Street Journal meditation by Richard B. Woodward on why Vivian Maier’s own prints aren’t valuable, the other a post at the ICP blog by Chilean photographer Luis Weinstein on the historical and contemporary context for photography in South America.

Both posts take as their stepping off point the relationship between the negative and the print and when, in the life cycle of the image, it transitions from a potential to an actual work. But from that point, they proceed in pretty different directions.


Ansel Adams, a piano prodigy before he picked up a camera, once declared that the photographic negative was like a musical “score,” while the final print was akin to the concert “performance.”….

To extend the Adams analogy, [photographers who had others print their negatives] composed songs or symphonies they did not always play themselves….All of these artists, though, if they delegated one step of the process to others, supervised the final results. And after death, if their estates authorized posthumous work, posterity was able to gauge how a print should look because identical or similar examples had been made when these artists were alive.1

But what if they had died and left behind rolls of film that no one ever developed, even as negatives? Do exposed frames even qualify as photographs or only as potential ones? How is someone supposed to know how to perform a “score” that the artist never finished?


The first reductionist trap we tend to fall into is to think that a “photograph” as such exists once we click the camera shutter, but if we consider that the photograph, in addition to being an object, is also a form of communication (perhaps even a new form of language), then in order for it to come into being, the shutter-click is necessary, of course, but so is processing, and, fundamentally, this technological object, loaded with symbolism, must circulate. Stashed away in the bottom of a box, a valley, or an isolated continent, it does not develop its full potential.

Woodward is concerned with authorship and salability, and ultimately questions whether a photographer who did not produce good prints “judged by Mr. Maloof or U.S. art dealers to be worthy of exhibition or sale” has knowable “artistic intent.” He groups Maier2 with Disfarmer and Bellocq, and contrasts all of these with Atget, whom he groups with Bresson, as a photographer who either made some of his own prints or signed his name to prints made by others. This dichotomy seems pretty arbitrary to me, especially in the case of Disfarmer.

It’s all quite odd, really, unless you are very concerned that the photographer be the compleat author of his or her work. Or, I guess, if you are concerned that the invisible hand of the market is so concerned? Why get so caught up with print authorship as compared to the much more interesting question of editing, particularly as regards the “discovery” of prolific previously-unknowns like Maier or Cushman?

Weinstein, on the other hand, pursues the reality of the photograph away from individual authorship and toward communal use, on both regional and global scales. He points to the need of a photograph to circulate in a community in order to have meaning, and to the way in which political and economic contexts drive South American photography toward both a politically aware content aimed at the public good, and also to collective/collaborative production and distribution.

It’s an illuminating counterpoint to hand-wringing over whether or not Maier had authorial intent, whether her “score” can be “performed.” The artist cannot be treated as a black box which spits out photography, any more than the camera can. Artistic intent has to be placed in a context of communally constructed meaning.3

On the global scale, Weinstein calls attention to the way photography produced within South American countries is positioned at the periphery of photography as a global medium hegemonically centered in the US and Europe — such that it can only act as a “passive choir” or else as an “exporter” of “exoticism as an image of our reality.”

Weinstein raises the case of Hercules Florence, which I had been completely unaware of. Apparently he independently invented in Brazil some variant(s) of photography at about the same time as Fox-Talbot (So, after Niépce but before Daguerre):

The existence of Hercules Florence and his independent invention of a photographic process in Brazil in 1832, investigated by Boris Kossoy in the 1970s, does not substantially change the official story; on the contrary, it confirms that both a physical object (the image on paper, glass, or metal that Florence did develop) and its circulation (which Florence never achieved on a sufficiently large scale) are necessary for us to be able to speak of “photography” in the sense of an archive of images, given social meaning and recognition and representative of a regional practice.

In a sense, both posts are partly about the specter of a counterfactual. Maier’s posthumous printers labor beside the ghost of the notional Maier who might have made or directed authoritative prints of her work. In Weinstein’s post there is the tantalizing alternate history in which South American photography might have been at the center instead of the periphery of a global medium.

To continue arbitrarily seeking parallels in posts that are really connected solely by my having read them at the same time — compare the US art market as requiring a level of quality in Maier’s prints that Maier herself apparently never met, with Weinstein’s explanation for low-fi production and distribution of photographs in South America:

It is not easy to divert money to the capture, printing, circulation, and exhibition of photographs when scarce resources compete with the daily necessities of food, housing, and shelter.

The solution often involves low-cost printing and circulating the images by hand, so that not only the content, but also the form of the photographs are modified by the conditions of production and the reality from which they emerge.

Note this is framed as the influence of socio-economic conditions upon form and content rather than merely as a limitation. Weinstein is describing neutrally a characteristic trait and its origins, rather than excusing a deficiency. But I wonder, is it also a factor (whether real or supposed) in maintaining the peripheral status of those photographs relative to, say, the US art market? (That is, the same one in which Maier’s prints might not be considered to have value.)

Of course, much art in the US deploys low-fi esthetics, but is that only acceptable if it is avoidable? Perhaps constraint must be filtered through luxury in order to be perceived to show artistic intent.4

Later reproductions of photographs are often made very differently from early ones — better, it is understood, but really just larger, contrastier, sharper, cleaner. These reproductions are often actually vastly different from the originals. I think this has been true almost any time I’ve seen exhibitions of modern reprints of historical photographs. We are not supposed to feel there is anything wrong with this, because the reproductions are either produced by the artists or authorized by them or by someone, whereas with Maier we are perhaps supposed to feel some concern, because she and her heirs are not here to serve that legitimating function.

But I think it is equally problematic in all cases, no matter the consent of the photographer or rightsholder, for historical photographs to be remastered in a way that breaks the integrity of their connection to the conditions under which they were originally made made and circulated. At least, if there remains any intention to trade upon authenticity, either in a scholarly or a commercial context. (And yes, really the problem is with the idea of authenticity, rather than with the practice of alteration.)

Of course, the more important question I should be posing after reading these two posts is: Why are we so interested in scrutinizing, interpreting, and cyclically (re)blogging Maier, as opposed to entire living, practicing communities of photographers who are operating in communities outside the mainstream, US-dominated art discourse?

I sometimes wonder if photographers like Maier — the prolific ones who cannot stand up for themselves against the weight of retrospective curation — are perhaps desirable and valuable precisely because they represent a kind of mirror for the art world, reflecting interpretation and ideas back with perfect clarity and adding nothing of themselves to mar the face of contemporary narratives and values. Much more appealing, perhaps, to spend time with such surfaces than to look upon the faces of other people.

  1. This is maybe something of an oversimplification. One of the most interesting things about the traveling Bresson exhibit from a few years ago was seeing prints from different decades, sometimes of the same negative, reflecting, in part, changing standards of “good” contrast in photographic printing. 
  2. Yep, it’s Vivian Maier O’Clock. Sorry. 
  3. In the case of Maier, a vibrant community (practically a Maier-Industrial Complex) certainly exists, but does not include the artist, since she is deceased. 
  4. I hope it is possible to resist the ascendency of image quality, which I am increasingly suspicious of, without having to issue disclaimers or pass class checks. 
“Colby (Colby’s Music), 2001.” Beth Yarnelle Edwards

From the 1/125 Archives: Suburban Dreams

One of the things we’re planning for Hairy Beast is sporadic reposts from 1/125. This isn’t just because I’m so hard up for material I have to cannibalize our past—well, it’s not just that. I also want to make sure that stuff exists outside of the Tumblr ecosystem. First up is this post on Suburban Dreams by Beth Yarnelle Edwards, which recently came up in conversation on twitter. This post was originally published on January 23, 2013.

No one appears to be impoverished…these are not the ‘cool’ photos of down and out drug users, strippers and hookers. These are our own neighbors. We immediately recognize ourselves and our friends.

Amazon review by G. Rothman of Suburban Dreams.

“Colby (Colby’s Music), 2001.” Beth Yarnelle Edwards
“Colby (Colby’s Music), 2001.” Beth Yarnelle Edwards

This weekend I stopped by the Oakland Museum to see “Beth Yarnelle Edwards: Suburban Dreams,” an exhibition drawn from the California portion of Edwards’s Suburban Dreams series. (See here and here) The exhibit includes around a couple dozen photographs, as well as a handy binder containing reproductions of ephemera — samples of Edwards’s working notes, correspondence with subjects, etc. I went on the 19th for the talk by Edwards and curator Drew Johnson, which proved quite interesting.

Pictures authentic to the people

Edwards photographs subjects in their homes, in scenes that are staged but also intended to be “authentic” depictions of the family’s life. She follows a set protocol which includes showing subjects examples of her work, and asking if they are comfortable looking like the people in those pictures and interviewing them with intentionally vague, non-leading questions (e.g., “tell me something about your lives,” “what are your favorite things?”) Based on the interview, semi-improvised scenes are staged in which subjects act out some aspect of their daily lives. Specific poses are held for moderately long exposures.

It’s an interesting approach. Johnson contrasted it with the model of the “invisible documentarian,” and asserted that Edwards’s results can be “more real than a candid, unstaged photograph.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that, quite, but I find the approach appealing, especially in the context of my recent discussion of my hangup about portraiture. (I respond negatively to portraits in which the photographer seems to be fully in charge of what the subject means.)

Edwards’s very interactive way of working strikes a good balance: she’s producing images that have a great thematic and stylistic consistency and strong authorship, but her subjects are active in determining how they will appear. Her intention is to “make the pictures authentic to the people, not just use the people to illustrate my ideas.”

All of which is very appealing to me. But I find myself rather ambivalent about the actual photos.

Everyone can recognize

Part of my difficulty has to do with the type of photograph Edwards is making. My natural inclination is to read them as documentary, even ethnography, but that’s not really what they’re for. Edwards is actually emulating genre painting rather than making photographic documents. Her repeatedly declared intention is to portray her subjects as universal archetypes, which “everyone” can recognize. And that’s the second, larger part of my difficulty: the presumption of universality.

Edwards identifies as a cultural insider relative to the subjects she’s working with. In the California photos, the families are, while not necessarily her friends, within her extended social network — people who know people she knows, etc. In discussing her work, she used “we” and “our” often, apparently referring to a category inclusive of her subjects, herself, and those in attendance(?). (Although she also referred to the suburbs as an “aspirational” world, as seen on TV, and part of her motivation for the project is that she became “interested in the aspiration and what it meant.”)

I asked, given that she produced the work as a cultural insider, whether the photographs were intended for an insider audience as well, or whether they are intended for a different or broader audience — in short, who she thought the viewer of these photographs was. For whom are these archetypes “universal”?

Her response was that while the “stuff” is not universal, posture, gesture, etc. is. For example, a boy about to become a man will stand a certain way whether here or “two thousand miles away,” whether now or in a painting made hundreds of years ago. (The association of universality with the tradition of painting was a recurring and prominent theme.)

This jibes with her take on Europe. (The project includes several European countries, although what’s exhibited at OMCA is just from California.) She said that “increasingly, with globalization, a lot of European homes look like our suburban homes,” and in discussing distinctions between homes in Europe and homes here, she was careful to explain how what differences she did observe were in comparisons between homes of people in the same social class and professional status. And tellingly, when asked about the impact of economic recession on the people in her photographs, she pointed out that people who were doing poorly thanks to economic downturns would not be in the houses she was photographing — they would have left and been replaced by others.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on a specific social class — but I say it is telling because class is the parameter she did not use in talking about the trans-historical, trans-cultural range of viewers who are intended to be able to recognize the “universal” in her work.

(For examples of different relationships between a subject group, an insider or semi-insider photographer, and a viewership, consider Gordon Parks as “Mr. Negro”, which is a case of the photographer overtly acting as a bridge between one group and another, or Daniela Rossell, from whose Ricas y Famosas I think Suburban Dreams differs more in degree than in kind, except that Ricas y Famosas is perceived/used as indicting evidence against the subculture it represents.)

Family of (Upper Middle Class) Man

Jumping back a bit: part of the function of documentary and especially ethnographic photography is to explain a culture to an audience which is not presumed to have extensive prior knowledge of it. This is a function I know how to read in photographs (more or less). It orients the viewer toward the specific, toward information, toward the cultural context of the photograph. It helps the viewer to account for what they are seeing. And it does not presume that the viewer is an insider.

Now, that’s not the function Suburban Dreams is meant to serve, so not doing it is not an intrinsic deficit. But to the extent that the series presumes a relatively “insider” audience alongside its insider author, it is rendered less accessible and less useful to those who are not insiders. I believe Edwards that Suburban Dreams is about showing people as types that transcend place and time, but I think there is a real hiccup when it comes to class. As much as I like Edwards’s protocol and methodology, I think to some extent the photographs that result from them serve as family photographs of the upper middle class en masse: an internally directed self-depiction of people as they are willing to see themselves and be seen.

There’s nothing wrong with family photographs, and there’s nothing wrong with an insider producing something that is implicitly intended for the appreciation of other insiders. But there’s a potentially sharp discontinuity between that appreciation and the appreciation of outsiders. In the case of depictions of “universal” archetypes, the predictable outcome of crossing this discontinuity is that the archetype devolves to stereotype. The result is not an incomprehensible image, but an all-too-comprehensible one — stereotypes being always the easiest type to judge, read, and dismiss.

Our Own Neighbors

This aspect stands out to me particularly in the context of the Oakland Museum, which is located — well, here. If you don’t know what I mean, stop by some time, and walk a couple of miles in a couple of directions from the museum, and see what you see, including but not limited to, abject poverty, notable affluence, everything in between, and both urban decay and gentrification. There are few areas in California where class is more in need of socially critical interpretive context. And the rest of the museum — particularly the California history exhibits, but also plenty of the art — has that in spades.

Still, as I left Suburban Dreams, I wondered if maybe it was really just me — whether I was just personally/idiosyncratically insensitive to the universal in Edwards’s photographs. Would I find the same gazes, the same gestures, the same types, in, say, the photographs William Gedney made in Kentucky? Probably yes, at least in some cases. It’s likely that to some extent, maybe a great extent, my ambivalence toward Edwards’s photographs stems directly from my very real bias against the universal and toward the specific.

Then I went around the corner from Suburban Dreams, and I looked at photographs of Black Panthers and Diggers, and Dorothea Lange’s Richmond welders and Manzanar detainees. And I thought: images of well-off people at leisure, no matter in what posture or gesture, simply cannot be meaningfully regarded as universal representations of humanity, except insofar as rich people all look alike.

PS: To be clear, I am not presenting this as an comprehensive review — there is a great deal that one can get out of these photographs, although I think many of the best uses would go against their grain. (E.g., as records of a specific culture isolated in time and place.) What I am saying is that photographs like these do not get to casually or by default be for everyone, and if it is not clear whom they are for, it is questionable how much light they can shed on the suburban lifestyle, either as actual culture or as aspirational ideal.