Every year there’s disagreement about the winner of the World Press Photo of the Year. This is to be expected given the nature of contests but in recent years the discussions have consistently trended toward issues of manipulation and honesty within the ethics of what Photojournalism™ allows. While I’ve touched on this territory in the past* the hyper-prescriptive nature of what kinds of digital manipulation are allowable is not something I’m interested in.
This year though the discussion has become one of context and how the image exists in the world—a much more interesting thread to think about. Instead of a discussion about whether the image itself is worthy—it’s as clear a case of unmanipulated professional perfection in imagemaking as I’ve ever seen—the head of the jury has suggested that we need to consider more than just the technical quality of the image in anointing it “the best.”
Unlike the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, the crime had limited political consequences. Placing the photograph on this high pedestal is an invitation to those contemplating such staged spectaculars: it reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity.
I both agree and disagree with what he’s saying. I do however deeply respect that he’s pushing the discussion of imagemaking in that direction. And I think that what he’s saying is more of a discussion about how the media uses images and reports on news than it is about photography itself.
The media has fallen into the “if it bleeds it leads” trap of picking the news based on what has the most salacious details. A graphic photo definitely helps here and I totally buy the argument that this assassination wouldn’t have been news in The West if the photos weren’t any good.
At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with so-easily dismissing this event as being of “little political consequence.” Assassinating an ambassador is a big deal. It’s an attack on The State. As much as I think the Benghazi stuff has been over emphasized in the US, I also don’t think that it should’ve been swept under the rug and forgotten instead. And I’d expect Russia to take it similarly as well.
That we haven’t heard anything about the political consequences of this image isn’t a failure of the image but a failure of the press which reported on a fantastic photo rather than any of the context which allows us to understand the events surrounding the image.
It’s exactly this absence of context which makes it easy for us to worry about the photo becoming a “platform for martyrdom and publicity.” We see the viral fame of the image itself and recognize the messages which can be attached to it. That the most-compelling component of the photo is the shooter, his passion, and his eerie professionalism is especially concerning. We don’t know who he is or what he really stands for but we’re open to hearing his message now.
This is in stark contrast to the other World Press Photo of the Year winners which depict assassinations. In Eddie Adams’s photo, the victim is the most compelling figure and we find ourselves wondering who he is instead of the shooter. We know he’s Vietcong and supposedly an enemy. But seeing him at the moment of death forces us to see his humanity.
In neither case is the image so explicitly about the killer. We see and empathize with the victims and, as such, don’t offer the same kind of platform to their killers.
The power of Adams’s image is that while, as Americans, we were supposedly on the same team as the killer, it forced us to reevaluate who our teammates are and the value of what we were fighting for. That it’s part of the narrative of an unpopular war and came out in the midst of an incredible year full of social upheaval only enhanced its power. That, as an American, I totally understand the context in which this photo is working in is a key reason why it’s iconic now. But I also recognize that this is American history on display.
Nagao’s photo on the other hand, while it’s the first image I thought of when I saw Özbilici’s, is still one about which I have no understanding of the larger political context. The image, and the idea that political violence can occur at any political event, has stuck with me ever since I saw it. I’m sure it resonates more strongly in Japan but for me it remains an example of how the media has always lead with compelling images and left the context out.
Anyway, I’m totally here for this discussion and thinking about how photos work as part of the news. And I’m happy to see that there’s a willingness to discuss what our responsibility when publishing photos should be. All very good signs considering how much our media has failed us in the past year.
My earliest memories of just looking at photos all involve National Geographic. My parents had a subscription and I looked forward to the day each month when a thick magazine slipcovered in brown-paper arrived in our mailbox. I was too young to read the articles but I devoured the photos (and the maps of course) for at least the following week. I also would go through our magazine files and pull out my favorite past issues—reading the spines until I found the one with the feature I wanted—and revisit the photos all over again.
June 1984 was my favorite issue. By far. I paged through Paul Theroux’s By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent repeatedly as I was captivated by Steve McCurry’s photographs. It wasn’t anything specific about the quality of the photos which got me. I just, like many grade-school boys, loved trains and these were like no trains I’d ever seen. Instead of the commuter train pulled by diesel engines which took people up and down the peninsula between San Francisco and San José, these were steam trains which wound through mountains and countrysides, were packed with people—including riders on the outsides of the cars—and had dining cars to accommodate multi-day journeys.
The recent McCurry pile-on which started with Teju Cole’s A Too-Perfect Picture coupled with some photoshop disasters encouraged me to both revisit McCurry’s train photos—the first set of photos I can remember loving—as well as to finally read the text which they accompany.
At some point in the past decade or so, McCurry’s work has lost all the context in which it was originally made. He has indeed gone full White Guy Photography, peddling a mythical third-world exotic beauty via photos that function as desktop backgrounds or hotel art.* Teju Cole says they’re boring. Paroma Mukherjee points out that the ethics behind these photos are dangerous. As McCurry packages them now I completely agree. They don’t tell us anything beyond confirming our stereotypes of the region and suggesting that modernization will ruin the “real” soul of the place.**
**As stated in Image on Paper’s Jimmy Nelson Post: “It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant.”
While I would be a bit worried about looking through all the 30-year-old National Geographics and seeing what I grew up with, this particular article is thankfully not too bad. Rather than being concerned with any sort of “authenticity,” it’s unabashedly a travelog and photos—most of which do not look like what has become the McCurry brand.
Travelogs, when they’re about the author’s trip and don’t claim to be speaking for the country,* are great. The same goes with travel photos. The more specific and personal the topic is, the more likely I am to like them. And I still like these.
*Or in this case, the entire subcontinent.
The railroad is a wonderful thread to anchor the entire trip. It grounds the narrative and allows for historical diversions where the infrastructure is older than the political boundaries which it crosses. It also offers glimpses at a large range of the people in India. While Theroux is mostly riding first class, he and McCurry are also interacting and talking with the locals crowded in second class, the people riding on the roof, the white tourists in the separate better-than-first-class tourist cars, and the service workers and public workers who run the trains and the stations.
That I still love trains, and train photography, doesn’t hurt. But there is something distinct about the rail travel and the way it filters how you see both the countryside it cuts through and the built environments which have grown up around it. It’s simultaneously part of the landscape while completely imposing itself on that landscape. And it waits for no one. If one of the chief tenets of photography is taking your time and thinking and picking the right moment, the way the train keeps moving introduces a variable which is out of the photographer’s control.
Seeing McCurry’s work in this context also serves as a reminder of why he became an acknowledged master. There’s maybe only one of those McCurry™ Portraits and all of his colors are more subdued by the necessity of having to stick with the railway itself. But the photos are great. Strongly composed and timed with a sense of place—and on occasion the photographer’s presence—they illustrate the text so well that I have no use for the captions except when they offer a bit of additional story where McCurry’s experiences differ from Theroux’s.
Even the photo of the train at the Taj Mahal—which out of this context becomes about the men and “how well they work as types”—is instead a perfect “holy crap you can see this from the train” photo.
Despite completely agreeing with the critiques being heaped on McCurry now, I’m still glad that these were some of the formative photos of my youth. I’ve kind of grown out of him but I’m happy that I had access to these. It’s always good to be reminded of both my own growth, and what it means if an artist doesn’t grow.
They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.
While I was looking at War is Beautiful I couldn’t help but think about the iconic, well-known photos from Vietnam or World War 2. Those images are the beginning of what has become the cinematic language of war photography. They’re what the movies reference and are part of our common understanding of what war photography is supposed to look like.
Instead of looking at those images though, I got Jennifer Watts’s A Strange and Fearful Interest off the shelf and decided to look at Civil War photographs. Looking at the Civil War photography shows the beginnings of our current visual culture. We can see the beginnings of personal image sharing as well as the ability for images of “real life” to become larger than life. At the same time, we’re seeing other directions or standards that could’ve been taken.
The Civil War reflects photography’s first big maturation in terms of both how we understand what we’re looking at and in terms of figuring out what practices actually work for documenting and disseminating images. There were no set rules or perspectives to copy, the field photographers had to figure things out on their own. Nor were there guidelines about what’s ethically acceptable with regards to subject matter or staging a scene. The photos of dead soldiers*—and the way those bodies were often moved by the photographers—are so wrong in terms of the current rules of photography.
*Specifically noted in the book with the Antietam photos but applicable to Gettysburg and many other battlefields too.
Where the Vietnam and World War 2 images are still familiar to us, the Civil War photographs are more abstract. Their look—the staging, motion blur, toning, edge effects, etc.—reads as romance and nostalgia rather than documentation. They don’t look real to us anymore even though their existence fundamentally changed our understanding of both warfare and death.
But the photos themselves did say a lot about the war and the nature of violent death which, while people obviously knew,* were not images which were disseminated. There’s something about seeing the images of the bodies in the battlefields which drives home the cost of it all. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that we created National Cemeteries as a response to the Civil War. Our collective sense of war and its outcomes changed during the Civil War—in large part due to having a new medium with which to share and remember these things.
*Warfare, and in particular the Civil War, being something which touched a much larger percentage of the population then than it does now.
It was not just images of war which were suddenly being disseminated across the US. Tintypes and ambrotypes allowed for soldiers to both send images back home and keep images of home with them on the front. While still very much a portrait/sitter arrangement, this was a much more democratic* product in how it opened up the ability for this kind of personal connection to many more people.
*Reminding me of the creation vs consumption debate a few years ago. While I still agree that the Brownie opened up the true democratic floodgates, tintypes, ambrotypes, and cartes de visite did create a massive change in how we treated and understood images too.
Since Confederate photographers all but disappeared after—if not during—the war, J.D. Edwards is the only Confederate photographer featured in the book. This explicitly calls attention to how our visual understanding of the Civil War is almost exclusively the Union point of view. And as much as I hadn’t realized this before, it reminded me how most of my conception of war photography is aligned with the point of view of the US or the west.
I really like George N. Barnard’s landscapes of Sherman in Georgia. Barnard kept taking landscape photographs—very much in the style of O’Sullivan or Watkins—where the view is what’s important. In Barnard’s case though, rather than the promise of taming unspoiled nature, we see the architecture and landscapes of war.
The book also goes into the Lincoln assassination and how Alexander Gardner’s mugshots—well, proto-mugshots since the mugshot hadn’t been invented yet—as well as his photographs of the hangings get right at the intimate relationship that photography has with death. And then there’s his Lewis Powell image which, among all the retro-nostalgic photographs in the book, leaps off the page as being, still, strikingly modern.
Eco believes that hyperreality shows itself in America’s portrayal of history, art and architecture, entertainment, and nature. Eco believes that Americans want everything in a more entertaining way (including entertainment), so we have intertwined hyperreality into our lives.
The other day, I had a chance to sit down in the library with David Shields’s War is Beautiful. Given how I’ve mentioned previously how appealing the idea of a photographic Aarne–Thompson is, it was a lot of fun to page through a book which did exactly that with the New York Times’ front page War on Terror photographs. I like and tend to agree with Shield’s choice of tropes. I also found it interesting to be forced to question what it means to aestheticize war and the ethics of making beautiful images of ugly horrible things.
These are not new thoughts but it’s worthwhile to be periodically reminded to think about them.
In the case of these images—especially when you see them page after page after page—it’s not the fact that so many of them are pretty or even beautiful* which concerns me, it’s that so many of them look like movie stills. It says a lot about how realistic movies have gotten than this is the case. But it also says bad things about photography if what we consider good, meaningful, impactful photography appears to be influenced by the cinema.
*Despite the notes about how photographers hated the flat light in Iraq.
The news photographs aren’t faked or staged but they’re looking for certain compositions and perspectives.* This is a problem.** The movie look allows for a certain level of glorification which capitalizes on our expectations for the form. We “know” what the “bad guys” look like. We know who’s supposed to be the “hero.” We even have prejudices about the terrain and the buildings. The photographs are less about telling the story and making us think and are instead more about setting the mood for the story using our pre-existing biases.
A lot of this reminds me of William Gibson’s Zero History where the military and military contractors—specifically in the fashion realm—are dealing with the inversion of the traditional military to civilian workflow. For decades, fashion flowed out of the military setting and became streetwear after it had acquired a level of authenticity and coolness through military use. Zero History explores what happens when military-inspired streetwear has evolved into its own thing and its designs are both influencing military designs and making military designs seem inadequate and uncool.
It’s also worth looking at the video game realm where the comparison between how the military uses video games to recruit people with how those recruits are then trained shows a similar difference. The recruiting game America’s Army is very much in line with mass-market video games. Lots of action to compete with the latest first-person shooters accompanied with a very cinematic look. The training games meanwhile look awful. Lots of waiting around and hoping that there’s no action at all. Lots of uncertainty about what to do. But very realistic since they’re intended to train soldiers on what to actually expect. They just don’t look like what I, as a civilian, would expect based on how war is portrayed in mass media.
And that’s what current war photography is doing. It’s riffing off of the existing cinematic language of hyperreal military settings—suggesting that the real stories might not be eye-catching enough to be told anymore. Movies—and movie photography and cinematography—are our common language in many things. They’ve become our references and touchstones for what real life should look like. And it’s scary when real life can no longer compete with the expectations.
While I enjoy the trope categorizations, the best part of the book may be the rear endpapers which show thumbnails of all the New York Times front pages. The Edward Tufte style small multiples makes the point about how the Times has presented the war in a way that looking through the book is unable to convey. Rather than seeing the details in the images, it becomes more apparent how these images are chosen for their graphic (in the sense of graphic design) impact and sense of warness.
Seeing Princeton’s City Lost and Found show a week before Baltimore blew up* was very interesting timing. It’s weird to be working through my reactions to a show while a real world event unfolds which essentially references everything I’m working through. But this show covers the 1960s and 1970s in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Which means it covers the Harlem riots, Chicago riots, and Watts riots—all of which are extremely relevant to the discussions we’re having today about Baltimore. We still haven’t learned the lessons from 1968.
*I’m really curious to see how that Wiki page changes since the whole riot/protest/rebellion/uprising discussion is also ongoing.
The show isn’t about the riots, but rather the way cities were evolving in the 1960s and 1970s as the demographics and industry changed. A lot of people and industry moving out. And a lot of people and infrastructure being left behind in ways that the powers that be viewed as requiring renewal or fixing or controlling. While the backstory is missing in the show, even the gist of it is enough to get started.
We get to see urban renewal plans, municipal commission documents, documentary photographs, street photographs, photojournalism, investigative art projects, performance art projects, guerrilla art projects, and more, all capturing various ways that the city was in flux and various groups were reacting to the changes, proposed changes, or lack of changes, that were going on. It shows us what the cities were like ~50 years ago and what the primary issues were then. Looking at everything, even before the Baltimore protests erupted, I was struck by how little had really changed since that time period.
*Whether they’re blacks living in formerly redlined neighborhoods or artists who need affordable housing or immigrants trying to start new lives here.
And the cities do need to be improved and renewed. While urban renewal is frequently code for gentrification or the destruction of existing communities, neglect and non-investment* are just as destructive. The plans all look glorious. Wonderful mixed-use developments. High density—affordable high density—living coupled with urban parks and communal greenspaces. Transportation** accessibility as a key feature of everything. Even a lot of balancing new developments with old architecture by incorporating the old buildings into the design. I look at these plans and wish that they’d built them since they address almost all the issues*** currently afflicting cities.
*Let alone actual theft in the form of subprime mortgages or “buying” homes on contract or the systematic destruction of property and businesses if, against all odds, these areas actually do flourish.
**One of the few things that betrays the age of these plans is how car-focused everything is. Though it is interesting to note that while New York was trying to improve access for cars, the LA plans were trying to improve walkability.
***Public transportation being the notable absence.
A new city built along these lines would be a thing of beauty. The plans still look futuristic because we just can’t do things like this. Part of me wants to tear my hair out because we’ve known that we need to do this for decades. The other part of me looks at the plans and understands why we can’t.
Because I also look at these plans and notice that the ideas for renewal all involve destroying and rebuilding entire swaths of the city. And I know that to do any of this, city government will have to eminent domain the cheapest available land occupied by the least-politically-powerful people. And that the land is cheap because of racist governmental policies and white flight. And that the new growth, even if truly affordable, will not—cannot—replace the former neighborhoods.
And this is all ~50 years ago and things are basically the same and this wasn’t a new problem even then and no wonder people are pissed and frustrated and the real wonder is why these kind of demonstrations don’t happen more often.
The reality on the ground and the promised beauty of the plans are two threads that this show is unable to reconcile. This feels like a weakness in the exhibition as much of my time in the galleries involved being frustrated by what felt like the absence of a thesis statement for the exhibition. But this absence also feels honest and when I wasn’t frustrated I was nodding my head in agreement and recognition of this. I want to see an easy answer. We wish there were an easy answer. There is no easy answer.
The only conclusions I can draw from the exhibition require me to think about what I didn’t see there. There are no plans that treat the city as something that needs retrofitting rather than being a complete teardown and rebuild. None that view anything beyond the architectural legacy of the area to be worth considering for selected salvation.* None that involve the communities and give them any agency over what they need. All of these are projects and visions that, if they exist, would live in the disconnect which is on display. I suspect though that they don’t exist, whether 50 years ago or today.
*Not that I disagree with saving architecturally-significant buildings. Just that it says a lot about priorities when it’s only the architecture that’s considered worth saving.
Photography as social document
Aside from the general reactions I had to this show, it’s also very interesting from a photography point of view. While a lot of the photos on display were intended as art photos, they’re not being used as art here—despite being exhibited in an art museum. These are photos as social history, social documents, items that tell us about the place, who lived there, how it’s changing, what life is like on the ground rather than from the planning offices.
It’s not about the photos as objects: Some of them are vintage prints. Some are slides. Some are mechanical prints. Some are halftones in magazines or books. Some—as with the Itinerant Languages of Photography exhibition—are digital prints from scanned negatives. It’s about the photos and the stories they contain.
I still looked at the photos with an eye toward the art side of things. But even as someone who often looks at the social context around the photography* I was even more tuned into this element here. The photos—and the rest of the art in the exhibition—were telling me the stories. I didn’t have to pull them out on my own. And there are too many stories to mention so I’ll just go over the ones that caught my eye.
Danny Lyon and Aaron Rose’s photos of the destruction of lower Manhattan at first have some ruin porn vibes going on except that rather than capturing the superficial beauty of decay and abandonment, these are about change and questioning the idea that progress requires destroying the past. These photos get compared to the photos that show new buildings going up. Same metal frames, same men in hard hats, and the same dust and dirt of power tools. Just a different side of the coin.
The planning commission documents contain essentially photo essays of street photography as a way of understanding that people live in the city. Where street photography often has a bad reputation, these documents show what it does well. It’s not just about the tropes and getting that decisive moment where everything in the frame lines up perfectly. It also captures a sense of place and time in a way that no other kind of photography really can.
There’s plenty of street photography on display just by itself too. Classic black and white work by Garry Winogrand or Leonard Freed. Color work by Helen Levitt or Bruce Davidson. In a different show I’d be appreciating the photos individually. In this show, between the planning commission documents and the magazine photo essays,* I’m fitting the rest of the photos into my own imagined social documents of how the city works and what it’s like to navigate one on foot.
Street photography is a human’s-eye view of the city. Even in the age of the automobile, this perspective is necessary to keep in mind. No matter how much the cities need to be fixed, if they don’t work on the street-level human scale they don’t work at all. And while I appreciate Martha Rosler’s attempts reject the theatricality of traditional street photography, the way she added distance between herself and her subjects resulted in a point of view that felt closer to a car’s-eye view of the city. There’s something about being in the middle of things in the city that’s absolutely necessary.
This is of obvious import in a city like New York but it’s also relevant to Los Angeles. There are a series of photographs by various photographers looking at the demolished but undeveloped Bunker Hill site in downtown Los Angeles. These photos are coupled with images of different redevelopment plans that were attempted over the years. Some were not pedestrian-friendly, others were. Part of the problem with the site is that the less pedestrian-friendly plans were tried first and they just didn’t work. The resulting buildings were not a place anyone wanted to be.
This emphasis on the importance of scale comes up in a lot of the more landscape-like photography in the city too. From Thomas Struth’s super-precise photographs of New York to John Humble’s photos of LA, you can see the contrast between new developments and the way they dwarf the older, human-scale architecture. We need both types of building in the modern city and making sure they work together is the challenge.
I really liked Arthur Tress’s Open Space in the Inner City* in that it felt like one of the few instances where the photography and plans where being discussed at a local level. These were originally mechanical prints rather than fine-art prints and the goal was to discuss locally about reclaiming existing open space into real parks. I’m not sure it ever got past this stage but it’s one of the few examples which even kind of sits in the middle of the divide between planning and local input.
*Holy crap he has a Blurb presence and you can get Volumes 1and 2 there.
Art Sinsabaugh’s panoramas are also great. I’m kind of a sucker for panoramas in general but I enjoy the way these show the commitment to the automobile. One of the things missing from the New Topographics is focusing on the architecture of the highway system itself. Sinsabaugh’s work is interesting to view with that context in mind.
Hans Haake’s real estate holdings piece isn’t photography per se but does rely on photographs of each location to really make concrete the point about the way so few people control so much of the land. And how labyrinthine the holding companies are so as to obscure who’s actually in charge.
Yasuhiro Ishimoto was a nice discovery for me. His quieter Chicago cityscapes feel a lot closer to the kinds of photographs I enjoy making and I’ll be looking more into his work in the future.
John Divola’s MGM lots are a brilliant addition to the show in that they blur the lines between fictitious and real urban decay and the way it’s presented in the media.The lots are fake creations meant to look like New York or Chicago or anywhere else, but they’re also open space that will eventually be developed into self-contained modern cities with Los Angeles.
Bruce Nauman’s LA Air meanwhile is one of two references in the show to explicit environmental issues in the city.* It’s funny and snarky but also points out one of the things that is an issue now but which wasn’t under consideration ~50 years ago. The environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s is barely mentioned in this exhibition despite all the grand plans involve improving automobile circulation in the city. While a lot of the race issues would remain the same in a similar exhibit of today’s cities, I’d expect a lot more LEED-certified or Cradle to Cradle ideas in the aspirational city plans.
*The other is Documerica which, while environmental, also feels like a slice of everyday like in the 1970s.
Another blind spot involves non-black ethnic groups in the cities. I understand why the exhibition is so black-focused but other non-white communities are also an important part of the New York, Chicago, and LA experience. I only noticed mentions of these other groups in a few photos by Jonas Dovydenas documenting ethnic enclaves in Chicago, Luis Medina’s photos of Latino gang members in the 1980s, and Asco’s Chicano activist work.
Of those, Asco caught my attention since they combined Latino traditions like mural painting with Chicano activism about how Latinos are mistreated in the city. Asco’s work, by being self-representational, also pointed out how little non-white self-representation was present in the rest of the exhibition.* As with the environmental stuff I’d expect a lot more self-representational work in a modern version of this exhibition.
I would also expect a lot more Asians—both traditional Asian communities under pressure to gentrification and the rich Asian gentrifiers who are displacing a lot of the old-time residents. But that’s for the modern show which also has to include the rush back to the city by booming businesses and young professionals alike.