The Seeing is Important; The Print is Not

The print, to [Cartier-Bresson] as to most European photo-journalists, is just a transition between the seeing and the publication. It is something to toss by the dozen into the laps of editors; it is nothing by itself…Developing and printing [Europeans] usually leave to a technician in a laboratory. Enlarging is routine, the technician following the photographer’s indications on the contact sheets. The image — the seeing — is important; the print is not, and to American eyes is execrable — not even half “realized.” The print to a European is only a proof; his image is not complete until reproduced where a million eyes can see it. If his intention then appears clear and forceful, he is content.

When a print is required for exhibition, Cartier-Bresson works directly with the technician, and works for a quality much like that of a good gravure. He chooses semi-matte paper, he enlarges to 11 x 14 or 16 x 20, and insists on tones like those of a wash or charcoal drawing.He wants his image sharp enough to be convincing, but the sharpness Americans find requisite seem to him a fetish, beyond and apart from what is necessary.

Nancy Newhall, “Controversy,” 1953. in Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years, pp. 129-130

I’m not going to make a big deal out of the World Press Photo of the Year thing, partly because it’s not all that interesting, but mostly because there’s a limit to how often even I enjoy pointing out the antique vintage of photography’s problem of the week. (Although yes, I did make a “90’s problem — more like 1890’s” joke when I first saw it circulating.)

I just want to point out the passage above, in which Nancy Newhall describes the characteristic European photojournalist’s attitude to prints in the 1950’s. The range of adjustments made or not made in printing a negative are in very much the same ballpark as the range of digital post-processing that is at issue in the Hansen photo.

Note the distinction between the image and its specific printed forms, which might differ significantly from one another. (And in the context of film, it goes without saying that none are the “true” or “original” or “unaltered” version of the photograph — when printing from a negative, there is no such thing.) Note also Newhall’s comparison to gravure, in relation to derogatory use of “illustration” in discussing “photoshopped” images. Note Newhall’s emphasis on mass reproduction. (And remember who the audience of news is supposed to be.)

I would also suggest comparing the Hansen image(s) (h/t Raw File) with the versions of a Bresson photo here and here (h/t @vossbrink. (Note: when I saw the Bresson exhibit at SFMOMA a while back, prints of the same negative with equal or greater degree of difference were on display at the same time. (More on that exhibit here and here, if you’re interested.))

It’s good to talk about photojournalistic ethics. But I think in the big list of ethical problems that journalism has to deal with, how photos are post-processed should be near the very bottom. Ultimately, it’s not really an ethical question at all — it’s an aesthetic question. And talking about aesthetic questions is good, but applying professional ethics-style thinking to them is maybe not so much. I think it tends to end in people conflating “tacky” with “false.”

“I’m trying to give human voice to people that most of society sees as monsters.”

It looks like, because of conviction and sentencing, the case of Joseph Hall is back in the headlines, and obviously it’s getting attached to an increasingly charged discussion about gun ownership and gun violence that’s ongoing in US politics.

It might be a good time to take a look back at Julie Platner’s coverage of the group in question. Here is a post at the NYT Lens blog which went up shortly after the killing. (We also have a post about Platner’s photography, although not about the Hall case particularly.)

Platner’s neo-Nazi photographs are something you should be looking at because they’re photographs of people, families, recognizable as such. That doesn’t make them less scary, but it makes them scary for more real reasons.

Sexual Assault Spree Caught on Camera: Or, “V-J Day in Times Square”

I’m always interested (and/or exasperated) when photographic questions come to my attention through non-photography-specific channels. In this case, a tweet from Annalee Newitz pointed me to a post at the blog Crates and Ribbons titled "The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture.’"

The post concerns the Eisenstaedt V-J day photo, which has been in the news lately because of a recent book offering evidence for George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman as the two subjects of the photo. (Quite a few people have been identified as the sailor and nurse over the years.)

The Crates and Ribbons post points out that the mainstream news coverage demonstrates (without recognizing) that the kiss in question might in contemporary terms be considered a sexual assault:

The articles even give us Greta’’s own words:

“It wasn’’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!”

“I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vice grip.”

“You don’t forget this guy grabbing you.”

“ That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”

It seems pretty clear, then, that what George had committed was sexual assault. Yet, in an amazing feat of willful blindness, none of the articles comment on this, even as they reproduce Greta’’s words for us. Without a single acknowledgement of the problematic nature of the photo that her comments reveal, they continue to talk about the picture in a whimsical, reverent manner, “still mesmerized by his timeless kiss.” George’’s actions are romanticized and glorified; it is almost as if Greta had never spoken.


For some additional context, I did a quick search, figuring that the wonderful Iconic Photos blog probably had a post about the V-J Day photo, and of course it does, including some contact sheetage

and quotation from Eisenstaedt:

I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I’d hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor’s dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.

So, if we define a nonconsensual kiss as a sexual assault, this photo is not a charming document of romantic celebration, but a visually striking slice out of a minor crime spree. (Also, note that Eisenstaedt is both observing the sailor’s kissing progress through the crowd but “hoping” and preparing for him to get to the unsuspecting nurse.)

Reactions to the Crates and Ribbons post are about what you’d think — some folks are disenchanted with the image, some dispute the use of the term “sexual assault”, some reject the idea of applying the term across generations, and of course some fall into the “feminism is dumb” camp. The comments thread is pretty interesting reading (both for good and bad reasons, depending on the comment), and I’d recommend perusing it, especially if you’re interested in splitting hairs over what is and isn’t sexual assault.

To phrase it in a less jargon-y way, the point is that what we’re looking it is not two people enthusiastically celebrating victory and the prospect of peace, but one person forcibly celebrating on another person. This is true if Friedman is in fact the woman in the photo; it is also true just going by Eisenstaedt’s account, regardless of who the woman was. And, as @Vossbrink points out, it is clear from inspection of the contact sheet: “The photo we know is the only one where it’s not obvious she’s fighting him.”


Friedman’s own interpretation of the photograph is very interesting. There’s a transcript of a 2005 interview with her at the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, which some of the commenters at Crates and Ribbons pointed to — it’s short and you should just read it, but I’ll excerpt some of the relevant bits. (Note: I cleaned up the formatting and fixed a couple of errors for the sake of readability.)

Patricia Redmond: When he grabbed you and gave you a kiss, what did you feel like?

Greta Friedman: I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss… it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of ‘thank god the war is over’ … it was right in front of the sign.

Patricia Redmond: Did he say anything to you when he kissed you?

Greta Friedman: No, it was an act of silence.

….

Patricia Redmond: What did you do the rest of the day, when you were off and celebrating?…

Greta Friedman: I went home!

Patricia Redmond: Did you think about “the kiss”…

Greta Friedman: Not until years later when I saw the picture.

….

Greta Friedman: …It wasn’t my choice to be kissed… (in 1945). The guy just came over and grabbed! (in 1980 for the reenactment of the kiss) I told him I didn’t want to redo that pose! We have the picture here, and it is kind of a reenactment of the pose and the sign on Time’s Square says, ‘It had to be you!’

….

Patricia Redmond: So Alfred Eisenstaedt has said that you two were indeed the kissing couple?

Greta Friedman: I don’t know if he really had such a great view of our faces. I think he was attracted more by the pose. It was a black and white shot, and as a photographer, he just knew that he had a good picture. It was an opportunity and that’s the job of a good photographer…to recognize a good opportunity.

Patricia Redmond: In the Frederick newspaper article, that told about the photograph and I quote: “It was an enduring symbol of the joy and relief felt by a nation at the end of the war.”

Greta Friedman: Right. Everyone was very happy; people on the street were friendly and smiled at each other. It was a day that everyone celebrated, because everybody had somebody in the war, and they were coming home. The women were happy, their boyfriends and husbands would come home. It was a wonderful gift finally, to end this war. It was a long war, and it cost a lot.

….

Patricia Redmond: How does it feel to be so famous?

Greta Friedman: It’s kind of fun, because it’s very accidental. Fame for just being there…being dressed right. Actually, the fame belongs to the photographer. He provided an art… I can’t call it a skill. He was an artist. I just happened to be there…and so did George.

….

Greta Friedman: …I think [George] was the one who made me famous, because he took the action. I was just the bystander. So, I think he deserves a lot of credit. Actually, by the photographer creating something that was very symbolic at the end of a bad period…it was a wonderful coincidence, a man in a sailor’s uniform and a woman in a white dress… and a great photographer at the right time.

I’m fascinated by how conscious and specific Friedman is in apportioning agency and intention between the parties involved, and differentiating between her experience of the kiss itself and the meaning and value of the photograph. It seems clear that her experience at that moment was sharply unpleasant but also fairly trivial and — until Friedman saw Eisenstaedt’s photograph and recognized herself — forgettable. It also seems clear that she values the symbolic worth of the photograph, which she treats as distinct from the circumstances of its creation and which she attributes entirely to happenstance plus Eisenstaedt’s ability to recognize an opportunity. (As opposed to the customary function of photographs for non-photographers — memorialization of a personally important experience.)

This is in contrast to the way Crates and Ribbons reads the photo — more or less as a transparent and instant window on the deed, the meaning of which is what matters and is under scrutiny. Eisenstaedt isn’t mentioned at all in the body of the post (although the photo is attributed and the post is tagged with his name), and there’s no speculation there about his intentions or actions before or after the photo. Just, “For so long, this photograph has come to represent that unbridled elation, capturing the hearts of war veterans and their families alike.”

And it is maybe worth thinking about how else the photographer could have proceeded, and with what results. Was Eisenstaedt aware of or concerned with the experience of the women of the sailor was grabbing? Is it reasonable (in that situation at that time) to expect that he should have been? Could he or his editors have selected a different frame from the sheet, or by framing, captioning, or other means should they have better indicated the nature of the scene? If so, would the result have been better photography? Would it have sold more or fewer magazines? And in a similar situation today, would or should a photographer be expected to do anything differently?

(Not to mention the question of what viewers can or should be expected to deduce, or suspect, or (hah) research when they view a photograph.)

The latest TIME cover has kicked up a bit of a response on twitter, and I am really enjoying it.

Here is the cover, Martin Schoeller’s portrait of Jamie Lynne Grumet and her son:

And here are some reactions:

Now, it’s pretty obvious what’s happening here. TIME is presenting a deliberately provocative photo, and people are being provoked. This is nothing new. But I’ve found the reactions — mostly dirty jokes, of course, along with a smattering of indignation — to be really refreshing.

Most of the time, lately, when people got excited about anything related to photography, it’s to do with things like digital manipulation, intellectual property, Instagram, etc. Many of these discussions fail the 1978 test. And even the ones that don’t are usually still really boring.

So, I just want to point out some things about a lot of the reactions I’m seeing to the TIME cover:

  • People are paying attention to what’s in a photo, not what tools were used to make it
  • People are making judgments about the content of an image, its concept, and the editorial process that led to its being put on newsstands
  • People are thinking about how a photo will differentially influence the later life of subjects in it
  • People are thinking about the moral agency of those responsible for creating and publishing a photo

Also, the jokes folks are making about this are way funnier than the jokes people make about Instagram. That’s a non-trivial win. One of the worst things about a boring controversy is enduring the boring jokes it engenders.

If you’re interested in the actual photo itself, TIME has a short post about it on its “Lightbox” blog. Not a ton of meat there, and it doesn’t come near addressing the decision to use such a bait-y image. The best part is that it includes this photo of reference images used in planning the shoot:

I am particularly fond of the middle image in the lower row. I would love to know how these images were gathered, and to what criteria, but, sadly, that is also not covered in the post.

Portraits of Force

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or, the Poem of Force.”

It’s an essay on the role of force (i.e., coercive violence) in the Iliad — but Weil wrote it in 1939, so she wasn’t just writing about the Iliad. In the essay, she describes the centrality of coercion (in the form of violence, destruction, and enslavement) both to that story and to a recurring historical predicament of human beings in time of war: that the dead and the subjugated exist as things, deprived of the status and condition of human persons.

She wrote:

To define force — it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all.

and later:

From the power to transform him into a thing by killing him there proceeds another power, and much more prodigious, that which makes a thing of him while he still lives. He is living, he has a soul, yet he is a thing.

These passages are often on my mind, because I think they have a lot of relevance for contemporary culture, both literally and figuratively. I think they are disturbingly relevant to reality television, for example. (Reality television is a forum for people who wish to reduce themselves to things as a spectacle for the audience.)

But what I’ve been thinking about lately is the relevance of Weil’s observations to photography in particular — and more specifically, to portraiture, which is the genre of photography most intimately connected to the human person. I wonder: is the portraitist’s camera a case of an “x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing”?

Of course, literally speaking, that is the camera’s very purpose. You point the device at a person, activate it, and receive a thing (the photograph) in return. But does that process, the technical ritual of camera operation, doom the portrait to acting as an objectifying force, each release of the shutter a minor recapitulation of violence? Does it always and necessarily do so, or only sometimes? And can it serve an opposite function?

I don’t have a systematic answer to these questions, but a few examples have occurred to me. I’m not presenting these as a typology, or even a part of one, just engaging in a little free association:

Gardner’s "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter" is a photograph of a corpse, of a person who has been made into a thing. So, war had already done as much to him as it could, hadn’t it? Or perhaps it had not. The photograph is now generally understood to have been staged — a common practice at the time. If a scene was not sufficiently dramatic, did not tell enough of a story, did not tell the right story, then the scene, including the corpse, could be adjusted as necessary. (Of course, this sort of technique was more often applied to the bodies of those on the other side of a given conflict than to those on ones own.)

The corpse is simply a prop — a significant prop, perhaps, but one as malleable and manipulable as any other. In other words, this is a photograph which not only records the result of violence as content, but which is made in a fashion predicated upon violence and benefiting from it. (Which is so even if the photograph also has the intended or unintended result of eliciting sympathy for the dead.) While the practice of moving bodies around is no longer so prominent in the war photographer’s toolkit, I do not think you would have to look far to find related strategies in use throughout the history of photojournalism, up to today.

In some cases, the process of making or displaying a photograph can in itself be intrinsically and literally harmful or detrimental. An obvious, perfect case would be Marc Garanger’s “Femme Algerienne” photographs — ID photographs made during the Algerian War, for which women were forced to sit with their faces uncovered.

In this case, the camera is being employed as a tool of war, and photography is an application of force against a people, as well as a process producing documents that are records and emblems of subjugation.

These same photographs have acquired new meanings and uses since then, being pressed into service as documentation of the brutality of the regime which required them to be made. They are also displayed as fine art, which I find more than a little creepy, because both their intellectual significance and their very real beauty are still owed directly to the violation that created them.

I’m not sure whether Tyler Shields’s "Bruised Barbie" photographs of Heather Morris are only superficially relevant to this post, or whether they are hyper-relevant to it. No one was harmed in their creation, and they have no direct connection to any specific violent event or deed. But still, there is something about them which prevents me from partitioning them off in the way I might other works of entertainment or art which happened to include some fictionalization of violence.

They depict a woman taking on the role of a plastic doll (i.e., turning herself into a thing), while also depicting a weirdly light, playful, inconsequential idea of violence and subjugation.

Whether that depiction is in itself actually harmful is an interesting question. The kneejerk, commonsense reaction to these photos is that they glamorize domestic violence. I don’t really get that, because I don’t see any actual glamor in the photographs.

But as portraits — as photographs of a person — I find them baffling and off-putting. They are technically photographs of a person, but what I see in them is not a person — not even a person pretending to be a plastic toy. What I see in them is, “nobody is here at all.”

Fazal Sheikh’s portraiture is also hyper-relevant to this post, although in a different way. It seems to be more or less a direct response to the sort of effects of violence that Weil describes. Eduardo Cadava’s essay on Sheikh explains it this way:

In presenting us the traces of violence, deprivation, oppression, and effacement in relation to which his subjects exist — in relation to which they live and die, and even live as if they already were dead — Sheikh’s photographs seek to bestow a kind of life and dignity on these men, women, and children, to attest to the necessity and responsibility of producing photographs that might facilitate this life and dignity, that may even speak and be heard. (p. 9)

In describing this (possible) function of photography, Cadava emphasizes the importance of context — of the way the portrait, and especially the photographic series, can document and/or connote relationship between the subject and their environment.

Each portrait, in other words, opens onto a world: it tells us that, if we wish to see this or that refugee, to understand his or her plight, we can only begin to “see” him or her by understanding his or her relation to an entire network of intensely mediated relations. We could even say that photography names the process whereby something stops being what it “is” in order to transform itself into “something else.” This transformation therefore implies a kind of death — since what existed before the transformation is no longer present — and it is no accident that Sheikh intersperses, among his images of Somali refugees, a series of photographs of graves…each of which could be said to be a “portrait,” but a portrait that tells us what is true of all portraits: a portrait is always less “the immortalization of a person than the presentation of (immortal) death in (a) person.” (pp. 20-21)

I find this interesting because it returns me to another passage in Weil’s essay:

But for those upon whom it has fallen, so brutal a destiny wipes out damnations, revolts, comparisons, meditations upon the future and the past, almost memory itself. It does not belong to the slave to be faithful to his city or to his dead.

Weil identifies this decontextualizing capacity of violence as central to the experience of the subjugated victim. The dead are not only taken away, but in a sense erased. And while a photographic record has no power to resuscitate the dead, perhaps it has (or may have) the power to frustrate this kind of erasure.

In other words, the photograph cannot remove or reverse death, it cannot add life — but it can act as a sort of “death plus,” contributing an additional virtual death that happens to confer a kind of immortality. Cadava indicates that this function is connected to the subject’s community — so perhaps the measure of the worth of a photograph in relation to violence is the extent to which it enables the viewer to place the results/evidence of that violence into context, to perceive it as it relates the subject to other people and to the subject’s past and place.

Of course, enabling the viewer to relate to the subject historically and in context does not necessarily differentiate Sheikh’s portraits from Gardner’s rebel sharpshooter. After all, what we may believe Sheikh achieves in enabling subjects to “speak and be heard,” cannot always be differentiated from what enables another sort of photographer to use the subject to lie.

"The annual banquet. Los Angeles. April 17, 2010," by Julie Platner. Via nytimes.com.

I started following the Lens blog at nytimes.com after it was suggested in the comments on my post about literary vs. unliterary photography. Most of the stories I’ve encountered at Lens since then have been fairly uninteresting — a mix of straight photojournalism and fluff.

I’m not sure yet whether this piece about photographer Julie Platner’s work documenting white supremacists — the death of one of her subjects being the occasion of the post — is really any better than all those other posts. It’s basically a hash combining news coverage of the event with bits of Platner’s resume. But the subject matter is certainly compelling.

Hate groups are a fascinating subject. To someone like me — a person of mixed race, raised in diverse urban areas — they have a distinctly fantastic quality to them. They are a sort of boogeyman or storybook monster. They are scary and loathsome, but it is hard to escape the emotional certainty that they belong to a different time or a different world, or both.

This is not to say that I am unfamiliar with hate and bigotry, or that I do not understand their reality — just that I am accustomed to encountering them in different forms. I am used to seeing overt, hard-core racism go consistently (if sometimes thinly) veiled, except among the deranged and the drunk. The idea of it organizing, holding bake sales, and attending conventions is bizarre and strongly counterintuitive. The outfits don’t help, either; I can’t resist the urge to read them as cosplay.

Is that wrong? I am not sure. On the one hand, it would be a clear error not to consider these people (especially the cosplayers) foolish; on the other hand, it would be a mistake to take lightly the capacity of fools to do evil. And the question for our purposes is not only whether or not we are to take these people seriously, but also whether or not a photojournalist documenting them has a responsibility to guide us in our perception of them, and, if so, what that responsibility entails.

The Times writers seem to be confused about this as well. They seem to weave back and forth between humanizing and demonizing them. The humanizing elements seem to arise partly from journalistic habits, and partly from bemusement or novelty — as though the fact that these are people with feelings and families was somehow the real news.

Platner’s photographs are similarly ambivalent, although they are more interesting and perhaps more nuanced. Instead of humanizing and demonizing, I would say that they militarize and domesticate — roughly half of them record what is obviously aspiring to be a paramilitary organization, and the other half record families and communities going about a superficially normal (if regalia-heavy) pageant of civic life.

Many of the photographs — especially those in the second category — are surprisingly funny, putting me in mind of @vossbrink’s suggestion/speculation that “photography’s natural state is of mocking its subjects.” In this case, the question is how these photographs mock, and what that mocking means. Humor can serve many different functions in relationship to its objects. It can deprive horrible things of some of their power, for example. It can reveal uncomfortable truths and make it easier for us to face them. It can simply take the edge off of our anger or fear.

I don’t know that Platner’s photographs do any of those things. They put me in mind more of Martin Parr or Lars Tunbjork. Except that those photographers hold up a teasing or satirical mirror to normally unquestioned mainstream lives, whereas Platner is applying a similar playful, teasing aesthetic to angry, potentially violent people whom the mainstream already refuses to take seriously. It seems peculiarly out of place — except in the photographs that include children and young people, where the light-heartedness of the depictions underscores the ugly, heavy, bitter fact that childhoods are being warped in service of adult hatreds.

It’s interesting to compare Platner’s photographs to Bruce Gilden’s series for Newsweek last year. Both projects refer to two key factors in the contemporary relevance of white supremacist groups: the poor economy and the election of Barack Obama. The photographs are also similar in content, depicting substantially the same sorts of people in the same sorts of situation — except that Gilden’s does not cover the more militant situations that Platner does. There is even some overlap in the kind of humor they use.

What differentiates Gilden’s photographs are their black and white rendition, their close perspective, and their systematic framing of people as subjects, where Platner depicts scenes and situations. The resulting difference in overall tone is surprisingly significant — at least, I feel very different when I look at them. Gilden’s photos imply personal judgment to me, partly his judgment of the people he depicts, and partly an invitation to make my own judgments about them. Where they are funny, Gilden’s photos seem to me to imply a laughter that diminishes. Looking at them, I feel much larger, and I feel the supremacists to be smaller.

If this were almost any other subject matter, I would present those observations as clear evidence that Gilden’s approach is problematic compared to Platner’s. In this case, I am honestly unsure.

"The annual banquet. Los Angeles. April 17, 2010," by Julie Platner. Via nytimes.com.

I started following the Lens blog at nytimes.com after it was suggested in the comments on my post about literary vs. unliterary photography. Most of the stories I’ve encountered at Lens since then have been fairly uninteresting — a mix of straight photojournalism and fluff.

I’m not sure yet whether this piece about photographer Julie Platner’s work documenting white supremacists — the death of one of her subjects being the occasion of the post — is really any better than all those other posts. It’s basically a hash combining news coverage of the event with bits of Platner’s resume. But the subject matter is certainly compelling.

Hate groups are a fascinating subject. To someone like me — a person of mixed race, raised in diverse urban areas — they have a distinctly fantastic quality to them. They are a sort of boogeyman or storybook monster. They are scary and loathsome, but it is hard to escape the emotional certainty that they belong to a different time or a different world, or both.

This is not to say that I am unfamiliar with hate and bigotry, or that I do not understand their reality — just that I am accustomed to encountering them in different forms. I am used to seeing overt, hard-core racism go consistently (if sometimes thinly) veiled, except among the deranged and the drunk. The idea of it organizing, holding bake sales, and attending conventions is bizarre and strongly counterintuitive. The outfits don’t help, either; I can’t resist the urge to read them as cosplay.

Is that wrong? I am not sure. On the one hand, it would be a clear error not to consider these people (especially the cosplayers) foolish; on the other hand, it would be a mistake to take lightly the capacity of fools to do evil. And the question for our purposes is not only whether or not we are to take these people seriously, but also whether or not a photojournalist documenting them has a responsibility to guide us in our perception of them, and, if so, what that responsibility entails.

The Times writers seem to be confused about this as well. They seem to weave back and forth between humanizing and demonizing them. The humanizing elements seem to arise partly from journalistic habits, and partly from bemusement or novelty — as though the fact that these are people with feelings and families was somehow the real news.

Platner’s photographs are similarly ambivalent, although they are more interesting and perhaps more nuanced. Instead of humanizing and demonizing, I would say that they militarize and domesticate — roughly half of them record what is obviously aspiring to be a paramilitary organization, and the other half record families and communities going about a superficially normal (if regalia-heavy) pageant of civic life.

Many of the photographs — especially those in the second category — are surprisingly funny, putting me in mind of @vossbrink’s suggestion/speculation that “photography’s natural state is of mocking its subjects.” In this case, the question is how these photographs mock, and what that mocking means. Humor can serve many different functions in relationship to its objects. It can deprive horrible things of some of their power, for example. It can reveal uncomfortable truths and make it easier for us to face them. It can simply take the edge off of our anger or fear.

I don’t know that Platner’s photographs do any of those things. They put me in mind more of Martin Parr or Lars Tunbjork. Except that those photographers hold up a teasing or satirical mirror to normally unquestioned mainstream lives, whereas Platner is applying a similar playful, teasing aesthetic to angry, potentially violent people whom the mainstream already refuses to take seriously. It seems peculiarly out of place — except in the photographs that include children and young people, where the light-heartedness of the depictions underscores the ugly, heavy, bitter fact that childhoods are being warped in service of adult hatreds.

It’s interesting to compare Platner’s photographs to Bruce Gilden’s series for Newsweek last year. Both projects refer to two key factors in the contemporary relevance of white supremacist groups: the poor economy and the election of Barack Obama. The photographs are also similar in content, depicting substantially the same sorts of people in the same sorts of situation — except that Gilden’s does not cover the more militant situations that Platner does. There is even some overlap in the kind of humor they use.

What differentiates Gilden’s photographs are their black and white rendition, their close perspective, and their systematic framing of people as subjects, where Platner depicts scenes and situations. The resulting difference in overall tone is surprisingly significant — at least, I feel very different when I look at them. Gilden’s photos imply personal judgment to me, partly his judgment of the people he depicts, and partly an invitation to make my own judgments about them. Where they are funny, Gilden’s photos seem to me to imply a laughter that diminishes. Looking at them, I feel much larger, and I feel the supremacists to be smaller.

If this were almost any other subject matter, I would present those observations as clear evidence that Gilden’s approach is problematic compared to Platner’s. In this case, I am honestly unsure.

Accident at Michigan Central R.R. depot, Detroit. Detroit Publishing Company. Via Shorpy.

I wanted to post this image when I first saw it in early March. It’s a very compelling photograph — not just because of its newsworthy subject matter, but because of its strong composition (albeit somewhat cockeyed — I’m not sure whether this detracts or adds, given the subject) and unusually effective use of motion blur, set off by the two unblurred figures — the man in the derby hat who appears to be overseeing things, and the man ahead and to the right of him standing behind his wheelbarrow.

I faltered, though, when I tried to describe what was happening in the photograph, because I realized I couldn’t quite tell how the photograph was made. My eye’s first unthinking interpretation of the scene is that everyone was busy and active except the man in the derby — which was likely the case, but does not explain the photograph. (Also, this initial assumption may be partly to do with the photographer’s intentions or may be mostly chance on his end, but it certainly has something to do with my particular class awareness.)

However, on further inspection, I’m fairly sure that something else is at work. Maybe use of flash (powder? bulb? don’t know offhand which would be in common use at the time), although if so, I couldn’t possibly draw the lighting diagram for this scene. (Maybe someone more technically competent in such matters could, though.)

So I shelved the post on this photograph, because I thought I shouldn’t show you guys something if I couldn’t tell you what was happening in it. Lately, though, it occurred to me how silly that is. It’s a fantastic photograph, and just because I can’t say exactly what’s going on it, that doesn’t mean I can’t still see it’s fantastic and point that out to others.

Accident at Michigan Central R.R. depot, Detroit. Detroit Publishing Company. Via Shorpy.

I wanted to post this image when I first saw it in early March. It’s a very compelling photograph — not just because of its newsworthy subject matter, but because of its strong composition (albeit somewhat cockeyed — I’m not sure whether this detracts or adds, given the subject) and unusually effective use of motion blur, set off by the two unblurred figures — the man in the derby hat who appears to be overseeing things, and the man ahead and to the right of him standing behind his wheelbarrow.

I faltered, though, when I tried to describe what was happening in the photograph, because I realized I couldn’t quite tell how the photograph was made. My eye’s first unthinking interpretation of the scene is that everyone was busy and active except the man in the derby — which was likely the case, but does not explain the photograph. (Also, this initial assumption may be partly to do with the photographer’s intentions or may be mostly chance on his end, but it certainly has something to do with my particular class awareness.)

However, on further inspection, I’m fairly sure that something else is at work. Maybe use of flash (powder? bulb? don’t know offhand which would be in common use at the time), although if so, I couldn’t possibly draw the lighting diagram for this scene. (Maybe someone more technically competent in such matters could, though.)

So I shelved the post on this photograph, because I thought I shouldn’t show you guys something if I couldn’t tell you what was happening in it. Lately, though, it occurred to me how silly that is. It’s a fantastic photograph, and just because I can’t say exactly what’s going on it, that doesn’t mean I can’t still see it’s fantastic and point that out to others.

Photo by Ali Ali/EPA. Via No Caption Needed.

I really enjoy No Caption Needed, both as a source of remarkable images and as a source of useful perspective on those images — the latter quality being by far the more scarce in the blogosphere.

However, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this passage from a recent blog post about the photograph above:


  The above image is of a group of “young supporters of the Islamic Jihad movement,” marching at a rally in Gaza City to show “solidarity with the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.” The toy guns and uniforms are clearly pronounced and thus underscore the potential militancy of the image, but they are not the key signifiers of the shift from romance to tragedy.  To take the full measure of force of the symbolic transformation you have to look at their facial expressions, and more specifically their eyes, which teeter between being altogether vacant and deadly serious, and in either case are wholly dissociated from our expectations of an otherwise idealized world of youthful innocence.
  
  What clearly marks this and other such photographs from the Middle East is their sheer otherness.  These simply could not be “our” children for they lack any and all sense of the purity or carefree joy of childhood that presumes to define the western world.  Their experience is not ours.  The conclusion is wrong, or perhaps more accurately, wrong headed, but what is important to  remember is that the idealized, romantic mythos of the relationship between worldly experience and youthful innocence is every bit as much a fiction as its tragic transformation, and that indeed, the former is ever at risk of morphing into the other.


I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say this is incorrect — particularly the conclusion, “the idealized, romantic mythos of the relationship between worldly experience and youthful innocence is every bit as much a fiction…,” etc. Of course, anything we can recognize as an idealized, romantic mythos is pretty obviously a fiction, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pointing out — particularly in the case of childhood, since the idea of childhood has such a long and storied history of intellectual misuse.

However, I was a bit thrown by the starting premises. These children don’t seem so terribly other to me. In fact, brown kids toting toy guns looking forward to a pretty grim future is a lot more familiar to me than white girls selling lemonade or funeral-going Kennedys.

Of course, I suppose that’s just a way of saying that from the standpoint of the story of race and class in America, I’m part of the other — but that’s different from the “other” in the dichotomy of the Western world and the Muslim world. I’m aware that there is an idealized notion of childhood which mostly pertains to the affluent and comfortable, but it’s not really something I’ve ever shared in, so it’s hard for me to follow the path taken by No Caption Needed in its post. The post lays out a particular way in which a viewer may react to the photograph which is conditioned on an initial reaction to the otherness of these children, whereas for me (and I would imagine for a lot of people) my reaction as a viewer begins with their very familiarity.

I don’t see a fundamental difference between the gaze of these children and the gaze of children I’ve known. I don’t see either vacant or deadly serious expressions as being unusual on a child’s face; on the contrary, those are two of the most common facial expressions a child can have — because children tend to oscillate between conditions of boredom, entertainment/enjoyment, and total fixation on fulfilling their needs. (Whether those be physical, emotional, or strictly whimsical.)

In the case of these kids, the sense I get of them is not that of child soldiers or budding terrorists, but of kids who are a little nervous, a little serious and dutiful, and more than a little bored. They look like kids who have semi-willingly taken up roles in a school or church play — the one in front with his game face on, the ones behind looking offstage for reassurance or for a cue, or simply being distracted by someone because their minds aren’t entirely on the task at hand.

What I come away with after looking at this for a while is really nothing to do with ideas of childhood as such, but rather with something more akin to the notion of the banality of evil — not to say that what these children are doing is evil, but that struggles which are about ultimate values (such as good and evil, virtue and vice, freedom and tyranny) are not played out only or even primarily on battlefields or in courtrooms or in polling places, but also in the most utterly mundane and even tedious activities.

Of course, I do not mean to say that because my initial reaction is different, it is any less based upon a fiction. (And certainly an instinct to place members of a different cultural group in familiar categories is no less suspect than separating them as other, from an intellectual standpoint.) It’s just rather striking to me because I’ve not had this dissonance in the past relative to the “we” of No Caption Needed and its readers.

Photo by Ali Ali/EPA. Via No Caption Needed.

I really enjoy No Caption Needed, both as a source of remarkable images and as a source of useful perspective on those images — the latter quality being by far the more scarce in the blogosphere.

However, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this passage from a recent blog post about the photograph above:

The above image is of a group of “young supporters of the Islamic Jihad movement,” marching at a rally in Gaza City to show “solidarity with the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.” The toy guns and uniforms are clearly pronounced and thus underscore the potential militancy of the image, but they are not the key signifiers of the shift from romance to tragedy. To take the full measure of force of the symbolic transformation you have to look at their facial expressions, and more specifically their eyes, which teeter between being altogether vacant and deadly serious, and in either case are wholly dissociated from our expectations of an otherwise idealized world of youthful innocence.

What clearly marks this and other such photographs from the Middle East is their sheer otherness. These simply could not be “our” children for they lack any and all sense of the purity or carefree joy of childhood that presumes to define the western world. Their experience is not ours. The conclusion is wrong, or perhaps more accurately, wrong headed, but what is important to remember is that the idealized, romantic mythos of the relationship between worldly experience and youthful innocence is every bit as much a fiction as its tragic transformation, and that indeed, the former is ever at risk of morphing into the other.

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say this is incorrect — particularly the conclusion, “the idealized, romantic mythos of the relationship between worldly experience and youthful innocence is every bit as much a fiction…,” etc. Of course, anything we can recognize as an idealized, romantic mythos is pretty obviously a fiction, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pointing out — particularly in the case of childhood, since the idea of childhood has such a long and storied history of intellectual misuse.

However, I was a bit thrown by the starting premises. These children don’t seem so terribly other to me. In fact, brown kids toting toy guns looking forward to a pretty grim future is a lot more familiar to me than white girls selling lemonade or funeral-going Kennedys.

Of course, I suppose that’s just a way of saying that from the standpoint of the story of race and class in America, I’m part of the other — but that’s different from the “other” in the dichotomy of the Western world and the Muslim world. I’m aware that there is an idealized notion of childhood which mostly pertains to the affluent and comfortable, but it’s not really something I’ve ever shared in, so it’s hard for me to follow the path taken by No Caption Needed in its post. The post lays out a particular way in which a viewer may react to the photograph which is conditioned on an initial reaction to the otherness of these children, whereas for me (and I would imagine for a lot of people) my reaction as a viewer begins with their very familiarity.

I don’t see a fundamental difference between the gaze of these children and the gaze of children I’ve known. I don’t see either vacant or deadly serious expressions as being unusual on a child’s face; on the contrary, those are two of the most common facial expressions a child can have — because children tend to oscillate between conditions of boredom, entertainment/enjoyment, and total fixation on fulfilling their needs. (Whether those be physical, emotional, or strictly whimsical.)

In the case of these kids, the sense I get of them is not that of child soldiers or budding terrorists, but of kids who are a little nervous, a little serious and dutiful, and more than a little bored. They look like kids who have semi-willingly taken up roles in a school or church play — the one in front with his game face on, the ones behind looking offstage for reassurance or for a cue, or simply being distracted by someone because their minds aren’t entirely on the task at hand.

What I come away with after looking at this for a while is really nothing to do with ideas of childhood as such, but rather with something more akin to the notion of the banality of evil — not to say that what these children are doing is evil, but that struggles which are about ultimate values (such as good and evil, virtue and vice, freedom and tyranny) are not played out only or even primarily on battlefields or in courtrooms or in polling places, but also in the most utterly mundane and even tedious activities.

Of course, I do not mean to say that because my initial reaction is different, it is any less based upon a fiction. (And certainly an instinct to place members of a different cultural group in familiar categories is no less suspect than separating them as other, from an intellectual standpoint.) It’s just rather striking to me because I’ve not had this dissonance in the past relative to the “we” of No Caption Needed and its readers.

by David Guttenfelder. Via NO CAPTION NEEDED.


  For the record, they are sleeping, not dead. The photo is gruesome, nonetheless, as it reminds us that there is little difference between a foxhole and a grave. The long, shallow holes in the earth are too close to the shape and size of a coffin; the soldiers’ bodies are bent as though broken or stiff with rigor mortis, and they are wrapped in sheets that look all too much like shrouds. The bare face and feet of the figure in the center add to the sense of vulnerability the suffuses the scene, while the covering over the face of the one on the left implies death’s finality.


No Caption Needed shows us another excellent photograph of war — excellent because it does not rely on the act, or the threat, or the consequences of violent action for its power over the viewer. Its power comes, as No Caption Needed points out, from its depiction of vulnerability, and the profound sense of place and situation it establishes, and from its all-too-relevant and obvious metaphorical value.

by David Guttenfelder. Via NO CAPTION NEEDED.

For the record, they are sleeping, not dead. The photo is gruesome, nonetheless, as it reminds us that there is little difference between a foxhole and a grave. The long, shallow holes in the earth are too close to the shape and size of a coffin; the soldiers’ bodies are bent as though broken or stiff with rigor mortis, and they are wrapped in sheets that look all too much like shrouds. The bare face and feet of the figure in the center add to the sense of vulnerability the suffuses the scene, while the covering over the face of the one on the left implies death’s finality.

No Caption Needed shows us another excellent photograph of war — excellent because it does not rely on the act, or the threat, or the consequences of violent action for its power over the viewer. Its power comes, as No Caption Needed points out, from its depiction of vulnerability, and the profound sense of place and situation it establishes, and from its all-too-relevant and obvious metaphorical value.

by Dan Chung, via No Caption Needed.


  A British soldier is reflected in a pool of oil near Basra, Iraq.  Because the individual soldier’s face is lost in shadow while his body is fused visually with the oil, the image seems made for allegorical reading.  It was all about the oil, right?  (If only that were true, for then the costs of extraction might have been considerably lower.)  Political meaning certainly is embedded in the photograph, but there is much more there as well.


In reference to another photograph (one of the prints in Publication), I recently said that I thought that reflection play in itself is not enough to carry a photograph. There must be something more.

This is a strong example of a photograph in which play with reflection is not merely a sophomoric self-indulgence.  The reflection here imparts an eerie beauty, along with a dreamlike quality which is hard to reconcile with the hard reality of the soldier’s gun and the harsh light on the ground outside the pool.

by Dan Chung, via No Caption Needed.

A British soldier is reflected in a pool of oil near Basra, Iraq. Because the individual soldier’s face is lost in shadow while his body is fused visually with the oil, the image seems made for allegorical reading. It was all about the oil, right? (If only that were true, for then the costs of extraction might have been considerably lower.) Political meaning certainly is embedded in the photograph, but there is much more there as well.

In reference to another photograph (one of the prints in Publication), I recently said that I thought that reflection play in itself is not enough to carry a photograph. There must be something more.

This is a strong example of a photograph in which play with reflection is not merely a sophomoric self-indulgence. The reflection here imparts an eerie beauty, along with a dreamlike quality which is hard to reconcile with the hard reality of the soldier’s gun and the harsh light on the ground outside the pool.