“Performing Civic Identity” Response: Wow, Images Sure Can Be Loaded With Meaning

This reading wound up taking me a factor of two longer than expected—I spent a lot of time not reading, simply processing, since it was my first encounter with explicit articulations of many of the points it contained. Here are some of my first-pass thoughts, since I’m hoping to read this piece more closely and reflect more:

The meaning of an image is:

  • inseparable from who generated the image, and in what context
  • inseparable from who is currently using the image, and for what end
  • inseparable from who has used the image before, and for what end

(Also, is there ever ‘meaning’ to an image in the absolute, or is there only ever ‘the viewer’s interpretation’?)

Moreover, what strikes me as a little bit unnerving is that what is actually inside a picture—the composition, etc.—is essentially an arbitrary (albeit curated-by-the-photographer) sum of whatever stochastic processes generate the spatial layout of real life. And these stochastic processes in and of themselves are completely devoid of a higher meaning, but when included in an image, they suddenly become viewed as part of the ‘narrative’ of the picture. For example, the Iwo Jima photograph is “brushed with touches of the natural sublime…even the wind is blowing in the right direction. This fusion of nature and culture in a heroic uplifting gives the image a sense of destiny.” Wind direction does not encode any deep truths about American ideologies, but when included just-so in a photograph, it dramatically alters what the photograph ‘is saying.’

Why is that? Where do these innate, never-explicitly-learned-but-somehow-common-to-most-humans interpretations of visual stimuli come from? Why are ‘good guys’ dressed in white and constantly bathed in sunlight, in contrast to ‘evil’ figures that wear black and tow thunderstorms along with them everywhere they go? (I’m thinking back on some particularly visual-trope-heavy movies I’ve seen.) At least some of these associations make a kind of evolutionary sense: humans are generally afraid of the dark, and if you want to visually communicate that there’s a villainous character in a scene, you may as well visually associate them with things that humans are also unnerved by. However, what gets to me about this is that these visual associations are not inherently meaningful—they’re contrived by the image-maker to produce an emotional response in the viewer.

It seems, then, that there’s potential for significant danger in forgetting the mostly-contrived nature of visual communication. Villains in real life aren’t guaranteed to come covered in warts or have crooked noses. Likewise, capturing a political leader lit by the sun, standing physically above a crowd of onlookers in shadow, doesn’t actually indicate any legitimacy on their part. It’s important to keep a distinction between “what the image is saying” and “whether or not it’s true.”

On photography, multivocality and materiality

In Performing Civic Identity, John Lucaites and Robert Hariman explore the multiple cultural unfoldings of Raising the Flag on Mount Subirachi, a picture taken by the photojournalist Joe Rosenthal during the battle of Iwo Jima. Through the discussion of the multiple attempts of multifarious constituencies to claim a semantic grip over this picture –whose power, Lucaites and Hariman comment, stems from the way in which its subject matter, composition and characters related to a notion of “republicanism” in the United States. Amongst several features that Lucaites and Hariman see resonating with this regimen of political experience, they include the “working-class” character of the soldiers as a metaphor for hard work and team coordination praised in the U.S. Lucaites and Hariman survey then the enormous multivocality that the picture has taken with time, but rather than seeing these bifurcations as inimical or the signifying capacity of the image, Lucaites and Hariman insist that this multiplicity of meanings is predicated in, rather than in opposition to, the seminal meaning of this image. As a result, Raising the Flag on Mount Sinai becomes strengthened, rather than dissolved, by its intense cultural use.

 

Lucaites and Hariman’s argumentation indeed point out to the power that an image has may be more related to its capacity to create a net of multiple meanings than to its skill in securing a unitary reading of it. But at this point, however, it would be worthwhile to connect this discussion to issues related to the materiality and the scale oof the image. Rather than circulating Raising the Flag on Mountain Subirachi in its original scale, the enormous majority of the reproductions, remixes and manipulations of this photographs have been conducted at a much larger scale. As a result, the familiariy of Raising the Flag as an image comes at the expense of an acquaintance with it as an object. –indeed, the small scale prints o the film might become quite underwhelming to the vast audience of this iconic picture, and might be able to generate an uncanny reversion of auratic quality between the original and its iterations: perhaps it is to the zoomed, large images of this image that the public might be able to come back, as opposed to the smaller-than life size of its original iteration.

 

Can copies of icosn become more legitimate artistic products than its material genesis? What is the relationship between digital and objectual in photography –not only in relation to inmaterial images, but with the relationship between the film and its prints. Is photography in the film, the original print, or its ever-circulating pixels?

 

The Power of Icons

Harriman and Lucaites discuss the iconic status of the photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, and in the process, shed light on the more abstract role of the icon in American culture. Their insight is perhaps more relevant than we’d hope it to still be, given the increasing divisions between subcultures in our country. But their strong arguments about an icon’s function and methods thereof provide a template for the creation of new icons, particularly photos, that can help provide a common language for each of the subcultures in the archipelago that is America’s modern culture.

This is the photo:

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Some viewed it “as a beautiful monument to democratic sacrifice and ‘national unity of purpose’.” Others, later, viewed it “as a model for unreflective respect for authority, habitual conformity, and other excessively majoritarian and exclusionary attitudes.” The authors use these conflicting views of the same iconic image to argue that some of its power derives from its ability to “mediate the experience of citizenship across the political spectrum.” The picture itself has noted aesthetic qualities, but more importantly, it is both specific enough (to the event it depicts) and abstract enough (the subjects are anonymous, the landscape is undistinguished) to be adopted as a symbolic representation of different, even conflicting, beliefs.

The authors further point out that after its establishment as a trope, the image is in a sense modular — the soldiers can be replaced, as can the flagpole, the flag, even the setting — to allow perturbations that further a different message while still relying on the visual power and nearly-universal recognition of the original image. They summarize:

The appropriations of the Iwo Jima icon reveal that it provides a means for reaffirming, contesting, and negotiating individual attitudes toward collective experience. These attitudes range from piety to cynicism, and they may well be one of the fundamental dimensions of public life.”

I could say more about the photo itself and its particular reception, use, and re-use in American culture, but much more interesting is the authors’ subsequent discussion of this image as an icon in general. They point out that unlike most images, the icon “can encompass the full range of public address and response.” And indeed, they make a strong case for this image’s status as “iconic.”

As noted above, it is important that an icon be able to be used for different purposes, by different subcultures, in different contexts. And by doing so, the icon establishes a link among these subcultures. They are linked by the visual language of the icon; it is a sort of common symbol used in each of their different languages, and can be recognized even when it represents a different, even opposing, Burkean attitude. Perfectly summarized here:

[…] the iconic image is being used frequently to express all of these attitudes. Thus, there is good reason to claim that it is not always relaying the same meaning, yet it is a common resource for constituting and negotiating public culture.”

Today’s America is largely divided, but not just between left and right. That may be the largest cut, but there are others inside of, outside, of and intersecting it. We applaud an “intersectional” approach to understanding issues but have little ability to deal with the complexities involved. For instance, read Gina Crossley-Corcoran’s breakdown of explaining white privilege to a a broke white person. Colliding stereotypes make it difficult to reason about group cultures, attitudes, and behaviors. Many groups, faced with the difficulty of understanding the “other”, have given up entirely. See the breakdown of communication between traditionally democratic voters and their party, which led traditionally democratic communities to vote largely for Trump. Or the liberal’s continued inability to empathize, let alone listen, to a conservative’s reasons for voting for him.

Communication seems to have broken down entirely. It’s not a matter of arguing with those whose beliefs we disagree with; recommendation algorithms give us what we ask them to, which is a torrent of think-pieces, updates, and blog posts that already agree with our world view. When we do interact with those of a different subculture, it’s become difficult to find a shared language. Enter the icon, particularly the iconic image, which

[…] can foster social connectedness, political identity, and cultural continuity not because it has a fixed meaning apprehended by all spectators, but because it seems to provide that meaning while allowing more situated identification that includes artistic reworking on behalf of a wide range of attitudes”

So how do we create them? The authors argue that to be an icon, “the image has to retain a sense of autonomy from either popular taste or elite interests,” and that sense of autonomy seems to come “in part from the aesthetic quality and cultural richness of the image.” The image must represent broad ideals that can be lauded by all groups. The Iwo Jima photograph, as an example, represents egalitarianism, nationalism, and civic republicanism. And that’s exactly why it no longer has the power it once did: conservatives have rejected egalitarianism for fatalism, the left has rejected nationalism for globalism, and both sides have rejected civic republicanism for individualism.

But one positive development gives me hope: the medium of the image has become more and more important, subsuming most communication. The iconic image should be as well received as ever and spread faster than ever before. And by doing so, work to heal the divisions between subcultures that are further divided than ever before. It is our role as photographers to give society these images.

 

Photo and meaning

The past three readings, Lentil Soup, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Performing Civic Identity: The Iconic Photograph of the Flag Raising in Iwo Jima come together as a tour de force in the history and iconography of photography.

In Lentil Soup, Coleman makes the argument that the use and fascination with the image pre-dates the invention of the camera by centuries.  In fact, the “lentil” shaped lenses, had been in use and aided image makers for quite some time.  The artist David Hockney wrote an interesting piece, similar in spirit to Lentil Soup, on the use of Camera Obscura by many artists to create and achieve realistic images since the Renaissance. The great achievement, then, of the camera as a mechanic object, is its ability to embed or imprint an image on a reproducible flat element that captures exactly what the “hole” in the camera sees through the lens.

The lenses, by design, will edit and synthesize an image into a static representation.  It is a point of view in time and place that situates the viewer behind the lens.  Obviously, this is an interpretation of photography that seems dated and somewhat conservative as technology and the medium have evolved into a more dynamic and elusive interpretation of reality.  Where photo-journalists have to represent and stand behind accuracy and true representation, art photography has exploded the medium into different realms of perception.

Focusing on the image of Iwo Jima, it was remarkable for me to learn that this is the most reproduced image in history. I am clearly a product of a different generation that not only did not live thought WWII, but has also very little emotional connection to the image.  This emotional distance from the event and the iconic image, allows me to have a different and perhaps colder read.  While I think that it is a beautifully composed shot, I have a hard time appreciating nostalgic images that glorify war. For me, rather than an allegory, this image takes on a commercial identity and celebrates a reductionist interpretation of the event. What makes it an interesting read, is how we follow the evolution of the use of this image, from becoming an instant beacon of freedom to a template for a 3D bronze sculpture and ultimately setting the standard and becoming a pre-cursor of modern day images of strength, victory and hope.

Imogen Cunnigham at the MFA

The MFA is currently featuring a small show on Imogen Cunningham, the  “grandmother of photography”, called In Focus in the Herb Ritts Gallery.

“A major figure in 20th-century American photography, Cunningham was a co-founder of Group f/64, joining forces with Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and other San Francisco Bay Area photographers who shared an aesthetic of sharply-focused images and natural subjects. ”

I chose two images – one from the show and another that I have been inspired by to highlight on this post.  The first – titled “Triangles”, is an intimate almost disorienting portrait of the female body. The hard angles and linear composition compounded by hard shadows made the first read difficult yet totally intriguing.   I was lost inside of the image and totally taken by its honest and comfortable depiction of the human body.  It truly blended into a mystic landscape.

The second image is a portrait of Ruth Asawa, an American sculptor that spent three years at Black Mountain College studying with some of the most recognized artists of the 20th C.

Somehow both images represent for me the spirit of Modernity, the Bauhaus and much deserved recognition of women artists.

 

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Triangles, 1928

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Untitled (Ruth Asawa kneeling behind looped-wire sculpture), ca. 1957.

The Effect of Scale on the Image

In “Lentil Soup”, A.D. Coleman dances around a definition of lens culture, careening through the history of our relation to the underlying technology, but comes closest to defining it as a culture involving the “endless reframing of humankind as perceiver, the world as perceived, and the lens image as both vehicle and repository for that transaction.” This still rings true; most youth communication happens via images, including photos: snapchat, instagram, and facebook have become (or were designed to be) image-centric. The base unit of information transfer is not the bit, it is the image. Even outside of specific photography, “internet culture” (read: modern culture) is based around the sharing of images. Dawkins’ meme is aptly appropriated to describe them — they are how ideas, beliefs, critiques, are spread in 2017.

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Even the President communicates with memes

But if we want to understand our modern relationship to the image, Coleman’s history fails us, drops us off no later than the 19th century, and we must instead turn to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. And with it, the idea of scale. Before our technology allowed for instant, global, and unlimited publication of images, they performed a different function in culture. Benjamin analyzes this through the lens of cult value and exhibition value. The former, the value of an image derived from its creation; the latter, the value derived from its exhibition. Three key arguments are made within this frame:

  • That before mass-reproduction of images, most of the value of an image was its cult value. Now, an image’s value is derived almost entirely through its exhibition.
  • Reproduction of an image results in a different work, because it is received in a different context, and often in a different form; a reproduction can never reproduce an original’s presence in time and space, but instead carries its own.
  • In the presence of mass-reproduced images, the audience identifies more with the camera than with its subject.

Benjamin believes that the consequence is the politicization of the image. In other words, the image seen less as a work of art, but as a method for conveying an idea. Where his analysis fails though, is in discussing this transformation in terms of Fascism and Communism. Since this essay was written in 1936, capitalism ate the world, using the image as its preferred medium of communication. And so, again, our relation to the image has changed.

First, it is important to understand that the three points above remain true, maybe more so than ever:

  • Yes, an image’s value is derived through its exhibition. Look no further than social media. Images in themselves are valued much more for the narrative they convey than as works of art. The travel photo posted to Instagram has nothing to do with the place being visited; rather, the symbolism is of the author as the kind of person who visits places.
  • Yes, reproductions are different than originals. There may as well no longer be an original anymore, given the scale on which reproductions are produced. In a way, all digital media is a reproduction; there is no original, or if it exists, it is never viewed. Yet each of these reproductions is original in that it is viewed at a unique time and in a unique context. So an image is more than ever able to allow the viewer to identify with and understand it. Again, this was true before — everyone reads the newspaper at a different time, in a different place — but the scale has changed dramatically.
  • Yes, the audience takes the place of critic, assuming the role of camera, rather than identifying with the subject. Return to the travel photo: the image allows the viewer to try on the role of photographer. The camera is no longer separate from its author — we carry them always, they sleep next to us, they are an essential part of our lives. While viewing an image, we become the kind of person who creates that image.

So Benjamin is right in arguing that the image takes on a political role. This is a re-framing of Coleman’s argument that the image and the technology of image creation is an essential element to the way we understand our world. Marshall McLuhan offers another phrasing: the medium is the message.

But what Benjamin misunderstands is that as the scale of image in society increases, so does the power carried by an individual image decreases. We’re simply oversaturated. And given a widespread ability and understanding of the production, duplication, and interpretation of images, an individual image carries no cult value. Or so little as to be practically useless. Sure, some people may interpret the cult; they call themselves artists, and look at how much political power they have in the world. The image itself is meaningless; the message it is used to convey becomes the political element. Mass reproduction has entirely eliminated the cult value of the image.

And this brings us back to the situation which Benjamin criticized in the first place: “[Mankind’s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” Benjamin’s answer was to politicize the image, but as the scale of our interactions with images increased, the path we walked was revealed to be circular.

Lentil Soup response: why vision?

This article was an interesting read given that I’m part of a generation that grew up in a thoroughly image-saturated culture, to the extent that it’s hard for me to truly internalize an understanding of what life must have felt like beforehand.

Its main argument—that “photography took root in an already fertile and well-tilled soil: a prephotographic culture deeply involved with lens instruments, lens-derived information, optics, vision, and representation”—strikes me as a useful piece of background knowledge but leaves me wondering whether there’s anything special about the lens, in particular, or if the lens culture is just the visual facet of a broader human drive to expand the reach of our senses and mind. After all, Coleman notes that lenses are tools for extending the scope of the eye, backing this up with references to the microscope and the telescope. But, comparable tools exist for other human faculties too, and these tools have become similarly ingrained in modern culture. Modern texting (as an extension of talking) comes to mind—it started with handwritten letters, and now it’s on our phones that let us instantly send messages that physical distance has only a trivial effect on the propagation of. I mention texting (rather than “computers” or “mp3 players,” etc., because it’s the only example I can come up with off the top of my head that, like photography, also has a preservation and archival method built into the act of faculty-extension).

As a trivial point to note, vision is the only one of our basic five senses that’s been extended into saturating our culture and defining our communications to such an extent. Hearing is definitely ranked second, however distantly, and touch/smell/taste are all very far behind. I suspect this is simply because visual images are the most readily mass-producible and mass-consumable: they’re cost-effective, and can be both generated and processed quickly, whereas it’s unclear how someone looking to disseminate a specific taste to a larger population could go about doing so.

Additionally, I wish the reading had contained more discussion of Coleman’s assertion that our culture needs to “understand the extent to which lenses shape, filter, and otherwise alter the data that passes through them.” I’m thoroughly on board with his argument that they’ve permeated Western culture, and therefore an understanding of the effects of that permeation is necessary, but I would like a more formal discussion of what sorts of distortions he thinks photography can propagate. I realize this may not have been in the scope of the piece, and I have a few vague ideas of my own—pertaining mostly to photoshop, staged photos, etc.—but I look forward to exploring that subject more formally and in more detail.

Has photography become a legacy medium? What is the relationship between visual sophistication and the “West”?

In Lentil Soup, Allen Douglas Coleman argues that the establishment and vertiginous development of photography should not be seen as a turning point, but as a culminating moment in a process of lens-based experiential paradigm that was set up as far bas as the sixteenth century. In Coleman’s thinking, this regime gave the lens not only priority in the way the European world visually related with the world, but an overall privilege position as a metaphor organizing a number of broader cultural trends, -such as the rise and establishment of empiricism as a dominant form of creating knowledge, and the development and increasingly dominant role that sciences started to play in these societies.

 

Is Coleman’s suggestion still valid nowadays? This question may be surprising given the ubiquitiousness with which photographical production has entered the everyday live of middle-class urban life in the United States and many other parts of the world. This massification, however, may be exactly the symptom to ask if the photographic lens has lost its aura as an organizing trope of a cultural zeitgeist. In a time of big data and vertiginous change, where constant visualization is important and explanation –more often than not articulated into constellations of hypothesis concatenated with one another amongst a relationship of precedence, the “still life” that photography presents may have become overpowered by the modern life’s cinematism, where capturing time presents itself as specially critical.

 

Has photography become a “legacy” way of capturing reality? In what ways does this affect its production? In what ways does it liberate it?

 

In an entirely different question, I couldn’t help but perceive a uncomfortable Euro –or should I say U.S.- centrism in Coleman’s argument. For example. Coleman argues that [bouregois] forms of visual culture were unproblematically diffused into “the European colonies of North America”, and not in the Spanish and Portuguese possessions located in the “South” (I suppose that Coleman here is taking the Rio Grande as a metaphor for the Equator). This argument is quite strange, for all the specific advances related to the lens actually happen in Italy, a romance country that had until the seventeenth century vast regions colonized –the way Mexico and Peru were, by the Spanish Crown!

 

It seems that rather than organizing and empirically verifiable proposition, Coleman’s operation here is related to secure for the U.S. –and the U.S. alone, the pedigree of sharing a lineage with a European visual culture, which Coleman repeatedly comments as the most “sophisticated” in human societies. Why should this be the case, I don’t know. If at all, one should ask if this would be the case, or in what ways does photography has become enriched when it has transited and interacted in societies whose “ways of seeing” would have probably been qualified by Coleman as background, if not plainly inferior.