Martha Rosler at Boston University

Martha Rosler works in video, photography, text, installation, and performance. Her work focuses on the public sphere, exploring issues from everyday life and the media to architecture and the built environment, especially as they affect women. Rosler has for many years produced works on war and the national security climate, connecting life at home with the conduct of war abroad, in which her photomontage series played a critical part. She has also published several books of photographs, texts, and commentary on public space, ranging from airports and roads to housing and gentrification.



Analog film editing

One of the interesting questions on La Jetee was regarding how film was edited in the analog days. In the movie, we saw use of zooms, pans, dissolves between photos and into a motion picture (the scene where the woman blinks), and fade ins and outs. Turns out, all of this was likely done using a device known as an optical printer, which (in basic terms, referring to the image below) consisted of 1) a projector, 2) 1st film layer, 3) lens, 4) 2nd film layer, and 5) a camera to record the composite image. If my understanding is correct, using this device single photos can be repeated over multiple frames so they appear for longer time, and be faded in between using the mask. This would also be how they inputted text onto the film.

Helpful links:

e pluribus unum

On first reading of this chapter, I found it difficult to care the subject. Sontag’s discussion of Diane Arbus’s upbringing, mental illness, and psychological relation to her work felt unimportant alongside the larger theme of the evolution of the American aesthetic in the twentieth century. Arbus’s experiences growing up in a sheltered environment, contrasted with her adult desires to photograph taboo subjects, struck me as relevant only insofar as they were symptomatic of a generation of individuals that came of age in a globalizing and increasingly media-driven world.

Perhaps, also, it’s just easy to be apathetic toward someone whose primary struggle seems to have been that the life given her felt too safe, boring, and without meaning – not to discount the severity of Arbus’s mental illness, but merely to say that such sympathies tend to come only after some hesitation. I must admit such details are not irrelevant to the larger picture. The artist’s unending challenge is to create something unique, to reveal something that has not already been exposed. To do so requires a viewpoint. So it might be worth taking a look at the person, to understand what makes their work exceptional.

Arbus’s fascination with outcasts led her create a body of work that was neither an idealistic vision of one people nor a cynical rejection of it. It was not political, nor could it be free of sociological implications. Even her attitude towards her subject matter is ambiguous: her images neither ennoble nor demean their subjects. Arbus’s pictures are simply a manifestation of her fascination with the grotesque and anomalous. But they are also, as Sontag points out, great equalizers: “all her subjects are equivalent … freaks, mad people, suburban couples, and nudists … are all members of the same family.” But rather than making an ennobling affirmation in the spirit of Whitman or Comte, wherein we are united by the greatness of our potential, Arbus draws a somber, melancholy equivalence among us as a nation: we are united by our imperfection, our deformity, and our brokenness.

America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly

The discussion of beauty and ugliness, which is central to Susan Sontag’s article, is very insightful, but what made my impression for the several days after I read it, was the different attitudes towards portraiture and subjects. The idea of the complicit subject, that the subject needs to know and participate in the photograph by posing, is something that the author attributes to Brassai on page 29: “Brassai denounced photographers who try to trap their subjects off-guard, in the erroneous belief that something special will be revealed about them”. “The expression of people being photographed should be ones they would offer to the camera”, Sontag adds in the footnote. As I have been walking around Sommerville this week, taking pictures of people, the thought of trapping people in my photographs feels a bit haunting, especially because I don’t yet feel comfortable to ask strangers for their photograph. In Diane Arbus’ work, the complicit subject that doesn’t know that he/she may be “ugly” completely changes the power dynamic of the camera and the subject, and for me, this concept is a completely different way of thinking about pictures of people.

On the question of beauty and ugliness, I like a quote by Tarkovsky in this book “Sculpting in Time” p.39, “Hideousness and beauty are contained within each other. This prodigious paradox, in all its absurdity, leavens life itself, and in all makes that wholeness in which harmony and tension are unified. The image makes a palpable unity in which manifold different elements are continuous and reach over into each other.” I really appreciated the Sontag article for giving depth to “ugliness” through the work of Diane Arbus.

America, seen through photographs, darkly

As the title suggests, the author follows the development of photographic subject matter over time. She says that in the beginning, photographs were expected to be “perfect” and show the best side of an already beautiful subject. From here a photographer named Whitman argued that photographs should capture beauty in the mundane, and sought to bring out the best of “trivial” subject matter such as the daily lives of ordinary Americans. The author then discusses the work of Diane Arbus, which comprises the bulk of the article. The author argues that Arbus’ work, which sought to shock viewers by capturing the ugly and freakish people of America, was in fact not so different from Whitman’s approach in that it suggests a common experience among humans, albeit a pessimistic one.

Iconic Image

In September of 2015, Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir tweeted a picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a drowned child washed up on the shore of Bodrum, Turkey. The photo of the dead refugee went viral and turned the world´s attention to the European migrant crisis.




Demir had taken several photographs of Kurdi’s body and many of them were published by different news organizations. Many social media users and other wild sites unfamiliar with photojournalism rules often cropped or retouched the images heavily, focusing only on the lifeless body of the little boy.





Some news organizations refused to publish the photos due to privacy concerns – Kurdi’s identity could be easily established. Afterwards, Demir told Vice “The pain I felt when I saw Aylan, the only thing on my mind was to pass along this to the public. I didn’t think anything else. I just wanted to show their tragedy.” When asked about the ethics of publishing the photo she said “If the picture makes Europe change its attitudes towards refugees, then it was right to publish it.”

Like other iconic images the photo of Aylan Kurdi has inspired many artists, cartoonists, social media users and activists.


aiweiwei2Alan_Kurdi_Graffiti frankfurtboy sketchAylan-Kurdi-603682


The World Press Photo, the biggest contest for visual journalists on the planet, ignored Demir’s photo at the 2016 awards. The first prize went to Warren Richardson who had also photographed Syrian refugees while Demir’s photo was never mentioned.




I wanted to see what else Demir has photographed but I couldn’t find any previous or current work. She has no website or any other online presence. Personally, I do not think her photos of Kurdi on the beach are particularly good when compared to award winning photojournalism, like Richardson’s picture above, but it certainly hasn’t stopped Demir’s photos from becoming iconic. I think it’s fascinating that anyone can take an iconic picture: because the act of photography has become more democratic, one can simply be in the right place at the right time.

Civic identity, symbolism

The article about the picture taken in Iwo Jima has really got me to think about how the photo was composed and how the information was conveyed through the picture.

I used to put a great deal of attention on portraits, especially eyes, facial expressions, emotions and image sharpness for details. One picture that has influenced me a lot for this type of shooting was named “Big Eyes Hope”, by Hailong Xie.

Big eyes

This photo was taken in the 90s, when the Chinese government was trying to promote primary education. The big eyes of the girl living in poverty and trying to study to change her fate have spoken a lot. This photo was on the newspapers, posters and TV programs. Lots of entrepreneurs have donated and supported this government led program. New schools have been built in rural areas.

After the influence of this picture, I’ve tried to take pictures of people with close focus on the eyes, and reflection of lights through their eyes. The photos looked good, but most of the time failed to tell the story.

The picture at Iwo Jima went in the opposite direction of the “Big Eyes Hope”. No people’s facial expression at all. Just people cooperating to rise the flag. This fulfilled the purpose of unifying people, all colors, all religion, and all races. This is also in consistency with the theme of the photo. The four guys action was also powerful, giving the audience the impression that they are determined, and they will get the work done. The facial expression is then unnecessary in the photo.

America, Seen through Photographs, Darkly

Susan Sontag examines the different ways photographers have approached the art for different intentions. Some people have tried to use photography to capture standardized beauty while others have tried to use it to change the standard of beauty. Sontag reflects on the early shiny, conformative American photography, with capturing beauty as its primary goal, before looking at photography by Diane Arbus which valorizes oddities and freaks. Sontag’s essay provides reflection on the use of photography on spectrums of ugliness/beauty, democratic/exclusive. Sontag reflects on photography in relationship to memory and photography as a means of painting different narratives.

Performing Civic Identity

The text analyzes the iconography of the Iwo Jima photographs and attributes its popularity to the following ideas that it represents: egalitarianism, nationalism and civic republicanism. While the connection of the employment of a particular visual language to affect each characteristic was interesting, I was also considering whether espousal of these attributes was causal of its subsequent popularity and reproduction. The public moment in which the icon emerges must additionally be primed for it. While the author acknowledges that the meaning of the image changes according to the context in which it is received, I think that it’s ability to multiply changes as well. Today, for example, when belief in the ‘American ideal’ and public responsibility seems to be waning while images are generated at an exponential rate, it may have been more difficult for the Iwo Jima photograph to rise.

I was also intrigued by the idea of a reproducible icon that photography enables and the air of religiosity that it can maintain despite its descriptive power, since traditionally icons were imagined to be singular and emanating their aura into their particular physical proximities even as the idea of their power could spread across distances. Perhaps, this trend, facilitated by photography comes full circle in the iconography of celebrity as employed by pop art where both the life and death of the image lies in its manic reproduction.


Iwo Jima

This paper discusses the origin of this image and its lineage of symbolism specifically in the context of egalitarianism, nationalism, and civic responsibility.

I found the image particularly interesting because one of the men in the photo is from a town about an hour from where I grew up, Harlingen, TX. At the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen the clay sculpture that the bronze statue in Arlington Cemetery was made from is on display. I competed in several athletic events at the academy and saw the statue many times, so it was interesting to learn about what this image meant to other people in comparison to my experience. I knew the image was iconic, but I didn’t realize its impact had propagated as far as an Allstate ad, nor was I aware that it had generated such polarizing opinions about it’s meaning and reflection of martial actions.

Marine Military Academy