When Seeing is Belonging: The Photography of Tahrir

        This reading drives two particular points home for me: first, the power of representation, and second, the fact that an archive must first and foremost be ‘searchable’ for anyone to get any use out of it.
        “The power of representation” comes out in the discussion of Operation Desert Storm: when the event was represented only by professional media like CNN with (presumably) their own agenda, they could sell any narrative they wanted–even one that was largely divorced from what the situation felt like on the ground. The subsequent rise of citizen journalists “rehumanized reality.” Moreover, the representation proved emotionally powerful–it was a reaffirmation that the people in question “had a right to see and be seen;” that their emotional realities deserved exactly as much stage time, if not more, than the emotional realities set by the entities that originally held power over forms of media.
        However, with increased production of material, the question of who sees what when, and how they do so, becomes more pressing. When there are as many streams of content as there are people with image-recording devices, how do faraway viewers (or even those that are close by) find the content that is maximally relevant to them? If seeing equates to belonging, then ‘belonging’ can be disrupted by disrupting ‘seeing,’ and there are two main ways to disrupt seeing: disrupting image production, and disrupting image accessibility. Democratization of the latter is a largely disjoint problem from democratization of the former, and it seems to be one that we’ve only half solved.
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I thought this film was visually gorgeous, and it stands out in my mind as one of the most nuanced portrayals of current events in this region that I’ve ever seen. I also think these two facts have a good deal to do with one another.

Most of what I hear about this region, and understand about the people in it, is through news media. And no matter the specific outlets, the goals of ‘news’ and ‘art’ are usually quite divergent: news seeks to inform the mind, whereas art seeks to connect emotionally.
So, I greatly appreciated the chance to see a ‘current events’ work that felt as honest as this one did; one that let me see so much unadorned personhood, and, yes, one that didn’t shy away from the fact that it was produced by two filmmakers with their own ways of seeing the world they encountered.
Farima’s comment about the fidelity of the translation (and veracity of what the interviewees say)  is important with respect to this last point: this film represents how the two filmmakers see the region, and not an underlying ‘objective truth.’ That said, understanding both emotional and hyperrational sides of any given issue is valuable, so I appreciated that the film’s “we’ll just live in these locations for a while, and record what happens, then edit it into a plot-less film” approach presented almost as organic of an examination of (some of) the human side(s) of this region as possible.

Against the Synthetic Portrait–Rodchenko

“a [person] is not just one sum total; [they are] many, and sometimes they are quite opposed.”

In this reading Rodchenko discusses how photography is at odds with efforts to distill the ‘true essence’ of a person–in this case, of Lenin, an influential historical figure–but I’ve generalized the language of his quote because I think it applies on a broader scale. This reading is an interesting contrast with Roland Barthe’s description, in Camera Lucida, of encountering a “Winter Garden Photograph” that so perfectly captured an essence of his mother that it moved him to write “it achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being.”
In the last line, I wrote ‘an essence’ instead of ‘the essence,’ intentionally. I definitely believe that people have many different facets to their identity that they express at different times, and since photography only captures a single moment…if all these facets are considered essential components of an identity or ‘essence,’ then it’s highly unlikely they’ll all ever be on display in a photograph at once. So, if we allow that people may be different in different situations, it’s unlikely that any static visual portraiture medium will ever capture that full range.
However, as Barthe attests, some photographs of people do have a more magnetic, ‘true’ feeling than others. At first I thought this couldn’t coexist with the point Rodchenko was making, but after further reflection I see there is space for both. It’s as simple as allowing for the idea that a person [or any entity] may have multiple visual ‘essences,’ each of which may strike different viewers to differing levels of emotional depth.

Personal is political

Reflection 1:

I find it intriguing that Moholy-Nagy, in “From Pigment to Light” associates inability to use a camera with being illiterate. True, the phrasing of his sentence—“the illiterate of the future will be ignorant of the use of camera and pen alike”—is ambiguous enough that I can’t quite tell if he’s focusing on “technical inability to generate content in the medium” as the defining feature of illiteracy, or “inability to interpret messages in the medium,” or both. But it’s still an interesting thought experiment to draw a distinction between the two, and imagine what the various permutations of competencies in either would imply. Are the two skills synonymous? I image they’d be at least complimentary, but then I can absolutely imagine a case in which someone is great at recognizing the significance of photographs but terrible at creating new ones (and vice versa).

Reflection 2:

I’m curious how Alfred Kemeny’s pure exaltation of the political value of photomontage, and his simultaneous de-emphasis of any other value the medium might have (“it is becoming more and more obvious that the cognitive value of photomontage is inseparable from its role in the class struggle”) interfaces with the fact that there are artists—and viewers—who don’t see ‘politics’ as the defining characteristic of their interaction with photomontage, or artistic media in general. Yes, certainly it’s impossible to generate art outside the political context. But, this is an artifact of the fact that we live in politics. Politics are relations between people, at increasing levels of generality and group-size, and artists happen to be people.

But clearly Stieglitz’s view of art as “an outward manifestation of inner growth” shifts the emphasis away from the loaded word ‘politics’ and onto the subject of the richness of experience of the individual. My view is that focusing exclusively on ‘politics’ and its associated buzzwords leads to a kind of flattening of humanity. Though, the buzzwords are certainly helpful for enabling thought at higher levels of abstraction! But at the end of the day…there can be no politics without individuals. “There is no art, only artists.”

(Aside: I’m incredibly averse to commenting on systems that I don’t fully understand, and I think that’s why the individual-scale approach to art resonates more with me. I don’t feel like I’ve understood the base case, 1-person-to-small-group scenario enough to try to move on to aggregates of people [though certainly some amount of large-scale understanding is valuable to contextualize and inform whatever I’m still learning on the small scale].)

On the Purpose(s) of Imagemaking

These two readings—“The Ontology of the Photographic Image” and “Resolutions of the Third World Filmmakers Meeting”—present radically different ideas of what drives imagemakers.

The crux of the former is that photography, “by providing a defense against the passage of time…satisfied a basic psychological need in man.” It “completely satisf[ied] our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part.” Furthermore, “the photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.” While I agree with this view, focusing on it as the distinguishing characteristic of photography seems a bit outdated to me. In modern culture, we almost treat this preservational aspect of photography as an afterthought, focusing instead on its ready ‘shareability.’ The majority of images today are created not as ways to make a moment last forever for the sake of making it last forever, but either

  1. to communicate to others what that moment in time felt like for us or other relevant parties. (as is the goal of documentary photography), or
  2. a less charitable approach: to communicate a more premeditated message to the viewer, whether it’s “buy this product, it’s framed really nicely and we surrounded it with positive visual cues so you know it’s good for you,” or “hey look at me I’m totally the type of person that travels to these glitzy far-flung locations,” or something else of the kind. Alternately:
  3. to remind our future selves of something that happened, and what it felt like for us then. This differs from Bazin’s point in that it may be an extension of a): what’s important isn’t the fact that the photograph outlasts us, but the fact that it keeps us in touch with our own memories while we’re still alive.

Key here is that absolute longevity doesn’t matter; the longevity of a photograph is important mostly as a means of expanding its range of potential viewers. I don’t know the relative frequencies of these uses for certain, but I’d guess 2 > 1 > 3.

Meanwhile, “Resolutions of the Third World Filmmakers Meeting,” though at this point over 40 years old, presents a conception of the role of cinema that includes all the functions 1-3 I described above. It treats communication as the ultimate role of cinema, and specifically it highlights the role of cinema in propagating political and cultural discourse in the third world.

Which brings up a question for me: how broad of a cultural scope should imagemakers be aiming to engage with? As Peter pointed out in his post an hour ago, funding and distribution are nontrivial components of the communicative power an image wields. What’s the point of making strongly political images if they won’t realistically leave the boundaries of your social circle? Are photographs that are made exclusively for the consumption of a closed group of friends—that make sense in context of the group’s own established culture and norms, but are either opaque to or easily misinterpreted by outsiders—any less “artistically valid” than those that engage with culture or politics on the national scale?

“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.”

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.