America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly

At the beginning of photography, an image bespoke importance. Walt Whitman permanently shifted the gaze of photography from an obsession with the beautiful object to an exercise in image making with the ordinary and banal. Sontag still holds that to take an image is to assign importance. But this importance varies in culture and history, from the pursuit of “worthy” subjects to the Andy Warhol stance of “anybody is somebody”. For Sontag Alfred Stieglitz was such a reaffirm-er of life with his wish the redeem the banal and the vulgar as a means of expression. Stieglitz wished to transcend differences between human being and show humanity in the totality of its beauty.

On the subject of Diane Arbus, Sontag has been critical but almost exclusively due to the lack of anesthetization in her work. According to Sontag, Arbus’ treatment of the marginal spheres of society does not invite people the identify with the “freaks” she displays, and in that humanity is no longer “one”. While the Whitman heritage strove for a universalization of the human condition, Arbus fractured this unity into isolated fragments of anxiety. I am not sure whether I agree with this assessment. If indeed taking a photograph is to assign importance, the fact that Arbus took these images of people often deemed as freaks is in itself empowering. The idea that she took these images because she thought these people freaks reveals more about Sontag than Arbus.

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Metaphors of Space: Duality & Neo-colonialism

RESOLUTIONS OF THE THIRD WORLD  FILMMAKERS MEETING  (Algeria, 1973) hierarchically arranges cinema in relation to the socio-political context in which it is produced. The ‘First Cinema’ is produced in capitalist system where, cinema is consumed mainly as a consumer good for entertainment value. films are generally anti historic and deal with purely effects never causes. This contrasts with the ‘Third Cinema” model which liberates and decolonises one from the European models. It is a means for dialogue and meeting, deconstructing the world we live in and assembling it with new meaning.

 

 

Through the Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People

The documentary explore the role of photography in shaping the identity, aspirations, and social emergence of African Americans from slavery to the present, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People probes the recesses of American history through images that have been suppressed, forgotten, and lost. Bringing to light the hidden and unknown photos shot by both professional and vernacular African American photographers, the film opens a window into the lives of black families, whose experiences and perspectives are often missing from the traditional historical canon. African Americans historically embraced the medium as a way to subvert popular stereotypes as far back as the Civil War era, with Frederick Douglass photographed in a suit and black soldiers posing proudly in their uniforms. The documentary also shows images of whites in blackface enacting stereotypes associated with the ‘Negro in America’. Considering that most blacks in the late 19th and early 20th century were rarely subjects of a photographer’s gaze, blackface images had an opportunity to dominate the pictorial history of African Americans. By authoring images on themselves, African Americans were able to claim ownership of their own history and subvert the dominant racist narrative of the time. These images show a much more complex and nuanced view of American culture and its founding ideals.

Bohemian Soul Mates : Just Kids

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were both born in 1946, at a time when “the iceman” and “the last of the horse-drawn wagons” could still be seen on city streets being a moment of pictographic collision between the imagery of the yesteryear and the modern future . “Just Kids” is named so because it captures a moment when Smith and Mapplethorpe were young, inseparable, completely unknown and perfectly bohemian, to the point in which a tourist couple in Washington Square Park argued about whether they were worth a snapshot in the early autumn of 1967. The woman thought they looked like artists while  the man disagrees, saying dismissively, “They’re just kids.”

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Evidently it seems difficult for Smith to turn the clock back to that innocent time, especially after the events that occur. this difficulty is that “Just Kids” symbolizes and grapples with.

Smith describes the day that Mapplethorpe creates his exquisite androgynous image of her in white shirt, black pants and black jacket for the cover of her “Horses” album. She reminisces about her style, which was full of references explicitly showcasing them in her book. A Patti Smith calendar would include Joan of Arc’s birthday, the day of the Guernica bombing and the day she, as a young bookstore clerk, sat among Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Grace Slick in a bar feeling “an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people.” All the artists who shaped Ms. Smith’s persona, Bob Dylan is arguably the one she worshiped most.

A moving part of the book is her description of the first time she sets eyes on Mapplethorpe, in the back bedroom of a former Brooklyn apartment belonging to some friends. Thus fate introduced Ms. Smith and Mapplethorpe, who would become roommates, soul mates, friends, lovers and muses. Strictly speaking they were never starving artists, but the romanticism of “Just Kids,” and their tenancy in the tiniest room at the Chelsea Hotel, brings them pretty close to that ideal. They went to museums able to afford only one ticket. (The one who saw the exhibition would describe it to the one who waited outside.) They went to Coney Island, able to afford only one hot dog. (Ms. Smith got the sauerkraut.) They loved the same totems and ornaments and flourishes; they valued the same things, though in different ways.

Although much of “Just Kids” unfolds before Mapplethorpe did the taboo-busting, shock-laden photographic work for which he is best remembered. (“I admired him for it, but I could not comprehend the brutality,” Ms. Smith writes of his sadomasochistic imagery.) And it occurs before his illness. (He died of AIDS in 1989.) Of the two of them it was Ms. Smith who made her mark first. Like “Chronicles,” “Just Kids” carries its author to the verge of fame but stops right there on the brink, so that its innocence is never compromised by circumstances too surreal for the reader. This book concentrates purely on the relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe, achieving its aura of the sacrosanct by insisting that the later, more tragic and fraught part of Ms. Smith’s life story belongs elsewhere.

Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis

The film goes to and fro between the organic and industrial forms which create the metropolis of Berlin. The film begins by holding a camera at a distance in a detached observation of the empty desolate streets, meditating for a moment or so on mechanical details. Interestingly, this observation captures both infrastructure seen and unseen, but in its silence endows the empty streets with an ominousness. Slowly as the day proceeds, the camera assumes a more intimate nature proceeding to capture the friction between the classes, the roles of men and women, and the decadence of bourgeoisie culture amidst the streets. Notwithstanding its quasi-formalist gaze, it captures the metropolis as a machine showing us the arrival in the city, its awakening, mid-day rest, busy afternoon life, and evening leisure. In this manner although it is meant to be a portrait of Berlin, there is something familiar about each frame for every city goes through similar cycles.

From Pigment to Light

“From Pigment to Light” by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, outlines the shift in art representation, that is imitative art to photography. The advent in photography saw a decline in naturalistic representation of objects as art’s main premeditation. Art now shifts to explorations of colour theory resulting in the emergence of myriad ‘isms’ outlining individual explorations of the subject.

A common theme we see here with other essays by Moholy-Nagy is the belief that harnessing the potential of new technologies would allow artists to transform into designers, and through specialization and experimentation find the means to answer humanity’s needs. This view is in tandem with the Bauhaus espousal of industrialisation. Personally I find his words on the potentials of the photogram quite visionary especially in lieu of the work that he and

artists after him have engaged in.

‘Art’ vs ‘art’

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“Photo-montage as a Weapon in Class Struggle” outlines the usage of the technique of photo-montage for the purpose of political propaganda in Germany in the 1930s. The essay seems to contrast ‘Art’ with ‘art’, thereby providing a push back against “art for art’s sake”. By recognising the inherent potential within the medium of the photo- montage to manipulate it’s content to form new relationships, oppositions, transitions and intersections, photo-montage becomes a new tool to shed light on social reality. Furthermore, the essay destroys the supposedly neutral stance of ‘art for art’s sake’ proponents, arguing that the ability to be neutral is a privilege and privilege is inherently political. Hence non-representational bourgeoisie montages which aim to be purely formalist, are in itself political by attempting to adopt dead-end perspectives. The author reflects upon the deliberate shunning of the photo-montage as a tool of advertising by the bourgeoisie media during the time of economic crisis in lively contrast to the embracing of the tool by proletariat media.

I find this argument comparable to the state of architecture at the moment. ‘Starchitecture’ has become akin to the photo-montage of the elite, which continues to pretend to reinvent itself in a series of formalist experiments,  disengaging with the political struggle which architecture is at the forefront of. Meanwhile, architecture for the proletariat, although capitalising on its political relevancy often is shallow and ill executed.

 

Subverting the Orientalist Image

In Hollywood movies, Islamic terrorists often replace the Soviet espionage agents of the Cold War era as cinematic villains. In this fearful post 9/11 political environment, however, neither Hollywood filmmakers nor American policymakers have paid much attention to the conditions that foster terrorism.

The George W. Bush Administration’s answer to the rhetorical question “why do they hate us” was simply that terrorists were envious of American freedom and prosperity. – Terrorism on Screen: Lessons from The Battle of Algiers, Ron Briley, October 2010

This can obviously be seen as an attempt to continue neo-colonial operations and vilify local resistance. Interestingly, many intriguing questions about the legacy of Western colonialism in the Middle East are engaged in The Battle of Algiers.
In this cinematic examination of the Algerian struggle for independence from French colonialism during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pontecorvo exposes the ambiguous legacy of imperialism in Western efforts to combat indigenous resistance and terrorism. The film depicts the indigenous Algerians with significant depth and agency, revealing their motivations in ousting the French. The Italian filmmaker also suggests that French counterinsurgency tactics such as torture may have won the Battle of Algiers but eventually led to the failure of the French to maintain their colony in Algeria. There is a constant deconstruction of the colonial apparatus, and subversion of the orientalist image of the Algerians as uncivilised people in need of European leadership.
Pontecorvo exposes the stereotypes used to shape and dis-empower people of the ‘East’, with a scene revolving around the bombing of several public places by Algerian women. The French regard the Algerian women with fear and believe they lack agency, though when the women are disguised as French they are promptly sexualised. The same scene deals with the constructed notion of ‘a threat’ by the colonial apparatus, where the degree of threat is determined by the degree of resemblance to cultural caricatures. This of course proves to be fatal to the French.
Lastly Pontecorvo does not justify violence. We see the camera capture intimately the last moments of many of the victims on both sides. It also often beautifully captures the hesitation of many committing violence, depicting ultimately the extent to which a population needs to be pushed to descend to violence.

Manufacturing Civic Identity?

Images have the power to reveal ignored realities or consequences of actions, such as the ‘Napalm Girl’ which revealed the effects of chemical warfare. It ultimately turned the tide of public opinion against the American war in Vietnam. This image revealed the kind of details that are an integral part of what war is about, but often whitewashed and camouflaged by patriotic imagery glorifying war instead. “Raising the Flag on Mount Suribachi” is clearly the later. The image shifts the conversation about the tragedy of the WW2 and its consequences that we still experience today, to one of glorification and American victory. The first image of soldiers, straining to plant an American flag, depict a uniformly clothed anonymous group of men. The photo, whose composition perfectly represents physical labour has been re-appropriated through jingoistic usage in the media to dominate the public perception of WW2 ever since. I would argue that it continues to be one of the iconic pictorial depictions of the ideology of American exceptionalism. I see the reenactment of this image at Ground Zero as again, triumph against external destructive forces. There is nothing wrong with the spirit of hope embodied in these images as such, but reproduction of an image in a context creates meaning and association. This meaning can used to manufacture memories of events. Similarly the “George Eastman Membership House Brochure” through its seemingly  innocuous depiction of a child as an education trope, reinforces the society’s assumptions about a model citizen being male and white. One must not forget the context this image inhabited, when black war veterans returned to their home country where they could not vote, and black identity itself was considered a deviation from the norm.

The Image and Contemplation

Lentil Soup rightly places the lens at the centre of the image centric culture of today. Growing up in an age where the scale of inquire has been shaped by the microscope and the telescope, it is difficult to conceive of a perception devoid of scientific knowledge. The ability to create an image which exists but is imperceptible, and further use that vision to further our knowledge of the universe starts with Galileo and the lens. The lens plays only the role of facilitator, the use of the device depends entirely on the zeitgeist. It is possible to further expand the former statement. The usage of a photograph in the 1900s was very different from the possible usages of an image now. Besides the availability of a lens for production, in today’s world there are software which anticipate the image, and online platforms to politicise the image. We have arrived at a point in which we understand the world through these shared images, and relying less on actual experience. This endows the image with immense power. These platforms also negate the idea of an image as a neutral truthful object.

“This was startling because the Western world is, arguably, the be most visually sophisticated culture in recorded history.”

My criticism of this essay though is embodied in the quote above, where Coleman falls back on orientalist stereotypes, clubbing the West as a monolithic culture of immense visual sophistication. He seems to consider the lens as a device native to the ‘West’ but planted forcibly in the ‘East’ contradicting the accepted history of the lens which traces back to the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, further reformed by the medieval Islamic world. It is quite evident from the above example that even the origin of a supposedly neutral device can be distorted by socio-cultural biases. Can the lens and the image allow us to confront and preempt our biases? The body cams on police have succeeded in doing so, thereby taking contemplation on the image and film to a more sophisticated level. Currently interfacing with the image allows us to confront and modify reality.