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A Beautifully Sad Piece About Childhood

Using HTML5 and with some help from Google, Chris Milk’s The Wilderness Downtown is akin to a music video which allows one’s childhood memories of place a starring role–or at least a competitive one with Google’s archive. It is eerily nostalgic while effacing the more individualized sense of one’s own personal history.

It also demonstrates how powerful Google’s image bank will become in years to come within the arts, where metaphor (and memory) becomes unnecessary when imagery of the location itself is so easily retrievable. You can no longer visualize where you grew up? Well here it is…

Google becomes the family album contextualizing all of us–our roles are increasingly those of the characters within. Many will surely rejoice.

Thanks to Zohar for the link.

Time Travel

In 1982 National Geographic magazine modified a horizontal photograph of the pyramids of Giza to turn it into a vertical so as to fit their cover. The editor of the magazine describe it to me as a “retroactive repositioning” of the photographer a few feet to one side to get a different point of view–in effect, a kind of time travel. I have referred to this manipulation as marking the beginning of the digital revolution in photography.

Now, with the invention of the Lytro “living photos,” which allow anyone to make a photograph and then choose where to focus later, this kind of time travel will be more broadly available. As one of the investors in Lytro, Ben Horowitz, put it: “Essentially, you can take the picture you wish you would have taken after the fact. If you are used to the old paradigm, it’s like travelling backwards through time. You can take a picture then figure out what you really wanted then go back through time and take that picture.” So much for the decisive moment.

Choosing the Invisible

The refusal to release photographs or videos of the corpse of Osama bin Laden brings the Image War to another level. It forces us as individuals to imagine bin Laden’s demise, and in doing so we are thrown back upon our own thoughts and emotions. There is no spectacular imagery for society to rally around, no media feeding frenzy, no grotesque image with which to measure our bizarre era or, more obscenely, for others to imitate or surpass. And in the relative silence there are no accusations of manipulation by or for the camera.

Obama’s decision leaves us with a related question: Is it helpful for us as citizens to be confronted by violent, horrific imagery on a daily basis? Does a competition for the sensational help us to comprehend the dilemmas of others, their aspirations and obstacles, or does it push us towards passivity?

We need to recognize that massive violence is a symptom of societal conflicts, but the underlying reasons are rarely explored. Why are they fighting in Libya or in Syria? The answer is not an image of bombs going off. A truer photography of conflict would help to show the roots of the violence, otherwise societies and their people seem repetitively irrational. And, as citizens, an irrational world is one we can barely comprehend, let alone do anything to change.

Certainly this is not the fault of photographers–many work, or would like to work, on longterm projects trying to understand and articulate what is going on in societies worldwide. It’s a problem with a system of media which seems to exalt in the misfortune of others, as long as the imagery is spectacular. The non-release of the bin Laden imagery, whatever the reasons that were behind Obama’s decision, can also be considered a step that can lead to a more thoughtful visual journalism

A Novelist with a Camera


We all know that photography, at its root, is writing with light. But most of us, particularly on the documentary side, do not take this too seriously–photography is a recording strategy (in its simplest form, “F-8 and be there”), not a writing one. But Tim Hetherington had a different approach.

As Sophie Gilbert recounts an early professional experience of Tim’s in the Washingtonian: “He worked as a photographer at the Independent, but grew frustrated when he showed a digital piece to an editor, who couldn’t understand why Hetherington was pitching video to a newspaper. ‘What I learned from that is that if you’re five years ahead of the curve, it’s no good,’ Hetherington said. ‘I had to wait for technology to catch up.’”

With a background in literature, he borrowed from other traditions to experiment with newer forms. Rather than simply record, he made imagery of superimposed ideas (see Sleeping Soldiers, for example), overlapping physical and psychological spaces (see Diary), and segmented temporalities (see House of Pain). He was more of a visual novelist than a visual journalist in his post-photographic stance; more interested in poetics than simply the facts (although he respected them greatly, taking time off to become a researcher at the United Nations); a hybrid of level-headed, reliable witness and semi-apocalyptic romantic. Looking at his experimental video, Diary, created after ten years of covering conflict, I was reminded most of James Joyce’s Ulysses and its experiential, edgy, hallucinatory, insinuating stream-of-conscious chronicling of the life of Leopold Bloom.

Like Joyce, Tim also had to create a new vocabulary in order to get at experiences that are more subliminal, that occur between sentences and outside frames. They both were inspired by previous authors (one of Tim’s inspirations apparently was Chris Marker; Joyce referenced Homer’s Odyssey). Both Tim and Joyce were concerned with politics and religion, the struggle of contemporary men and women to make their way in contemporary society, to be idealistic or at least civil in the midst of chaos, to acknowledge the turbulence within.

Tim was covering the struggle in Libya when he died, but he was also covering the struggle of all of us in a world much harsher than our media or governments would usually admit. He was also creating new strategies of story-telling that transcend not only photography but most forms of visual journalism itself (see Restrepo). How many witnesses in the history of the world have given their lives, between assignments, while working on a multimedia project covering war in a foreign country?

Just as we are gingerly entering a new era of hybridized media and calling it “visual journalism,” cautiously proud of our ability to finally move beyond confining categories such as “photographer” or “videographer,” Tim was already somewhere else, creating a more fluid, diverse imagistic tapestry that described not only the events on the ground but also evoked the distorting prisms of our dreams and nightmares, even if we usually prefer to repress them.

He died pointing his camera at violence, articulating a haunting poetics of life in its extremes. And, as in Joyce’s ending to his novel, all that the rest of us in Tim’s wake can respond, affirming what he lived for, is both quite simple and overwhelming. In Molly Bloom’s words: “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

“Photo Editing,” according to NY Times

Today’s New York Times features an article headlined “Photo Editing Online, Easy as Pie.” What do they mean by photo editing? The first two paragraphs let us know:

When Alexey Ivanov and his future wife, Marina Kiseleva, were dating, she gave him a memorable gift: a photograph of himself that looked as if it were hanging in the Tate Modern in London.

To create the image, she used a simple photo-editing program. And it gave the couple the idea for their Web site, Photofunia.com, which allows users to upload a photograph, select an image from dozens of templates showing a scene, and then merge the two photographs. It is just one of many Web sites for enhancing photographs that are becoming easier than ever to use.

Photo editing at publications such as The New York Times used to consist of selecting the photographs and sequencing them, not combining them and otherwise “enhancing” them (is the better word “manipulating” them?). Interesting and sad that this is what The New York Times now thinks photo editing has become.

The New Family Album?

Facebook has a larger photo collection than any other site on the web. According to an extrapolation of photo upload data reported by Facebook, the site now houses about 60 billion photos compared to Photobucket’s 8 billion, Picasa’s 7 billion and Flickr’s 5 billion.

If this is the new family album, then what kind of family are we? “Guys prefer photos with girls. Girls prefer photos with girls. Pretty much everyone prefers photos with girls,” explained Pixable CEO Inaki Berenguer at a recent Social Media Week panel. (See the article at Mashable.)

(And thanks to Matthias Bruggmann for pointing this out.)

Which Images Should We Be Looking At?

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`A protestor from a rural area camps out overnight with others in front of the prime ministers office in Tunis, January 25, 2011. Photo by Finbarr OReilly/Reuters.

A protestor from a rural area camps out overnight with others in front of the prime minister's office in Tunis, January 25, 2011. Photo by Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters.

With all of the protests in the Middle East, we are now being offered a large number of images that we can select from to try and understand what is going on. But few, if any, become emblematic. While there is something to be said for quantity, does it really help us to comprehend, or is this a timid interpretation of Web 2.0, where professionals try not to decide anything for us, including which images are the more important ones to be looking at?

Is it also an adherence to the foundational tenets of consumerism, where a multitude of choices is always best?

I found this image by scrolling way down the Boston Globe’s Big Picture (it is number 33), through a panoply of imagery from recent events in the Middle East. I am moved by it, much more than the usual imagery of clashes and large groups of people facing off. And I wonder what happened to the press that would select what we should be looking at as a way of fostering not only understanding but a response on our part?

When we saw the girl being napalmed during the Vietnam War other images served to provided a larger context, but the press was confident enough to suggest what we should be thinking about by pinpointing that single image as containing certain truths. What then do all the editors, reporters and photographers think is happening in the Middle East, and why can’t they let us know via a hierarchy of the imagery? (We need not agree.) Why are all images treated as equal? Is the plan to leave us without a point of view, confused, distant, passive? Is the press afraid to commit?

“Blood Libel”

Last year Palins Political Action Committee targeted Congressional districts represented by Democrats, including that of Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

A few days after the horrific shootings in Tucson, Arizona, Sarah Palin, whose Political Action Committee put cross-hairs as if aiming a rifle over election districts where Democrats voted for the national health care bill (including that of Representative Gabrielle Giffords), responded:

If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible. 

A “blood libel” is a term that has been used repeatedly to justify the most virulent anti-Semitism and violence against Jews, accused of killing Christian children to use their blood in the baking of Passover matzos, or unleavened bread. The Congressperson who was shot through the head, Gabrielle Giffords, is Jewish. There has long been a villification of journalists in the United States, and in particular The New York Times, as Jewish.

In her statement addressing a ramped-up anger in this country, Palin follows her use of an image that invokes the violent targeting of politicians with words that engage the vilest sectarian epithet. Yet this time she wants to place herself as a victim when it is others who have lost their lives and suffered enormous trauma.

But it is not that different than Republican “pundit” and Palin ally Rush Limbaugh, who claims that Jared Loughner, the suspected gunman in the Arizona shootings, has the “full support” of the Democratic Party.

How do we then define “reprehensible”?

End of Year Thoughts

At the end of 2010 a few trends have become much clearer:

1. Books that use photographs are in a moment of renaissance, the awaited pushback against the digital-ephemeral and a new embrace of paper (reminiscent of painting’s expansion as photography took center stage). Made with digital tools, these books, usually from small publishers, take risks that transcend the tired monographs with photographs centered and celebrated on white pages.

2. The digital - iPad, Web, cellphone, etc. - are still being utilized as exceedingly rudimentary display devices, showing a haphazard mix of image/text/sound that is often less than the sum of its parts. There is little sense of authenticity, of risk-taking, of graphics, of layout, of typography, of playing with scale and texture. Instead, the slide-show with sound has become the overused default - and it is hardly an advance over what was done decades before.

The word “magazine” comes from the Arabic/Hebrew word “mahsan,” meaning warehouse, and it is as if we have returned to a pre-magazine era in which we are once again presenting a warehouse of media with little filtering or thought given to effective presentation.

3. Photography of news continues to evolve into a photography better done by amateurs than professionals, given that there are many more amateurs with cameras walking around at all times. The stylized imagery by professionals repeating the stereotypical news cliches is not helpful as a way of promoting understanding. The province of the professional in a journalistic context is very much the long-term essay, and many are working both in the old-fashioned and very necessary role of witness and others are trying to re-invent it to add complexity, nuance, and engage the reader in different ways. What is needed more than ever are thoughtful editors/curators who can help make sense of the visual overload.

4. We are entering a post-photographic age in the transformative sense - one in which photography has to significantly evolve in order to be useful. We are beginning to witness this transformation in a broader way, as many worldwide both interrogate and discard photography’s set of older strategies while utilizing other media synergies to amplify the photograph’s communicative potentials.

No photograph is automatically credible anymore beyond a local context, and this is both a challenge and wake-up call. Many photographers (broadly defined) now seem to be stimulated by the new potentials of the photograph and the discussion is finally beginning to evolve beyond the repetitive and plaintive “end of photojournalism” to a sense of multiple new beginnings in an increasingly open-source world. The next step will have to be a more vigorous search for meaning, as well as for collaboration.

Have a happy and peaceful new year!

A list of inspirational books, projects, stories…

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From a “free and open undergraduate photography class” run by Jonathan Worth and his colleagues, a list of inspirational works culled from a number of colleagues in the field. These lists are always fun, in part to see what one might have missed…