30 August 2006

Stella



"Stella, 1867," by Julia Margaret Cameron.

29 August 2006

Holiday weekend?

Well, starting late last night, my day has been more or less hellish emotionally - the result of domestic disharmony. I will spare you the details, but this evening the skys have cleared (quite literally not figuratively) and I am off to a conference until Sunday or so. Of course, that is an entirely other issue! Yes, the APSA, holds its annual meetings over Labor Day weekend each year.

So I wrote this post to say two things. First, I may be somewhat incommunicado for a few days. And second, it helps to notice things! A few days ago I posted on some images being used in a US govenment campaign against human trafficking . Well in that post I mentioned a book Disposable People by Kevin Bales and provided a link to the publisher's page. At the time I hardly looked at the book description but this evening I noticed something. The cover picture (at least the one above the title) is by Sebastiao Salgado from his study of the gold miines at Serra Pelada, Brazil. So I figured it would be appropriate to note that this is Labor Day weekend and place workers into your line of vision.

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28 August 2006

Speaking of Prizes: Pinter on "Art, Truth & Politics"

Harold Pinter. Photo: © Martin Rosenbaum

I recall reading about the Nobel Lecture Harold Pinter delivered upon receiving the 2005 Prize for Literature but I had never actually read it. Pinter's title is "Art, Truth & Politics" and it seems appropriate to note it here. He issues a scathing public indictment of our - very bipartisan - American foreign policy in the post-WWII era. The intervening period has done nothing to diminish the relevance of Pinter's views. If you think this is perhaps an overstatement consider this Prisoner of War Game; I came across it while exploring the NobelPrize.org site. It aims to establish whether the persons playing has sufficient grasp of the Geneva Conventions to be placed in charge of a POW camp. Is there anyone in the upper reaches of the Bush administration who might pass this test?

I am sure that my many conservative (& liberal!) readers will object that Pinter is trying to establish some sort of unjustified "moral equivalence" between the massive political crimes of the USSR and the actions of the United States. I would urge such readers not to be simple-minded. Read his lecture as though it is possible to hold more than one thought in mind at the same time. Yes, the USSR was a totalitarian regime that systematically committed vast political atrocities. That is one thought. In addition, during the same period, and since that time, the United States has engaged in many policies that also were misguided and criminal (before you object think only "The Bombing of Cambodia"). That is a different thought, one completely consistent with the first. Thanks.
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PS: If you are interested in some of Pinter's political essays, speeches, poems and plays from recent years you might try Death, etc (2005) which, like his collected plays, is published by Grove Press. One might consider these writings "impolitic," but one should, I think, consider them seriously nonetheless.

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27 August 2006

The Mathematics-Photography Analogy: A Perspective on Knowledge, Creativity & Politics

For pragmatists (like Charles Peirce and John Dewey) knowledge and creativity are collective endeavors, the product of interactions among individuals who make up various communities of inquiry. This point is brought home in this story from The New York Times today about Russian mathematician Grigory Perlman who has "refused to accept the highest honor in mathematics, the Fields Medal" for his work. This is not simply an instance of idiosyncratic, self-effacing genius - although Perlman may fit that type - but about the way knowledge is generated. In his description of Perlman's paper George Johnson (no relation), the author of The Times story makes the following observation:

"Those intent on parceling out credit may have as hard a time with the intellectual forensics: Who got what from whom? Dr. Perelman’s papers are almost as studded with names as with numbers. “The Hamilton-Tian conjecture,” “Kähler manifolds,” “the Bishop-Gromov relative volume comparison theorem,” “the Gaussian logarithmic Sobolev inequality, due to L. Gross” — all have left their fingerprints on [Perlman's accomplishment]. Spread among everyone who contributed, the [awards] might not go very far."

Just so. It may seem clear what this has to do with "theory" - this is a claim about how we think, how our minds work. What, however, has this got to do with photography? Or politics? Well, it has a lot to do with photography. Consider (again) Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment in which the central theme is that influential and creative photographers regularly produce 'the same' pictures. I think he is correct and that he has identified something about communities of inquiry.Or, consider too the topic of my recent post on the current exhibition of digitized reproductions of Walker Evans photographs. The show highlights the ways in which the production of images is a collaborative enterprise, a point brought home by the practices of wonderfully creative contemporary photographers like Burtynsky and Salgado.It also is relevant to politics insofar as photographers too operate in a star system with all sorts of prizes and awards being dispensed in all sorts of categories. Burtynsky, for instance, won the 2005 TED Prize with its attendant "3 wishes". Likewise, Robert Adams, won the Deutsche Borse Prize last year and donated his $52K cash award to Human Rights Watch. It would be naive to think that there are no internal politics involved in the decisions about who receives such awards. But the politics is not simply internal. And they extend even into such rarefied fields as mathematics; so, why, instead of declining awards altogether, should those like Perlman not take the proceeds and (following Adams) distribute them in useful ways? You could even distribute them in mathematically appropriate ways. What would The Algebra Project do with such funds? Or, what would individuals struggling against gender inequalities in mathematics and science education do with such funds? Here we return to photography.

Consider this image from from Phil Borges' forthcoming project "Women Empowered":
© Phil Borges

The caption Borges attaches to this picture reads - "Fahima 37, Kabul Afghanistan: My current project ‘Stirring the Fire’ highlights women heroes in the developing world who are breaking local convention to empower themselves and their communities. Fahima secretly held math and literacy classes for 120 young girls in her home during the Taliban. She was raided several times by the Religious Police and physically threatened. She kept a sewing machine on hand to pretend that she was only teaching sewing—a Taliban sanctioned activity for women."

Fahima will never win the Fields Medal. But some future winner of that award (or others like it) could donate their winnings to projects like hers (assuming, of course, that that would not get her killed). The point, I hope, is obvious. Communities of inquiry, like all other sorts of community, are not pristinely apolitical either inside or out. Let's not pretend otherwise.

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Conservatives and Political Reflection - Perhaps the Right is not always Right?

I am not a big fan of conservative politics here or abroad. That will come as no surprise to anyone who has read this blog. Nor am I much of a fan of the putative "liberal" parties in the US or UK, since they seem mostly to be supine. I am especially troubled by the inability of the current Bush administration to ever reflect or reconsider a position no matter how clearly incorrect (say, for instance, on invading Iraq for any of the "reasons" they originally proffered instead of simply thinking up newer and newer ex post raitonalizations for the disaster they have created). Well, here is a story from The Guardian on how David Cameron the leader British Tories has actually called into question one of his party's central positions from the 1980s! Cameron has decided that in retrospect and all things considered it may have been a mistake to brand Nelson Mandela and the ANC as terrorists and to have sided with the Apartheid regime in South Africa. That may seem like a no brainer to many. But for conservatives it is a big step (and one not all Tories are willing to take). Would American conservatives take it even now?

And in anticipation of the onslaught, it is important to think about all the instances in which the "left" has not been right either. This is not just about being non-partisan (yuck!) but about pushing on the notion of political reflecction.

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26 August 2006

Enthusiasms (2) - Dave Douglas "Strange Liberation"

In April 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famous speech entitled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" at the Riverside Church in NYC. In it he remarked that: "And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond with compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries." He then speculated that the Vietnamese "must see
Americans as strange liberators."




















This is the phrase to which the title of trumpeter Dave Douglas's Strange Liberation (Bluebird, 2004) refers. The analogy to our current morass hopefully does not require comment. The CD is terrific. I highly recommend it. Having said that though, I want to quote from the liner notes, where Douglas writes:

"Music speaks. It speaks in its own language differently to each of us. I believe in music as a contribution to the discussion about who we are and where we are headed. This is not a "political" record, but it comes with both love for this country and an uneasy awareness of the current state of justice, fairness and equality.

The unruly thing about music is that it demands its own meanings that are beyond any explanation. You might be able to decipher the nuts and bolts, but in the end, you can’t unscramble the mystery of how music makes you feel.

That’s why I don’t often write about my music. Words can so often obscure the feelings and the sense of music. Music is not an argument, it lives in its own universe and refuses to be pinned down."

I agree with Douglas about music and its unruliness. he has put his finger on what makes music so wonderful. But I disagree with him about politics which, to me consists precisely in an "unruly" discussion, often frank, almost always contested, about "who we are and where we are headed," a discussion where diverse concerns for "justice, fairness and equality" and how those principles might best be embodied in our practices and institutions are paramount. The question is not whether music is political - I find Douglas's denial that his record is political quite perplexing - but how it enters into our collective discussions of such matters. It need not do so didactically or dogmatically. It can do so by arousing emotions, provoking reflection and prompting questions. Those are things Strange Liberation does
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PS: If you are interested in a smart essay on jazz & politics see Gene Santoro. "Jazzing Politics" The Nation (17 December 2001) in which he discusses one of Douglas's earlier CDs as well as one by clarinetist Don Byron.

PS#2: UPDATE: Coincidentally, I was out this afternoon with my 14 year old son Jeff - who plays a very mean trumpet himself - and we stopped in to our great local jazz record store The Bop Shop where I bought a brand new Dave Douglas CD Meaning and Mystery (Greenleaf Records, 2006). It too is very, very good (on first & second listens). What I noticed is that Douglas's music publisher is "Noenmity Music." I think that is quite cool.

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Communication Arts - A provocation to creativity? Yes. To politics? Maybe.

Last night I was sitting in the local chain bookstore at the local mall biding time while my two older sons coordinated their social schedules. Driving is a major task in these circumstances since we live out in the country and their social activities revolve around friends in town. The point, you are wondering? Well, ass I waited I was looking at the current issue of Communication Arts (Photography Annual 47, August 2006). It contains some interesting work, some of which I have mentioned in earlier posts (e.g., here).

Perhaps the most interesting contribution in the entire issue is an essay by Nancy Goulet entitled "A Picture's Worth" where she focuses on photographic projects by Edward Burtynsky, Phil Borges, and Sean Kernan, especially on the vicissitudes of finding useful outlets for such work. Kernan provides the exemplar here as he has done work with Sudanese refugees in Cairo and was frustrated in the task of finding an appropriate outlet for his images. You can find his web page facesudan here.

Kernan's images are terrific and this page offers a challenge to individual viewers, I think. Nancy Goulet ups the ante in her essay by inviting readers to suggest additional ways to use his photographs. She issues a challenge that I hope readers of the magazine will take up. It will be interesting to learn what comes of it. I suggested (via email) that Nancy & Sean look at the Amnesty International campaign I have mentioned here and that they consider incorporating literary as well as "factual" text in something like the way I suggest here. As a more specific example I suggested that, given that the troubles in Sudan are in significant ways the artifact of colonial boundaries and identities, Sean might use something like:

Partition
W.H. Auden

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
"Time," they had briefed him in London, "is short. It's too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we've arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Muslim and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you."
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

This surely would focus viewer's attention more on political causes and consequences of the current violence and mayhem in Sudan. And it might encourage them to see the troubles there as part of a much more general pattern. That likely would make "humanitarian" organizations nervous and it raises questions about whether humanitarian remedies are close to being adequate. (I have raised something like this issue in a previous post on Burtynsky and environmentalism.)

So I applaud Nancy and Sean for laying down the challenge that they do. Their offer a much needed provocation. And I push they and their readers to consider whether they want to involve themselves in politics. That, I think, is where this challenge leads. And that, I think, is where the action is.

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25 August 2006

Cade Martin

This poster is part of the publicity for the Campaign to Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Traffiking sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The image was made by Washington DC based photographer Cade Martin. It is one of a number of truly creepy photographs depicting women who have been forced into sexual slavery.
















The scenes Martin portrays are fictitious. The women involved are actors or models playing a part and in that sense the images remind me of Leon Golub's "Interrogation" paintings. Golub relied on photographs of sado-masochistic pornography as models for the pain of torture. That was in the relatively innocent days before the "bad apples" at Abu Ghraib provided us with images of actual torture from which future painters might work. In any case, I find Martin's photographs creepy in much the same way that Golub's paintings are. Here is another image from the same series:

















"Human Trafficking." © Cade Martin.

These images raise for me an important question. One the one hand, they are fictitious, staged and so not "documentary" in any standard sense. On the other hand, they depict an extremely harsh reality in a powerful way. How do we classify these in terms of the standard (and I think highly unsatisfactory) categories of art versus documentary photography? This powerful and important use of photography clearly breaks through that tired dichotomy.

PS: A good place to start for information on contemporary human trafficking is Kevin Bales Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (University of California Press). See also the organization for which Bales works - Free the Slaves.

PS#2: You might also see this useful page from the BBC - "Slavery in the 21st Century. "

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Truthful Imagas (4): Walker Evans Re-Printed













Walker Evans. "Untitled. Selma, Alabma (1936)"

Michael Kimmelman has an interesting review in The New York Times (25 August) of a show currently at the UBS Art Gallery (to which I cannot locate a link) in NYC. The show consists of digitized reproductions of classic Depression-era Evans originals. Kimmelman's review is entitled "Walker Evans. Or Is It?" and he raises interesting questions surrounding the technological reproduction of photographs. I must say that I find it difficult to get too exercised by such matters, but Kimmelman does note that the size differential between the originals and the reproductions surely influences the way we look at the images. He notes differences in contrast and so forth due to differences in the production processes. And, of course, he raises the obvious analogy to what we think when photojournalists engage in "any hanky-panky in the printing process" that might alter images in ways not too different from this process of digitization. The answer, I think, comes down to the uses to which we hope to put different sorts of image.

But Evans, according to Kimmelman, apparently was almost entirely uninterested in the printing process. And among top contemporary photographers it is possible to discern a range of attitudes to such matters - from Edward Burtynsky who seems preoccupied with production issues dictated by his large color images, to Sebastiao Salgado who has a production/layout team headed by his wife Leila, to Josef Koudelka who, I seem to recall, no longer bothers to print most of what he shoots at all (he is too busy shooting pictures to deal with such mundane things). So what precisely is at issue here?

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Beyond Words

I ran across this web page today while trying without success to track down work by a particular photographer who hopefully will be the subject of a future post. The page allows you to link to a (tiny) version of a short, quite moving CBC documentary in which a number of photographers reflect on their work. The title of the documentary is "Beyond Words" and I agree that the experiences these photographers depict of violence and devastation and mayhem caused by war in fact occupy that terrain. This, though, raises two questions in my mind. The first has to do with "hope." It seems to me that even the most jaundiced of the photographers (and I do not mean to criticize any of them) retain some hope that by "bringing" light to the suffering of those who endure the pain and suffering of war will have some positive impact. That is, I think, especially remarkable. It leads me to think, though, that the film is mis-titled and that rather than being about "photographers of war" it is really (to steal James Nachtwey’s phrase) about "anti-war photographers." The second thing is a perplexity I feel. The images these men and women produce capture horror and so wordlessness. But the experiences they capture are of man-made circumstances. In that sense these horrors reflect the failure of politics and are susceptible only to political solutions and remedies. Yet politics is quintessentially a realm of language - of debate and discussion and negotiation and so forth. Can images that convey wordless horror help us learn to talk well enough to, if not avoid war altogether, at least end particular conflicts?
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PS: If you are interested in hearing from photographers at greater length on the topics raised here I would recommend two videos that focus on James Nachtwey and Sebastiao Salgado respectively. You might also keep an eye out for "The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club" - for background check out the book whose title overlaps with that of the film: The Bang Bang Club. I would be happy for suggestions about related films or books!

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23 August 2006

Ed Tufte on Truth & Beauty .... and Consequences

I have posted about Ed Tufte's work on data graphics before. Here is a story about Tufte from npr prompted by the appearance of his most recent book Beautiful Evidence. Tufte's work is really wonderful and important. In his home discipline (and my own) of political science, as well as in the social sciences more generally, it unfortunately has fallen more or less on deaf ears.

In my earlier post I noted the connection between Tufte's concerns and those of pragmatists like Dewey. I will take the opportunity to reiterate that point here. You can find the following passage in Dewey's The Public & Its Problems (1927) where he mounts a forceful challenge to elitist and technocratic skepticism regarding the scope of democratic politics:

"It is often said, and with a great appearance of truth, that the freeing of inquiry would not have an especial effect. For, it is argued, the mass of the reading public is not interested in learning and assimilating the results of accurate investigation. Unless these are read, they cannot seriously affect the thought and action of members of the public; they remain secluded in library alcoves, and are studied and understood only by a few intellectuals. The objection is well taken save as the potency of art is taken into account. A technically high-brow presentation would appeal only to those technically high-brow; it would not be news to the masses. Presentation is fundamentally important and presentation is a question of art. A newspaper which was only a daily edition of a quarterly journal of sociology or political science would undoubtedly possess a limited circulation and a narrow influence. . . . The freeing of the artist in literary presentation, in other words, is as much a precondition of the desirable creation of adequate opinion on public matters as is the freeing of social inquiry. Men's conscious life of opinion and judgement often proceeds on a superficial and trivial plane. But their lives reach a deeper level. The function of art has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness."

I am unsure how far Tufte would push his own views about accurate presentation of data and information - whether, that is, he is concerned primarily about influencing policy-makers or about having an effect on the public more generally. But that is of little concern since there is no reason to think that his point lacks a more general application. Dewey would surely applaud!

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21 August 2006

Truthful Images (3): Joe Rosenthal

Coincidently, I was in Arlington, Virginia this past weekend and saw the memorial statue created after this photograph from the window of a taxi. In any case, Joe Rosenthal, the photographer who took the picture has died. You can read the obituary from The New York Times here. The controversy has always been about whether or not the photograph had been staged. In this, of course, the iconic image is hardly unique. [Photo © Joe Rosenthal/Associated Press]

Truthful Images (2)

Also in The New York Times yesterday (20 August 2006) was a story that is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. It appeared in the Real Estate section and is entitled "Finding Tax Revenue Through Aerial Imaging" by-line to Fred Bernstein. The story discusses how local tax assessors rely on aerial photography to inventory property and to respond to owner appeals of assessments. Here is how the story begins:

"Why Some Homeowners May Not Be Smiling for These Cameras

THERE are about 300,000 row houses in Philadelphia, which means there are about 300,000 row house owners in Philadelphia who would like to see their tax assessments lowered.

Some of them get in touch with the city’s Board of Revision of Taxes. A caller may say, "Our house is in the worst condition of any on the block," said Barry Mescolotto, the board’s assistant administrator. These days, Mr. Mescolotto has a good answer: "I’ll say, ‘I’m looking at a photo of your house, and it looks to be about the same as all the others.’ "

"That usually ends the conversation," Mr. Mescolotto said.

Until recently, assessors had to accept homeowners’ claims or visit the properties themselves. But in 2003, the city hired the Pictometry International Corporation, a company in Rochester, N.Y., to provide images of every building in the city.

Once a year, Pictometry flies a Cessna 172 over Philadelphia, taking thousands of black-and-white photographs. The low-altitude shots, unlike satellite images, show buildings at about a 40-degree angle. Pictometry’s computers organize the photos so they can be searched by address. Nearly 200 employees in Mr. Mescolotto’s office have the software on their computers.

Pictometry isn’t the only company offering aerial photos to assessors, but it has won adherents in more than 200 cities and counties, according to Dante Pennacchia, Pictometry’s chief marketing officer. Its competitors include an Israeli company, Ofek International, working with Aerial Cartographics of America, based in Orlando, Fla.

Mr. Mescolotto said that the Pictometry system, which costs Philadelphia about $100,000 a year, "probably paid for itself within about two weeks."


The Times story is illustrated with a large image showing Mr. Mescolotto sporting a broad grin as well as with this smaller image of the George Eastman House in Rochester (which as a not-for-profit is off the city tax rolls).

So, the two reasons I find this interesting are: (1) that Pictometry International is headquartered in Rochester and (2) that their product illustrates my own preoccupation with the various uses of photography. You can compare an earlier post about the uses of aerial images to display and discriminate among patterns of sprawl. While that use may seem "progressive", the use discussed here may seem more like surveillance in Foucault's sense. Then again, property owners are simply seeking to evade taxes that are required for the exercise of liberty as well as for the alleviation of inequality.

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20 August 2006

Truthful images

On the 'Table of Contents' pages for The New York Times Magazine today we find the following comment:

"Back Story 8.20.06

An unfortunate byproduct of the revelation earlier this month that a photographer stringing for Reuters in Beirut had Photoshopped a picture (adding and darkening smoke clouds in a bombing scene - as if reality weren’t intense enough) is that we are discussing that rather than the remarkable images, neither doctored nor faked, being captured by brave and artful photojournalists every day in Israel and Lebanon. One of the most original of them is Simon Norfolk, whose photograph of a bombed bridge north of Beirut appears . . . in today’s magazine. . . . He works with a large format 4 x 5 camera, focusing under a black cloth, and uses sheet film, which means that he had to drive his pictures out of Beirut to Jordan and then fly them to Paris for processing. Very pre-digital. Very True."

You can find a number of Norfolk's images here. The photograph that appears in the magazine today appears below, with this caption: "No Way. The remains of the Halat-Fidar bridge in Lebanon on Aug. 4, hours after Israeli air strikes destroyed it and several other bridges along the main highway north of Beirut."


I largely agree that the controversy over altering photos distracts from the work of terrific photographers like Norfolk as well as from the realities of war and other man made mayhem. However, I am interested in the conception of truth that The Times invokes here. My concern is not that they are somehow using an idiosyncratic conception but rather that they are articulating one that is both common in discussions of photography and suspect. At this point I am merely noting the theme and will set it aside for subsequent posts.

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Aperture (Fall 2006)

The latest issue of Aperture is on the newsstands. I do not subscribe, but picked up this issue because it has contributions from Rebecca Solnit and David Levi Strauss, two of the vey best commentators on photography around.

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18 August 2006

South Africa: The Structure of Things Then

Until recently, I had been unfamiliar with South African photographer David Goldblatt but lately have tracked down some of his work and especially appreciate the ways he connects images and text. I recommend this post by Phillip over at 1mag3 on Goldblatt's work.

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15 August 2006

Andre Cypriano




















All three images © Andre Cypriano

I've just discovered the web page for Brazilian photographer Andre Cypriano. He has produced photo-essays on shantytowns in Brazil and Venezuala that are both stunning in aesthetic terms and extremely powerful as social comment. I lifted these examples of his work from various sources on the internet but really recommend his web page which has much larger and higher
resolution images.

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Koudelka on Ireland

On occasion it is nice to simply post images that I happen to like. Here is one from Czeck photographer Josef Koudelka. I generally like his work I recall reading an interview with him (itself relatively rare since he seems averse to talking about his work) that he has more or less stopped developing images and is simply taking pictures and "saving" them to develop later. I admit that that seems quite odd to me. Having said that I do like this shot even though it may seem something of an anti-Irish slander!


Ireland, 1976. © Josef Koudelka.

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14 August 2006

Who in Washington Knew What, When About the Israeli "Retaliation" Against Hezbollah?

Well, the news is that the Bush administration may be even more cravenly opportunistic and dupicitous than even I might've expected. According to a piece by Seymour Hershin the most recent issue of The New Yorker the administration was informed of Israeli plans to use more or less any pretext to launch attacks against Hezbollah and condoned the plan as part of a larger aspiration to target Iran:

"The Bush Administration . . . was closely involved in the planning of Israel’s retaliatory attacks [against Hezbollah in southern Labanon]. President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney were convinced, current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials told me, that a successful Israeli Air Force bombing campaign against Hezbollah’s heavily fortified underground-missile and command-and-control complexes in Lebanon could ease Israel’s security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American preëmptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations, some of which are also buried deep underground."

My aim here is not to defend Hezbollah but to suggest that the current war apparently has been orchestrated for reasons well beyond the detention of a couple of Israeli soldiers. If Hersh is correct BushCo are more dangerous than I suspected. Of course, officials in the State and Defense departments as well as the Bush administration all deny his story. If he is correct it raises questions about whether war was, as the Israeli government insists, unavoidable.
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PS: If the Hersh essay is not enough to turn your stomach I recommend Hendrik Hertzberg's comment in the same issue on BushCo's "gamble" in Iraq. The only ones who seem not to understand that the invasion has been an abject failure on virtually every dimension are (unfortunately) in the adminsitration. Can you say Civil War?

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13 August 2006

Bush Postpones 2008 Election

I came across this very disturbing but unsurprising news this morning in The Nation:

Bush Postpones 2008 Election
Stephen Gillers

Cites Constitutional Power to Protect Nation's Security

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2008. President Bush, citing his authority as Commander in Chief of the armed forces and his inherent constitutional power over foreign affairs, today ordered a postponement of the 2008 presidential election in order "to protect the American people in our war on terror."

In a speech during a surprise visit to Baghdad, where he celebrated the summer solstice with the troops, Mr. Bush told the nation that the election will be "rescheduled as soon as a change in leadership does not create a security threat and not a second later. When the Iraqis stand up, we'll vote."

"Elections are important," the President acknowledged. "I know that. I believe in elections. I'm President because of an election, sort of. But protecting the nation from another 9/11 is more important than holding an election precisely on time."

The President noted that as Commander in Chief he had already approved telephone wiretapping without court warrant, incarcerated alleged "enemy combatants" indefinitely without trial and, in a February 2002 order, now rescinded, had authorized the armed forces to ignore the Geneva Conventions when "consistent with military necessity," so long as everyone was treated "humanely."

"If I can do all that, I can defer an election," the President said. "Look, as between not voting on time and getting locked up without all those Geneva rules and such, which is worse?"
In a Washington press conference following the President's speech, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales laid out the legal basis for his department's conclusion that the President could postpone the election.

"Legally, it's simple," Mr. Gonzales said. "It depends on what the meaning of 'four years' is. The Constitution says the President 'shall hold his office during the term of four years.' It does not say 'only four years' or 'four years and not a day more.' The Framers intended 'four years' to be a preference, not a rigid number. We should not take it literally any more than the words 'hold his office' means no woman can be President. A woman is running now.

"Time meant something different in 1789," Mr. Gonzales added. "This was before airline schedules and self-winding watches. People didn't run their lives by the clock. Many Americans didn't have clocks."

In a speech on the Senate floor, Joseph Lieberman (IND-Conn.) supported the President's decision. "While I do not believe we should lightly suspend the exercise of the franchise," he said, "protection of the nation cannot be and must not be a partisan issue. As Americans, we can all agree that security is the most important job of a President. We can have a country without an election, but we cannot have an election without a country. It's as simple as that."

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the likely Democratic nominee, had no immediate comment, but her office said she will hold a news conference following the results of early polling. A spokesperson for her campaign, granted anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press about anything, said the senator "is absolutely opposed to postponing the election as such, but she is amenable to rescheduling the day designated for the actual vote. There is a difference."

Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he was "troubled" that he had not been consulted on the President's decision. He vowed to "hold hearings following the day that should have been election day if I am chairman of the committee at that time. Unfortunately, we're backlogged on judicial nominations at the moment, and then there's the summer recess. People have plans and nonrefundable tickets."

At his press conference, Mr. Gonzales denied that the Supreme Court's 2006 rejection of military tribunals meant that the President could not delay an election. That decision, known as Hamdan, rested on federal statutes and the Geneva Accords. "Hamdan was about trials, not voting," he explained. "Geneva doesn't apply to voting. It's a mistake to confuse the two."

Asked if he expected a court challenge to the President's decision, Mr. Gonzales said he was "resigned to the prospect that some may cynically try to use this for their own political advantage." But he added that he was "confident that if the case reaches the Supreme Court, five Justices will agree with our interpretation of 'four years.'"

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Oz, et. al., Oppose Occupation

At the outset of the most recent conflagration between Israel & Hezbollah I posted a couple of times and drew from writings by Amos Oz. You can find those posts here and here. It seems that Oz has recently come around to much the position I would've expected. You can read about it in this Haaretz article.

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12 August 2006

"No Surprise That the Camera Lies"

Interestingly, this essay by Geoff Dyer (who edited John Berger's Selected Essays) appeared in The Guardian today. The essay is prompted by the various recent scandals surrounding the efforts by photojournalists and editors to tamper with photographs. Dyer's thoughts seem pretty much on target. - although it is not, as he makes clear, "the camera" that lies, but people who use photographs to dissemble and circulate untruhts. So the title of the essay is off. As an aside, Dyer's own recent book The Ongoing Moment was the subject of one of my earliest posts here in blog-land.

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The Uses of Photography: John Berger

A few weeks ago I ran across this terrific portrait of writer, critic and all around very smart fellow John Berger on the web page of French photographer Laure Vasconi. It reminded me of Berger's 1978 essay "Uses of Photography" and prompted me to go back and re-read it.

John Berger © Laure Vasconi.

Berger distinguishes "between two quite distinct uses of photography." There are, he claims, "photographs which belong to private experience and those which are used publicly." The former are those we take of family and friends that remain more or less continuous with our everyday experience and for which we can, as a result, supply meaning and provide context. This category of photographs - those that chronicle personal life - is the subject of this recent essay in The Guardian. I am not much interested in that use of photography. The latter, public, uses of photography, however, do interest me. According to Berger these pose a special difficulty:

"The contemporary public photograph usually presents an event, a seized set of appearances, which has nothing to do with us, its readers, or with the original meaning of the event. It offers information, but information severed from all lived experience. If the public photograph contributes to a memory, it is to the memory of an unobservable and total stranger. The violence is expressed in that strangeness. It records an instant sight about which this stranger has shouted: Look!

Who is the stranger? One might answer: the photographer. Yet if one considers the entire use-system of photographed images, the answer ‘the photographer’ is clearly inadequate. Nor can one reply: those who use the photographs. It is because the photographs carry no certain meaning in themselves, because they are like images in the memory of a total stranger, that they lend themselves to any use."

Public uses of photography, then, place before us the difficulty of how we locate images in a meaningful context. And here Berger suggests an approach that connects with the one I gestured toward in my last post. "The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images." This task, he observes is crucial insofar as the resulting "context replaces the photograph in time - not its own original time for that is impossible - but in narrated time." And only this will give us the opportunity to "put a [public] photograph back into the context of experience, social experience." If I understand Berger properly what he recommends requires that we explore the interaction of photography and a variety of written texts. I agree.

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11 August 2006

Images of Chad & the Perils of "Afro-Pessimism"

The African nation of Chad attained independence from France 47 years ago (1960) yesterday. As a way of marking the anniversary Slate posted a series of photographs by Raymond Depardon including this one:
















N'DJAMENA, Chad—Refugees cross the Chari River, 1980.
© Raymond Depardon / Magnum Photos.


This is the sort of image that I suspect curator Okwui Enwezor has in mind when he speaks of "Afro-pessimism" (see my post from a couple of days ago). Here is the assessment he offers in a recent interview: "It's already a given that Africa is represented in the news, however it's very difficult for the news about Africa and images of Africa to go beyond the already established contentions and clichés of the continent. The conventions through which Africa is imaged always express incredible deficiency. We're presented a place that is always in the midst of disintegration and chaos, almost at the edge of disappearing. So we tend to approach Africa with a sense of pity. In reality, there is much more going on. . . . I'm not condemning [photo-journalists], but these are conventions that have become a pathology, and this pathology is at the heart of Afro-pessimism."

Two points. First, Enwezor surely is condemning photojournalists and the conventions they sustain. The show he curated quite intentionally is meant to stand in contrast to photojournalistic representations of Africa. Second, Enwesor does not make the absurd claim that there "is no deprivation or depravity in contemporary Africa." How then might such hardships be represented? It surely will not do to ignore them especially since we in the West and North are in many instances culpable politically.

One approach would be to place the large-scale difficulties we encounter in Africa in a broader context. That way Africa does not represent the "abnormal," but rather another instance of the devastating things humans do to one another. So we might pair the picture posted above (and others like it) not only with images from non-African contexts but with texts. Here I have in mind, for instance, this poem by Adam Zagajewski, from his Without End: New & Selected Poems (2002):

REFUGEES

Bent under burdens which sometimes
can be seen and sometimes can't,
they trudge through mud or desert sands,
hunched, hungry,

silent men in heavy jackets,
dressed for all four seasons,
old women with crumpled faces,
clutching something - a child, the family
lamp, the last loaf of bread?

It could be Bosnia today,
Poland in September '39, France
eight months later, Germany in '45,
Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt.

There's always a wagon or at least a wheelbarrow
full of treasures (a quilt, a silver cup,
the fading scent of home),
a car out of gas marooned in a ditch,
a horse (soon left behind), snow, a lot of snow,
too much snow, too much sun, too much rain,

and always that special slouch
as if leaning towards another, better planet,
with less ambitious generals,
less snow, less wind, fewer cannons,
less History (alas, there's no
such planet, just that slouch).

Shuffling their feet,
they move slowly, very slowly
toward the country of nowhere,
and the city of no one
on the river of never.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Alternatively (or additionally) one might use this poem by Wislawa Szymborska from her Poems, New & Collected 1957-1997 (1998):

SOME PEOPLE

Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.

They abandon something close to all they've got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.

What happens quietly: someone's dropping from exhaustion.
What happens loudly: someone's bread is ripped away,
someone tries to shake a limp child back to life.

Always another wrong road ahead of them,
always another wrong bridge
across an oddly reddish river.
Around them, some gunshots, now nearer,
now farther away,
Above them a plane seems to circle.

Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or, better yet, some nonexistence
for a shorter or a longer while.

Something else will happen, only where and what,
Someone will come at them, only when and who,
in how many shapes, with what intentions.
If he has a choice,
maybe he won't be the enemy
and will let them live some sort of life.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh & Stanilaw Baranczak

Such texts would both generalize and sharpen the sorts of photographs that Enwezor finds objectionable. This approach might "normalize" Africa by suggesting just how common, say, forced displacement caused by war, famine or other man-made disaster actually is across the globe. It might actually complement Enwezor's own efforts in interesting ways. But it would, in any case, require exploring the connections between images and texts and how we might combine them to good effect.

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Redundancy & Dissembling on the Campaign Trail

I saw these two headlines on in The New York Times this morning: "Arrests Bolster G.O.P. Bid to Claim Security as Issue" and "Lieberman, on the Offensive, Links Terror Threat and Iraq." For a moment I figured there'd been an oversight, that the editors had run the same story twice. Oooopps!! I forgot that Lieberman is not (yet) a Republican. My bad!

The irony, of course, is that before the ill-fated, BushCo hatched, Lieberman suported invasion of and quagmire in Iraq, there was no evidence of a any connection between Iraq and the terrorists about whom we should worry. Remember, that was among the whoppers (otherwise know as lies) that the hawks used to sell the policy. But now, given the rollicking success of the GOP/Lieberman foreign policy, there is one. Can you say "self-fulfilling prophecy?" The Republicans and Lieberman are now correct. There probably now is a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda-like attacks - it is the connection they have forged. If only we were not pursuing idiotic foreign wars we might be able to forge a reasonably effective and justifiable policy of actual homeland security.

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10 August 2006

Seeing Beyond Black and White: An Appreciation of Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley is among my favorite authors; I have read most everything he has written starting with his mystery Devil in a Blue Dress which I picked up many years ago now, when I still lived in Evanston, Illinois. I can’t say why I picked it up, but I remember too the wonderful bookstore where I bought it, "Great Expectations" which, I think, has unfortunately since gone out of business. In any case, I have recently noticed a feature of his fiction about which I have been dimly aware. Mosley nearly always introduces his African-American characters by color, using an extremely varied palette. Here are some examples from the book I am currently reading - The Man in My Basement.

The protagonist of the novel is a slightly down-on-his-luck thirty-three year old black man Charles Blakey. His slightly nosey neighbor is "Irene Littleneck, eighty years old and black as tar." His running buddies Clarence and Ricky are cousins. Charles describes the former as being "tan-colored," and the latter as "darker than his cousin but not nearly my color." His Uncle Brent, late and unlamented, had been "a deep brown color, with thick lips that were always turned down as if he had a bad taste in his mouth." Lainie Brown, "a heavyset woman with auburn skin", had been Charles's co-worker and sole friend among the otherwise white employees at Harbor Savings, the bank from which he'd been let go under suspicion of petty embezzlement. Jane Sadler, a woman with whom Charles recalls spending a moment of passion "had skin the color of mine and bright eyes and long curly hair." Charles remembers his mother vividly and fondly and his father less distinctly - "a big hole in my memory, a hole where there was a yearning." Both are deceased; she had "a long face and coffee-and-cream-colored skin" while he was "[m]uch darker ... strong ... with big hands and a giant's laugh." Narciss Gullly, an antique dealer who becomes the object of Charles' affections, has a complexion that is "brown, mostly dark brown, but here and there it lightened a little, lending a subtle texture to her skin." Finally, Bethany, the woman whose charms Ricky seems intent on exploring is a large woman whose "face was wide and the color of dark amber."

And I am only on page 88 ... The point is that the world is colorful and Mosley regularly reminds us of that. Although it is a theme in all his work, Mosley's writing works to make our views of race more complex and subtle. It is not just that Mosley reminds us that "black" Americans come in various hues, but also, as was recently pointed out to me, that their social and political and economic and cultural experiences are equally or perhaps more diverse. This may seem a commonplace. In a sense it is. You should read Walter Mosley if you have not already. By helping you appreciate this commonplace, he will help you think beyond black and white.

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09 August 2006

Joe Lieberman - Sanctimonious Opportunist

So, Lamont beat Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary. And Lieberman, quite characteristically, is refusing to accept defeat and vowing to run as an "independent." There is a lot of hand-wringing among the Democrats, who simply ought to cut Lieberman off from all sources of financial and political support.

I am not from Connecticut. I do not know much about Ned Lamont. I only wish someone plausible would challenge Hilary Clinton from the left in New York. Having said all that, I loath Lieberman; he is an especially objectionable type - a sanctimonious opportunist. He regularly lectures others on principle and morality. Interestingly, though, he combines that habit that with an almost unlimited capacity for political opportunism. If you want more or less definitive reasons to dislike Joe and to anticipate that he will do his utmost to insure that - if he cannot win the Connecticut Senate seat in the general election - that Republicans will have a better chance, read this from Hendrik Hertzberg over at The New Yorker. Lieberman wants others to act in a principled way but recognizes no motivation for his own behavior beyond pure political ambition and self-promotion.

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08 August 2006

Looking at Africa

I came across an essay and slideshow in Open Democracy by Okwui Enwezor, curator of the exhibition "Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography." The exhibition was at the ICP in New York this past spring. (You can read The New York Times review and see some of the works here; the Village Voice assessment is here.) It has now traveled to Miami Art Central where it will be through the 27th of this month (unfortunately I cannot find a working link to that venue).













"Lagos Uptight" (2001-05) © Kelechi Amadi-Obi

The Open Democracy essay apparently is adapted from Enwezor's introduction to the exhibition catalogue. In it he writes:

"Given the prevailing, anti-photogenic gaze of these artists, the exhibition most certainly denies the viewer the violent spectacle of deprivation and depravity that has constituted the signature visual image of Africa. In fact, the works evidence a subtle yet substantive critique of such images. Not because there is no deprivation or depravity in contemporary Africa, but because the metaphors of violence and poverty cheapen our understanding of the cultural context.

The paradox is that images of suffering – which function as a sort of shorthand for neither looking properly nor seeing Africans in "normal" human terms – do not ameliorate the disasters that they purportedly engage. On the contrary, they have compounded and skewed the photographic imperatives of a mediatised fascination with the continent's "abnormality" as the primal scene of global media's masochist pleasure, its unrelenting horror vacui. This is why quite often what the viewer encounters in the works produced by artists and photographers in this exhibition is a kind of anti-photogenic and anti-spectacular approach to making images."


Couleurs de Pêche [Colors of Fishing], from the series Capitales Africaines, ca. 2000-2005, © Boubacar Touré Mandemory,

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07 August 2006

"An Orgy of Power"

I am an Easterner, having really never done more than visit further west than Chicago. My wife, however, is from the west coast. Kimberley grew up in Eugene, Oregon which is home to the University of Oregon. She has spent most of the summer there with our son August visiting her parents. Some time ago she recommended that I check out the most recent issue of the Northwest Review which is produced by the English Depatment at UofO. There are, she told me, several provocative pieces in the Spring 2006 issue (Volume 44, #2) but, most importantly, an essay on torture ("An Orgy of Power") by an artist and friend of her family, George Gessert. A couple of weeks ago I ran into "Max," as George is known, while visiting Kimberley and August in Eugene. Max and his wife Kate were at a protest outsisde the Eugene Hilton where the state Republican Party was having a conclave of some sort. Kate was trying somewhat comically to get the simulated blood - applied for dramatic effect - off her hands.

In any case, the Gessert essay is a thoughtful one. Max depicts the systematic use of torture as "an orgy of unchecked self-expansion" which raises at least two more or less converse concerns. The first is the complicity of those -ourselves - who are the perhaps unwilling but nonetheless actual "beneficiaries" of any such policy. He brings this point home with a quite discomfitting contrast. On the one hand, Max points to the reaction of the French populace as they learned that their troops had engaged in torture in Algeria. He claims that that public realization rapidly spelled the end of popular support for the Algerian war. On the other hand, he points to the complacency of large numbers of Americans in the face of incontrovertable evidence that the Bush administration is pursuing a policy of using torture and of (tacitly or explicitly) condoning allies who practice it. Has that knowledge in any significant way eroded popular support for the way BushCo are prosecuting their war on terror?

The second point addresses the effects of torture. In a way Max is stressing that torture has a very extended half-life. It clearly effects those on whom it is directly applied. But it also effects the offspring of those who are tortured and, again, their offspring as well, and so on. How do survivors of torture raise theier children and grandchildren? How does that work its way out though generations? What is it like to know not just that torture exists in the world (as the installations in a recent Amnesty International campaign - «Cela existe. Pas ici, mais maintenant.» - forcefully remind us), but that people we know - one's siblings or parents, one's grandparents, one's cousins, aunts or uncles, one's neighbors, friends and lovers - have themselves been tortured? I put this in terms of half-life but, given his interest in the relationship of aesthetics and biological evolution, Max might instead frame the questions as "What is the cultural inheritance of torture?". What impact has the current cavalier attitude toward torture had on the evolution of more just or civilized societies?
_______________

It is a sign of my own insularity that I'd had never heard of the Northwest Review. To the best of my knowledge it is unavailable on line (I tracked it down at the University library). But it is just one of very many quality literary magazines (no news there!). You can find helpful, if still partial, indexes of such publications here and here.

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06 August 2006

"Long before Brazil was a country, it was a color."

David Levi Strauss offers that reminder in an essay on Brazilian photographer Miguel Rio Branco. Can a country be a color - or the reverse? (This extends the issue I raised in my post yesterday about how we conceptualize a region.) Here are a few of Rio Branco's images:

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil—Dancing to the rhythm of bossa nova at
Copacabana Beach, 1989. © Miguel Rio Branco/Magnum Photos

LUZIANIA, Brazil—1974. © Miguel Rio Branco / Magnum Photos

BRAZIL—1992. © Miguel Rio Branco/Magnum Photos

Levi Strauss continues: "Medieval European painters used the rich red dye made from brazilwood (Caeslpina) to obtain transparent reds in dark passages, and the rose to purplish-pink inks used in Italian Renaissance drawings were mostly made from brazil. Rio Branco's Brazil is constituted primarily of color . . . These colors are carnal, in a way that makes everything seem alive, or once alive."

The pressing question for me at the moment (well beyond the issue I raised above) is whether it is possible to resuscitate what once was alive. Is it?

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Enthusiasms (1) - Paul Motian

Every so often I become more or less obsessed with a musician or writer or theorist or artist. So I figure I might as well impose my obsessions on readers here. Fair warning - I plan to do so periodically. At the moment I am preoccupied with drummer Paul Motian (who, as far as I can tell, unfortunately has no web site). Last winter I bought his 2005 CD "I have the Room Above Her" (ECM) which features his trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell.

This week I picked up his two more recent CDs. One, also on ECM, is entitled "Garden of Eden" featuring a septet (two saxophones, three guitars, bass and drums). The thing about this recording is that it tacks back and forth between originals and interpretations of work by probably my favorite two jazz composers Mingus and Monk. (In that respect I highly recommend Motian's 1988 release Monk in Motian on JMT). The idiosyncratic instrumentation and arrangements make the originals enticing and the covers fresh.

The real kicker, however, is the third release "On Broadway Vol. 4 or The Paradox of Continuity" on Winter & Winter Records. This is, as the title suggests, the 4th in a series of recordings covering Broadway tunes by various composers. I think all four volumes are still available. Motian started the series (who knew?) in the late 1980s. This project too features different versions of a trio. The current incarnation includes Chris Potter and Larry Grenadier augmented on each number by either pianist Masabumi Kikuchi or vocalist Rebecca Martin. The interpretations are all more or less off kilter (this is not Tony Bennett here) but each is really, really terrific. Three great recordings that contribute to, rework, and extend the jazz canon in two years by a fellow who is, after all, only 76 years old. This is what a long life is for!

[Thanks to Schoolkids Records - Ann Arbor & to the The Bop Shop - Rochester!]

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05 August 2006

One Day Early - Memorial















HIROSHIMA, Japan— Lanterns float on a river on the anniversary of the atomic blast, 1995. © Philip Jones Griffiths/Magnum Photos.

PRIVATE #33

This afternoon I came across the most recent issue of Private: International Review of Black & White Photographs & Texts. This is an Italian journal that has been publishing since 1992. The issue I found is #33, Summer 2006, EASTEUROPE. It contains a lot of terrific work by 16 photographers accompanied by some very brief comments by the editors and photographers as well as by short selections of verse (presented bi-lingually Italian/English). You can preview a miniture version of the current issue and also access their archives at the journal webpage.

The photographers are individuals with whose work I am entirely unfamliar. They are (mostly) European and mostly from countries of the former Soviet-bloc: Alain Keler, Andras Fekete, Andrea Hoyer, Franco Zecchin, George Georgiou, Hana Jakrlova, Imre Benkö, Ireneusz Zjezdzalka, Jason Eskenazi, Klavdij Sluban, Lenke Szilágyi, Marco Pighin, Ron Sluik,Vanessa Winship,Vladimir Markovic.




The verse selections are for a variety of "appropriate" writers: Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Boris Pasternak, and several others with whom I am unfamiliar. In each instance the verses compliment the photographic work in interesting, provocative ways.




It seems like the editors are trying to overcome the unfortunate aversion to text that plagues nearly all displays of photography. It is not that we always need words to "explain" pictures, but that the words and the images might well work in tandem to good effect and so prompt us to think and imagine in useful, creative ways. That, I think, makes this an extremely interesting venture - assuming, of course, that this is also what the editors have done in earlier issues.

The substantive focus of the images ranges across Moldova, Kosovo, Chechnya, Poland, Hngary, Russia, Albania, Serbia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan (obviously exploring, thereby, what bounds we might place on our conceptions of "Europe"). In this way too I think the journal is extremely interesting.










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04 August 2006

The Real War

This, article "Don't Look Now - US Soldiers' 'Trophy Videos' of Iraq Make Uncomfortable Viewing for the American Government Next to TV Networks' Coverage" by Chris Shaw at The Guardian, addresses the common practice of service personnel in the Iraq war taking and disseminating on the internet videos of the real war.

These are spontaneous like the images from Abu Ghraib. It turns out that the US Government doesn't much like the practice and has issued orders hoping to bring it to a halt. In all likelihood those orders are futile; technology apparently has gotten the better of the administration's efforts to control what we are shown. The videos circulaating on the net are hardly the sanitized version of modern warfare and weaponry that the administration hopes to present. As the author of The Guardian report states:

"Images I have seen recently include a close up of a suicide bomber exploding in two, an insurgent being shot through the head by an American sniper, full scale firefights between US patrols and insurgents plus endless images of body parts scattered about in the aftermath of the latest bomb explosion.

This footage is often supported by a running commentary of "awesome" and suchlike from the cameraman who has literally strapped a digital camera onto his helmet or gun barrel and shot the video while he was shooting insurgents."

This sort of imagery raises a question. Should we be worried about the charges of voyeurism - and the moral revulsion trailing in their wake - that those like Sontag level? Or should we be asking whether the administration is correct to try to restrict such imagery because they fear it might lead us to realize that war actually destroys lives in extremely disgusting ways? (Leave aside the role of the largely supne mainstream media!) Should we allow our moral reaction to subvert our political response? are they really in as much tension as I suspect?

I actually suspect that what these videos demonstrate is not only that war tears apart those who are killed and physically maimed but that it transforms those who wage the war in extremely objecitonable ways. "Awesome!"

[Thanks to an anonymous commenter for bringing this story to my attention.]

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03 August 2006

Throwing Money at Defense

In the most recent issue of The New Yorker (7 & 14 August) James Surowiecki - "The Financial Page: Unsafe at Any Price" - nicely dissects the political impulse to throw money at the Defense Department in hopes of establishing one's steadfastness, patriotism, or whatever. This is an impulse unfortunately shared by politicians of both parties. But since the Republicans control both houses of Congress as well as the executive branch these days it seems completely fair to locate most of the blame for the current idiocy with them. And, of course, lets not forget the defense contractors who are lined up to exploit the eagerly compliant politicians. As Surowiecki points out, Congress and the President are allocating huge sums to the DoD Budget without so much as a gesture toward accountability in a display of fiscal irresponsibility that cannot even be justified in terms of either enhanced homeland security or more probable success in the "war on terror." This display of venality and hypocrisy is simply nauseating.

Shows to Catch in NYC

At the moment I am subletting a terrific house in Ann Arbor. Among its nice features is that the folks who actually live here subscribe to The New Yorker, so when their mail hold expired at the Post Office the USPS letter carrier delivered a whole bundle of mail including a half-dozen recent issues (THANKS Loren & Deirdre!!). I picked up what I figure is the most recent issue (August 7 & 14) and discovered two photography exhibitions in NYC that I won't get to see but that readers might.

Unknown Fiddler from Southern US Field Trip, 1959.
Photo by Alan Lomax.

The first, entitled "Folk," is at Brooklyn Fire Proof and consists of photographs by Alan Lomax who is most famous for having tracked down and recorded a long list of American folk and blues musicians over the course of several decades (see here and here too). This seems like it could be a terrific exhibition insofar as it integrates Lomax's photographs with the music he championed. The problem? It only runs through August 6th - so catch it while you can!

The second exhibition is allegedly scheduled to run at Pace/MacGill Gallery from August 30th through September 16th. I say allegedly because (at least as of this evening) there is literally no mention of it on the Gallery web page. So, on the assumption that The New Yorker is right and the Gallery's webmaster inept, I'll mention it anyway. It is meant to consist of a number of photographs from the personal collection of photographer Richard Avedon - mostly gifts from "his friends and fellow photographers ranging from Jacgues-Henri Lartigue to Diane Arbus and Peter Hujar." Clearly you have plenty of time to figure this one out.

Do War Photographs have Reflexive Influence on Contemporary Societies?

The online photo-journal lens culture currently is featuring work by Jens Liebchen a young German photographer. The feature includes an introduction, interview and some examples of his work. Here is one of the latter, followed by some of the introductory text.


© Jens Liebchen











"In . . . DL07 Stereotypes of War, a Photographic Investigation, he has constructed a series of black-and-white photos of a city under seige – menacing helicopters buzzing abandoned buildings, furtive figures scrambling down deserted streets, smoke-filled skylines, blood-stained walls and sidewalks, too-young children armed with machine guns… Yet he took all of these photos in a city (Tirana, Albania) while it was at peace.

By co-opting the cliched genre of war phtoography and presenting a sequence of photos in a deliberate manner, the “reportage” easily carries the burden of reference that 150 years of war photography has etched into our collective consiousness."

This is a thoughtful project. Liebchen clearly aims to provoke us into thinking about war photography as a genre and to prompt us to reflect on how we see the world through the categories it provides. I have seen only that part of his work that appears on line in the links I provide in this post. In some sense he seems right. But might it not be that our societies, even when they are "at peace" as Tirana was when he took his photographs, are simply more thoroughly militarized than we normally notice? And perhaps those who take part, voluntarily or otherwise (as, for instance, in pedestrians scurrying past weapon toting army officers), in this militarized existence adopt stances and attitudes that reflect their own experience of pictures of war zones? Maybe Liebchen is sayig as much or more about our reality than about an established genre of photography?
___________

PS: Technical Difficulties. There are two. First I link above to the publisher of Liebchen's book. The link brings you to the JJ Heckenhauer home page, you need to click though to "Publications" to find the book.

Second, lens culture apparently does not like Windows Explorer (or, perhaps it is the reverse). They write: "Browser Alert - lens culture looks "beautiful" in every web browser — except Internet Explorer. Please try another browser if you typically use IE. You'll be glad you did." They are right, it is much better using, say Mozilla. But since many, many people simply use IE it seems that the lens culture folk ought to work on the compatibility issue not just write it off. I am not a huge Microsoft fan but this incompatibility is simply a deterant for many readers.

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