08 October 2008

Photography and Drawing

Paul Cadmus, To The Lynching, 1935. (Graphite and
watercolor on paper, Whitney Museum of American Art)

Among the persistent themes in photography criticism is that photographs too often aestheticize suffering. Two things bother me about this theme.

First, photographs don't do anything. People - photographers, editors, curators, protesters, politicians, propagandists, advertisers, etc. - do things with photographs. In this instance it is important to re-frame the tacit question ~ What is objectionable or commendable about the way a given photographer (or anyone else) uses beauty in depicting this or that instance of pain or suffering? Why?

Second, why is the use of beauty problematic in photography when it seems less so (or at least is less frequently attacked) in other art forms? Imagine a photograph of a white mob tormenting and preparing to lynch a young black man that was as stylized as Cadmus's drawing.

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Blogger Remiss63 said...

I'm very interested in this issue related to images aestheticizing violence. The history of images of violence being used for political purposes likely goes back beyond the advent of language. A severed head mounted on a pole speaks volumes to the uninvited visitor.

Would the head on a pole itself be without aesthetic value or importance? Would a photograph of such a blatant act of terrorism automatically be guilty of aestheticizing (and thereby minimizing) violence?

Many regimes through history have made use of such imagery to enforce behavior and conformity to the dominate social structure. These include Hitler, Stalin, Viet Cong, Al Qaeda, United States, etc.

You might want to look into an exhibition mounted in the 1930's intended to bring attention to the practice of lynching.

One of the most striking entries to this exhibition was Isamu Noguchi's Death (Lynched Figure).

artist: Isamu Noguchi.
materials: monel, rope, wood, and steel.
date: 1934.

Noguchi received a great deal of hostile criticism when exhibiting this piece in the 1930s. The commentaries not only described it as horrible, ugly, contorted, literal, lacking artistic merit, etc., but also attacked him personally as being a person of mixed race and of dubious artistic ability. Clearly, he was pained by the personal attacks, but continued to try to work with the WPA and other pro-democracy groups.

You might also be interested to see the book Lynching Photographs and others along similar lines.

08 October, 2008 17:37  

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