31 May 2007

Almanac Magazine

I thought I would take the opportunity to call your attention to a new photography publication Almanac Magazine. The first two issues have appeared, the 3rd is due in June.

In the current issue is a feature "Five Years of Curating Images Against War - Tina Schelhorn" which sketches the German curator's efforts to coordinate a continually growing exhibition (now including work by well over 600 contributing artists) at Galerie Lichtblick in Köln. You can find a selection of images in a slide show at Almanac; and you can find a whole lot more at the IAW exhibition's web page here.


Eliciting Poignancy

On Memorial Day The New York Times included this picture by John Moore in a slide show prompted by the holiday. In The Times, the photo carried this caption: "Mary McHugh visited the grave of her fiancé, Sgt. James J. Regan, who was killed in Iraq in February. He is buried in the new Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan." This is an edited version of the text you find if you track down the photograph in the "editorial" category at Getty Images. There the accompanying text reads:

"War Dead Honored On Memorial Day Weekend

ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 27: Mary McHugh mourns her dead fiance Sgt. James Regan at "Section 60" of the Arlington National Cemetery May 27, 2007. Regan, an American Special Forces soldier, was killed by an IED explosion in Iraq in February of this year, and this was the first time McHugh had visited the grave since the funeral. Section 60, the newest portion of the vast national cemetery on the outskirts of Washington D.C, contains hundreds of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Family members of slain American soldiers have flown in from across the country for Memorial Day. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)"

I find this photograph incredibly poignant and said so in a post - "Grief" - I wrote two days ago. It turns out, though that not just the caption is edited here. The image is too. And I want to think about how the photographer and editors crafted the particular version of the photograph that appeared in The Times. I do so not to call into question Mary McHugh's tragic loss or her deep, abiding sadness, but because I think it is important to understand how this image works to convey some part of that reality.

As The Times presents it, the photograph offers the impression of an isolated moment of sorrow, of a young woman bereft and alone among vast numbers of the dead, among whom is her fiancé. And, for Ms. McHugh this may well have been the case; she may well have been oblivious to any and everything that might have been transpiring around her. She very likely was subsumed in grief. How did John Moore and editors at The Times elicit that situation?

Consider the two photographs of Mary McHugh that John Moore has uploaded onto the Getty Images site (from which I've lifted them). Both carry the same running title:

"War Dead Honored on Memorial Day Weekend" - Image #74345338

"War Dead Honored on Memorial Day Weekend" - Image #74345339

Judging by the consecutive image numbers, Moore apparently took the top picture first, then walked past, behind Ms. McHugh, shifting perspective for the lower one. This move not only highlighted her position perpendicular to the row of grave stones, but allowed Moore to focus solely on Ms. McHugh, excluding nearly all the other grieving individuals and groups who populate the first image. Even so, Ms. McHugh is still not quite alone. Someone, presumably the Photo Editors at The Times, has cropped the photograph, removing what I estimate to be the top 20% of its original height and, in the process, eliminating still other visitors to the cemetery and reducing the distracting vastness of the scene.

Viewing the final image in The Times creates the sensation of witnessing, perhaps of intruding on or interrupting an intensely intimate moment. No doubt the moment captured in the photograph was intensely intimate for Ms. McHugh. No doubt too, the photograph conveys something of that. But it does so only through the judgements and choices of the photographer and his editors. The poignancy here was not "found." It was elicited, evoked, drawn out, and offered to us.

[All images in this post © John Moore/Getty Images]

P.S.: It turns out that James Regan left three sisters behind, so my comparison to the Nachtwey image in my earlier post was not far off base. It turns out also that he was a star lacrosse player and, by all accounts, a terrific young man. This is among the many corners I've walked around lately only to collide with my own son Jeff. It surely makes me want to hug August and Doug all the more.

Santu Mofokeng - Billboards

"Democracy is Forever" (2003) © Santu Mofokeng

"Township Billboard" (2002) © Santu Mofokeng

"Wiinter in Tembisa" (1989) © Santu Mofokeng

Santu Mofokeng (b. 1956) is a South African photographer who has, over the years, been preoccupied with the politics of representation across classes and races in South Africa. The three images above are part of his "Rethinking Landscapes" series which feature billboards (although none about sex or cell phones). Here is part of his statement from a 2004 exhibition shown in Berlin/Vienna/Johannesburg:

"Billboards have been the medium of communication between the rulers and the denizens of townships since the beginning. The billboard is a fact and feature of township landscape. It is a relic from the times when Africans were subjects of power and the township was a restricted area, subject to laws, municipality by laws and ordinances regulating people´s movements and governing who may or may not enter the township. It is without irony when I say that billboards can be used as reference points when plotting the history and development of the township. Billboards capture and encapsulate ideology, the social, economic and political climate at any given time. They retain their appeal for social engineering. (...) At the high speed of a minibus taxi, the billboards roll by like flipping pages in a book. The retina registers arcane and inane messages about sex and cell-phones, mostly sex and cell-phones. Perhaps this is a coincidence. I wonder."

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30 May 2007

Seasonal Fires

Ingrid de Kok's volume of poems Seasonal Fires was published by Seven Stories Press last year. J.M. Coetze provides the blurb on the front cover (illegible, at least to my aging eyes, in this image) and it reads: "No one among the poets of South Africa felt more acutely the heart-pain and shame of life under apartheid, or has notated more scrupulously the faltering joy that came over the country when the weight was lifted." Although I recommend the volume as a whole, here are a couple of poems that I really like because they display how carefully de Kok traverses the intimate and the political in hopes of displaying the variegated ways these intersect in the present and recent past of her native South Africa. You can find a further handful of de Kok's poems here.

The Transcriber Speaks

I was the commission’s own captive
Its anonymous after-hours scribe,
Professional blank-slate.
Word by word by word
From winding tape to hieroglyphic key,
From sign to sign, I listened and wrote.
Like bricks for a kiln or tiles for a roof
Or the sweeping of leaves into piles for burning:
I don’t know which:
Word upon word upon word.
At first unpunctuated
Apart from quotations and full stops.
But how to transcribe silence from tape?
Is weeping a pause or a word?
What written sign for a strangled throat?
And a witness pointing? That I described,
When officials identified direction and name.
But what if she stared?
And if the silence seemed to stretch
Past the police guard, into the street
Away to a door or a grave, or a child,
Was it my job to conclude:
“The witness was silent. There was nothing left to say”?


What Everyone Should Know about Grief

“What everyone should know about grief”
is why I buy the magazine.
Between aerobic virtue on one page
and the thrills of Machu Picchu on another
grief finds its marketable stage.

The living tell their chronicles
of hurt and lost and dead.
In syncopated copy they rehearse
“the cost of rage,” “the comfort of belief,”
in words and captioned movements of the head.

The story proffers help:
advises talking as the healing cure,
commends long walks, and therapies,
assures the grieving that they will endure,
and then it gently cautions: let go, move on.

But everyone knows sorrow is incurable:
a bruised and jagged scar
in the rift of the valley of the body;
shrapnel seeded in the skin;
undoused burning pyres of war.

And grief is one thing nearly personal,
a hairline fracture in an individual skull;
homemade elegy which sounds its keening
in the scarred heart’s well;
where it is too deep to reach

the ladder of light
sent down from land above,
where hands write words
to work the winch
to plumb the shaft below.

[Both Poems © Ingrid de Kok, from Seasonal Fires: New and
Selected Poems
(NY: Seven Stories Press, 2006).]

P.S.: The cover image of Seasonal Fires consists - appropriately given de Kok's sustained poetic engagement with the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission, - of a detail from the first in the series of eight paintings by Kim Berman collectively entitled Fires of the Truth Commission (© 1999).

You can find this image and more of Berman's work in the Art Collection of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. The web page there explains: "Berman's inspiration for the work was the fires that burn on the highveld around Johannesburg - a metaphor for South Africa's "trial by fire" at the truth commission. But just as fire is a symbol of destruction, so it tells of rejuvenation, of arising anew from the ashes like that mythological bird, the phoenix. ... 'Fires' propels us forward, to days brighter - to a nation cleansed and awaiting re-growth."

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Back to "West"

"Mailboxes" © Margaret Malandruccolo

Here are my thoughts on the (now not so) new Lucinda Williams CD West. First, the pictures. The cover portrait lifted in my previous post is by Annie Leibovitz, most of the rest of the cover photos (a half dozen, including the mailboxes) are by Margaret Malandruccolo with the exception of one shot of a retiring Lucinda by Alan Messer. Malandriccolo is an accomplished photographer of musicians of various sorts but, interestingly, her images here are landscapes.

Second, the music. I was not much taken by this disc when I first listened to it. Subsequent events have made me appreciate it a lot more. Williams penned many of the tunes following her mother's death. In that sense, they depart from the more familiar numbers we might expect from her; you know, the ones that disclose love and happiness, broken hearts and squandered affection, and so forth. The reviewers seem not to get this and wish that Lucinda simply stick with her 'normal' themes. They seem to be saying "Come on! Why dwell on loss?" The problem here, though, is not with the cd but with reviewers who are emotionally tone deaf. Normal stuff fades quickly in the face of death. As Williams writes and sings on one tune:

"Faces look familiar,
But they don't have names
Towns I used to live in
Have been rearranged
Highways I once traveled down
Don't look the same
Everything has changed."

And she is means it. Quite literally, I suspect. Tone deafness is uncharitable; it prevents the critics from giving Williams the chance to try to figure out how to navigate this foreign world.

That said, I think the reviewers are right to criticize the production. Some of the musicians on the record are truly terrific (e.g., Bill Frissell, Jenny Scheinman, etc. ...) and I love Williams' vocals nearly all the time, but the production is overly sanitized. In the liner notes producer Hal Willner thanks the musicians "for the thousands of goosebumps." And he continues "These musicians should be running the world." O.K, - suppose we agree with the latter sentiment; why on earth didn't Willner turn them loose a bit more in the studio? If you are going to stick your neck out and move away from a predictable alt-country line-up (and I do like the regulars too!), at least make the risk pay off. Otherwise you might discourage others from exploring musical boundaries and interstices too. The point here is not that the cd needs more "rockers," but that it could include considerably more by way of dangling or off-kilter or challenging solos and arrangements; and all of that could well be understated, of course.

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Design for the Other 90%

I just noticed this story in The New York Times (29 May) on a new exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in NYC. Called Design for the Other 90% it features work by various designers (and fellow travelers) who are "devising cost-effective ways to increase access to food and water, energy, education, healthcare, revenue-generating activities, and affordable transportation for" populations in the developing world and for poor populations in the 'developed' world. The products are intended in one or another way to contribute to "help, rather than exploit, poorer economies; minimize environmental impact; increase social inclusion; improve healthcare at all levels; and advance the quality and accessibility of education." The exhibition runs through through September 23.

PS: (Added later that same day) - One thing that bothered me about the exhibition and the reports on it - well, OK, two things - revolve around the political economy of this enterprise.

First, these design solutions primarily are ameliorative (read "humanitarian") and only secondarily transformative, in the sense that they afford those who use them to devote the energy or attention the designs free up to other tasks. They in no way address the underlying causal forces that create the problems of say, inadequate shelter, lack of potable water, and so forth. In other words it is important to note that even well-intentioned design per se is not a panacea.

Second, there are crucial question regarding how these items might be produced and distributed. (Where? By whom? Through what insititutional arrangements? With what costs on the social and natural environment? To whose profit? And so on.) The backers of the exhibition have clear views on this. But it is not at all obvious that those views are defensible. They tend to spurn the notion of "charity" but presume that the only alternative to that is selling products to the poor on the market. The designers whose work is represented in this show display a ton of problem solving imagination. Perhaps what is called for is a corresponding level of imagination regarding institutional alternatives? That is a problem-solving task too! For a critical perspective on all this see this post at Art For A Change.


29 May 2007

Picnic Table (3)

"Picnic Table" © Sean Plunkett


Irresponsibility & Self-Deception Among the NeoCons

When you anticipate that the home audience simply will gaffaw at your rationalizations, why not try a road show? The audience might be more gullible. With that strategy apparently in mind Paul Wolfowitz (top) denied to the BBC that he'd done anything untoward to cause the current fiasco at the World Bank. And his side-kick (ooops, I almost said 'partner in crime') Richard Perle (bottom) was trying to sell a similarly unself-reflective line in an interview with The Guardian regarding his flawed foreign policy judgements in the run up to the Iraq invasion. Neither is willing to take an iota of responsibility. Unfortunately, for our shameless ideologues even the Brits are not so credulous as all that. An earlier commentary at the BBC notes of Wolfowitz that he "was brought down by his actions not his policies." After reviewing those corrupt actions it concludes that "in the end, what he did was his responsibility." In a remarkably similar voice, The Guardian notes not only that Perle too has been tarnished by a set of shady dealings, but that he "continues to cling to a view of events in Iraq that has now been comprehensively discredited."

What makes men like Wolfowitz and Perle dangerous is not just that they espouse idiotic views or take irresponsible actions. That surely is bad enough. What makes them especially dangerous, though, is the seemingly complete absense of understanding of how disasterous their ideas and how corrupt their actions are in fact.

PS: I lifted the images of Paul and Dick from the BBC and The Guardian respectively.


28 May 2007

Ooops! Defenders of Globalization are Not Rawlsians After All!

In his influential A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues - roughly and among other things - that in matters of distribution, justice requires that we adopt those institutional arrangements that work to the greatest benefit of the least well off. In debates about "globalization," its defenders have sought to pass themselves off as Rawlsians in this respect at least. They have tended to play what they take to be a trump card against detractors of globalization, namely that a regime of more or less wholly unfettered free trade works to the benefit of the least advantaged inhabitants of developing countries. So, detractors are faced with the charge, sometimes tacit, but usually made more or less gleefully explicit, that the defenders of globalization are, in fact, looking out for the poor while they, critics of globalization, actually are callous in their disregard. In a recent article entitled "Globalization's Gains Come With a Price," the folks at the Wall Street Journal (24 May 07) suggest that this "trump" might just be flawed. (You can find a copy of he article here.) Among the sources for the article is an academic review of the evidence for what the authors describe as “the ‘naive’ thinking about globalization” reflected in the argument I just sketched. Here is the conclusion to that review:

“The substantial amount of evidence we reviewed in this article suggests a contemporaneous increase in globalization and inequality in most developing countries. However, establishing a causal link between these two trends has proven more challenging. Despite the ambiguities involved in identifying the relationship between openness and distributional changes, it seems fair to say that the evidence has provided little support for the conventional wisdom that trade openness in developing countries would favor the less fortunate (at least in relative terms).”

- Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg and Nina Pavcnik. 2007.
“Distributional Effects of Globalization in Developing Countries,”
Journal of Economic Literature
45(1), pages 76-7.

In short, although the authors cannot tell us why, the available evidence suggests that globalization does not work to the advantage of the most disadvantaged in the developing world. Turns out that the conventional economic wisdom is wrong.

P.S.: Lest you worry that multitudes of orthodox economists will line up to recant their "naive thinking about globalization," you might check out this article by Chris Hayes from The Nation about the ways orthodoxy works in the economics profession. The article has gotten a lot of play across the economics blogs.

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© John Moore/Getty Images

It is Memorial Day here in the U.S., a holiday meant to remember those (mostly) men who have died in various wars. This heart rending picture appeared in The New York Times today over this caption: "Mary McHugh visited the grave of her fiancé, Sgt. James J. Regan, who was killed in Iraq in February. He is buried in the new Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan." It reminded me of this image.

Afghanistan, 1996 - Mourning a brother killed by a Taliban rocket.
© James Nachtwey

27 May 2007

Free Associations: Beverage Mal-Distribution

Water Movement, 2001 © David Goldes

"Bean counting

50 Number of countries where coffee is grown.

2bn Number of cups of coffee consumed each day.

42 Number of beans needed to make one espresso.

80-140 Milligrams of caffeine per cup.

£40bn Amount generated by annual sales.

3 cents Amount received by an average coffee farmer for a $3 cup of coffee."

Globalization seems like a terrific thing until you look at the details. And often globalization is a good thing, just not an unadulterated one. One can, for instance, ask about the "footprint" left by various market interactions. And people are made of carbon too. In The Guardian today is a story prompted by the independent documentary film "Black Gold" (I filched the numbers above from that report). And, of course, it won't do to switch to bottled water either, as The New York Times makes clear today.

A few years back Houston Fotofest (2004) focused on Water ... which, of course, is under pressure from privatizers.

For a relatively sane view of globalization from an economist, try Dani Rodrik's blog where he today (correctly) points out that:
"[I]n fact there is nothing in the economic case for free trade to suggest that all or most of the individuals in the economy will be better off with free trade. ... And even with respect to the aggregate gains from trade, the economist's case hinges on a large number of auxiliary assumptions. These may well be violated in the real world. I would bet my dollar on the common person having an instinctive understanding of these imperfections before I would trust a Chicago or GMU economist's priors on it."
The point, I guess, is that you should not rush to try justifying your beverage choices by invoking free trade arguments about how globalization inevitably helps poor farmers in developing countries. The devil is in the details.

P.S: Via Greg Sherwin here is a related story on coffee from the BBC.

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25 May 2007

"Fear" - Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver (c.1984) © Marion Ettlinger

This portrait of Carver was taken not far from here in Syracuse, New York just shortly befor the poem "Fear" was released in his collection Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (1985). There are, I suppose, many reasons to be afraid, some rational, some not, some conflicting, some reinforcing. Much of life seems these days to be about sorting out the ones from the others. But much of life these days has little to do with fear at all.

Raymond Carver

Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.
Fear of falling asleep at night.
Fear of not falling asleep.
Fear of the past rising up.
Fear of the present taking flight.
Fear of the telephone that rings in the dead of night.
Fear of electrical storms.
Fear of the cleaning woman who has a spot on her cheek!
Fear of dogs I've been told won't bite.
Fear of anxiety!
Fear of having to identify the body of a dead friend.
Fear of running out of money.
Fear of having too much, though people will not believe this.
Fear of psychological profiles.
Fear of being late and fear of arriving before anyone else.
Fear of my children's handwriting on envelopes.
Fear they'll die before I do, and I'll feel guilty.
Fear of having to live with my mother in her old age, and mine.
Fear of confusion.
Fear this day will end on an unhappy note.
Fear of waking up to find you gone.
Fear of not loving and fear of not loving enough.
Fear that what I love will prove lethal to those I love.
Fear of death.
Fear of living too long.
Fear of death.

I've said that.

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24 May 2007

Hey! Look At Me!

In The Guardian yesterday you can find this story on photographer Elinor Carucci who seems to specialize in providing too much visual information about herself, her family, and her relationships. This sort of exhibitionism strikes me a wholly self-indulgent and completely uninteresting. Carucci, an Israeli immigrant to NYC, claims that "No place is home now" and that her photography affords her "a personal point of view." Fine.

"And If I Don’t Get Enough Attention" (2002) © Elinor Carucci

In this appropriately titled self-portrait Carucci appears with her husband. She doesn't provide much indication about why anyone should care. I don't.

One point of comparison would be Annie Leibovitz who was widely criticized for over-sharing in her recent book A Photographer's Life. (See my earlier post on this.) But Leibovitz offers the personal work in that collection as some sort of exercise in remembrance in the wake of her friend and lover Susan Sontag's death. She largely has focused her creative energies on others and so seems to me to not even inhabit the same terrain of self-absorption as Carucci. (Nor is Carucci likely to be in the same category talent-wise as Leibovitz; we'll see.) I am not much interested in the sort of celebrity photography that Leibovitz produces. I guess what I find irritating about Carucci is that she seems to be trying, through revelation of her now-not-private-life, to elbow her way in to the celebrity crowd, most of whom are vacuous anyhow. Her work, which seems to be hailed as 'emotionally intense,' 'revealingly intimate' and so forth, seems to me like it will be in its element among the celebs. Why not work at becoming an accomplished photographer and accept whatever recognition or attention follows from that?

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Questions Clarified

A couple of days ago I noted a coincidental similarity between this post of mine and an essay on Jacob Lawrence's 'Migration Series' that subsequently appeared in the "Small Picture" series over at Open Democracy. I wrote the OD folks to inquire and they promptly wrote back, apologized, acknowledged that they mistakenly had published parts of my work, and then edited their essay to provide proper attribution. Apology and explanation accepted, everyone is happy. The OD folks nicely entered their letter to me as a comment on my "Attribution Question" post.

23 May 2007

Magical Thinking

Last weekend was commencement at the University where I teach. One of my students, a very smart, committed young woman named Emily Zametkin, graduated and headed out into the world. She's been accepted into the Peace Corps. Earlier in the spring, just after my son Jeff died, Emily sent me a card along with a copy The Year of Magical Thinking, the book in which Joan Didion recounts her reaction to the death of her husband. This was, I believe, an incredibly sensitive and insightful gift. Thanks again Emily!

I finished the book this evening. In some ways Didion drives me crazy with her ability to insinuate the pretensions of New York intellectuals into her reflections. (Do we really care that she and her late husband had copies of Daedalus lying around the living room?) But she is a very good writer and also quite astute observer of the transformations and intricacies of her own cognitive and emotional states over the course of the year. In the final pages Didion writes this passage:

"I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to
keep them alive to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a
point at which we must relinquish the dead.

Let them become a photograph on the table."

Well, I know that Didion is right. But I am not sure how that can happen even though I know it will, somehow, someday. I have a wonderful photograph of Jeffrey but I don't see how he might become that photograph. Indeed, it seems to me like magical thinking to imagine the day he might become that photograph instead of the photograph being of him. There are lots of days ahead.

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The New Technology: Color Photography

Coincidently, there have been two interesting stories about the advent of new color technology in the news of the past couple of days. Today in The Guardian you can find a slideshow showing a handful of examples of color work - "autochromes" - that is nearly a century old. Here is an example circa 1910.

"The Dryad" by John Cimon Warburg © The Royal Photographic
Collection at the National Media Museum

And in The New York Times yesterday, this story on the discovery of several images, also "autochromes," made by Edward Steichen in roughly the same era.

"Charlotte Spaulding" by Edward Steichen
© George Eastman House

In light of my last post on Jeff Wall, it seems apparent that the painterly approach, using vivd colors, posed subjects, and so forth hardly is a recent innovation in photographic works.


22 May 2007

"... one would hardly consider him a photographer" (Jeff Wall)

"Milk" (1984) © Jeff Wall

A few months back I posted on the Jeff Wall craze. At the time I pointed out why I thought that, in Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag seemed so drawn to Wall's work, namely that in terms of size, lighting, being staged, and so forth, it is so thoroughly influenced by painting. In the new issue of The Nation philosopher/critic Arthur Danto has an essay on the Wall exhibition at MoMA in NYC. The essay, entitled "Cinema Studies" begins like this:

"While there is little question that photography is the central medium in Jeff Wall's arresting works, one would hardly consider him a photographer. For one thing, he makes use of certain strategies that derive from cinema, so that he describes his typical works explicitly as cinematographic, rather than documentary, photographs. For another, though the characters, as we may call the men and women he photographs, clearly belong to the same world his viewers do, their formal relationships to one another seem based on conventions of painting, especially nineteenth-century French painting."

It seems to me that I was right, in part, about Sontag. Wall is really a 'painter,' but she would also find his "cinematographic" leanings attractive too. As Danto says, "one would hardly consider him a photographer." And that, at bottom, is why he is among the very few "photographers" about whom Sontag has much good to say.

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21 May 2007

Ooops! Homophobes Wrong Again!

In the US there is a phobic response to the very possibility that members of the military may be homosexual or the reverse. All kinds of dubious rationales were cooked up during the oh-so-liberal Clinton years in defense of the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Turns out that the phobics may just be as full of it as I and many others suspected. Here is the punch-line from a story in The New York Times about the British Military where the ban against openly homosexual troops was dropped in 2000:

"Since the British military began allowing homosexuals to serve in the armed forces in 2000, none of its fears — about harassment, discord, blackmail, bullying or an erosion of unit cohesion or military effectiveness — have come to pass, according to the Ministry of Defense, current and former members of the services and academics specializing in the military. The biggest news about the policy, they say, is that there is no news. It has for the most part become a nonissue."

I guess it turns out that who you have sex with has little to do with who you are willing to shoot at or how good a shot you actually are. Is that a surprise? Don't you just love when the chicken littles of the right are wrong? I am sure that all the bigots will be lining up to admit their mistake right away.


20 May 2007

Picnic Table (2)

"Silence" © Jim Turner


19 May 2007

Jerry Falwell

Well the vicious "Christian" died this week. Falwell did as much as anyone in recent decades to sow bigotry and intolerance in the United States. (Need examples? Look here for starters.) I found it pretty stunning how fawning the coverage of his death seemed to be. Then I came across this clip over at 3QuarksDaily in which Christopher Hitchens, with whom I disagree on many things, calls Falwell for what he was. Hitchens is truly boorish much of the time - in addition to being wrong on, say, Iraq - but here his inability to control himself serves us well. Hitchens injects the sort of skeptical view that we need in dealing with fundamentalism.

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Focusing Documentary

I find it fascinating how photographers seem to coordinate on this or that subject. For instance, on a couple of occasions I've noted in posts [1] [2] how in the mid-1980s Sebastião Salgado, Alfredo Jaar, and Miguel Rio Branco all photographed at the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil. I've recently noticed a similar example, the ecological devastation of the Aral Sea (on the border of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan)in Central Asia. The sea (which once was the 4th largest inland body of water in the world) is basically drying up, having lost roughly two-thirds of its volume and surface since the mid-1960s, due to misguided irrigation policies implemented by the Soviets. (They diverted the rivers that fed into the sea for the purpose of irrigating cotton fields.)

Muynak, on the shores of the Aral Sea © Dieter Telemans / Panos Pictures

Belgain photographer Dieter Telemans produced a project called "In Search of the Missing Sea" parts of which appeared in PRIVATE (#34, Autumn 2006). You can find parts of the series here too. Telemans took the picture I've lifted here at Muynak, Uzbekistan which was once a small sea-side city that now is located approximately 100 Kilometers from the shore.

Dry seabed, near Barsakelmesh Island, Aral Sea © Radek Skrivanek

Radek Skrivanek, a young Czech-born American photographer based in San Francisco, has produced a similar series entitled "Aral Tengzei - Story of a Dying Sea." You can find a short story on his project here at Open Democracy.

I suppose this is might just be more of what Geoff Dyer notes in his The Ongoing Moment (about which I've posted on before too [1] [2]). Is it?

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18 May 2007

Enthusiasms (8): Mavis Staples - Freedom Songs

In an interview this morning on npr Mavis Staples, who has been singing "Freedom Songs" (as well as R&B, Gospel, & Blues) for half a century in a wonderfully bracing voice, put her finger on the fact: "Racism, It's still here." Check out her newly released album here. The recordings are not revivalist, they are updated versions aimed at showing the continuities of American society over time.

PS: (Added 18 May 07) The cover image on this album is a detail of three African-American Civil Rights Activists holding hands to support one another as police in Birmingham, Alabama spray them with fire hoses (4 May 1963). Image BE002446-RM © Bettmann/CORBIS

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16 May 2007

Duane Michals, Foto Follies (2)

Last fall, I noted the publication of a new book, Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank by Duane Michals and suggested that it sounded like it would be worth tracking down. Michals appears at right in a self-portrait from 2000. Today I found the book and it is a scream, a terrific send-up of the photographers and what passes for critical discourse in the chatter surrounding them in the art world. He skewers many photographers, some of whom I quite like, with a wry and penetrating eye. The book opens with a series of photographs of Michals aka Sidney Sherman. Here is the first of those images and the caption Michals attaches to it.

“Sidney paints his fingernails shocking pink, a brilliantly audacious gesture that exposes the discorroborative bias of Revlon’s vacuity, while trenchantly confirming lipstick as a phallic ploy of alpha males vis-à-vis Derrida’s strategies of discorroboration.”

Exactly so!
Both Images in this post © Duane Michals.


Attribution Questions

A week or so ago (7 May) I wrote a post entitled "Color, Anonymity, and Forced Migration" where I discussed, among other things, some work by Jacob Lawrence. Today, I stopped by Open Democracy and discovered this short essay, "'The Great Migration', Jacob Lawrence" (posted 14 May), that coincidently also discusses the very same works. Even more coincidently the (unidentified) author at OD discusses those same works in language that at times is identical to mine. Consider these comparisons:

[JJ] "... Jacob Lawrence's "Migration Series" (1940-41) ** which 'documents' the movement of internally displaced African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the early 20th C ..."

[OD] "... the "Migration Series" (1941) illustrating the mass migration of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north after the first world war."

[JJ] " ...
Lawrence also tends to paint African Americans in silhouette (hence he's a precursor to, for example, Kara Walker) even as he regularly paints Caucasians with discernable facial features. Lawrence's migrants, then tend to be anonymous, often members of largish groups as in these paintings."

[OD] "
Lawrence's migrants tend to be anonymous, appearing in silhouette in comparison to Caucasians who are depicted with discernable facial features. They are often members of largish groups rather than individuals and the scenes convey the discrimination and lack of identity suffered by African American migrants."

I've contacted one of the editor's at OD's NYC office to see if she has any insight into this seemingly remarkable confluence of topic and language. We'll see.

Plausible Deniability

From today's New York Times: "The Rockefeller name worked its magic last night at Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art, where a mysterious bearded collector in a skybox outbid five other contenders for Rothko’s “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose).” The $72.8 million he paid, far above the painting’s $40 million estimate, set records for both the artist and for any contemporary work at auction." I just want you readers to know that I am not the "mysterious bearded collector" from this story. Bearded, yes. Mysterious, not so much. That rich, definitely not. And I have many witnesses who can place me at a tailgate party following the Fairport-Pittsford lacrosse game last night. Blogging is not that lucrative!


15 May 2007

Our Mercenaries

There are 145,000 active duty American troops currently serving in Iraq. There are nearly as many - at least 126,000 - private military contrators on the U.S.payroll there as well. That is simply stunning. I have posted before on mercenaries, how various artists depict them, and how the Bush adminstration uses them. Here at The Nation is a video of testimony that journalist Jeremy Scahill (Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army) gave on this topic last week before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. You can find the text of his remarks there too. As Scahill makes clear, not only are such mercenaries extremely costly, but they operate outside the rule of law, almost wholly circumvent legislative oversight, and subvert the morale of uniformed personnel. That is quite a trifecta we're getting for our tax dollars!
P.S.: You may consider Scahill too much of a pinko since he writes for The Nation if so, try: Peter Singer. Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003) and “Out Sourcing War” Foreign Affairs (March 2005). Here is the abstract for the latter article, published in the house journal of the hardly pink Council on Foreign Relations:

"Private companies are becoming significant players in conflicts around the world, supplying not merely the goods but also the services of war. Although recent well-publicized incidents from Abu Ghraib to Zimbabwe have shone unaccustomed light on this new force in warfare, private military firms remain a poorly understood - and often unacknowledged - phenomenon. Mystery, myth, and conspiracy theory surround them, leaving policymakers and the public in positions of dangerous ignorance. Many key questions remain unanswered, including, What is the industry and where did it come from? What is its role in the US' largest current overseas venture, Iraq? What are the broader implications of that role? And how should policymakers respond? Only by developing a better understanding of this burgeoning industry can governments hope to get a proper hold on this newly powerful force in foreign policy. If they fail, the consequences for policy and democracy could be deeply destructive."

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Fat Politics?

"Any time a fat person gets on a stage to perform and
is not the butt of a joke — that’s a political statement."
- Heather MacAllister

From “Full Body Project” © Leonard Nimoy

Somewhat surprisingly, I find this story from The New York Times on the photography of Leonard Nimoy quite thought-provoking. The story focuses primarily on Nimoy's pictures of fat women (euphemisms like "big," or "heavy" or "overweight" seem out of place for reasons that hopefully will become clear). At first I figured this was just another celebrity puff piece. Then I thought that Nimoy's "Full Body Project" was just silly if not downright weird; sure, we ought not to be obsessed with thinness and we especially shouldn't be pushing such distorted, esteem threatening body images onto young women. But why should we celebrate obesity instead? After all, there is plenty of press and academic research of late on the "epidemic"of obesity. It is, after all, a matter of health. Right?

Having spent a considerable amount of time here criticizing fashion photographers who glorify (exploit?) cadaverous models*, a question naturally arises. Why do we find images of fat women like those Nimoy presents disturbing (Terrifying? Revolting? Disgusting?) while we do not find images of women at the other extreme of the distribution of height/weight ratio similarly problematic? There is a deep question here about social and cultural norms and how photography might be used to challenge them. I think Heather MacAllister is right. And despite my initial preconceptions, I think perhaps Nimoy is making a political statement. In this he resembles Arbus and Mapplethorpe - photographers whose work, in different ways, compels us to confront the prejudices and cruelties embodied in our basic understandings of normalcy and deviance. I am not claiming that Nimoy is a photograpaher of the same stature as Arbus and Mapplethorpe, only that his images are political in an analogous way.
* For a sampling of my rants see this post and the others it links to.

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14 May 2007


Well the "new" Wilco CD is due to be released tomorrow. Of course, it has been available to download online for quite some time as my crack TA/student Caroline showed me early in the now completed spring term. I suppose that the "released" version will have better quality sound than the "pre-released" version ... or something. I am not sure I get all these distinctions though. How many kids have sound systems so good that they will be able to tell the difference? How many will do more than listen to the tunes on an iPod/mp3 player while actually doing something else (or several something elses)? In any case, here is a picture - shamelessly lifted from the band's web page - of Nels Cline, Wilco's very cool guitarist.

You can find a less than enthusiastic review from The Guardian (11 May 07) here. What follows is the more insightful review from The New York Times (14 May 07) where their normally very good reviewer nevertheless feels compelled to remind us that music can be intense, intricate, challenging and "weird" without being blaring and raucous. I suppose we need reminding?

"WILCO “Sky Blue Sky”

Where did all the weird noises go? On Wilco’s pensive new album, “Sky Blue Sky,” the band takes its latest tangent by going back — though only partway — toward its old Americana.

As fans know, Jeff Tweedy upended Wilco’s career with “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” in 2002. He jettisoned old band members and embraced odd sounds and abstract lyrics, ultimately revitalizing the band. An even more daring studio album, “A Ghost Is Born,” followed in 2004, and then a lean but volatile live album, “Kicking Television,” in 2005. But “Sky Blue Sky” pretends that Wilco’s recent albums were just fever dreams.

The dozen songs on “Sky Blue Sky” generally sound like a band — often the Band — playing together in a room, usually with Mr. Tweedy singing quietly. After pondering the state of the nation in surreal imagery on Wilco’s recent albums, he returns to the personal, contemplating relationships that can be precarious or persistent. In “Please Be Patient With Me,” which might be an addict’s apology, he sings, “There’s nothing I can do to make this easier for you.”

That song, “Leave Me (Like You Found Me)” and a gorgeously hushed reflection on mortality, “On and On and On,” are plaintive and startlingly unguarded. But Mr. Tweedy catches himself before he turns into too much of a sad sack, letting the music buck him up in “Hate It Here” and “Walken.”

The production is straightforward, but the song structures aren’t; that’s where Wilco’s idiosyncrasies still hide out. The tunes amble into instrumental interludes that stack riffs into steely patterns or let Wilco’s lead guitarist, Nels Cline, slice through the calm surfaces. Wilco’s new music is contemplative, stripping away past distractions, but it’s far from placid. JON PARELES"

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Kidnapping as a Political Weapon (2)

A short while ago I posted on the kidnapping of BBC journalist Alan Johnston in Gaza. (See too the banner on my side bar.) The safety and freedom of journalists is crucial to our own safety and freedom. And that comes from someone who has seen how badly the press can behave in pursuit of a story. Some of our local reporters were true jerks when my young son died. At Index on Censorship correspondent Padraig Reidy notes numerous other journalists who've been recent abducted and murdered.

"Johnston’s may be the big story this year, but it’s by no means the only one: indeed, surveys of freedom of the press have discovered a depressing trend as more and more people are now living under regimes where journalistic freedom is either unprotected, or actively attacked, by government.

In Russia, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered, apparently for digging too deep in to the government’s dirty war in Chechnya.

In the Philippines, six journalists were killed last year, and police have done little to stop the wave of threats and harassment media workers face. Environmental journalist Joey Estriber was kidnapped in March, like Alan Johnston. To date, the police have failed even to mount a search for him.

In Zimbabwe, cameraman Edward Chikomba was abducted and murdered, apparently because he had filmed the violent conduct of the security forces during anti-government protests.

In Turkey, the resurgence of the nationalist, statist right has created an atmosphere where journalists and authors fear to voice their opinions. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk has left the country: Agos editor Hrant Dink decided to stay, and was assassinated on 19 January.

The list goes on. And it’s getting longer."

Alan Johnston's life is still in danger. Joey Estriber's may be as well. And as this list shows they is not alone. As I wrote earlier: "kidnapping is not a legitimate tool of politics; it is a tool of terror. It is inexcusable and unjustifiable regardless of whether it is carried out by shadowy non-state actors or by governments as a matter of policy" I couldn't say it better myself.

PS: For more information as well as suggestions for individual responses and political action visit Reporters Without Borders / Reporters sans Frontieres / Reporteros sin Fronteras

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11 May 2007

Latest Installment of Genesis

In The Guardian today you can find the latest installment of images from Salgado's "Genesis"project. The essay is here. The image here is an sample I've lifted mostly because it shows his characteristic ability to capture light.


One Month

It has been one month since my son Jeffrey died. This evening I took his big brother Doug out to eat at a good local BBQ joint. We had a nice time, chatting about this and that, telling one another too how much we each miss Jeff. Tomorrow Doug has another game, playing lacrosse again without his best friend and most talented teammate. Sunday Doug turns 18.

Tonight I want to convey something else about Jeff. He played the trumpet pretty well. Not Miles Davis well, but pretty well. He enjoyed playing but not practicing. He was, after all, just 14! He resisted playing in the school band which was prerequisite to playing in the more interesting ensembles. So, he was out of luck in that respect. But he loved taking lessons with his teacher Jonah Levy (in the picture) who was a trumpet whiz kid at the Eastman School here at Rochester. I say "was" because Jonah didn't much like the regimentation and hurdles at the Eastman School and he left town earlier this spring. He and Jeff were peas in a pod in that sense, among many others. Unfortunately, when Jeff died we couldn't find Jonah, who has moved back to San Francisco for a spell. But we've since spoken and I want to let you hear what he has written about and for Jeff:

"The piece "Final Lesson" is written in honor of the amazing person whose life was cut way too short, Jeff Milano-Johnson. For the past three years, I was Jeff's trumpet teacher, and got to know both him and his wonderful family. Even though he may have been younger than I, and I was the "teacher", it never really felt that way; we were friends. Over the span of time that we got to know each other and work together, Jeff taught me just about as much, if not more than I could ever show him. Many people know that Jeff was a star athlete, an unfortunate few who played against him might also know how good he was at video games (halo...?), but he also had the capacity for great artistry in music. Now sometimes he'd be upset that his trumpet technique wasn't where it could be (Jeff loved doing things as well as they could be done), but when he would relax a little and I'd give him some chords to solo over, he would blow me away with his creative, thoughtful, and unique voice. His personality really came through the horn, and that is the mark of a true artist. In composing "Final Lesson," I used many of his favorite "licks," or melodic lines that he would often play to construct a melody. He'd always play this one middle-eastern sounding melody that he made up, and I'd always tell him that that was his lick. I feel, in a way, like he and I composed this piece together, and this was my final lesson that I would get to take away from him. Thanks Jeff for being an awesome person, and it was truly a joy to be around someone who loved life as much as yourself. Peace....."

You can hear Jonah play "Final Lesson" here on his 'My Space' page. To me it is a really haunting tune; the opening makes me cry each time I listen to it. But this music also makes me realize something truly important. Jeff had a wonderful life in part because of all the people who taught him how to be and to make his way in the world. Jonah really did an immeasurable amount in that regard. There is no way to repay that debt. Jonah has been a gift to Jeff and, through him, to me. I find it remarkable that so talented a young man would give so much time and energy to my boy. Thanks Jonah.


10 May 2007

Postal Regulations, Independent Media and the "Marketplace of Ideas"

Libertarians like to bemoan government intrusion into this or that sphere of interaction, insisting that markets could coordinate the interactions in question in ways that would be simultaneously more effective and normatively attractive. There are all sorts of problems with this view. Theoretically, libertarians seem largely uninterested in whether the conditions necessary to insure efficient operation of markets obtain or could be created in any particular instance. And they conveniently neglect to ask what sorts of political efforts are necessary to create and monitor the operation of those conditions. Empirically, libertarians like to overlook the fact that the U.S. has - for constitutional reasons - never had the sort of minimal state that they fantasize about. This is especially so in communications media. In my freshman courses I often use Paul Starr's book The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications which is a very good source on such matters. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

“The American Path is not reducible to a simple opposition to government and preference for free markets. While restraining state authority in some respects, American law and policy have also actively used government to promote communications. The constitutional provisions for the press and the Post Office illustrate the apparent polarities of a limited and interventionist state. Although the Bill of Rights denied the federal government any authority to regulate the press, the Constitution made the Post Office the one nationalized industry, and the new government soon set about building a comprehensive postal network. Rather than conflicting with one another however, the two policies were complementary: The Post Office was used to subsidize the press, and both contributed to the extension of communication - in particular, the distribution of political news - beyond earlier boundaries. These policies were born of supremely political objectives, though they also had important economic consequences. The government’s role in the early development of the Internet is only the latest example of policies that have not only restrained the power of the state but also made positive use of it to promote communications - and ended up, albeit without any deliberate plan in this and other instances, generating new economic and political possibilities.”

In other words, the marketplace of ideas presupposes a free and independent press and that, in turn requires active, constructive government policy. As Starr notes, however, such policy occupies an inherently political terrain. This has become especially apparent in recent debates about web regulation and, even more recently, in the shenanigans surrounding proposed postal rate structures that work to the disadvantage of small, independent media outlets like many of those I list in the sidebar. The federal agency charged with establishing rates in this domain - The Postal Regulatory Commission - has embraced a plan proposed by (surprise!) Time-Warner that essentially subsidizes large corporate media outlets and undermines smaller ones. You can read the details and a range of views on the matter here and here and here. I have added a banner to the sidebar that links to a site from which you can write relevant officials expressing concern about this ridiculous proposal. Or you can link to it here.

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09 May 2007

Reading Around: Pragmatists in Magenta & Cream

A couple of books have appeared this spring by influential pragmatist thinkers, so I thought I'd call them to your attention. The first is The Self Awakened by Roberto Unger about whom I've posted several times lately [1], [2], [3]. The second is Philosophy as Cultural Politics by Richard Rorty who also has made cameo apperances here in the past [1], [2].

On the back of the Rorty book you will find a blurb from the very smart, insightful philosopher Ian Hacking who says, in part: "Wise and immensely readable, these essays hammer home John Dewey's theme: philosophy matters when it changes what we want to talk about, and how we do it. In detail they seem to me to be blissfully right or infuriatingly wrong ..." While no one would accuse Unger of being "immensely readable," Hacking's latter assessment seems to me to be true too of his argument. So, Rorty and Unger share more than a remarkably similar color scheme. They also will both provoke you to reconsider what you talk about and how.

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07 May 2007

Color, Anonymity and Forced Migration

This post basically is an exercise in free association. This past term I taught a course on "Art & Politics." In it there is a segment on migration for which I have the students read a short social scientific report on the political economy of forced migration" by Stephen Castles* at Oxford. Then I have them read two poems, one by Adam Zagajewski nad one by Wislawa Szymborska that I included in this earlier post. Then we look at two large important bodies of work The first is Jacob Lawrence's "Migration Series" (1940-41) ** which 'documents' the movement of internally displaced African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the early 20th C; the second is Sebastião Salgado's Migrations: Humanity in Tranisiton, 1993-99. The point is to get the students to think a bit about how best to convey the reality of large scale displacement and to understand the political dynamics that animate it.

In any case, I also teach a segment of the course on "color" and this year, in addition to reading Ludwig Wittgenstein and Patricia Williams, we discussed the revelation I reported in this post on the variegated shades and colors Walter Mosley ascribes to the "black" Americans who populate his fiction. One of my students noticed that in his paintings, Lawrence tends to depict all the African Americans in a restrictced range of hues. So, for instance, here are the first and last paintings (nos. 1 & 60) from the series:

During the course of our conversation in class I noticed that in this series Lawrence also tends to paint African Americans in silhouette (hence he's a precursor to, for example, Kara Walker) even as he regularly paints Caucasians with discernable facial features. Lawrence's migrants, then tend to be anonymous, often members of largish groups as in these paintings. This, in turn, brought to mind the criticism that Susan Sontag levels at Salgado's Migrations photographs (which I believe I've mentioned here before too):

"[T]he problem is in the pictures themselves, not how or where they are exhibited: in their focus on the powerless reduced to their powerlessness. It is significant that the powerless are not named in the captions. A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertently, in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite type of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights."

If this is a plausible criticism of Salgado (which I doubt), what are we to make of Lawrence's depiction of African American migrants. They are not individuated even by hue or shade (as in Mosley's fiction) and they are not differentiated even by facial features as are many of the "anonymous" migrants whom Salgado depicts. How are we supposed to depict masses of internally displaced persons? Why are Salgado's images objectionable if Lawrence's are not?

* Stephen Castles. 2003. “The International Politics of Forced Migration.” In The Socialist Register, 2003. Ed.Colin Leys & Leo Panitch. Merlin Press, pages 172-92.
** Just FYI - I find that this page at Columbia U will not load properly in Firefox but works fine with Internet Explorer.

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05 May 2007

"With a Hat Full of Feathers and a Wicked Grin"

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