30 September 2008

Daylight (Issue #7, Fall 2008)

I am undecided. I cannot make up my mind which is my favorite photo magazine. I tend to think that it is PRIVATE. But that may be because it comes out more regularly than Daylight. So I can go for a couple of publication cycles thinking that the former simply is the best. But then, along comes an issue of Daylight to subvert my self-assuredness. The two publications are quite different, one focusing on black & white, the other mostly on color, most obviously. But in other ways too. I'll let you explore on your own. The new issue of Daylight arrived today with a set of terrific essays on, you guessed it, agriculture in a wide array of locales. Get a copy. Better yet, subscribe (it is relatively cheap and the publishers will put your money to good use - see their web page.).


28 September 2008

Anniversary ~ 36 Months

(Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography is now three years old. I first posted on 24 September 2005. Since then I've made over 1500 posts. I downloaded a site meter three years ago today and according to that counter have now had just shy of 219,000 visitors. Checking my records, it seems that considerably more than half of those have dropped by in just the last year.
In many ways this blog has been a life-saver for me over the past couple of years. Not the only one - but surely very important. Thanks to you readers out there.

My goals at the blog will remain the same. I still want to pursue the task Mitchell lays out in the passage quoted in my header. But there is a point too to that undertaking, after all. In the words of William Kentridge:

“I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and uncertain endings; an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.”
It is hard to find such political art. It is sometimes hard to find those who even try to approximate it from either direction. But it is that aspiration, one that I hope to encourage here. I hope you'll keep coming by.


27 September 2008

The Sort of Bailout We Do Need

"To be frank, the administration has a credibility and trust gap as big as that of Wall Street. If the crisis was as severe as they claim, why didn't they propose a more credible plan? With lack of oversight and transparency the cause of the current problem, how could they make a proposal so short in both? If a quick consensus is required, why not include provisions to stop the source of bleeding, to aid the millions of Americans that are losing their homes? Why not spend as much on them as on Wall Street?"
That is Joseph Stiglitz - you know the fellow who won the Nobel Prize for his work on how incomplete or asymmetrical information can flummox markets - suggesting that lack of transparency has gotten us into a mess and that compounding the problem will only exacerbate matters. You can find the rest of the essay here in The Nation. For all the folks out there who insist that we can work our way out of this by simply relying on market corrections Stiglitz offers scant solace; he insists rightly identifies "the underlying causes of the problem: the spirit of excessive deregulation."

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Politics & Portraits: Simon Schama on Avedon

In The Guardian today, Simon Schama has this nice essay* on Richard Avedon that sheds light on the recent flap surrounding Jill Greenberg's underhanded depiction of John McCain. I've posted on the latter here. The problem is that Greenberg was trying to trick McCain and his handlers in order to project her sense of McCain. Avedon, on Schama's account, had a much different approach regardless of his own political predilections.
"Confronted by his famously affable beam turned into a mask of porky smugness, as if fattened at the trough of self-satisfaction, Karl Rove got all steamed up, accusing Avedon of setting him up to look "stupid"; the arch-amBusher ambushed. To which, I think, Avedon would have replied - with his most rogueishly winning grin - that all his portraits were collaborations; and that nothing about the meeting of photographer and subject was calculated in advance. People came as they were.

But the truth is a little more complicated than that profession of guilelessness. Avedon did, in fact, have certain idées fixes about the essential whomever; and then, through some astonishing act of photographic magic against that white paper, could make clothes, expression, collude in imprinting the essential them."
Greenberg did not view her session with McCain as a collaboration. She viewed it as a hunting expedition that "was calculated in advance."
* I've posted the two portraits above both because Schama explicitly mentions them both and because in the presidential debate tonight Obama invoked Kissinger as authority for his position on talking to adversaries. Both Photographs © Richard Avedon.

Also, you can find Avedon's reflections on his Kissinger portrait here at Zoe Strauss's blog.

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26 September 2008

On Susan Meiselas: Times Critic Misses the Point, Captures his Own Eye in the Viewfinder

“Fleeing the bombing to seek refuge outside of Estelí,
Nicaragua, Sept. 20, 1978.” Photograph © Susan Meiselas.

Today The New York Times ran this astoundingly mean spirited review by Ken (no relation) Johnson of the newly opened Susan Meiselas retrospective at ICP in NYC. In the guise of reviewing the show Johnson actually generates a caricature of cynical, resentful photography criticism.

Johnson's overall estimate is that this is "a sad, disturbing and fascinatingly problematic exhibition." He starts like this:

"How do you reconcile the demands of professionalism with those of human compassion? To her credit and that of the exhibition, Ms. Meiselas — whose coverage of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1978 and ’79 made her one of the world’s most celebrated and criticized war correspondents — does not try to duck the question. On the contrary, the tension between opportunism and conscience emerges more or less inadvertently as the main interest of the exhibition — to the point that it trumps its ostensible subjects."
But he proceeds to castigate Meiselas for failing to navigate this predicament at virtually every turn.

Johnson describes her early project Carnival Strippers as “a form of adventurous slumming — like riding with a motorcycle gang” undertaken by “an ambitious young photographer with degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.” You'll note how he tacitly marries here a charge of elitism to his complaint about opportunism. Yet Johnson's complaint hardly seems in keeping with his observations about Meiselas's own concerns as she produced Carnival Strippers:
"The photographs are sympathetic to the women, but they have a grim, tawdry, hellish feeling. Sensitive to the possibility that they might be seen as exploitative, Ms. Meiselas recorded conversations she had with some of the strippers as well as with people who ran the shows and some of the exclusively male customers. Excerpts from these interviews are playing in the gallery, but they don’t do much to humanize the participants, who mostly sound jaded or pathetic."
He admits that Meiselas had been completely aware of the potential for exploiting her subjects. He admits too that she took steps to try to address that risk. So, while she may not have wholly succeeded in addressing her predicament (and it is not just hers), Meiselas hardly was mindlessly along for the ride.

It is hard to see, too, how Johnson's complaint addresses the work Meiselas actually produced. Just maybe photography of the sort we see in Carnival Strippers is not meant to "humanize." Just maybe - as I indeed think - it is neither possible nor desirable to humanize dire circumstances or the people compelled to inhabit them. It would therefore be a big a mistake to reproach photography and photographers, as Johnson does, when they fail to do so. Perhaps the images and interviews Meiselas produced are more usefully understood as evidence of just how "pathetic" people can become when faced with a "grim, tawdry, hellish" existence. The photographer did not make the strippers (or customers) pathetic and she did not make their lives grim. And while Johnson may prefer not to be reminded that there are many people who face precisely such lives and that they are all around him, that is not Meiselas's problem. It is his problem.

About “Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History” Johnson writes:
"It is hard to know what to make of the bewildering array of old pictures, letters and documents displayed in glass cases at the center. Mainly it supports the exhibition’s celebration of Ms. Meiselas as a tireless champion of the dispossessed.
With the Kurds now sitting on big oil reserves and engaged in what promises to become a Dubai-like program of building and development — barely hinted at by nondescript photographs Ms. Meiselas made in the region in 2007 — you wonder whose cause she will harness her career to next."
Here, in addition to the charge of opportunism Johnson serves up a truly astonishing red herring. So, the Iraqi Kurds are sitting on top of oil reserves. First, much of what in geographical terms might have been Kurdistan has stood on top of those reserves all along. Did that protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein (supported by various U.S. administrations)? No. Will it protect them against the non-Kurdish Iraqis in the future? Let's just say I'm dubious. The same goes for the Turks and Iranians, who have scant love of the Kurds either. And what of the Kurds in those countries? Is Johnson claiming that the Kurds have not been dispossessed and oppressed over an extremely long period of time? Is he saying that bringing that history to light is somehow dishonorable? Is he saying that (purported) access to oil reserves erases the accumulated suffering and responsibility? Even for staff at The Times this is shoddy reasoning. But, were Johnson even slightly reflective, he might have taken his own bewilderment at the aka Kurdistan project as a hint.

Finally, about her work in Nicargua and El Salvador and especially of Meiselas's subsequent effort to track down and speak to the subjects of that early work he first concedes "The brief interviews are riveting." But we then immediately get:
"Ms. Meiselas’s impulse to return, reconnect and try to give a bigger historical picture seems at once admirable and self-serving. It is good for her image as a moral heroine, but it’s hard to see what difference it makes in the long run for the people she talks to. You feel like saying, 'Susan, it’s not just about you.'"
Johnson is right. This is not about Meiselas. But she hardly needs Johnson to remind her of that. Her initial work involved covering conflict that largely resulted from the decades-long support American administrations supplied to various Central American dictators. Her attempts to return to her subjects was an attempt to confront the predicament that Johnson finds so disturbing. And it is an attempt to get Americans - who , after all, will be viewing the work - to do so as well. On what grounds does Johnson criticize Meiselas? Why not go and find other photographers of her generation who never took the initial risks nor, having done so, never revisited the images and the predicaments that her early work exemplifies? Why not go and complain about Annie Leibovitz?

Johnson begins his report by discussing the photo I've lifted above as well as Meiselas's reflections on the situation in which she made the photograph. He transforms this oral predicament - take the picture or help the woman and child - into the hook for his report. yet he never seems to acknowledge - perhaps that would be too risky - that it hardly was a coincidence that there was Civil War in Nicaragua at that time. And he does not raise the issue of how government troops, say, might've treated photographers who assisted the locals whom they sought to terrorize. The stark moral choice he poses is too simple by a considerable distance.

I have not seen this exhibition. Perhaps the show does create these impressions. I doubt the problem resides with the exhibition. But even if it did, why then is Meiselas the focus of criticism? Why not criticize the curator, Kristen Lubben?

I suspect that the problem here is Johnson's own cynicism - a trait entirely too common among critics of photography. He "knows" all this. So does everyone else. And everyone has "always" known it all. So the only reason that someone like Meiselas might be photographing the episodes and subjects she does is opportunism and self-aggrandizement. What other motivation might there be? Johnson's cynicism easily and un-self-reflectively morphs into an incredibly arrogant moralism.

What if we shift attention from the ethical to the political. What about showing American viewers the consequences of the policies that our government has implemented in various exotic places. What if the point of Meiselas's work is to try, somehow - and with mixed success to be sure - to face up to things in the world with which we'd prefer not to come to grips? It turns out that there are many such things. And cynicism is a reactionary response to all those things on the part of those who don't want to admit their own complicity and their own powerlessness in the face of broader forces that shape politics and history.

The problem, Ken Johnson, is that this exhibition is about the nasty and brutish things that have taken place "In History," many of which are directly or indirectly the result of intervention or conniving on the part of the U.S. government or its minions. It is not, in other words, "just about you."

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A Bailout We Don't Need

Here is the alternative proposed by James Galbraith in The Washington Post today:
"The point of the bailout is to buy assets that are illiquid but not worthless. But regular banks hold assets like that all the time. They're called "loans."

With banks, runs occur only when depositors panic, because they fear the loan book is bad. Deposit insurance takes care of that. So why not eliminate the pointless $100,000 cap on federal deposit insurance and go take inventory? If a bank is solvent, money market funds would flow in, eliminating the need to insure those separately. If it isn't, the has the bridge bank facility to take care of that.

Next, put half a trillion dollars into the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. fund -- a cosmetic gesture -- and as much money into that agency and the FBI as is needed for examiners, auditors and investigators. Keep $200 billion or more in reserve, so the Treasury can recapitalize banks by buying preferred shares if necessary -- as Warren Buffett did this week with Goldman Sachs. Review the situation in three months, when Congress comes back. Hedge funds should be left on their own. You can't save everyone, and those investors aren't poor.

With this solution, the systemic financial threat should go away."


25 September 2008

ART FOR OBAMA ~ (Updated 2 October 11:30 pm)*

Fr0m the Series Inscape. Photograph © Ahndraya Parlato

MISSION ~ Art For Obama is an online auction of photographs to benefit the Obama Campaign. Fifty of the country's most prominent artists and photographers have donated their work for this cause. The auction will launch on October 1st and will run for one week. All proceeds from the auction will go to MoveOn.org, which is currently devoting their energy to helping the Obama campaign. Proceeds will be distributed in strict accordance with Federal Election Commission regulations.
The auction will run from October 3rd at 5pm EST through October 10th, 5pm EST.

WHO WE ARE ~ Art For Obama is a group of five artists who have come together to help the Obama campaign. Because we cannot afford to make large donations ourselves, we want to bring together the leaders of our community to help create change. We are all unpaid volunteers.
This very important and very imaginative project is brought to you by a group of talented young photographers: Ahndraya Parlato, Elizabeth Moy, Gregory Halpern, Whitney Hubbs & Dru Donovan.

The participating photographers are: Nubar Alexanian, Marc Asnin, Uta Barth, Nina Berman, Walead Beshty, Elinor Carucci, Lois Conner, Eileen Cowin, Tim Davis, Doug Dubois, Jason Evans, Wendy Ewald, Larry Fink, Harrell Fletcher, Stephen Frailey, Andrea Fraser, Jason Fulford, Tierney Gearon, Jim Goldberg, Frank Gohlke, Emmet Gowin, Katy Grannan, Sharon Harper, Todd Hido, Jeff Jacobson, Eirik Johnson, Ron Jude, Lisa Kereszi, Justine Kurland, Michael Light, Catherine Lord, David Maisel, Susan Meiselas, Richard Misrach, Laura Mcphee, Abelardo Morell, Carter Mull, Laurel Nakadate, Robert & Shana Parke Harrison, Hirsch Perlman, John Pilson, Laurie Simmons, Mike Slack, Alec Soth, Larry Sultan, Peter Sutherland, Hank Willis Thomas, Catherine Wagner, James Welling, Mark Wyse.
* Please note:
This evening I received an email from the Art For Obama folks noting changes in (1) the timing of the auction and (2) the recipients of proceeds. They made these changes in order to comply with FEC guidelines. I have altered this post to reflect the changes. As of 11:30 pm on 2 October 08, this post is accurate. Thanks Ahndraya!


Best Shots (44) ~ Tiina Itkonen

(70) Tiina Itkonen ~ Qaanaaq, northern Greenland, September 2005
(25 September 08)


24 September 2008

Let's suspend the campaign . . . HA! HA!HA!

Here is the response from The Guardian campaign blogger Oliver Burkeman:
"John McCain is so maverick that he wants to suspend the election campaign and postpone Friday's debate so that he can return to Washington and help broker a deal on the bailout. According to experts, this is actually the most absurd, impetuous and nakedly disingenuous suggestion that has ever been made in the history of politics, including Ancient Greece and the rudimentary organisational systems archeologists have identified in the lives of early man. It looks like Obama will refuse to comply, and Mississippi State University (sic) says the debate is going ahead, and every single person with an internet connection thinks it's an absurd idea, raising the prospect that John McCain will be the only person to put unity and bipartisanship first, while everybody else will be united in their — no, hang on a minute, that doesn't work. Still, some swing voters may admire the move; we'll have to wait and see."
Obama has apparently declined McCain's suggestion that they postpone the scheduled debate and rush to D.C. to devote their joint, undivided attention to resolving the financial meltdown. Obama has slyly taken the air out of his opponent's sails, insisting that the debate remains crucially important and saying: "Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time." True enough.

The real problem here - if we are meant to take McCain's ploy seriously - is that there are people whose job it is to beat the bailout legislation into shape. There are Congressional representatives and Senators who occupy relevant institutional positions in various legislative committees who are meant to be convening meetings, holding hearings, forging compromises, drafting legislation, and so forth.* You know, "how a bill becomes a law" and all that; stuff we learn in 8th grade civics class. Except maybe McCain has forgotten. Or never knew. Do you want this guy to be president? Is he going to ignore Constitutional separation of powers at any crisis, real or concocted? We've seen enough of that from BushCo. Haven't we?
* None of the committees to which McCain is assigned - Armed Services, Indian Affairs, and Commerce, Science & Transportation - have jurisdiction over the financial system.


PRIVATE #42 ~ Social Issues (Autumn 2008)

PHOTOGRAPHERS ~ Max Peef, The din of a man dying (DR Congo); Sohrab Hura, Land of a Thousand Struggles (India); Massimo Sciacca, Dock Sud, the inflammable city (Argentina); Gary Knight, Poverty – Polinter prison (Brazil); Dominique Vautrin, Holywood (United Kingdom); Luca Ferrari, Addiction (Wales – UK); Mike Berube, The dead can dance (Kenya); Antonin Kratochvil, Great Hope. Great Fear (Zimbabwe); John Lambrichts, Walton City, Maastricht (Netherlands); Lamberto Salvan, Fire and Ash (Kenya); Lisa Wiltse, Little Voice (Bangladesh); Marta Sarlo, O.P.G. Aversa (Italy); Bertrand Meunier, Coal in Shanxi (China); Marco Pighin, Women facing South Thai muslim insurgency (Thailand); Tobias Hitsch, Lhasa (Tibet).

WRITERS ~ Alan Corkish; Christopher North; Flavia Cosma; Gabriel Griffin; Gary Lehmann; Hans Durrer; Mana Aghaee; Margaret Saine; Sheema Kalbasi.


David Foster Wallace

Writer David Foster Wallace died last week, apparently having committed suicide, apparently the culmination of persistent, obviously failed, struggles with depression. His death prompted what seems to me an immense amount of attention. In The New York Times alone you can find a half-dozen discussions of he and his work [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]. I admit that I had neither read, nor even heard of Wallace until he died. So, I wondered whether maybe all this was attention was disproportionate. Eventually, I ran across this appreciation by a young writer, and this one too, and this reflection by a former student. Each is touching and each reveals the impact a person can have - and that Wallace actually did - as a teacher and writer.* I teach at a college and will attest that the sorts of influence these reflections acknowledge is quite rare.

I read this abridged version of a speech Wallace gave as a commencement address at Kenyon College a few years back. It seemed "off "to me But then I came across this transcription of the speech (Thanks 3QD!) and realized that the editors at The Guardian had edited out the point Wallace was trying to convey. Here are some of the lines they eliminated:
"Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. [. . .]

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too. [...]

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. [...]

I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."
It is easy, I think, to disregard Wallace's claim that he is not talking about compassion or virtue. We have a tendency to moralize everything. And so, one of the appreciations I've linked to above, suggests that Wallace was preaching "empathy" and "moral enlightenment." I think that is too easy. What, then, is he talking about? Broadly political and social analysis that situates our ability to transcend and resist the depredations to which we regularly are subject. Yet another tribute to Wallace directed me to this 1993 interview about contemporary fiction in which he says:
"Look man, we'd probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

I don't think I'm talking about conventionally political or social action-type solutions. That's not what fiction's about. Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction's job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still "are" human beings, now. Or can be. This isn't that it's fiction's duty to edify or teach, or to make us good little Christians or Republicans; I'm not trying to line up behind Tolstoy or Gardner. I just think that fiction that isn't exploring what it means to be human today isn't art. [. . .]

But we already "know" U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn't engage anybody. What's engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn't have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not why not?"
What Wallace seeks, it seems, - and this in his teaching and writing and personal demeanor - is to prompt us to think, to entertain possibilities, to recognize pressures and constraints, to discover the intentional and inadvertent ways we escape and evade them, and to use that difficult knowledge and insight as models for our lives. A big task, that. A task of the imagination. And a political one to the core.
* There is considerably more evidence of his influence here and here. And you can access a selection of Wallace's shorter writings here at Harpers,

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23 September 2008

More Critical Commentary on the Bailout ....

Here, at The Nation you can find James Galbraith & Wm. Black [1], William Grieder again [2], and Thomas Ferguson & Robert (no relation) Johnson [3] . . . at openDemocracy sociologist Saskia Sassen offers a much different alternative [4] . . . David Sirota at In These Times [5] . . . (surprisingly?) bloggger-economist Brad DeLong [6] . . . and, throwing down the gauntlet in a more general way, Dani Rodrik [7] . . .


Fraction Magazine

I've just discovered this new online photo magazine called Fraction ~ clearly a virtue of the Internet is that it allows people in disparate places (say, rural New Mexico & Syracuse, NY) to collaborate on a venture like this.


22 September 2008

Race & The Election

Not long ago I posted on the Democratic Convention and, in passing, mentioned this column from Slate in which the author, Jacob Weisberg, suggests that should McCain beat Obama - given an unpopular war and a economy in the hopper, among other things - the only plausible explanation would be racism. I agree. There are simply lots of white people who cannot bring themselves to consider voting for a black man. And they are apparently don't mind admitting as much. Here from the hardly left leaning New York Daily News:
Poll: Barack Obama could lose six percentage points on election day for being black

Updated~ Monday, September 22nd 2008, 10:13 AM

Six percentage points is the price Barack Obama could pay on election day for being black.

That disturbing calculation was found in a groundbreaking new Associated Press-Yahoo News poll conducted with Stanford University which probes the effect of the Democratic presidential candidate's race on his historic campaign for the White House. "There's a penalty for prejudice, and it's not trivial," Stanford University political scientist Paul Sniderman told the AP. In a close contest, racism "might be enough to tip the election," Sniderman said.

Still, the Illinois senator seems to be making some headway even with white Americans who don't have much good to say about African-Americans. Among the white Democrats who think blacks are lazy, or violent, or boastful, two-thirds said they will vote for Obama over Sen. John McCain, a white Republican.

The poll of 2,227 adults was conducted Aug. 27-Sept. 5, and was designed to probe people's racial attitudes and how those attitudes affect voting.

It shows that when it comes to race, there has been some progress in America: Most white people have positive things to say about black people.

Still, pollsters found that a substantial portion of white Americans have very little contact with African-Americans - and many still harbor negative feelings toward them.

Whites also have a rosier view of race relations than blacks. When asked "how much discrimination against blacks" exists, 10% of whites said "a lot" while 57% of blacks said "a lot."

Asked how much of the nation's racial tension is created by blacks, more than a third of whites said "most" or "all."

Meanwhile, nearly three-fourths of the blacks polled said while people have too much influence in U.S. politics.

Also, the perception that voters in their 20s and 30s might go for Obama because they're less racially biased than their parents might be wrong.

The survey found no meaningful differences in the way younger and older whites viewed black people. But older whites were more likely to say when they really think of blacks than the younger generations.

Not surprisingly, racial prejudice tends to be lowest among college-educated whites living outside the South, the pollsters found.
I've posted the Daily News headline & story here just to suggest that this is not left-wing hyperbole. I urge yo to follow the link I've supplied above and check out the poll results directly. The picture is not pretty. Nor is it much of a surprise. I will also add that Paul Sniderman is a first rate political scientist, so I have confidence in his analysis of the results.

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Their Manipulation and Ours

John McCain, 2008. Photograph © Jill Greenberg.

The last time I posted about Jill Greenberg was several years ago. Then I suggested that, however unseemly her attempts to make herself the center of controversy, the real problem was that her work is pedestrian. Greenberg has gotten herself in trouble for trying to manipulate a photo shoot of John McCain she did on commission for The Atlantic. You can find a story about this most recent political/ethical car crash here. And you can find smart critical comments here and here and here and here. Greenberg persists in trying to make things all about herself. Her work remains pedestrian.

Now, you might compare the Greenberg fiasco with the a couple of other episodes from the past couple of months. First, compare her portrait of McCain (above) with this one of Rush Limbaugh that accompanied the puff piece the NY Times Magazine ran on him last summer.

Rush Limbaugh. Photograph © Nigel Parry for The New York Times.

I posted on the dubious journalistic quality of that piece at the time. But notice that from a photographic point of view this portrait is a perfect accompaniment to the piece which was intended to depict the windbag as ominously powerful. That it inadvertently made him look like a jackass is beside the point. Greenberg was, by her own account, trying to make McCain look bad. So, in addition to displaying the derivative quality of Greenberg's depiction of McCain, this comparison also underscores her extremely poor judgment and motivations.

Remember too when, a few months back, the goons at Fox News presented these photo shopped images of a couple of reporters from The New York Times who'd displayed the temerity of discussing declines in Fox ratings?

Do you think that Greenberg found this episode outrageous? Given her moralistic and self-absorbed disposition, I suspect she did. How does her recent effort to portray John McCain in a bad light (pun intended) differ from the shenanigans at Fox? Not at all, except that, unlike Fox News, The Atlantic (the folks who'd commissioned her photos of McCain) is a respectable publication. Hence her actions are even more dangerous than those of the Fox crowd insofar as she imports tabloid tactics into legitimate news and comment. The Atlantic is not a gallery. The editors did not commission Greenberg to produce a parody or a satire.

The problem, of course, is that Greenberg somehow thinks her trickery in the McCain shoot (and subsequent alterations she made to the images) constitutes "art"; I'd like to have an argument from her that defends that view. (An argument would require more than saying 'look at me, aren't I clever'.) What she has done is taken advantage of what was billed as a journalistic exercise and tried to manipulate both the subject and her audience. There is no excuse for that.

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21 September 2008

Commentary on the Bailout Plan ...

You can find the text of the proposed legislation here at The New York Times.

Not only is the bailout going to have massively mal-distributional consequences, if enacted in its proposed form the law would essentially not only give the Treasury Secretary complete discretion, but relieves him of any worry about having his decisions challenged or reviewed in, say a court. In short there is no accountability here whatsoever: "Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency." This is completely unacceptable .

Here is some critical commentary from Robert Reich at Politico [1] . . . Paul Krugman at The New York Times [2] [3] . . . Robert Kuttner at Huffington Post [4] . . . Fred Block at Dissent [5] . . . Plus a set of deliciously vituperative and accurate observations from Glen Greenwald at Salon.com [6] . . . Obama is mouthing some of the right words:

But it remains to be seen whether he has either the back bone or the influence needed to stand up to the BushCo bailout plan, to say nothing of altering it in any meaningful way.
Added later: Here is Jack Balkin at Balkinization [7] who is on the money (pun intended):
"I do not oppose emergency plans to preserve liquidity in markets and prevent a further crisis. What I do object to is plenary discretion in the executive in running the nation's financial markets, especially given the history of the past seven years, which has been a sorry parade of venality, incompetence, hubris and failure.

The modus operandi of the Bush Administration has been to use crisis to seize unreviewable power for the executive. Have we learned nothing from the last seven years?"


Amnesty International Celeb Portraits?

Ken Livingstone ~ "London has always provided a haven
for those fleeing from persecution and repression. Generations
of refugees have enriched the life of this city. I fully support
Amnesty International's Respect for Refugees campaign."

Photograph © Jake Gavin.

I am not a big fan of the celebrity spokesperson. So, no surprise, I find the set of celeb portraits meant to publicize a recent Amnesty International campaign uninspired and uninspiring. It seems to me that relying on celebrities is de-politicizing because it suggests that one must be 'all that' in order to get the powers that be to pay attention. It encourages regular folks to sit back and rely on the rich and famous to speak out for them. In this instance, there is the additional problem that, other than "Red Ken" ~ who after all is a good lefty politician ~I honestly have not actually heard of any of these other people. What is the lower bound on celebrity?

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Local Event ~ FAB Trio


Monday September 22 8pm ~ $22 advance & $25 at the door
The German House, 315 Gregory Street, Rochester New York.

Tom Kohn, the proprietor of The Bop Shop a very good independent music store here in Rochester, does us all a great service by producing a series of live performances in town every year. Tomorrow his series brings in the FAB Trio in for a performance that should be terrific. I've posted pretty effusively here and here about violinist Billy Bang (pictured above) who I've heard play in a variety of contexts over the years. I look forward to seeing him in this trio. If you are in town you definitely should get out for this performance.

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20 September 2008

Walker Evans or Leni Riefenstahl?

Torn Movie Poster, 1931 © Walker Evans Archive,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As if the economic implications of the coming swindle are not enough to make you want to spit, think about politics and art. In his assessment of the incipient bailout William Greider suggests:
"If this deal succeeds, I predict it will become a transforming event in American politics - exposing the deep deformities in our democracy and launching a tidal wave of righteous anger and popular rebellion. As I have been saying for several months, this crisis has the potential to bring down one or both political parties, take your choice."
Although I am a fan of neither of our two parties, the problem is that there surely is no guarantee that should one or both collapse as a result of our current fiasco we will get something better. It would take work and luck to generate anything resembling a progressive replacement. In particular creating an alternative would require the ability to articulate and promote new political possibilities. That task, in my view, is one that in significant measure falls to the arts. While thinking about that scenario I came across this dreary missive at The Guardian:
"How could the economic crisis affect art?
If we enter another 1930s-type Depression, art may more likely swing to the Right than the Left
Jonathan Jones

If the economic crisis does become this century's Great Depression, how will art be changed? That seems hard to answer without also considering politics. In the 1930s art was divided between Left and Right, as well as between modernist and realist. It mattered more where you stood than how you painted. Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and other American socialists were influenced by realism and pictorialism and the mural tradition of revolutionary Mexico, but ended up finding their own voices as abstract artists. The realism of Walker Evans's photographs of rural poverty, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, or in this country George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier makes us think of Depression-era culture as serious, truthful, shorn of illusions - and many might like it if we got more art of that kind now. But hang on.

The Depression was also the era of Salvador Dali's kitsch surrealism and, more seriously, of fascism and its cultural excesses. The Nazis had their own answer to economic catastrophe. In Leni Riefenstahl's film
Triumph of the Will formerly unemployed Germans march with the shovels they've been given to work on autobahn-building. With the Nazis' corporate solution came art like Riefenstahl's - irrational, fantastic, disturbingly powerful.

Of course in the 1930s there was another alternative - the USSR. The Communist alternative has however been crushed by history, and is not coming back. Those on the Left who see opportunity here will soon be disabused. Instead, the terror of capitalism in crisis without the alternative of Marxism is that irrational alternatives will flourish. We are more likely to get a new Riefenstahl than a new Walker Evans."
This assessment seems to me to be too stark and too bleak and too alarmist by a considerable stretch. For starters, communism is not (and historically has not been) the sole institutional alternative to unfettered markets of the Thatcher-Reagan-Bush variety. So, its demise, may well be a blessing insofar as it clears away one bad alternative. Moreover, the Nazis were not the only ones who put the unemployed to work on large scale public works projects. The Democrats in the U.S. did so too. Finally, while Riefenstahl was playing movie maker to the Führer, Mr. Jones seems to forget that Evans was photographing for a government agency too. And the photographers working for that agency - Evans and his colleagues at the FSA/OWI - were not nearly so tame politically (see, e.g., this essay) as we often are led to believe.


More on the Bailout Swindle ...

You can see it coming. Representatives of big finance will meet with government officials and cobble together a bailout that will socialize bad debt and leave the rest of us to pay the bill. Such an arrangement - despite its obvious mal- distributional consequences - will be presented as working in the "common interest." Any effort to speak up on behalf of protecting the government treasury by insisting that the banks, investment houses, insurance companies, and so on who've made systematically poor economic decisions actually pay for being rescued will be branded "political posturing." So too will any claims that are pressed on behalf of those down in the lower reaches of the economic food chain. If you want some flavor of how the debate will go, here is the AP report that The New York Times is running at the moment. Some of the good bits:
"The Bush administration is asking Congress to let the government buy $700 billion in toxic mortgages in the largest financial bailout since the Great Depression, . . . The plan would give the government broad power to buy the bad debt of any U.S. financial institution for the next two years. . . . The proposal does not specify what the government would get in return from financial companies for the federal assistance. . . . The plan is designed to let faltering financial institutions unload their bad debt on the government, and in turn the taxpayer, in a bid to avoid dire economic consequences. . . . Democrats are insisting the rescue include mortgage help to let struggling homeowners avoid foreclosures. They also are also considering attaching additional middle-class assistance to the legislation despite a request from Bush to avoid adding controversial items that could delay action. An expansion of jobless benefits was one possibility. Asked about the chances of adding such items, Bush sidestepped the question, saying only that now was not the time for political posturing. ''The cleaner the better,'' he said about legislation he hopes Congress sends back to him at the White House" (stress obviously added by me).
What the administration is peddling is an old time formula - socialism for the rich, free markets for the rest.

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Paulson Bailout Plan a Historic Swindle

One need not be an expert in political economy or finance to be properly suspicious of the new plots to rescue financial markets from themselves and keep them from dragging the rest of the population into depression too. Indeed, it is part of the problem that we think one needs to be a certified economist to have well-formed views on the matter. It seem clear that any "bailout" should include effective new regulation of the financial markets, effective protection for regular folks and provisions for the various firms who've made systematically bad investments to pay for being rescued. If you want an expert I recommend that you start with William Greider.

"Let me be clear. The scandal is not that government is acting. The scandal is that government is not acting forcefully enough--using its ultimate emergency powers to take full control of the financial system and impose order on banks, firms and markets. Stop the music, so to speak, instead of allowing individual financiers and traders to take opportunistic moves to save themselves at the expense of the system. [...]

A serious intervention in which Washington takes charge would, first, require a new central authority to supervise the financial institutions and compel them to support the government's actions to stabilize the system. Government can apply killer leverage to the financial players: accept our objectives and follow our instructions or you are left on your own--cut off from government lending spigots and ineligible for any direct assistance. If they decline to cooperate, the money guys are stuck with their own mess. If they resist the government's orders to keep lending to the real economy of producers and consumers, banks and brokers will be effectively isolated, therefore doomed. [. . .]

Only with these conditions, and some others, should the federal government be willing to take ownership--temporarily--of the rotten financial assets that are dragging down funds, banks and brokerages. [. . .]

If government acts responsibly, it will impose some other conditions on any broad rescue for the bankers. First, take due bills from any financial firms that get to hand off their spoiled assets, that is, a hard contract that repays government from any future profits once the crisis is over. Second, when the politicians get around to reforming financial regulations and dismantling the gimmicks and "too big to fail" institutions, Wall Street firms must be prohibited from exercising their usual manipulations of the political system. Call off their lobbyists, bar them from the bribery disguised as campaign contributions. Any contact or conversations between the assisted bankers and financial houses with government agencies or elected politicians must be promptly reported to the public, just as regulated industries are required to do when they call on government regulars.

More important, if the taxpayers are compelled to refinance the villains in this drama, then Americans at large are entitled to equivalent treatment in their crisis. That means the suspension of home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies for debt-soaked families during the duration of this crisis. The debtors will not escape injury and loss--their situation is too dire--but they deserve equal protection from government, the chance to work out things gradually over some years on reasonable terms."

These are some of the good bits, you can read the rest of Greider's typically acute and astute essay from The Nation here.

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Václav Havel and Kjell Magne Bondevik on Human Rights in North Korea

"For too long, too many in the international community have refused to address North Korea's flagrant human-rights abuses for fear that their criticisms would drive the government away from discussions of its nuclear program.

However, time has shown that this restraint has not yielded enhanced compromise from Kim Jong Il, but has only allowed him to ignore his people's suffering."

You can find the rest of their essay here in The International Herald Tribune ...

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19 September 2008

Bitch Pitch

Bitch Magazine, an independent feminist publication is in more or less immediately desperate financial situation. You can find their poochie pitch here. And you can hear directly from the editor and publisher in this Clip.

So, the long and the short of it is that the ladies need cash to keep publishing. And even though they seem to have made their campaign goal, there is never anything wrong with having a financial cushion. Send some money
Thanks to Anna at the ever scintillating Isak.


Best Shots (43) ~ Thomas Struth

(69) Thomas Struth ~ 'Something different' ... [18 September 2008]


18 September 2008


Platform 22
Photographs & Text © Nathan Golden

"There are extraordinary children living at the Howrah Railway Station, near Kolkata, India. I was especially moved by their ability to generate a community and to survive — these are very young people, taking care of themselves and each other in an uncaring world — but the tremendous potential that they represent is being wasted from day to day, and in danger of being lost altogether.

Drug usage among minors is spreading like a plague through many societies, creating a global generation of addicted and often abandoned children, bereft of crucial education, family support, and social skills. Most of the kids at Howrah are addicted to Dendrite, a rubber-based glue that provides a quick, powerful high, and that is both cheap and readily available. The kids squeeze Dendrite onto a rag; the fumes are huffed (inhaled) through the mouth. Huffing Dendrite affects the brain almost immediately, altering behavior and frequently producing hallucinations. Solvent fumes can cause extensive damage to the brain and nervous system, liver, kidneys, and heart. Some users will die without warning from an abrupt, acute disturbance of the heart’s rhythm — an event known as SSDS.

Without help, the outlook for these children is bleak. Thankfully a handful of organizations exist to aid the kids, yet none has adequate funding or facilities. My purpose in telling this story is to help bring the needed attention and funding for the creation of a safe place for recovery, readily available to any child who is ready to leave the streets."


On Life
Photographs & Text ©
Peter Kearns

"I met Krista on Labor Day at a friend's Jell-O wresting party in 2004. It was lime flavored and she was wearing a pink wig. After getting most of the Jell-O out of my hair, we spent the evening drinking, laughing and flirting. She took me home to her apartment where we shot-gunned cans of PBR and listened to old country records. Sometime that evening, probably when she was dancing around in her red cowboy boots while singing along to a Hank Snow record, I fell in love with her. We moved into together shortly after that and were married three years later. Many documentary projects are filled with heartbreak and sorrow. This is filled with love."
I just discovered a new, extremely promising, magazine devoted to "documentary" photography. I use the quotes because the conception of documentary at work seems to be wonderfully broad. It encompasses both of the two terrific projects shown above. I find each moving in quite different ways. In any case, the magazine is vewd and you can find it here.

One exceptionally cool aspect of the magazine is that it makes available the html code needed to link directly from your web page to the flash version of the various photo essays (vewd already has published five projects other than the two above). That is a smart development, although the images in their slide shows are way, way too big for my blog format. That said, this seems like a terrific technological fix to the tension between enabling bloggers to disseminate and comment on work by talented photographers while allowing the latter to maintain ultimate control over their work. Bravo!

The magazine's editorial statement goes like this:
Vewd is a documentary photography magazine that aims to continue the tradition of storytelling through an ever evolving visual medium. Launched in early 2008, Vewd is committed to bringing to the forefront versatile essays from up and coming but largely unknown photographers throughout the world. The photographs on Vewd and their accompanying stories show the complexity of this world we live in today in a way that mainstream media fails to.

Matt Blalock founded Vewd to form a unique community for new photographers to share their documentary essays. He felt the circle of people who are responsible for exploring and representing the entire world's perspective was too narrow. Vewd aspires to broaden and diversify this circle by bringing in new names, ideologies, and ways of capturing and sharing the world we witness- and are a part of.

Vewd is currently accepting submissions for highly developed documentary photography essays. In addition Vewd is developing a dedicated staff of writers, editors, web designers, interns, and photographers in order for the site to become a dynamic resource that showcases quality essays as well as news and articles pertaining to the documentary photography field.


17 September 2008

Free Radio

I have been intrigued for some time by the possibilities of "free radio" or "micropower" stations as an alternative to the pablum we confront on commercial stations and almost all non-profit or public radio. Today I discovered* an (admittedly, quite poorly written) article on the subject at Counterpunch and a couple of useful links [1] [2] and thought I'd pass them along. You might also have a look at Greg Ruggiero Microradio & Democracy: (Low) Power to the People (Open Media Project/7 Stories Press, 1999) which you can get access to here.
*Thanks to Mark Woods.

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16 September 2008

John Berger: Three Poems & "Twelve Theses on the Economy of the Dead"

From Left Curve #31 (2007) ...

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15 September 2008

Oh the Outrage! Representing Poverty in India

Indian Vogue editor, Priya Tanna.
Photograph © Alamy/The Independent.

I've not posted on the bankruptcy of fashion photography for some time. And I thought I might let the latest round of despicable behavior go without comment. Unfortunately, the situation is too egregious to skip over.

The most recent fracas has been generated by the August issue of Vogue (India) which subjected readers to a sixteen page photo spread depicting average Indians (the average income is $1.25 per day according to the World Bank) posing with this or that outrageously expensive fashion accessory.

The spread seems to have strained the bounds even of journalistic objectivity. In this story, carried in the Business section of The New York Times (and where you can find some examples of the Vogue spread) the reporter clearly has a difficult time suppressing her disbelief. And this report in The Independent makes the editor - Ms. Priya Tanna, pictured above - who commissioned and published the shoot seem especially obtuse. Her response to criticisms? According to press accounts she advised critics to "lighten up" in the course of fatuous attempts to rationalize her very poor judgment.

The problem, of course, is that Vogue India hardly is exceptional. When in The Guardian we are asked "Is This the Most Tasteless Fashion Shoot Ever?" I really am not sure how to make sense of the question. The columnist, Jess Cartner-Morley, offers this well-deserved, explicit condemnation while managing, of course, to partition the fact that she makes her own living reporting on the 'fashion beat,' thereby lending credibility and visibility to the industry whose 'excesses' she condemns. In the process Cartner-Morley recalls work by the porcine Steve Meisel about which I have posted here and here and here. And she calls attention too to the photo spread in the U.S. version of Vogue last spring that depicts Keira Knightly, among other things, cavorting with young Kenyan boys. At least this spread draped the ridiculously expensive fashions on the skinny white girl and not on the Africans.

Keira Knightly, Kenya (Vogue, June '08) ~ Photograph © Arthur Elgort.

Of course, by pointing out how Cartner-Morley is complicit in all this - and let's face it, the difference between the imagery she finds offensive and the general run of fashion and glamour and celebrity photography she regularly discusses is slight, at best [1] [2] - I risk inviting the sort of shallow 'we are all complicit because everything-is-connected-to-everything' rationalization some defenders of Vogue India have trotted out.

But to say that because in global markets we all are connected and so decry as hypocrisy of those who criticize bad behavior misses the point. There is a difference between pushing sub-prime, ballooning mortgages on unsuspecting home buyers and writing standard 30 year fixed rate financing. So too, there is a difference between selling fashion accessories (although a $10,ooo handbag? please!*) and selling them on the backs of individuals sunk in dire poverty. Of course, Ms. Tanna is at pains to establish that the individuals in the photographs were paid, she declines to say how much. I doubt they received even a tiny fraction, say, of the sum Ms. Knightly made. Why?

Defenders of Vogue India ask resentfully if we critics are unaware that there are really poor people in India. That surely is jejune. Those who are oblivious in all this seem to be the Vogue editors (not just the obtuse Ms. Tanna, but those responsible for the other examples I note above too). The critics are aware that what is at issue is not simply material deprivation. Of course, there will always be inequality. We are not dim. But there need not be extreme material deprivation. Moreover, as crucially important as material well-being is, what is at stake here is humiliation and cruelty. The individuals in the photographs might not quite grasp the cruel, humiliating implications of the Vogue photographs (although I would not want to pre-judge that), but virtually every relatively well-off reader of Vogue surely should be able to do so. How condescending are these images? "Oh, look at the poor woman and child! How fortunate that the baby can wear that charming bib!" The consequences of so cavalierly displaying such attitudes in any society are immense. That the folks at Vogue, as well as many of their readers and sycophants, seem unable to grasp that fact is truly disturbing.
* Here is an idea. Designing in a situation where price apparently is no object is easy. The fashionistas ought to try designing attractive, decent clothing and so forth under some realistic price constraint. That might test their skills.

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Repeat After Me - "The Surge is Working!"

Two reports in the news today brought to mind the new consensus - shared by both presidential nominees - that "the surge" in Iraq has "worked." The first relates direct evidence from Iraq and appears here in The Guardian. It turns out that the terrorists whom Bush and his minions invited into Iraq are alive and well, prospering one might say. The second, from The New York Times, relates evidence on the opportunity costs of having deployed troops to Iraq in an effort to shore up the disaster BushCo created. Afghanistan, the place the terrorists we allegedly are after actually inhabit, has descended into near total disaster. A job well done for the current Republican administration.

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