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Of bombs and cemeteries, documents and doubts

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a meander of thoughts, from Gaza and Gothic via documentary style photoraphs to juxtaposition and its possible modes of reading ]
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"Israel bombs the dead in Gaza cemeteries" - Jan 2009

As the photo above documents, this strange “twist of fated” has happened before — image drawn from Bin Laden demands holy war as Israel bombs the dead in Gaza cemeteries, Daily Mail, 14 January 2009.

Gazan Gothic.

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My friend Bryan Alexander hosts the Infocult blog, where he showcases gothic elements in our daily lives. It’s a fascinating blog to follow, and a day or three ago Bryan discussed gothic elements in the shooting down of the MH17 over the Ukraine. One rebel source, for instance, reported:

According to the information received from the people who collected the corpses, a large number of the corpses are “not fresh” – these are people who died a few days ago.

Macabre. Gothic.

Bryan’s post concluded thus:

Infocult offers this hypothesis: all intense politics ultimately tend to the Gothic.

– and that’s what brings me back again to Gaza.

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I ran across Gazan Gothic redux in a Foreign Policy piece titled Ramadan in Gaza — in a paragraph that reads:

My six-year-old nephew Bashar told me that he thinks Israelis are crazy. After an airstrike hit a cemetery, he asked me innocently, “Have they meant to kill the dead again, aunt?” I have no words to explain.

That’s gothic for you, and could serve as a fine data point to support Bryan’s hypothesis. But wait a minute…

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That morning I also read — and this had me off on quite a tangent — Arthur Lubow‘s piece, Documentary Art, in the Threepenny Review. Lubow offers a different trajectory from “intense politics” — one that ends in a form of art, not an expression of gothic.. He asks:

What makes a documentary photograph also a work of art? When does its news remain fresh, even after the daily paper or monthly magazine that printed it has faded?

He quotes photographer Walker Evans [Let us now praise famous men] on the difference between two kinds of “current events” photography:

An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, although it certainly can adopt that style.

and writes of the photographer Bruce Davidson, two of whose books he is reviewing:

A photograph of a shattered car in an empty field is a ghastly, violent image. The driver’s window is blown out, the seat is blood-soaked, the doors hang open like broken arms. But to comprehend the horror of this picture, you need to know things that you can learn only from a caption. This was the car that Viola Liuzzo, a volunteer civil rights worker from Detroit, was driving in Alabama when she was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1965. It is, as Evans would have it, a literal document.

Compare that to another Davidson photograph, taken six years earlier. A pretty girl with a full mane of sun-streaked blonde hair is primping in the mirror of a cigarette machine. A handsome boy alongside her is carefully rolling up a sleeve of his T-shirt. They have placed their drinks on top of the machine: a can of beer for him, a bottle of soda pop for her. In the background, other young people are heading for the lockers. The photograph was shot in Coney Island, one of a series on a Brooklyn gang called the Jokers, whom Davidson followed for almost a year in 1959. But any facts about the Jokers are extraneous to one’s appreciation of this photograph, which is all about the narcissistic eroticism of youth. The graceful crook of the feminine elbow in counterpoint to the taut extension of the boy’s arm, the tarnished reflective surface that reveals the girl’s fleeting beauty, the self-involvement and the sexual heat—these are specific to this scene, and general enough for a viewer to understand. It is documentary style.

Further, he writes:

If a photograph can be reduced to a sentence, its interest is fleeting. When the point is sharp and clear, the afterlife is short. .. It’s a didactic style in which the aphorism needn’t be spelled out in words. On East 100th Street, Davidson photographed a child behind a meshed window, alongside a caged bird, and a boy on a filthy mattress in an alley, almost indistinguishable from piles of strewn garbage. These are valuable as documents. But when he portrays a tiny infant with two figurines, all resting on a couch, or a young man with close-set eyes, holding a pet pigeon, he leaves enough mental space around the image for you to wonder. Like any work of art, a great photograph is suggestive but not dispositive. Its power resides in its ambiguity.

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We’re seemingly a long way from Gaza here, but photographs of Gaza too can be “documents” or “documentary-style” art photos. So alongside Bryan’s hypothesis:

all intense politics ultimately tend to the Gothic

I’ll place my own:

all intense politics ultimately tend to art.

My point here is not to deny Bryan’s, but to point up the many tendencies and end points to which “intense politics” may lead simultaneously – carnage, death and grief prominent among them, and a just peace seldom indeed.

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There’s a quote from the same Lubow piece about photographic juxtapositions that has application to my overall DoubleQuotes project. Describing a photo of “an African-American Freedom Rider .. surrounded by .. jeering white youths” Lubow comments:

The black protestor and several of his tormentors are wearing the same collegiate uniform— — a button-down, light-colored Oxford shirt and dark trousers.

The similarity of clothing worn by the warriors on both sides of the racial divide raises provocative questions. The best photographs do. Whereas (to pick up Evans’s distinction) a documentary photograph can be introduced as evidence, a good documentary-style photograph will raise more doubts than it resolves.

Juxtapositions can point to conclusions, but they are most interesting when they “raise provocative questions” rather than scoring “conclusive” points — my DoubleQuotes included.

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Regimental photograph taken after beheadings?

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- delighted by the Met's generosity, saddened by one specific omission ]
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The Metropolitan Museum recently made a huge trove of digital imagery — 400,000 images — available for scholarly use:

he Metropolitan Museum’s initiative — called Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC) — provides access to images of art in its collection that the Museum believes to be in the public domain and free of other known restrictions; these images are now available for scholarly use in any media. Works that are covered by the new policy are identified on the Museum’s website with the acronym OASC.

Sad to say, this image titled “Group of Thirteen Decapitated Soldiers” (ca. 1910) doesn’t appear to be one of them. If it had been, I’d have gladly DoubleQuoted it with Kiping:

f you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

In the meanwhile, do please, click through to it and be suitably astonished.

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It is one of the hazards of copyright that it hampers the building of bridges between different domains — playful, even frivolous connections, as in this case, or more serious ones, as in the overall task of constructing a database of humanly perceived analogies for artificial intelligence uses, or a version of Hermann Hesse’s “hundred-gated cathedral of the mind”.

A pity, that.

And yes, I’m using the phrase “regimental photo” loosely in my title — what would you call it? an after-image, perhaps?

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Still center of the burning world

Monday, May 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a bookish Brit myself, I could easily see myself in either one of these pictures ]
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One trouble with my DoubleQuotes format is that it conforms any images or texts to its own size: there are times when a larger font size in text — or a larger version of an image, allowing greater detail to be seen — would be preferable, as in the case of these two photos from the Blitz:

and:

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The first has been nicely described by Eileen A. Joy in her book-in-progress, Postcard from the Volcano: Beowulf, Memory, History:

Consider the well-known photograph taken of Holland House in London of September 1940, the morning after a German air raid had devastated the house, but had somehow left the library walls, with their shelves of neatly arranged books, mostly intact. This was the period of the Blitz, when the German Luftwaffe bombed London and other English cities continuously for months, hoping to make Britain vulnerable to a land invasion. Holland House, the remnants of which now form part of an open-air theater, was built in 1605 for Sir Walter Cope. It was one of the first "great houses" of Kensington, and during England’s Civil War it was occupied by Cromwell’s army.The photograph shows three men in bowler hats who appear quite comfortable, even calm, as they browse and select books from the tidy stacks, while all around them lie the bombed-out ruins of the house, its roof smashed to pieces, its charred beams exposed, ladders and chairs and other assorted pieces of furniture crushed under the rubble. But the browsers appear oblivious to the terrors of the night before and the chaos surrounding them on all sides. They are the very image of scholarly repose, of quiet study and reflective contemplation, and the symmetry of the books and shelves are the very picture of order in the midst of disorder. Outside, but also inside, lies a world on the brink of apocalypse, what Churchill called "the abyss of a new dark age" (Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War: Their Finest Hour [Boston, 1949], 2: 225-26).

The photograph provides an image of the fetishization of the text, or document, of the ways in which history attaches itself, not to the social disturbances and crises surrounding it on all sides, but to the ruins of the past, and even more so, to the orderly archive of the narratives of those ruins. In that austere repository of the bound volumes of fabula and historia — the library — the scholar seeks the world of lived human experience but encounters instead one of its chief symptoms — writing.

The second is one Zen just used as the header for his most recent Recommended Readings. The Atlanti, which appears to have done the requisite research, titles this image:

A boy sits amid the ruins of a London bookshop following an air raid on October 8, 1940, reading a book titled “The History of London.”

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So, question:

Is it the love of books we see illustrated in these two photos — or British aplomb?

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Out of context: mayhem or medicine among the Buddhists?

Monday, March 24th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- propaganda via the misquoting of an image ]
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The two images are the same — as above, so below. Their contexts, however, are different: one image is preented with the comment:

Muslims burned in Burma … by Buddhists idolaters?

The other:

An ethnic Tibetan monk throws the body of a child onto a funeral pyre in a ditch in Jiegu Town of Yushu County, Qinghai province, after an earthquake registering 7.1 on the richter scale hit the area. April 19, 2010. Over 1,400 people died in the disaster.

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Sources:

I used only one copy of the photo, since different people have cropped it differently, but the two quotes can be found with their respective versions of the same image here:

  • Forum voices Yemen, Muslims burned in Burma
  • 2Wall, The Most Shocking Pictures of 2010
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    While the violence encouraged by Buddhist monks against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma is tragic and important for us to recognize [1, 2], borrowing the photo of a monk taking a medically justified measure to avoid adding a preventable medical disaster to an already terrible natural one, transposing it from the Tibetan plateau to Burma, and then identifying it as a photo of a Buddhist monk murdering Muslims is… unhelpful to say the least.

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    An iconic photo?

    Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- iconic, ironic, either way it's interesting, instructive ]
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