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March 14, 2005

Fitting the Fabric

Abbascover-2

If my tendency is to overanalyze a photograph, it feels like this portrait of Mahmoud Abbas on the latest NYT Magazine cover has lent some brakes.

I’ve been looking at it off and on since Sunday, and I still haven’t grown tired of it.  However, I also can’t pin down exactly what is so compelling.  (Which is why I’m particularly interested in reading what you come up with.)

If you’ve been hanging around the BAG, you know I tend to get in a little deep over formal elements.  In this shot, though, it seems that Abbas really strikes me.  His look is so bona fide.

I wish I knew more about Middle Eastern textiles and designs.  The contrast between the rich pattern and texture of carpet and drape — with Abbas forming a bridge — seems so illustrative of the opposing cultures that demand his navigation.

Finally, I’m fascinated with the base carpet.  That’s the strip of material that lines the wall in place of a base board.  It’s easier to see in print, but the way it’s attached is far from elegant.  To the right of Abbas, in fact, the edge metal pulls away from the wall revealing a black hole. 

Maybe the pulling away of edges is an appropriate metaphor for the way Israeli’s and Palestinian’s tend to intersect.

(image: Taryn Simon for The New York Times)

  • Tilli (Mojave Desert)

    Abbas: resigned to negotiating in yet another shabby hotel conference room?

  • aethorian

    OK, open season on men’s fashion image. Is there any mode of men’s dress duller, less imaginative, and more uniform than today’s suit? It may be an impolitic fashion statement, but give the poor man a keffiyeh or something.
    And is there anything more, ah, compensatory than a long, red tie? We might as well wear these (scroll to bottom of page for an example of NSFW indigenous costume): at least we’d be cooler in summer…

  • Aruac

    The contrast of textile backdrop and carpet is intended to suggest the extremely tense sphere in which Abbas is operating. On one level, it is a positive representation of him: he is the sober grandfather dressed in his western business suit (no Arafat style checked cloth headdress), providing a calm centre to a troubled and apparently unresolvably tense situation. On the other hand, Abbas looks pathetic and weak: this is the impotent grandfather, benevolent but poor and weak and confused, and frankly unable to take care of himself or to master the complexities of the situation. I think the latter interpretation is the dominant one, and no surprise for the New York Times, this is coherent with the liberal zionist view of Abbas: “a man who is worth doing business with, but we need to keep control of the sitatuation because for god sake he can’t”.

  • mugatea

    My first impression of the photo is the contrast between Mr. Abbas and his predecessor Mr. Arafat. If the background was a brick wall Abbas could be any man in any part of the Westernized world, so the textiles and thier condition are telling. Forgive me, but the placement of the type is odd … The uppercase T is placed close enough and centered to his crotch to make it a bit wang-like. Abbas is a good card player, less emotional in public than Arafat, and we really don’t know who he is as of yet.

  • http://www.snip.net apples

    The English word navigator is associated with images and costumes that are a stark contrast to the suit worn.
    Abbas’body language contradicts the dynamism of the engaged technical tasks associated with navigation. Reading Defoe or Equiano allows us to consider alternative body language associated with the activity.
    Steering the ship of state or charting a voyage into the unknown and the travel discourses (words and images) in other sections of the paper are a stark contrast to the magazines discourse.
    Images of suited navigators on modern aircraft and spaceships offer another comparative framework.
    Pictures of exotic magic carpets suspended in the air of orientalism appear to be tamed and transformed.
    Eyeglasses add to the vision-navigation dynamic as it is embodied. The placement on of the body on the page – as a text underneath the NYT Magazine text – adds to the complex interplay between word and image. If the image is removed – in braille – then the word sequence and font selection – suggest a story that is even more problemmatic.

  • kyle

    He looks like a caged animal on display, penned in by verical lines which allow no real movement. This is exactly his position as Palestinian “navigator”, of course, since he will be portrayed as an unreliable negotiating partner, an unreformed Arafat, if he veers from the ever accommodating course Sharon’s party and the US expect from him. The expression he wears and the rigid, slightly slumped posture suggest that he’s already resigned to his fate.

  • Joe

    The curtain represents the idea that we don’t know what is behind him. What is his power and support? He is in the forground, but politically, he is a mystery.

  • jon

    the whole premise that it is up to abbas to change in any serious way the power dynamic visa vi the palestinians and israelis is ridiculous- the US and Israel are the ones with the power, and cultural fabric-oriented notions aside, the issue is occupation- the palestinians are occupied, the Israelis the occupier & colonizer.

  • -asx-

    I think part of the reason it’s an interesting picture is that it is NOT a picture of Abbas as much as it’s a picture of Abbas posing for a picture. The wide shot reveals to us that Abbas is posing in front of a backdrop.
    It’s also interesting that the carpet is worn, the base carpet is imperfect, etc., because in America, those imperfections would make the setting unacceptable. Everything has to be perfect over here or we don’t like it. Over there, they aren’t that rich to have everything look brand new. So that’s interesting, too.

  • http://blog.thought-mesh.net Annoying Old Guy

    On a meta-level, deep analysis of posed pictures makes more sense than the same on action shots. As an amateur photographer, I can tell you that “is it in focus? is it well framed?” are asked a lot more frequently than any symbolic ones. Since you don’t get do-overs, you like with what you get at the time.

    In contrast, a posed shot lets you do a lot more with symbolism since you can take it over and have control of everything in the picture.

  • http://tsuredzuregusa.blogspot.com Shaula Evans

    I am greatly enoying all the photo analyses you are posting.
    One small point: the strip of white wall in the bottom of the picture draws the viewer’s eyes downward, as does the placement of the title, emphasizing Abbas’ width and diminishing his height.
    The white wall and title also serve to symbolically “cut him off at the knees.”

  • Just Some Liberal Cynic

    In my opinion the one thing this picture is..is this: not Yassar Arafat. No flamboyance, no Arab headgear, no supporting crowds of cheering followers, no arms-above-head, kiss-blowing extravagance of gesture…in short, the message could be read: “this guy is not a threat.” I mean, he looks like Morrie, the guy I buy plumbing supplies from down in town! Stolid, dependable: maybe there is hope for peace in the MidEast yet.

  • http://tsuredzuregusa.blogspot.com Shaula Evans

    You have no trackbacks, but FYI, I’ve been singing your praises on BOP News today:
    http://www.bopnews.com/archives/002984.html#2984

  • JVictor

    How about:
    It’s curtains for Palestine?

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/vicfitz82 Victor F.

    To me, the contrast between the plain black suit and the colorful striped background makes Abbas jump out at the viewer. The expression on his face is calm. He is posing a little awkwardly: a little rigid and very static. To me, this combination of elements suggests that Abbas has been thrust in front of a very busy situation. If there is any movement in the photo, it is forward: directly at the viewer. By calling him a “Navigator,” this subtle forward motion is enhanced by the idea that one who navigates will find a path ahead.
    Of course, there is no guarantee of smooth sailing, even in this photo. The contrast between Abbas and the background might make him stick out, but it also has undertones of discord. Reds and greens, yellows and blues, subtly fighting behind him as he tries to find a way out of a complicated situation. And, because he is standing still now, he may look calm. But he has the potential in the unpredictable future to become much more dynamic. Who knows what kind of Abbas we will see as he charts his courses?

  • aethorian

    To get a clearer view of any photo, squint, and step away from the screen. Sir.
    Do this, and Abbas’ dark suit becomes a man-shaped black hole in the drapery, with its warm bright colors advancing around his body towards the camera. All that’s left is his face, gradually fading away, leaving behind his “Let’s get this over with…” expression. The many paths under his feet say “Go”, but the curtain’s dark vertical folds, like iron bars, hold him back.
    And in the background we hear Dan Fogelberg’s song Hard to Say:

    You face the future with a weary past
    Those dreams you banked upon are fading fast
    You know you love her but it may not last,
    You fear –

    It’s never easy
    And it’s never clear
    Who’s to navigate
    And who’s to steer
    So you flounder drifting ever near the rocks.

  • http://www.tommyjournal.com/ Tommy

    My first thought was “this photo looks very much posed”;
    then I was struck by how artfully it’s posed (it looks
    sincere, or bona fide as you put it).
    Abbas is sandwiched between layers of text (he overlays the
    text at the top, and is overlaid by the text at the bottom)
    which gives a sense of depth to the composition, without
    which it might have looked more posed and less bona fide.
    But that alone isn’t enough to explain why it works so well.

  • wes

    He looks like they ran out of toilet paper in his suite.
    He should take the ring on his left hand off if that’s the case.

  • http://www.barakyedidia.com/blog Barak

    Shaula notes that this images seems to diminish his height. I am in complete agreement and add to that the choice of focal length and camera position make his legs look very short.

    There is no reason a professional photographer would take a ‘posed’ picture with a short lens from so close at eye level unless he meant to make his subject look small. Add to that the white band at Abbas’ knees and you know it was intentional.

  • Nate

    The contrast between chaos and calm here, as others have pointed out, is the defining element of this photo. We perceive the contrast between color and non-color conciously as one of culture – Abu Mazzen’s struggle between the Arabic culture we perceive him to represent and the Western culture he is adapting to – but, subconciously and even openly, these cultures represent chaos (Mid-East) and calm (America and the West).
    We make a very unconsidered transition from identifying seperate cultures in the fabrics to perceiving opposing cultures. Even in your summary, you make this connection: “seems so illustrative of the opposing cultures that demand his navigation.” I would say that the positioning of these “seperate” cultures as “opposing” cultures is part of the overall American myth of the Arabic world, while here in Palestine (where I am currently living) Western style of dress, music and many aesthetic aspects of culture do not seem to create such conflict; they have blended together, with a few rough edges, after so many years of heavy exposure to Western culture through Israel and the international presence here.
    Another thing that sticks out to me is the combination of his body posture, facial expression, clothing and the background. While you perceived the personality in the picture as “bona fide”, I see it as exasperated, desperate. His body posture to me is reluctant. Combine this with the suit and a direct, unhappy glare, and I get the impression that he is like a kid wearing a sweater his grandma gave him for Christmas. Combine this with the drapes, creating the context from which he emerged, and this picture says something very clear to me: “Is this enough to make you happy? Is the suit what you needed, this image of respectability? Must we deny our heritage to live in peace?”
    Other people have talked about the blackness of his suit, so I’ll just end with a final, small observation. Did anyone else make an ethereal connection to the shadows on the white wall at his knees? I see ghosts, moving upwards, in that wall. Because of their positioning between the carpet and drapery, there is a sense of ghosts escaping from their enclosure, but this seems hidden, small right now. For anyone following the route of the wall or the distribution of major settlement blocks in the West Bank, this concept of being pinned in is an important factor at play in peace proposals, and ghosts seeping out from the wall is a dramatic representation of the fear of new peace proposals and the memories of past proposals.
    Another interpretation of these shadows, the one that occured to me first, before I got sidetracked by the concept of enclosure, is that the ghosts represent memory. Just recently Abu Mazzen has talked of creating a “realistic” platform on the right of return for refugees and in all of these discussions very little is ever mentioned about the Nakba/War of Independence. If Hezbollah is indeed trying to derail the peace process, then these ghosts – the memory of the Nakba and the plight of the refugees in diaspora today – will become an increasing problem for Abu Mazzen.
    Anyway, I’ve been reading this site for a short while now. Thanks, Michael for your insightful, and sometimes a bit too far-reaching, analysis. It’s a great angle for getting people thinking about news in new ways.

  • Maxcat

    I agree totally with JSLC.
    He (Abbas) is not Arafat and I would add this caption, “Here I am ready to deal with you on your level and ready get the job done”!! In other words–let’s get down to business. Time for both sides to get busy…..and I am the man that is going to get the job done……finally.

  • http://www.idyllopuspress.com/meanwhile Idyllopus

    I can see why you find this image compelling. It is to me as well. To me it says bona fide in the way Life Magazine lent a stamp of bona fide. Throws me back to that era, as if I’m passing a coffee table in a friend’s house and see this which even as a child I would have know was important get-down-to-diplomatic-business as the person stands alone without product. Oddly enough it also immediately returns me to the house of a childhood friend of mine, on whose family room coffee table was always Life magazine. She was Jewish. It places me back in the living room, though no resemblance, but the room was dominated by tired drapery and carpet. No furniture as they were investing first in building up their store and the home setting was secondary to business interests. The photo immediately pitched me there with a sense of transition (navigator). I didn’t know it was Abbas so it is still curious to me why I was immediately back in her home. Having only seen this jpg I don’t know how much detail is evident in the larger in the midsection, and I don’t know anything about it but seems the midsection is burned in so that the eye goes first to face (set off by the highlighted shoulders of the suit) then drop down to “The Navigator” where the dark shadows merging with the individual add weight, depth and solidity but also push one’s eye then back up to the face as there’s no detail in the shoes and trouser legs to attract attention. Which could be intentional (if the photo is actually like that) because where he stands on the carpet is highlighted and thus his shoes should be as well but aren’t, so maybe they were burned in as well.
    To me this is where the sense of movement comes from, the strong shadows to rear of feet and legs pushing the upper body forward where he is hghlighted. At any rate, to me it’s a visually interesting portrait because of the mix of textures and color which lend a rich feel (texturally) but not so obvious or rich as to detract from the person, textures heightened even more by the stark contrast of the slim exposure of stark wall.

  • http://www.idyllopuspress.com/meanwhile Idyllopus

    (I posted but only my name appeared so am trying again.) I can see why you find this image compelling. It is to me as well. To me it says bona fide in the way Life Magazine lent a stamp of bona fide. Throws me back to that era, as if I’m passing a coffee table in a friend’s house and see this which even as a child I would have know was important get-down-to-diplomatic-business as the person stands alone without product. Oddly enough it also immediately returns me to the house of a childhood friend of mine, on whose family room coffee table was always Life magazine. She was Jewish. It places me back in the living room, though no resemblance, but the room was dominated by tired drapery and carpet. No furniture as they were investing first in building up their store and the home setting was secondary to business interests. The photo immediately pitched me there with a sense of transition (navigator). I didn’t know it was Abbas so it is still curious to me why I was immediately back in her home. Having only seen this jpg I don’t know how much detail is evident in the larger in the midsection, and I don’t know anything about it but seems the midsection is burned in so that the eye goes first to face (set off by the highlighted shoulders of the suit) then drop down to “The Navigator” where the dark shadows merging with the individual add weight, depth and solidity but also push one’s eye then back up to the face as there’s no detail in the shoes and trouser legs to attract attention. Which could be intentional (if the photo is actually like that) because where he stands on the carpet is highlighted and thus his shoes should be as well but aren’t, so maybe they were burned in as well.
    To me this is where the sense of movement comes from, the strong shadows to rear of feet and legs pushing the upper body forward where he is hghlighted. At any rate, to me it’s a visually interesting portrait because of the mix of textures and color which lend a rich feel (texturally) but not so obvious or rich as to detract from the person, textures heightened even more by the stark contrast of the slim exposure of stark wall.

  • aethorian

    Re barak:

    There is no reason a professional photographer would take a ‘posed’ picture with a short lens from so close at eye level unless he meant to make his subject look small. Add to that the white band at Abbas’ knees and you know it was intentional.

    It’s true that wider angle lenses (35mm or less) tend to make a subject look small, but they also barrel-distort the subject in an unflattering way, which is why most professional photographers avoid using them for portraits. Barrel distortion would also show up clearly in the folds of the curtain, but they appear quite parallel in Mr. Abbas’ portrait.
    Obviously the shot is posed, but there’s nothing sinister about the choice of lens, which is usually determined by the size of the subject and the dimensions of the room. A normal or short telephoto lens (50mm-135mm for 35mm film cameras) was probably used for this full-length portrait, with the camera backed up against the wall opposite the subject. There also appears to be a white something—the edge of a bed, perhaps—creeping in on the bottom right edge of the frame.
    An eye level POV most acuurately records a subject’s normal height: if you wanted to make them appear smaller, you would shoot from above normal eye level.
    Depending upon the location of the shoot and the availability of Mr. Abbas, perhaps no better background was available. Most photojournalists don’t carry seamless backdrops around.

  • http://www.barakyedidia.com/blog barak

    A cheap wide angle lens will barrel distort, but a good one will not. The example images you show, do show distortion, but primarily from the difference in distance to the lens between nose and ears.
    I’m talking about a similar distortion of the legs. His legs look short because they are noticably farther away from the lens than his head which is at the level of the camera.
    To make a subject look “normal,” either you use a longer lens (which means you stand farther from the subject and the legs are almost the same distance from the lens as the head), or you shoot from around belly height. Every professional photographer shooting for the NY Times knows this. Seamless paper is not necessary to make a nice background. A wide aperture would do the trick.
    You are correct that he appears to be shot from very close, but if you are shooting Mr. Abbas for the cover of the New York Times Magazine, that should not be a limitation. “Mr. Abbas, I understand you are a busy man, but this is for the cover of the New York Times Magazine and it would look better if we stepped into the hallway. It will only take an additional 30 seconds.”
    Every decision of background, distance from the subject and lens choice are conscious decisions made by a commercial photographer for a reason. If the lens is too short and the background is odd, the photographer meant it to look that way.

  • aethorian

    One thing that also contributes to the apparent shortness of his legs is the loose fit of his dark suit, and the placement of the “T” in the title. With normal human proportions, the tops of your legs—your hips and groin—are more or less even with your wrists.
    Even for the New York Times Magazine, I would hope that Mr. Abbas’ schedule would take precedence.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    {yawn} another modern media un-savvy Palestinian person.
    somebody tell these guys to throw out the old rugs and get a blue screen background that says something like:
    Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace Palestinians for Peace

  • http://bagnewsnotes.com Noitol

    These comments are entertaining and also a little preposterous. Does anyone work at a newsmagazine? I do. Do you imagine that these readings — all valid — were conceived before the shoot? Do you imagine that Taryn Simon had more than 10 or 20 minutes to get this done? Do you think that a contract photographer has much say in where in a head of state will allow himself to be photographed? If Abbas is symbolically cut off at the knees, or if the textile patterns somehow symbolize Israeli-Arab conflict — these may be true, but they are either coincidental or subconscious.
    Most likely, a dozen “keeper” images came in to the Magazine. The story editor, the photo editor, the editor in chief, and the art director assembled the contenders and discussed their favorites. (In no doubt mystical and preposterous terms.) In the end, the image that “popped” won. The image that was familiar (suited diplomat, full frontal) and also somehow unusual (don’t those patterns, you know, clash?) selected itself.
    And don’t forget that the Times Magazine doesn’t have to contend with newsstand sales, giving it the luxury of choosing a photograph that is not immediately readable.

  • aethorian

    Yet Taryn Simon is profoundly aware of the indistinct image of “truth” that photography can present. From her book The Innocents:

    During the summer of 2000, I worked for The New York Times Magazine photographing men who were wrongfully convicted, imprisoned, and subsequently freed from death row. After this assignment, I began to investigate photography’s role in the criminal justice system. I traveled across the United States photographing and interviewing men and women convicted of crimes they did not commit. In these cases, photography offered the criminal justice system a tool that transformed innocent citizens into criminals, assisted officers in obtaining erroneous eyewitness identifications, and aided prosecutors in securing convictions. The criminal justice system had failed to recognize the limitations of relying on photographic images.
    Photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction is one of its most compelling qualities. But when misused as part of a prosecutor’s arsenal, this ambiguity can have severe, even lethal consequences. Photographs in the criminal justice system, and elsewhere, can turn fiction into fact. As I got to know the men and women in this book, I saw that photography’s ambiguity, beautiful in one context, can be devastating in another.

    Much still lies in the eye of the beholder, and that’s what BAGnewsNotes is trying to explore.

  • leigh

    I couldn’t really put my finger on it at first either… but what strikes me about this photograph is how Abbas is entirely contained in the frame. He has no where to go, he is entirely boxed in. It looks like a portrait, but he is also “small” because most people do not fit entirely within the frame when their portrait is made. (i.e., Life is too big to fit in an 8×10 frame).

  • http://www.chuckpratt.net/ chuck

    I do NOT think he looks powerless (au contraire), I do NOT think he’s had his legs cut off, he’s isolated, etc.
    I think it “works” because of its visual design, conscious or not. I also think it accurately reflects a moment–whether the moment the photo was made, or the extended moment in which its subject lives and works. But there’s too much about this image and its creation we do not know, which, if we did know would give us some reasonable basis for evaluation.
    Short legs, barrel-distorted body, that’s what the Times does with those photos in the “Questions For…” section. THOSE pictures seem designed specifically to make their subjects look absolutely stupid (which, mostly, they aren’t).

  • JackDurham

    Mr. Abbas is dressed in traditional western business clothes. The West is on-notice that he understands western negotiation and will proceed within that framework. Most of bottom-line items will be deliverables that can be evaluated in economic terms. Money for development, access for jobs, fair allocation of water resources so small businesses can once again thrive, and trade agreements.
    But what is the size of this man? The photo has no reference points to indicate his size and strength. Instead, we are shown a set of vertical lines of unknown horizontal dimension. These vertical lines distort our view of his height, but we are not shown by how much. He may appear to be taller and more powerful than he really is. Or, maybe he is really a big man.
    What path will he navigate? His feet are oriented on the rug to proceed on a path to his right, not backwards but not straight ahead to us. The path to right will balance local popularity and progress with Israel. The path straight toward us is most productive economically and most hazardous for him personally.
    He looks straight at us. He knows who we are, but does not smile for us. He knows that we have not been his friend in the recent past. His gaze suggests that he is evaluating a path that is straight ahead toward us, as marked by the designers of the “carpet” with an imposed barrier to his back to prevent back-sliding to the old path. He is considering trading popularity for maximum economic gains in the longer term.
    His expression is that he is under tension to go to the right for local popularity, but the most productive economic path is straight ahead as laid out by the carpet lines. His eyes are not fully open, as if he prefers to look at us in blur of what can be instead of looking at the reality of his difficult and hazardous path. His lack of emotion conveys an understanding of the relative amount of pain that will occur by committing a change in path to straight ahead along the lines laid out on the carpet.
    He exhibits no weapons on his body and appears with no one. His armour is only world opinion if he is treated unfairly as he plays by western rules. His hands are open, indicating a willingness to raise them to join with a constructive partner. His feet go right, and his body is twisted to go straight ahead. But, he has gone as far as he can. A handshake and encouragement to step straight ahead must be initiated by us. Otherwise, he will have to turn to the right.

  • Krustor

    What strikes me as interesting is how the typography seems ready to make Abbas tumble. Much like that other staged photo-op in Baghdad, where the US Marines, with the help of Chalabi’s “background players,” toppled the statue of Hussein, the combination of text in front of Abbas’ legs, along with the New York Times Magazine title behind his head, seem to topple Abbas over toward the viewer. This contrasts with his endeavor to remain upright. The “T” in “The” also obscures the division of one leg from another, which appears to make Abbas impossibly long-waisted, and thus, top-heavy. This further reinforces the sense that he’s teetering. The magazine’s masthead, hovering behind him, seems poised to shove him over the text in front of him – perhaps prefiguring impartiality on the part of the media, as they help to topple him.

  • erthsister

    The man in FRONT of the curtain.

  • Joe

    Abbas is portrayed here looking isolated, somewhat down in the mouth, and the shoulders. He strikes a lonely figure, weary, tired, already resigned to defeat, pathetic almost. I bet Sharon would approve of this portrayal.

  • http://community.middlebury.edu/~jeffp/ Jeff Parker

    I grew up in the Middle East, and the rug is familiar. One of the few industries possible in the refugee camps was weaving rugs out of recycled scraps. This gives the characteristic run of color for a couple of lines, and then a full change. These are much faster to make than a Persian rug, and can be made with material they had at hand.
    My parents had nice rugs in the public rooms, and these rag rugs on the floor in the kids rooms.
    - jeff parker

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