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September 30, 2007

On Screen In Real Life

(revised 9:41 PST)


(click for still larger)

I’ve been meaning to post this image for weeks now.  It appeared as part of a slide show on the Newsweek/MSNBC site following Fred Thompson’s candidacy announcement.

Photographed in 2004 on the set of the TV show Law and Order, the photo features the program’s star, Sam Waterston, as Assistant Executive District Attorney Jack McCoy (near right), real NYC Mayor Bloomberg in a cameo appearance, and the both real and fictional Thompson, the latter in the guise of DA Arthur Branch.

What is fabulous about this shot is what is also so significant about visual theorist W.J.T. Mitchell’s book, What Do Pictures Want.  Mitchell takes the position that images have two discrete lives, one more literal and another more whimsical or imaginary.  In the mind of the viewer, however, Mitchell argues that each contains a complete integrity unto itself.

How is it that Reagan could have gotten away with “acting the Presidency,” or Americans could bestow credibility on a completely unqualified, yet elaborately framed and consistently stage-managed George Bush?  The answer is that humans, in lending themselves to pictures, are simultaneously wired for a more concrete, factual inspection as well as a more fantasy or “make believe” one.

What is wonderful about an image like this is how it plays both ways.

In other words, at one level of perception, we  understand 100% that this is a set, Waterston is moving around in his day job, and that  Thompson and Bloomberg share equivalency as politicians.  At another level, however, what our brain tells us — given the power of an image to assert its own internal reality –  is that DA Branch and McCoy are real, and that Bloomberg (smiling in recognition?) exists for the moment in that real imaginary world.

(image: Ed Reed / NYC Mayor’s Office-AP.  2004.

  • margaret

    Is this for real? Or, are they wax figures from Madame Tussaud’s?
    I can’t tell if this is virtual reality or something one could reach out and touch. It’s a most frightening image, to me. The way they are all crowded together, celebrities, all, means that’s all you see. Sort of what it must be like to stand outside a movie house screening a movie on first night and watching all the “famous” people stride by. All content of any meaning, other than the surface recognition of something familiar, like a fire hydrant, missing

  • PTate in MN again, sigh

    “The answer is that humans, in lending themselves to pictures, are simultaneously wired for a more concrete, factual inspection as well as a more fantasy or “make believe” one”
    A fascinating picture! I stared at it for a long time because I’ve never seen Law and Order, and I didn’t know it was a stage set until the text explained. So of the two realities that W.J.T. Mitchell proposes, the literal and the imaginary, for me, the imaginary was 90% of what I saw: Thompson looking presidentail standing next to Mayor Bloomberg.
    There was a fascinating discussion on Errol Morris’s NYTimes blog last week about two famous photos from 1855, Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death. Susan Sontag, asserting that “Not surprisingly many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged, or to have had their subjects tampered with,” used these photos as examples of pictures that had been manipulated by the photographer. Morris did a very nice piece of sleuthing to challenge Sontag’s claim and intentions. Readers were sufficiently engaged that 790 have left comments.
    So I am curious about why viewers find so disturbing the idea that a photographer has manipulated an image? Mitchell’s idea of the simultaneous literal and imaginary interpretations provides an explanation. Perhaps human cognition is based on the confident expectation that “Seeing is believing” and with that sure foundation, we are able to keep the two realms, the literal and the imaginary, separate. But when the photographer manipulates the image, then the literal and the imaginary are contaminated, and we know that we can no longer trust what we are seeing. Reality has become ambiguous.
    The cleverness of so much of Bushco’s visual propaganda is that his gullible supporters are not very good at perceiving that the images had been manipulated to achieve a desired effect. And this picture of Thompson is just confusing. Michael Bloomberg and Thompson are both real politicians, and Thompson and Waterston are both real actors. The photo was taken because Thompson is an actor, but with Bloomberg on the set that day, we resolve the literal/imaginary ambiguity by interpreting that Thompson is a politician. It makes me dizzy.

  • tina

    There are apparently a few people out there who do think that television shows such as Law and Order ARE real life. While most others know on some level that it is a show, on another, more visceral level they accept the fiction as reality, like all the people who visit Atlanta and ask where Scarlett and Rhett are buried (Atlanta’s number one tourist question). This is what enables people to think that actors must be like the characters they portray once they are off-screen in “real life”, especially if the actor has been cast consistently in one particular role, as Thompson has. This is what makes people assume that they know them, and makes people feel comfortable voting for them on the basis of *no* information. My dad still thinks Reagan was a real cowboy. That’s just life, I guess. Still, I somehow don’t think we are doomed to a Thompson president. He doesn’t seem very interested in the job, to be honest.

  • Aaron

    and Sam Waterston has been selling the unity08 crap.

  • Bourgeois Nievete

    So is Mitchel saying that we are actually wired for cognitive dissonance?
    Are we genetically disposed to accept original sin and the Redemption of the Cross, innate human evil and infallibility of scripture?
    Excellent post by the way. Sharp truth at the end too.

  • Bourgeois Nievete

    This also points out a nauseating contrast of Fred Thompson on the campaign trail without set make-up.

  • Bourgeois Nievete

    Hate to keep posting but looking at CEO Bloomberg positioned in the middle and, as per your point, looking pretty small compared with everyone else–when he could easily buy everything in the entire building, including the actors as well as their descendant’s descendants.

  • RizohKavay

    Check out my site! for all Law & Order fans!

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