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January 20, 2011

NYT Mag Puts an Eye on American Workers. What’s with the Sterilization?

Although my typical mission is to analyze individual pictures or a particular edit, I’ve been growing more and more concerned about a stylized and depersonalized aesthetic asserting itself in editorial photos, something my friends from the photo world might describe as the blurring of art photography and editorial photography or photojournalism.

Whatever it is, it seems to be getting worse, and its happening, in my mind, at the expense of media accountability, social responsibility and, most disturbingly, the integrity of the citizen subject.

The latest instance of this trend can be found on the cover of the upcoming NYT Magazine, and the photo-feature accompanying a lengthy story on the Obama Administration’s second-half-of-the-first term obsession with  jobs, jobs and jobs. In complementing that story, the NYT Magazine drew a focus on the town of Rockford, Illinois with the goal of throwing a visually light on: a group of people who had jobs; how secure these workers thought their jobs were; and what the workers felt their prospects were of hanging onto those jobs.

An illustration of the human dimension of the economy?

These images convey a troubling uniformity in their Stepford-like lack of affect. Far from the condition of insecurity, a condition we’d be able to tell through some form of fresh expressiveness, the only emotion I can really discern in any noticeable degree here is guardedness or self-consciousness.

I’m interested in what you get from these portraits, how much you think they convey individuality and pay respect to the American worker, and what you think they say about you and I, in their reflection. And then, not to fall victim to generalization, I’d like to know what you think, in particular, of the images of either Sara, Carla, Mary, Kayla, Shelton, Xochilt, Bill, Andrew or Dee.

For myself, I wanted to juxtapose the photo of the telemarketer, Bruce Swanson, with the quote about Bruce from the photographer, Alex Soth, since it was the only quote from the photographer about an individual subject published with the story. (I’ve reproduced the pop-up in actual size.) Writes Mr. Soth:

“His face showed great experience…. Here’s a person who’s seen some ups and downs and really lived a lot of life. But there was something about his clothing. Here’s someone who’s really trying, really trying to make life better.”

I get a flavor of Bruce’s spirit in listening to the audio clip in the interactive feature, but that only makes this distant and denuded photo seem that much more distant and suffocated.  And then, what does his clothing — the argyle, I guess — have to do with his spirit and attitude? As I said, I’ve really been grappling with what’s off about editorial photography these days. It must have something to do with Bruce’s sweater.

Interactive feature (portraits/audio interviews)

Rockford’s Group Portrait, in Five Days (Making of the photo story/Lens blog)

The White House Looks for Work – Cover story

(photos: Alec Soth for the New York Times)

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