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January 11, 2014

On any Given Day, What May be Needed is Not 400 Photographs, But Just 1

Let’s start with one photo.

The caption reads, “Human remains are seen during the exhumation of a Stalinist-era mass grave on the military cemetery in the heart of the Polish capital Warsaw. The grave is believed to contain the remains of around 200 victims of a post-war campaign of communist terror.”

Perhaps the victim was screaming at the moment of death, but the gaping jaw could be an accident of decay or excavation.  Perhaps the lost individual will be identified, and perhaps the family can be notified.  Perhaps the remains will have forensic value, and maybe some remnant of justice can yet be done.

But, OMG, what an image.  The accidents of time have produced a howling, shrieking cry of pain and rage.  The body emerging from the earth is still shrouded with dust, as if still more ghost than material thing.  The immobility of being long buried is still binding the corpse, but it seems to be straining to be released, to rise up in glorious, savage revenge.  A revenge that will never come, as instead it will be interned again in a bureaucratic process constrained by a decided imbalance of power.

And so it has to settle for a more academic symbolism: there lies The Past, or Terror, or the Human Condition.  These are not small things, but they can have other emblems as well.  Yet, even so, I can’t help but think–or hope–that this image might haunt whatever idea is brought to it; that it might arise again in the night or at an odd moment, and that it might disturb, trouble, bring one perhaps to tremble for this lost soul from history’s slaughter pen.

OK, and now add a million more photos.  Start with the 10,000 that were sent to photo editors on the day this one was published.  Add another 10,000 for the many days before and every day after that.  Add also all the other images that you see every day in the news, advertising, and entertainment, and on Facebook, Flickr, and other social media.  Then add in what everyone else is seeing: the 200,000 photos that are uploaded to Facebook every minute, and the 27,00 at Instagram, etc.  And while you are at it, drop by a museum and see an exhibition of photographs.

Were you to do any of this, you might feel like Chloe Pantazi, who went to an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum on war photography.  Pantazi came away feeling “numb,” as if she had been anesthetized, and, not surprisingly came to the conclusion that “Susan Sontag Was Right” when she condemned photographs for dulling our ethical capacity.  Well, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, so I guess it could happen, but the declaration also provides an opportunity to think for a few seconds and say, “Really?”

I haven’t seen the exhibition, nor do I doubt for a minute that Pantazi had the experience she reports, so we need not disagree about her review on those terms.  That said, Pantazi’s reaction is not surprising for several reasons: First, it is a very understanding reaction to over 400 photographs about war taken in a single experience of dedicated viewing.  Indeed, I would expect the same result from reading 400 essays, or 400 pages, on the horror of war.  What most of us would not do in that case, however, is conclude that words were the problem.  And yet that is the point of the photography review, as the subtitle declares: “A troubling new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art throws into question the medium’s very purpose.”

Which leads to the second reason her conclusion is so familiar: it is exactly the reaction one is primed to have after reading Sontag, not to mention John Berger, Allan Sekula, Martha Rossler, and others who have crafted the conventional discourse of photography theory along the same line.  (See the first chapter of Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance for a provocative exposition on this point.)  What might be a normal–and temporary–reaction to intensive consumption of any medium becomes redefined as a universal failing of a single medium.  Once primed to be misused and disappointed by photography, it is easy to code one’s experience accordingly.  Let me add that putting the exhibition in a museum doesn’t help, as the fine arts context dominant there (as it is in Sontag’s work) interferes with correctly understanding a public art.

Again, the point here is not to reprove Pantazi for what might be a spot on review of a flawed exhibition.  But her reaction, the size of the exhibition, and even Sontag’s interpretative biases all point toward what is a very real condition of the image world today: excess.  And where there is excess, there will be exhaustion.

And as Pantazi rightly assumes (more so than the early Sontag, by the way), the emotions that come to be exhausted by images of horror are crucial for moral response, reflection, and engagement.  So this is no small problem.  But if we could set aside Sontag’s censorious tone, it is a problem that could lead to many creative solutions.

I’m out of time tonight, but let me close by suggesting that there is much more to excess than the likelihood of overwhelming us.  (And be sure to see David Campbell’s corrective argument about the much more manageable circumstances of actual practice.)  Indeed, photography as always been an abundant art: cheap, expansive, and ending up in every corner of the world.  (I have a bit more to say on rethinking abundance here and here.)  What does need to be done is to take more seriously the curatorial function, which includes not only actual curators or editors, but also critics and citizens as they sort, select, and share images as part of their participation in the virtual world of public culture.

And we need to remember that at the end of any given day, what may be needed is not 400 photographs, but just one.  Like the one above, for example.

– Robert Hariman

(cross-posted from No Caption Needed)

(photo: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP-Getty Images)

  • Stan B.

    “Indeed, I would expect the same result from reading 400 essays, or 400

    Thanks for putting it into perspective. Photography has finally arrived- what it has always so desperately craved! Freed of its archaic history, complete with its formulated alchemy ritualized in darkened rooms, it is now as ubiquitous as the spoken word, and every bit as vulnerable. It has become as important, and every bit as irrelevant, as every other medium and art form in history.

    • Scarabus

      Stan, I’m pretty sure that you and I agree in substance, but I have to admit that your comment leaves me a tad puzzled. Example? Your paradoxical phrasing, “…as important, and every bit as irrelevant, as every other medium and art form in history,” is definitely provocative and might very well be true. Quite honestly, though, I’m not really sure what you mean.

      While writing this reply I’m half-listening to, half-watching a documentary about the recovery and restoration of as complete a version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as is likely to be realized — ever! but certainly in my lifetime. Why am I watching this documentary for the “many-eth” time? Frankly, because I love Metropolis; because I always want to know how and why art’s created, altered, preserved, destroyed; … or, if fortune smiles, reborn for new generations.

      I edit and contribute to the monthly newsletter of our local Democratic Club. I always include a feature I title “Blast from the Past.” For the November “Blast,” I wrote an article about “class warfare” and its underlying ideology. The example I used was a work of art — namely Metropolis. (I added a brief intro plus explanatory captions to a number of screen captures.)

      Why? Because I believe that particular work of art continues to be at least as important to our understanding of … the Koch Bros. and their ilk…? and also as relevant?, as any other response to plutocracy/corporatocrasy/oligarchy one might find.

      In other words I think the art of picture-making, still or in motion, is at least as important and as relevant as it ever was. I like your comment, which I think is both smart and clever, but I’ll need to reflect a little more before saying “Amen.”

  • Scarabus

    On seeing the photo, before reading a word of the commentary, I thought immediately of the casts of the victims from 1st century Pompeii I’ve seen. This photo depicts an actual preserved skeleton, of course, while the latter are casts made from the hollows left by long decayed flesh and other organs. The contortions we see in the Pompeii victims — animal as well as human — are the result of involuntary physiological response to the heat of the pyroclastic flow. Can’t say that makes them any less horrifying, though. (Note in the image I’ve attached the right arm of the victim.)

    Question: Does seeing the “flesh” rather than just the skeleton matter? If so, how? I’ve thought about this frequently through the years. But, while they might impress us with a sense of the personalities they might once have had, both the Pompeii victims and the one in this photo remain anonymous. Compare this to the graveyard scene in Hamlet:

    Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
    of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
    borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
    abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
    it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
    not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
    gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
    that were wont to set the table on a roar?

    How does not having known the victim affect our response? How does having known him or her affect it? Why? I think about such stuff … which may help explain why I take antidepressant drugs.

  • Stan B.

    Photography has always been the runt with a chip on its shoulder, the
    art form that couldn’t get respect, even pre-Sontag. And when it
    eventually did, it was still riddled with self doubt. Now, it is so in
    our face as both art and medium, we’re talking about how to reduce its
    ever present presence.

    Photography has now reached the pinnacle
    of communication, and is therefore every bit as subject to being ignored
    and devalued, as it is to being praised.

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