Reading “Photographic Memories: Private Pictures, Public Images, and American History”, I was really struck by an idea raised on page 62;
“These views established in the European mind a sense of America as forming the pinnacle of Western civilization.”
Having always looked to America as the heart of Western Civilization, it wasn’t until I read this article that I understood the role the media has played in this understanding. I am not sure what it is about how America was always (an continues to be) portrayed, but there is something about it that is just so appealing to me. The way the US has been portrayed by the Americans, and the Europeans visiting, and then returning with imagery, has evidently been highly influebntial to me – I see america as a more advanced country, full of pentitude, despite knowing that so many of the social and political problems of this country would seem to prove differently.
Reading this paper helped me to understand why I have always been so fascinated with the USA, which is why I have always (since I can remember, even before visiting – which in its own right implies that the media has strongly influenced my perception of the states.) wanted to live here, and whilst I am at SIU, hoping to explore the American way of life through photography and video. What about the American way of life, and the reasons it is so fascinating to me, have until now, remained inexplainable, but now, I understand it is largely how the media portrays it. This, of course, perhaps subverts my reasons to photograph this way of life; if it is all just portrayal, I will no doubt find myself falling short of what I have hoped to achieve very soon, but there is still such an ‘alieness’, and a familiarity to it all, for me. Rob Kroes explains this when stating:
“Leading photo magazines in Europe, in adition to printing American photographs, send their own photographers to report on the New World and to capture the otherness of a different culture, familiar yet utterly alien.”
Perhaps it is because we share a vaguely similar language, that the UK and the USA have grown such strong bonds; TV shows do not need to be translated, a process which can drastically change a characters voice, and therefore how their are percieved by viewers. This common language, combined with being relatively close together on the globe (in comparison to other English speaking countries, such as Australia, New Zealand) allows us to travel freely, and indeed, send photographers over to the ‘New World’ to document is more easily. It is an entire country, speaking nearly only english, which is so close by – this alone, makes it very unique.
I think I should make it clear that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with Europe; it is just that America has always seemed so much more appealing, ‘new and shiney’ so to speak. In the western world, it is often the Americans that lead the way for technologies that affect pop culture – perhaps this is the reason why I see America as so ‘brilliant’? I am not sure quite what it is, but I am relieved to finally have identified the reason why I am, and continue to be, so fascinated by the America. This realisation will form the basis for my 557 paper, where we have to contextualise our own work in relation to media theories, and contemporary art practice.
A few quotes from this paper that I love, but didnt manage to get into my comment in any other ways…
“In the privacy of individual homes, people could now set out on imaginary journeys, acquainting themselves with worlds otherwise far beyond their physical horizons.” – pg. 62
“One way for Salomon to capture the “American way of life” was to focus on every day aspects unfamiliar to his audience yet confirming established, if not stereotypical, views of America as a countrue balancing precariously between a daring modernity and a mechanisation of life that threatened to reduce indiciduals to cogs in a machine.” – pg. 64
“Europeans chose to be both stunned and fascinated as well as haughtily amused if not worried by what they called “Americanism.” ” – pg. 65
“America is still to us a new world, and anything which gives us a true representation as a photograph, is sure to be looked upon with wondering eyes.” pg. 64
I find it interesting (and am usually extremely grateful) when all of your courses are discussing related topics and the readings all intersect with each other. For me at least, it provides insights I don’t think I normally would have had and helps me to understand the topic as a whole better.
First, a question. What the hell is narrative poverty? Jae Emerling brings it up over and over in Photography: History and Theory, and I do not understand what she/he is talking about. In my 20th century Art course I am taking right now, we recently were discussing the advent of photography and what it did to painting, how this shaped the way modernism and abstraction took over. Painting is forced to redefine itself and its purpose within art, as Clement Greenburg points out in his (very self-absorbed) essay “Modernist Painting,” for art to survive it has to get down to the very essence of what it is that no other form of art has. Greenburg breaks down painting and discusses what it shares with sculpture and theatre, but comes up with the conclusion that painting is art on a flat surface. It has the flat canvas – no other medium has that claim. In relation to photography, I don’t feel like there are intellectuals until much later trying to define what photography is, or as Emerling says it the “irreducible essence” (26). In order for photography to be legitimized within the art historical canon (which as we’ve discussed didn’t really happen until the 1970s), it had to establish itself as a clear artistic discipline. Here’s where formalism and all the theory comes into play.
I love the distinction Emerling makes between taking a picture and making a picture. The camera was the great equalizer in the art world. Anyone, without a drop of artistic training, could pick up the machine point it and push a button. I don’t think it is coincidental that the camera and socialism developed around roughly the same period. They provide the same kind of quality to their perspective worlds.
I want to jump to the Kroes reading. Kroes points out something in his opening paragraph that McQuire, Emerling, and I feel to some extent Benjamin touches on. The concept of visual literacy/illiteracy. The rise of the modern era, mass culture, mass production, etc. has pushed forward this communication through images. The late 19th/early 20th century sees this HUGE boom in how images are used, particularly through photography, advertising and then film. I kept wondering, are they arguing that visual communication as opposed to oral or written is making us more stupid?
I love that Kroes discusses the “chromo-civilization.” I believe you can argue that it is far more than just the colored lithograph that is pushing forward this ‘chromophobia’ that is present in the late 19th century. People have written about the perils of color since the Greeks. It represents emotion, the feminine, and chaos to an orderly, male dominated civilization. But just to give chromo-civilization some context, at the same time that the colored lithograph is being developed aniline dyes have been discovered. For the first time in history synthetic dyes in roughly any color of the rainbow at a marginal cost of previous prices are available to the masses. People start to color EVERYTHING. Architecture, clothing, eventually newspapers and advertising, but they approach the use of color without having any kind of aesthetic training or knowledge on how to apply it. There are a lot of aestheticians who are writing about this new abhorrence in society due to this huge outburst of color. I just found it interesting the parallels between color and photography.
I’ve never heard photography described as “le silence sauvage de la photographie,” or the savage silence of photography (68). This concept blew my mind. It’s so beautiful and horrifying and true. I want to touch briefly on his discussion about 9/11. I have never seen the image that Kroes is referring to by Richard Drew. Like many Americans and people around the world I remember that day very clearly and reading what Kroes had to say about that image made me uncomfortable a bit. I could understand why the people on the street freaked out and did not want people taking pictures of those who were jumping from the towers, but I also felt that it was a side of the story that needed to be told. I loved the way the man was described and how Kroes related it to the statue of Icarus that is just a few blocks away. I thought it was beautiful.
“‘The face is not a simulacra, in the sense of something that dissimulates and covers the truth: it is the simultas [the fact of being together], the being-together of the multiple faces that constitute it without one being anymore true than the others. To seize the truth of the face means to grasp… the simultaneity of faces, the unquiet potentiality that holds them and pools them together.'” -pg. 47 Gloss on Walter Benjamin, Italian Philosopher Giorgio Agamben
Reading this I just had to pause at the beauty of the thought. I thought of the question what is art. Then I thought of what it means to be captured in image, acceptance of self, portrayal of self, the existing image accepted as accurate (whatever accurate might mean), and I loved applying this thought to the idea of truth in cinema, the realms of fiction/ documentary.
What is history? What is art? What does it mean to take a portrait… to have a portrait. Who am I?
All of these questions that seek exact definitions. I like thinking of the photograph in the essence that even if it is a blur of your body fleeing the frame, it is a part of a whole. It is part of a start to discovering something. A piece of life. It is a point of perception. The camera’s perception of you at the moment, at the settings its on, of your identity, existence, and of life.
What does it mean to be accurate?
I loved reading the ending of this article because here we have the author that discusses Benjamin’s theories and writings of the photograph pause and reflect on a photograph of Benjamin. A photo many have not seen and the importance of the photograph to the writer becomes apparent and Benjamin becomes more than a reading; he becomes a life. We make a further connection between Benjamin and ourselves.
Jane: I too found that section of the article highly enlightening and refreshing. I remember studying this before, however it was nice to reflect on it again, especially in the time we find ourselves now, with media continuing to expand like a virus.
Another part I found interesting in “Photographic Memories: Private Pictures, Public Images, and American History,” by Rob Kroes, was on pages 58-9, in which it states,
“It may seem ironic, but the invention of photography- of a machine able to “write with light”- did not initially give rise to cultural resistance on such grounds as the mechanical reproduction of images and their mass circulation. In the early years an aura of mystery and wonder, as well as uniqueness, enveloped daguerreotypes, the first form of photography. Only when looked at from the right angle did an image spring forth, ghostlike, fleetingly, as if from a realm of darkness.”
This leads back to the quotes you mention above Jane on pages 62-63 and it made me reflect on how media production went from a lot of circulation with not enough explanation toward a time now with a lot of circulation and “too much explanation.” In the sense that we are still told what to think, yet we have more options?
This is something I would like to discuss in class though, when I lead discussion. 😉
The thing I walk away with in Benjamin’s reading “A Small History of Photography” is the profound vision he had of what photography was and where it could go or grow. From the ghostly images of Daguerre to images of fishwives and close-ups of plant biology photography was doing more than just reproducing what was in front of the lens it was capturing a moment in space and time. Freezing forever the subject for study and pontification, this is, I believe it the Poetry of photography the Lauren was asking about. It is our knowledge that things happened to this subject both before and after that image was made and that we may know that story or invent one of our own that lends a poetic magic to the narrative of a photograph.
Rob Kreos’ “Photographic Memories” article talks a lot about the mechanical and technical nature of photography and it’s connection to capitalism and mass media. Yet it also talks about how these images can contribute to mass culture in way s that unify and personalize the individuals relationship with photographic images. Whether the photograph is used to crates an iconic image via majestic landscapes or the capture of triumphant (or tragic) moments destined to live in the collective historical memories of a nation, or a photograph made to preserver a personal memory (that probably has little value to anyone unfamiliar with the subject), these images invoke strong emotions in their viewer. It is the ability to attach emotion to a photographic image that , in my opinion, elevates photography above mere reproduction and into the realm of art.
Photography has had quite the interesting journey. I wonder what Benjamin would say if he looked at the medium today. It has grown exponentially with the invention of digital photography and social networking. However, the digital age has allowed us to expand the notion of what a photograph is. Would he still believe that these photographs are less about artistic endeavors as they are about mass consumption?
It also seemed like Baudelaire had similar reactions to photography. He saw it as a way to archive art and not to create it. I can understand these points of view, but I also believe that in the archiving of events, you can also create an artistic interpretation of something. For instance, in Nick Ut’s photograph, “Napalm Girl”, we see that the cropped version of the photo gives a completely different interpretation of the event. This allows for a more dramatic effect than if he chose the unedited, cropped version of the photograph.
Sontag mentioned that “the history of photographer struggles between two imperatives: beautification from the fine arts and truth-telling which comes more from science and then journalism. “ I feel that this is apparent in many journalistic efforts. Is the photo beautiful because of the lighting and the shadows of a photograph, or is it because of the way one photo can give viewers a direct link into an event?
Another set of photographs referred to in the Kroes piece that was quite intriguing was regarding the plantation owners/slaves. The photos of the slaves placed next to the slave owners tell a different story than what was intended. According to Kroes, it tells a story of resistance that might not have been easily seen if not for the creative placement next to the plantation owner photos.
This reminds me of images from the 1800s where there were series of men who took photos together. From the outside in one context, it looks like they were just friends, but by looking at them through you see a completely different observation.
Last paragraph – meant to say – From the outside in one context, it looks like they were just friends, but if you look at them through a queer lens, you see a completely different observation.
Upon reading Benjamin’s article I was once again impacted by his unique understanding of art and his cynicism of the capitalist setting in which much western art resides. I think though that his work through his extreme bias ends up alienating his listeners if they are not entirely socialist in their paradigm. Take for example his statement near the end of this article which states: “The great achievements of the Russian directors were only possible in a country where photography does not set out to charm or persuade, but to experiment and instruct.” How can Benjamin make such a bold statement? It seems to me that even in the most fully realized socialist state, a photographer still would try to win the admiration or approval of his audience and that effort in and of itself is an effort meant to persuade.
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