This piece is too heavily indebted to Susan Sontag, but then it’s almost impossible when you write about photography and atrocity not to end up parroting Sontag. No matter how far you think you’ve moved your argument away from the lucid clarity of Sontag’s observations, you end up right back at the beginning, with the alpha and omega of Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others. I thought of writing the piece in the first person, so I could say one thing: That never have we so desperately needed the clarity of Sontag’s thought as now. Because, as I argue in today’s Outlook section:
We have arrived at a double crisis: a dissolution of agreement about what is civilized behavior and a dissolution of faith in the meaning of images — a crisis of politics and a crisis of representation. Given how closely photography and video have been linked to defining those international norms, this is a frightening moment.
This is not a piece about going to war in Syria.
I think the damage done by celebrity photography is much more grave than the mere pollution of magazines, newspapers and other media that favor this form of entertainment. Fetishizing the celebrity class overemphasizes the role meritocracy plays in creating and sustaining wealth and privilege. The traces of genuine humanity, humility and intelligence are almost always leached out of the celebrity photograph, replaced by self-satisfaction and a vacant sense of entitlement. Not all, but most. No surprise then that I’m not a fan of Annie Leibovitz’s work. Her most recent show, “Pilgrimage,” is no exception, even though it doesn’t focus on living celebrities. It begins this way (and can be found in its entirety here):
Annie Leibovitz photographs the 1 percent, the rich, beautiful and famous, conspiring with the apparatus of celebrity and capitalism to make the lives of successful people feel even more glamorous and alluring. The Library of Congress has officially declared her a “Living Legend,” and despite a few financial problems awhile back – a massive home-renovation project in Greenwich Village contributed to the setback – she has joined the same rarefied ranks of privilege that she has so diligently served throughout her career.
I invested in a hefty collection of Ginsberg’s poetry before heading off to the National Gallery of Art exhibition devoted to his photography. I knew the famous poems, “Howl,” “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” “Kaddish,” from anthologies and other sources, but I hadn’t spent sustained time with Ginsberg’s writing. Now I wish I’d done a little less homework. The early poems have such volcanic and obscene energy, they’re wonderful. But much of the later work is just embarrassing. And the songs? Yikes. The photography has two appeals: A voyeuristic eye on the Beats, and in some cases, evidence of a good compositional sense. I reviewed the show in today’s The Washington Post.
I wrote a quick piece about a striking image that came out of Sunday’s health care reform vote. Around noon, Nancy Pelosi and top Democratic leaders walked from the Cannon Office Building to the House, with Pelosi carrying a rather over sized gavel. It was an impromptu gesture, by all accounts, but it sent a strong signal. She meant business.
Since Democrats retook control of the House in January 2007, the gavel hasn’t been just a symbol of the speaker’s power. It has been a particularly volatile image from the moment she was photographed receiving it from John Boehner. The outgoing Republican majority leader wasn’t just yielding power after an electoral thumping, he was yielding it to a woman, the first woman to sit only two heartbeats from the presidency. Right-wing blogs frequently use that image, often without explanation, as if it is manifestly obvious that the world is upside down if a woman from San Francisco in a tailored cabernet-colored suit is brandishing the implement.
How will this image affect public perception of the reform bill, and the politicians who worked to pass it? I touched on those questions in a Tuesday story for The Washington Post. The Note, a political links blog hosted by ABC, called it a must read. The Atlantic Wire called it a screed and mocked it unmercifully. You decide.
My story on the images coming out of Haiti led to an invitation to discuss news coverage of the catastrophe on The Takeaway, a morning radio news and call-in program based in New York. I was joined by Natalie Hopkinson, who wrote a sharp piece on the meaning and use of words such as “looting” in the context of a socially-devastating natural disaster. You can listen here. One caveat: Since I started forcing myself to watch more of the television coverage of the tragedy, I feel the need to say that once again I think newspapers such as the The Washington Post and The New York Times are in a very different league from what is available on the networks and cable. I find much of the televised coverage unbearably narcissistic, saccharine and self-aggrandizing, and that raises very different questions than the boundaries of privacy and photojournalism I discussed on Saturday.
Since the war in Iraq began, I’ve been looking at and writing about media images of death and destruction. The images coming out of Haiti strike me as more graphic than most newspapers have been willing to print in the past decade. I ponder why in today’s Washington Post.
I think this show is better than it might seem on superficial first glance. Richard Ross’s photographs of institutional spaces include interrogation rooms, prisons and execution chambers. But also high-school corridors, hotel phone booths and religious spaces. If you take these connections too seriously, it seems like Ross is making silly, agit-prop connections. But if you stand back and allow the show some irony space, it begins to make distinctions that are much more interesting. The show, Architecture of Authority, first appeared in New York and is now in Washington, DC, at the National Building Museum. And as most things at the NBM, it’s worth some attention. My review is here.