Sunday, February 27, 2011

Visual News of the World: Flaneur No. 2

UPDATED February 28.

My last post on Baudelaire and his reflections on Guys the illustrator as observer-reporter left off at the Spanish-American War. The turn of the 20th century coincides with widespread adoption of the halftone screen as a method for photo-mechanically rendering a continuous tone image for reproduction purposes. Practically speaking, this development brought an end to the era of the illustrator as reporter. Once it became possible to print photographic images at low cost and high speed, illustrators would not again be needed as visual stenographers.


Reportage drawing would not die out, however; it would shift in emphasis, intriguingly so. That's for another time.

But today I'm interested in what happened, culturally and technologically, to the visual news-of-the-world.


In Alfred Waud's day, Harper's or the London Illustrated News provided the technological means and the cultural frame for presenting visual reportage. A wood-engraved translation of the drawing below, of wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Wilderness threatened by a burning forest, was presented to the reading public in May 1864. The authority of the publication and the authority of the image were mutually reinforcing.



In subsequent decades, new technologies of production and display would provide new temporal and spatial contexts for consumers of news. World War Two newsreels were viewed in movie theaters. Castle Films' U.S. Carrier Fights for Life, about "Carrier X" (the U.S.S. Yorktown) did much the same job as an Alfred Waud field sketch in Harper's from the American Civil War, except that the newsreel adds the elements sound and motion. (A video file of the whole reel is available here) The attack on the ship by Japanese bombers feels quite immediate; I imagine it would have been distressing to watch at the time. The first half of 1942 was rough in the Pacific; people sitting in those theater seats would have been eager for good news. As it happened, the Yorktown survived the attack but was sunk in the Battle of Midway a few months later (in an otherwise decisive victory for American forces.)


The script for the newsreel reads a little like overheated sportswriting:

An enemy plane is spotted swooping down on the mighty flattop. Anti-aircraft guns mark their warning, but the Nipponese airman throws caution to the wind. There's a hit on the afterdeck, port side. A bomb blasts through...Under clouds of black smoke, two Jap planes dive to a smoldering, watery end... As another dawn breaks through the tropical skies, Carrier X again gives battle. Again the Japs swoop down from the clouds, again our anti-aircraft guns pepper the sky with tracer bullets, each carrying bad news for the invaders...Uncle Sam's gunners are straight shooters. The Japs find that out in this fight to the finish.


The newsreel brought propaganda-inflected reportage to the public space of movie theaters in the World War Two era. Military censors shielded the public from the most ghastly combat images. The newsreels simultaneously provided a technologically current format for updates and a device to keep people focused on the task at hand, which was winning the war. Twenty years later, television brought the Civil Rights struggle and the Vietnam War into people's living rooms. The medium of television moved at new speeds. In part for this reason, in Vietnam the press was able to play an editorial role which challenged authority of the government.

Cable TV accelerated the reach and pace of broadcast news coverage in the 1990s.

Today, events in North Africa are adding a new chapter to the story. Accounts from Libya suggest that the footprint of the Gaddafi regime has shrunk to areas in and around Tripoli.


Consider the cultural frame provided by the image at the top of this post, a screen shot from a broadcast segment on Al Jazeera English posted to YouTube. This is the already-classic Gaddafi rant from the golf cart with the umbrella. The AJE report goes on to note that the rant has been bracketed by footage from what looks like a Libyan Lawrence Welk hour (directly above) utterly unconnected from the ongoing collapse of the regime. Ponder the frame-within-a-frame conceit of Libyan State TV showing a governmental absurdity, self-consciously [and disapprovingly] bracketed by AJE, subsequently bracketed by YouTube.

An aside: how about that guy in the yellow suit? Has he misplaced his hat? Is he looking for a curious monkey?

Images: Citations forthcoming.

No comments: