Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Of News and Pictures, Then and Now

This is the fourth year running that I’ve offered a spring semester academic course (as opposed to a studio one; the distinction being, chiefly, writing versus making). I’ve alternated between an introductory course in (primarily) American visual culture and a more research-focused seminar.

Two years ago I offered a seminar–Readings in Postwar American Visual Culture 1945-1965. The students that time out produced some lively and fascinating research projects, formatted as online exhibitions. They’re accessible here.

This time we're exploring new course material in alignment with my own recent research (both creative and historical) in visual journalism, and particularly reportage drawing. The course is called Drawing Conclusions: Illustration, Visual Journalism, and the History of the Press. We’re reading some standard press histories to provide context. The visual aspects of newspapering tend to be associated with sales, not information.

Michael Schudson characterizes increasingly visual practices in the pages of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World as self-advertisement. “Self-advertisement...is anything about newspaper layout and newspaper policy, outside of basic news gathering, which is designed to attract the eye and the small change of readers.” Schudson goes on to offer that “one of the most important developments of self-advertising...was the use of illustrations.” (Discovering the News; a Social History of American Newspapers, 1978.)

Such analyses suggest a somewhat Puritan attitude about the use of images. The primacy of text is a given; the use of images could be justified as salesmanship, but not as an aid to understanding, excepting immigrants with poor English. It might be suggested that visual coherency and complementarity of elements (or “layout” and well-crafted text & image relationships) affect sales because they result in greater understanding and retention, but that’s another discussion.

For present purposes, I’m interested in how pictures and diagrammatic materials aid in journalistic understanding. At the top of this post, a memorable image of the Costa Concordia, an ill-captained cruise ship that foundered on rocks just offshore in Italy on January 13, 2012. Here's a case in which words would fail to convey the incongruity of the scene: a massive ship tipped ludicrously on its side in shallow water, a maritime drunken uncle. It would be funny but for the loss of life. Seventeen people have been confirmed dead.

This week in class we will be using the Civil War battle of Antietam (September 1862) as a case study, drawing on contemporaneous illustrated accounts in Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, as well as the epochal photographs shot by Alexander Gardner after the battle. Epochal, because they presented images of soldiers’ corpses, capturing the aftermath of battle: a litter of carnage. (As with everything, the new is framed by limitation. Gardner photographed corpses because that’s the only aspect of battle he could have shot with the equipment of the era: the apparatus was bulky, and shutter speeds were interminable. Dead men don’t move. Although the photographers occasionally moved them, for compositional purposes.)

There are useful notes on the Antietam National Battlefield website concerning Gardner’s photographs, especially the use of stereoscopic techniques, used to produce a 3-D image when seen through a viewing device. And the Atlantic, which is publishing a special Civil War anniversary issue, presents about 20 stereoscopic images on its site here. If you click on the images they shift from one exposure to the other, creating a crazy miniature animation.

Above, Timothy O’Sullivan photograph of Alfred Waud, the Harper’s illustrator (who was present at Antietam) at Gettysburg in July 1863. Specifically, Waud is sitting on a rock in Devil’s Den, a particularly ghastly spot on the second day of the battle. This is a red-blue anaglyph version of the stereoscopic pair of exposures.

The ANB site does a solid though abbreviated job of presenting its material, but this sentence, concerning Gardner's work, appears without qualification: “It wasn’t until September of 1862 that the first true images of war were produced. Antietam was the first battle to depict the grim and bloody truth of civil war.”

The first true images of war. Yes, or no? Discuss.

I have been thinking of this in the context of a classical author who would object to such a conclusion. Plato’s Republic famously seeks to define the contours of the well-ordered state. Book X addresses the role of painters and poets in such a state. The news is not good for “the creatives”; they're tossed out. Painters are defined as imitators of appearances. Plato uses the example of a bed, which exists as an ideal form, a divine bedness beyond the particulars of any one bed. A carpenter fashions a particular bed, which is once removed from the ideal bed. The painter makes an image of the carpenter’s bed, now twice removed from the ideal. The painter, argues Plato, knows zip about beds. What he does know are parlor tricks, deceptions; he is several steps removed from the truth.

But the painter’s ignorance is only part of the problem. The painter and his cousin the poet do not rely on sober judgment and reason. Rather, they play to the emotions.

Concerning the poet, Plato writes:

And now we may fairly take him and place him by the side of the painter, for he is like him in two ways: first, inasmuch as his creations have an inferior degree of truth–in this, I say, he is like him; and he is also like him in being concerned with an inferior part of the soul; and therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small–he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.

These ideas are 1) deeply significant in western intellectual history, and 2) to blame for countless dopey allegorical paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, thanks to neoclassicism. There’s much too much to cover here. But Plato raises good questions, especially for our relatively delimited discussion subject of the visual journalism of war. We can argue persuasively that there are no “ideal” soldiers; only particular soldiers die: somebody’s son or brother or father (or daughter or sister or mother, nowadays). But Plato, reviewing Gardner’s Antietam photographs of Civil War dead, might argue: This is a true image of war? A vast conflict is waged for complex reasons. Won’t the “true” image seek to show causes and effects on a macro scale? Isn’t the presentation of horrible casualties simply an appeal to feelings, and a denial of reason?

Meanwhile, history and technology have sped along undeterred. The era of the photojournalist and the filmmaker followed the heyday of the "special artist" (as people like Waud were known). Video and television came next. The consumer-grade camera enabled surreptitious eyewitness video, most significantly in the Rodney King beating (March 3, 1991) broadcast on television after the fact, leading to rioting in South Central Los Angeles. Today’s handheld cameras and smartphones have democratized reporting yet again, and the distribution mechanism of broadband internet and social media have enabled nearly instantaneous worldwide distribution.

Which brings me to a contemporary echo of Gardner’s Antietam pictures. Several years ago, dramatic protests broke out Iran following the announcement of widely distrusted presidential election results. Opposition rallies began on June 13, 2009 and continued through the end of that month. People around the world tracked the events on Twitter, which was used to spread word of violence and arrests. Seemingly rattled at first, the regime deployed Basij paramilitary units to suppress the protests.

On June 20, a government sniper claimed the life of a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan.

An eyewitness wrote:

At 19:05 June 20th Place: Karekar Ave., at the corner crossing Khosravi St. and Salehi st. A young woman who was standing aside with her father [note: he turned out to be her music teacher]watching the protests was shot by a basij member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house... I am a doctor, so I rushed to try to save her. But the impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim's chest, and she died in less than 2 minutes. The protests were going on about 1 kilometers away in the main street and some of the protesting crowd were running from tear gas used among them, towards Salehi St.

We know about this event because it was videotaped by at least three people. Along with millions of other people, I saw the video that very day. At the time I wished I hadn’t. As the doctor reports, she bleeds to death very rapidly. Neda’s death galvanized the Green Movement instantly, and the regime was quick to isolate her family as a countermeasure.

Above is a still from the longest of the three videos capturing her death. You can view this clip here, if you decide to. But be warned: it’s extremely upsetting.

The martyrdom of Neda Agha-Soltan will, like the dead of Antietam, resonate in global media history. It will also matter in the unfolding national narrative of Iran.

But what does a 40-second video clip of a dying individual on the fringes of an event tell us about complex political phenomena? Doesn't the symbolic urge–the rush to make meaning out of grievous happenstance–threaten to overcome the merely factual? And is it possible that viewers' outrage simply justifies participation in a pornography of violence? Finally, shouldn't we bring each of those questions to Gardner's photographs, 150 years after the fact?



Jim O'Boyle said...

I don't think the 'truth' of something is toggled on or off - it lies on a spectrum. Also, the degree to which a report is true to the actual event is something no one is really qualified to evaluate accurately (provided no part of the report is outright false). The report that feels the truest (hypothetically, to someone who experienced the actual event) is going to be the one which elicits the same emotions anyway.

The idea of a purely factual report is a figment of vanity. Even in a carefully worded, unbiased, emotionless, minute-by-minute account of an event, details will be compressed and configured so as to communicate. The report might be strictly rational, only including relevant information, but it is still curated. "Important" facts are gleaned from an infinite sea of data.

Appealing to The Republic, we might consider news-readers thrice-removed from the truth. In other words, they don't know anything. It's the artist/poet's job to bridge the gap between the particular thing and masses otherwise ignorant of the thing. Without the artists' twice-degraded simulacra of the "ideal," people without firsthand experience would have nothing.

No matter what, the information must travel through a human medium in order to be of any use. Objectivity is a myth, and Brady's or Gardner's staged photographs are like little encapsulations of that idea. The news is manufactured, so reporters, visual or otherwise aught to embrace the potential of their work to be emotionally manipulative. Sometimes a video of a woman bleeding to death is what people need to see.

Jim Schiele said...

Neda’s instant death by what I would describe as an errant shot by a government sniper occurred as much by accident as by design. A well-trained sniper behind a suitable barricade, be it building or stone wall, is simply not trained to take down a teenage female who is not intent on hurling a grenade or leading a column of rioters. Errors like this happen frequently when crowds are on the move and people are shifting, whether it occurs on the urban street or the live battlefield. Stonewall Jackson was shot by a well-trained sniper in his own army at Chancellorsville in May 1863. I would believe that the voice of the government, who controls the media in Iran (except for the small core of dissidents), would have made this known quickly. I doubt that Neda’s tragic death affected public opinion. Public opinion in Tehran was strictly focused on a rigged election. It never makes a ruling political party or government look very good when tragedy happens. Aside from those immediately affected by her death, the interest in the incident and scene was probably more important in the aftermath to those of us outside of Tehran’s sphere.

I find very little in Neda’s death and the pictures that captured the event to compare with Gardner’s photographs of 150 years ago at Antietam. As far as I know, few if any of the dead photographed on the field of battle 2 days after the battle were clearly identified, at least for purposes of publication. The world knew who Neda was 2 minutes after her death. It became global news and brought a wave of sympathy to her, her family, and the cause of justice in Iran. Antietam’s dead opened the eyes of those who looked at the pictures in the United States as to not only the size of the war that was raging, but what it meant to Americans both North and South. The culmination of Antietam was the Emancipation Proclamation and to Lincoln, the beginning of a “new birth of freedom” and a shift in national purpose from “Union” to “Emancipation.”

No such meaning has taken place in Iran. It remains a country, 3 years after the riot and deaths, still in the hands of those who have taken control since the fall of the Shah. There has been no change, no resolution, and there probably will not be for some time. We have no idea how many back the ruling regime, but it likely has a majority that support it.

Paul Gruber said...

Plato said we should not welcome the poet into the well ordered state "because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason."

It seems that he would see a photographer in a similar way because they too, as Jim said, are twice removed from the "ideal." Viewing removal from the "ideal form" as a negative could be seen a a critique against adding meaning to something you yourself do not understand. I would imagine a painter who is also a carpenter would get a pass from plato and not be labeled as an imitator of imitation.

If this is true and Plato was critiquing the artist for the act of uninformed creation then, we could say that plato would accept an artist who is trying to create reason in a forum of mostly 2nd level imitation (the art most create).

So in the case of the Neda or Journalism in a broader sense, Plato would criticize the "Factual" nature of it. In getting away from the objective we are also moving away from reason. Reason as to why these atrocities are occurring. Of course many of the enraged protesters for any cause could present a list of evil doings done by the group they rally against yet most probably could not tell you why.

The why is a much larger question that conveniently no longer gets asked. As Parker Palmer says, "Violence is what we do when we don't know what to do with our suffering" and to quote Tupac, "Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races."

Paul Gruber said...

**I would imagine a painter who is also a carpenter would get a pass from plato and not be labeled as an imitator of imitation if said painter decided to paint a picture of a table or chair.

Julie said...

I was struck by your phrase "pornography of violence," Professor Dowd. I'm still processing exactly what that means in the context of media(ted) images of war, protests, terrorism, etc. The term "pornography" literally refers to sexual images that are circulated and distributed for individuals' private erotic satisfaction. Pornography is almost always associated with shame and repressed desire… it's the original "guilty pleasure." So, given these associations, what exactly does "pornography of violence" mean? For me, it seems to refer to any grotesque or disturbing images that give viewers a perverse form of enjoyment. People have been making a case for a while now that this type of imagery is quite plentiful in mainstream films, video games, and TV shows. The question is, how does "news"— or information that is considered "objective"— depend on these kinds of sensational images? To what extent do we get pleasure from pain, and where can we draw the line between mere curiosity and a twisted form of intrigue?

Any discussion of extreme images in the media— whether they be violent or sexual— has to take the idea of "the spectacle" into account. I was fascinated by Trachtenberg's discussion of the stereoscope and its connection to Civil War photography. He talked about how, in the 1880s/90s, the American public suddenly became interested in seeing images of the Civil War. During this era it became "trendy" to peruse photographs of battle sites and corpses and a number of novel ways to look at war photographs emerged— the stereoscope, the photo album. (For some reason, whenever I try to imagine this, I always end up laughing, because I picture some genteel Victorian couple in their parlor sipping tea and loftily peering through stereoscope goggles.) Looking through the stereoscope was a leisure activity; it required distance, time and privilege. What is the modern version of the stereoscope? The YouTube video? And does it function in the same way?

And how does this relate back to Neda? Does the image of her death really move us, especially those of us who have never visited Tehran or personally seen someone die? Do we only care about her because she was so clearly a victim? Because blood was streaming down her face? I actually just came out of a class where we talked about Judith Butler's controversial book "Precarious Life," which raises questions about mourning and violence in the post 9/11 era. Butler is deeply troubled by inequalities in the world, and the idea that some lives are more "valuable" than others, depending on which kind of people get media attention. There are so many other Nedas, but we don't know they exist. So why do we only focus on one person's death to tell their stories?

To return to the question you asked, Professor Dowd, how can a 40 second video clip represent all there is to know about Iran, the 2009 protests, and the international climate at the time? Why is collective memory based on such small fragments of what happened? It's as if our understanding of history is dismembered and disjointed. A deeply disturbing thought, indeed.

miki said...

There are so many ways to approach this discussion!

We humans build our reality moment by moment. And we weave those moments into meaning for ourselves. And we may communicate our moments and interpretations to others, who will then collect and restory them for themselves.

So what does one individual “on the fringes of an event tell us about complex political phenomena”? Neda’s death is one piece, one moment, in the whole. It is as essential as every other moment. Every moment. Does an overturned grocery cart matter in the bigger picture of war? I believe so. When that event is one of many or a catalyst; that loss of food or disruption of delivery may be one moment of many that build to food shortage, malnutrition and stunted growth, changes in reproduction, the negative impact of earlier famine on the health of present generations—such a story (minus the grocery cart) was on NPR a while ago. Each moment contains a multitude of facts that are filtered subjectively. They all matter. What they tell us depends on who’s doing the telling and who’s listening. The distributed images of Neda’s death have led to “no change, no resolution” in Iran, as Jim S. states. I suspect it has led to much change, but it may not be evident or sweeping or satisfactory, yet.

During the Civil War, the contemporary technology allowed for stereoscopic images to be seen in homes, and for cartes de visite to be widely distributed. As Jim S. points out, those who saw the images had their eyes opened, and the culmination of Antietam (incl. those images and their mass dist.) was the Emancipation Proclamation and a shift in national purpose.

I agree with Jim O’B. that “objectivity is a myth” and am intrigued by his recommendation that “reporters ought to embrace the potential of their work to be emotionally manipulative.” When I think of what I see as laughable and/or appalling manipulations by reporters, I wonder if we might add a note of caution to that. Yet I agree that it is important for reporters to recognize their potential impact (and I would add responsibility).

I apologize that I don’t recall his name, but I recently listened to an interview on “On Being” during which the reporter described his realization that he and his wife had been pushing forward stories about some issue in China and completely missing a different, huge issue (in this case, and very briefly, the plight of girls in China). They subsequently shifted their focus, and being influential media-makers, the focus of many others as well.

In the same interview, the journalist gave an answer to one of Julie’s questions—why focus on one to tell the story of many? Our ability to engage, to be impacted by news, dwindles when we are confronted with the plight of many, whereas when we are given the story of a single individual, we are moved. Being moved is essential to caring and perhaps to creating change.

Moment by moment.

I’ll stop. I could go on, but I fear this is already too disjointed and rambly. But... For instance, what about what it takes to move us these days? What kind of technology are we headed toward, and what kind of visual and emotional engagement will it “allow”? I for one don’t need (and didn’t watch) a video of someone dying. I was disturbed enough by 150-year-old B&W images of post-battle corpses in the woods. Seeing 3D versions did somehow take me there, though, so I can imagine how powerful the video is.

Max Temescu said...

The reportage of a thing must be removed from the actual thing, that is part of it's nature. The platonic distinction of levels of truth is something that people can't really perceive without some thought in their daily lives. To tell the difference between the chair I'm sitting on and the ideal form of chair does not occur naturally.

I say this because it seems that especially now (and I expect just as much so in 1862 based on reportage I've read from that time) reportage cannot occur without some idea of author. Even if I don't know who, I know that somebody is translating an event for me. As Jim says, a human medium. In 1862 people weren't praising the event of The Battle of Antietam for demonstrating the nature of the war, they were praising Mr. Brady's photographs. Anybody looking at these images know they are looking at a thing that has been produced, but does that matter?

I begin think of J.M.W's painting of the houses of parliament burning. This is a historical event that Turner witnessed, sketched, and painted later. Obviously his painting is not a factual/photographic representation, but having seen the painting in person, I feel I have a way to come to an understanding of that event.

The same way a story must be believable when told for listeners to trust it as truth, so must an image. I trust Turner because it seems to me the personal investment in its production that seems apparent must stem from experience.

Of course we know there is a bias behind any image. But when photos demand that the viewer trust the facts they're presented with, it is much easier to find sympathies toward that depiction.

Antietam photos were made by Gardener, and I believe them. They are taken in such a way that encourages me to feel that if I had encountered a body on that field in september 1862, that is what I would had seen and how I would have seen it. That feeling is composed by the medium. It seems brutal because that is what I'm investing in it.

We feel in watching the Rodney King video that someone took that video. They focused on what they saw as most important, they wrote down what they saw as fact. And then they showed it to me and because the way they took those images seems frank to me I feel like I was there and saw it. Even though I know I didn't.

In the case of Rodney King, a lot of people got that feeling, and it was important that they did. We feel like we were there, can make judgements about it, and decide to take action based on someone else's experience of it.

Max Temescu said...