August 2010 Archives

The Arrival




Copyright 2010 Malcolm Ryder

Crossing the Lines


On the one hand, there is 30-plus years of televised sports (including "Slo Mo"), Cid Charisse movies, fashion magazines, tabloids, music videos, and Winter Olympics skating (singles and pairs).

On the other: gender politics, marketing, and "sexual liberation".

So it is that the recently published video portraits of selected top female tennis players either resonate or struggle, (or both,) in their innumerable encounters with the public audience. Set forth by the NY Times in association with a lengthy article on the evolution of the women's pro tennis game, the portraits and text are clearly intended to be complementary, but the interesting part is that the text, careful with its subject, is calm while the portraits, highly produced, are passionate.

Ordiinarily, we run across the phrase "beauty and power" thanks to car companies and art reviewers, both of whom definitely intend to promote the idea that power is beautiful AND that beauty is powerful. In men's sport, the phrase again is has a similar function although it is far more complicated because of the pre-dominance of commentators who are men observing other men -- not on sexual terms but very much on terms about gender. These commentators in effect celebrate the appearance of the body as it reflects the potential for power and grace. That is, this version of beauty has more to do with mechanics than erotics.

Tennis Portraits.jpg

When it comes to converging the mechanics and the erotics, celebrating them simultaneously, the obvious primary reference is the world of dance, not sports. But in sports, two great permanent records come to mind: the 1965 picture of Muhammed Ali towering over his vanquished foe Sonny Liston at the knockdown; and the unusual on-the-air frankness of the tennis commentator Bud Collins, who was possibly the first guy to routinely tell the nation on tv that some of the men we were watching on the courts were simply great-looking guys -- maybe his original guy being Bjorn Borg.

In his almost solo (amongst broadcasters) acknowledgement that sports might be sexy, Collins' candor was just as strong in his evident attraction to at least one Swiss superstar teen on the women's circuit, making him "fair and balanced" (?)  if not borderline risky (okay creepy). Given that, it's even more impressive that Collins never got fired by any antsy corporate managers. We know of no survey showing whether Collins was especially effective in bringing and holding onto female viewership of any pro tennis, men's or women's. On the other hand, his legacy lives on in coverage of Olympics ice rink coverage.



Back to Ali, one of his presumed charms was that he unabashedly told people himself that he was beautiful; then, as in the epic portrait cited here, he proved it. (Note:picture copyright Neil Leifer).

With such precedents, there is easy connection to be made between the already-familiar sports sirens, and the new portraits of today's top women tennis players.

Meanwhile, the most notable aspect of the portraits being published is that, with a preponderance of evidence, they summarize a milestone state of the art (of tennis), illustrating the key point made by their partnered text in the Times.

But taken outside of the article, they are not "out of context." Nor are they cheap, opportunistic sexual exploitations, with or without the text. Those who know great tennis or great photography know that these "shots" are hard to come by, both on the court and on either side of the camera. 

Rather, the most notable independent aspect of their appearance is that they convey new members in the ranks of beautiful power, who have joined the ranks of exotic sports cars and various other works of art. And, as we know, portraiture has long been the servant of exactly this subject.


Journalism, Photos, and the Tube


How reconnaissance has become the new history.

Websites posting anonymous videos of street-level activity by terrorists and gangsters, governments and security forces, make up a new standard of what we had been calling photojournalism.

Journalism traditionally worked on "developing the story from the facts". The "picture that tells a story" need not work solo, but both solo pictures and picture groups have become milestone achievements in journalism and in social culture. Appearing suddenly, like news or exotic knowledge, photojournalism was one of the first phenomena that made the world "flatter" in the sense that we use that descriptor today.

That's also emotionally important, and even glamourous. But, in the past, the same photojournalism products that we tend celebrate for their blast of instant insight proceeded, invevitably, through a "value chain" of production. And the product aimed to bridge news and history.

In a value chain, the product is the final outcome of a series of processing events that transform a supply of raw materials into a specific service or product.

The generic value chain in photojournalism has always been about the same as it is for most products:

- obtain (the source materials)

- refine (the inherent material properties)

- edit (form to context)

- package (categorize and offer)

- deliver (transport via a channel)

At the delivery end of the value chain, the "specs" of the product or service will reflect selected characteristics derived (progressively focused or resolved) from the interests, then preferences, and then expectations of a preselected or presumed group of recipients.

In the past, at the beginning of the value chain, one of two key aspects has been that the eventual recipient was not co-producing, and in fact the other key aspect was that the supply of starter material was distant or virtually unobtainable by the recipient. One or both conditions would exist, to varying degrees.

In between that beginning and end, a number of steps would be taken to systematically "process" the material by either giving it necessary characteristics, or by using it to give needed characteristics to additional materials or components, composing and engineering the intended final results. Primarily, this "industrial" approach reflected the norm of bringing photojournalism to light through institutional publishing.

Between 1960 and 1980, electronic distribution of images overwhelmed paper distribution. This was not simply a new effect at the delivery end of the value chain. The most important impact was instead that images of events did not go through an incubation period and delay between the "heat of the moment" and the grasp of the viewer. "Live" images became a dominant format of products and services. Electronics also meant that images could be inserted into the traditional value chain at much higher speeds and volumes, and at completely different steps from before, which altered the possibilities of how to either manipulate or apply the image at that step. Affordable electronic imaging cameras made it possible for any shooter to become a co-producer in the mode of a materials (raw image) supplier. 

The next major impact on the value chain was the maturation of personal computers, namely, the combination of computing power and software. This drafted a vast new community of "production crews" into the value chain at the point where images were modified to suit the purposes of further upstream production. As a generic reference, Adobe Photoshop (or similar) brought "interactive" modes to the product or service consumer, namely because now the consumer could intervene and change the specs on an ad hoc basis, becoming a co-producer in an editing or designing mode.

Now matured, "digital imaging" has erased the key boundaries within the most important dimension of conventional photojournalism.  In this dimension -- Messaging -- the sincere progression of facts to information to message has been a defacto social contract between producers and recipients. Notions of "visual information" have largely been maintained by talking about an idea of "witnessing". As the principle relation between photographs and journalism, witnessing has been the critical reference point of the entire value chain -- for the two steps before it (obtain, refine), the two steps after it (package, deliver) and the "home" step itself: editing. The profound impact of digital imaging is, put simply, to erase the distinction between editing and fabrication, which generates intense ambiguity about whether the final product or service contains a message or instead is itself simply an invented idea. The difference between the message and an idea is that the message is supposed to represent the parties that are the subject of the image, whereas the idea is meant to represent the presence and viewpoint of the photographer.

Our lifelong experience of cinema and, increasingly, of television, means that we are no strangers to invented ideas. Whether or not these inventions have the force of topical or historical significance, they have long ago validated for us that we can and should accept visual fabrications as an optional delivery vehicle for "truths". But fabrication has become prolific. What we have done in response is to scrutinize our acceptance of any channels through which these packages are arriving -- be they studios, stores, or frequencies. We decide to rely on certain channels for our experience of journalistic discovery.

The conventional prestige of photojournalism has been rooted, in fact, in the notion of Discovery as a privileged action undertaken by singular heroic explorers. But in the 21st century that is being displaced by "Un-covery" -- the most compelling examples of which are websites collectively and simultaneously presenting alternative and potentially opposing views of the same events. These "journals" do not individually find their significance without relation to each other but instead because of their relation to each other.

It is not only how quickly and simply these websites cluster around each other, but moreso that they effectively force a "multi-channel" baseline on any journalistic messaging -- not just across different websites but across all different visual mediums. To understand where Uncovery displaces Discovery, we need only acknowledge that internet search engines make any individual person a defacto "studio", and because of that, the primary location of photojournalism now is the combination of personal TVs, personal computer monitors and personal smartphones that collectively make up The Tube.

Clearly, "photojournalists" have taken a hit in the social milieu where occupational heroes are crowned. There will always be practitioners who are simply more talented and/or effective than most, but what has changed is that the old cachet of being a Photojournalist provides no significant default glamour or refuge to the lesser-capable aspirants also making some difference, of which there are suddenly now daily tens of millions -- a great drop from the single million who, like artists, might before have staked their public identities on it.

 Copyright 2010 Malcolm Ryder





FruitvaleBlue-IMG_0589Abwsq.jpgCopyright 2010 Malcolm Ryder)

Horror as Beauty


In a glossy arc of art logic, we might say that a gesture becomes a fad, which becomes a trend, which becomes a movement, which becomes a genre.

It's an easy linearity, but strangely enough, it may be that things typically move from the middle (trends) towards either end, and furthermore, simultaneously in both directions.

Trend follows opportunity, and in a currently favored genre, these are seemingly days when the next big disaster  is usually only a few weeks away; and when it arrives and then first reaches its denoument, it is predictable that photographic study of the aftermath will generate a high gloss of its own. The main difference is not in whose efforts will be best, but in whose will be noticed.

Without looking for them, we know that there are post-9/11 coffee table books, post-Tsunami coffee table books, and so on -- and that there is a vast repository of personal shots of such events on harddives and digital chips. The example of that type of subject matter is hardly new, but with journalistic relevance (breaking news!) its bandwagon (fad) cranks up, and meanwhile the art market, somewhat more patiently, sets the table for important new collectibles (genre) to emerge. Opponents of this phenomenon cite the cynicism of ambulance chasing, a political incorrectness that for redemption requires all proceeds to be donated to The Relief Fund but cannot force it to happen -- mainly because of the ever-increasing ease and ubiquity of unrestrained picture-making in these circumstances.

The flood of images ups the ante for the modern artist photographer of the subject, who in the wake of it has three possible routes to distinctiveness -- exclusive access to subject sites; long attention span, and/or mastery of style. Any one or more of these is the way for the artist to competitively survive television coverage, the internet, and other artists, on the same subject. The prize for successful competition is one or both of two very nice things: a good brand, which can pay well although it might be fleeting; or, entry into the safe harbor of capital-g Genre, where one continues to be taken seriously over time, after the hype is gone.

Prominent examples of this success are ravishingly visual works involving Detroit and New Orleans. The folks behind some of the Detroit work -- Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre -- offer an argument for their cause:

"Ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes ... the volatile result of the change of eras and the fall of empires. This fragility leads us to watch them one very last time: to be dismayed, or to admire, it makes us wonder about the permanence of things."

Although the fluff factor in that statement is unacceptably high, the statement is within the accepted standards of presentation for work in which beauty is called to the task of enlightenment.  The important irony of beautiful photographs of ruins (i.e., of that which is already hideously gone) is that the beauty of the photograph is intended to assure its power of attraction, which of course stages the moment in which observation of the depicted ruins can then continually re-occur.

Attraction is not the needed mechanism in other cases calling for viewer attention such as court trials demanding evidence, science demanding information, fiction demanding a setting,  or in fact, history demanding description. These are situations in which the presentation and consideration of the scene is going to be a given, not optional, and the appearance of the presented scene is essentially subordinate to a viewer's pragmatic interest. In such cases, the inherent ugliness of ruins is a kind of fact enjoying "default" status conceptually, despite any circumstantial beauty of the scene. But more importantly, the presenting of the fact is driven by a rule making an audience for the scene mandatory, instead of by a visual posture recruiting an audience's optional interest. It's the difference between the draftees and the enlistees.

Aside from attraction, another key aspect of audience engagement -- the ruin's documentation -- is an implicit contract with the viewer.  Namely, since the state of "Ruin" is a fixed threshhold that has been permanently breached, the document describing that status will not change either from one time to the next. The presupposition being defended by the document's own permanence  is that our interest in the state exists precisely at the moment, neither before nor after, in which the state is definitively equal to "ruined", and the document locks that down.

But it also means that the representation must include enough explicit reference to what the subject was supposed to have been like, so that we will grasp, without interference, the end of that. This is why it is significant, and even problematic, that the current benchmark for these photographic disaster epics is a degree of "beautifulness" that threatens to render our notion of the pre-ruined state relatively insignificant.  The risk is that the beauty actively interferes with our ability to recognize the "before", especially of places that we never actually experienced prior to the pictures. As we see more and more of these shots, it becomes easier to feel that they are contrived.

One of the issues associated with the recognition of "ruins" is that being ruined does not automatically confer any special significance to the subject's pre-ruined state. Any place can be ruined, and many of those are no less tragic by being private or mundane instead of public or exotic. Because of that, the problem of celebrating ruins with special attention becomes a problem of having a rhetoric that justifies soliciting the audience. This means that the beauty of the work, which is generating its attractiveness,  is responsible for forming and conveying the needed rhetoric.

Moving from one beautiful disaster to another one, there is a certain repetitiveness bordering on exploitation, which becomes (at worst) excused or (at best) legitimized by the concept of "genre". The prospect of getting beyond "excused" comes from becoming exceptional.

For example, not to be taken lightly, more decrepit splendor is lauded by Bernard Yenelouis reviewing Andrew Moore's recent and awesome Detroit memoir, "Detroit Disassembled". On the one hand, the difference between Moore's Detroit pictures and those of Marchand/Meffre is unimportant and, for that matter, likewise even their difference from Robert Polidori's New Orleans in "After The Flood". But these are both monumental labors -- tomes of non-fiction that rival the production values of big Hollywood apocalypse movies and, by the way, that bring the weight of documentary as opposed to merely "a vision".

But in my view, Yenelouis hits on the single most important characteristic of these lush, gigantic works when he points out that Moore's views are "fantastic". That is, while they are labors of high achievement in building their representations, they are also, fundamentally, envisionings bordering on fantasy, because -- and this is their rhetoric -- they are re-creations, and not just of breakdowns but of Loss.

In characterizing the Ruins genre through naming its principal function -- that is, communicating Loss through a rhetoric established by employing the beautiful -- what we are finding is that photographs are quite appropriate as a means, and this cannot be a surprise to anyone who has spent time with the visual arts.

But outside of the world of commercial publishing, there are two important conditions that I believe going forward must inform this kind of work to protect it from charges of exploitation.

One is that the successful work in the genre must be achievable with the topical anonymity of a still life, in which the rhetoric relies on what the image explains, not on any public contextual drama that explains the image.

And the other is that the documentary still image, be it mixed-media or not, fully accepts that being still should accomplish something distinctive from what is now routine in the works of moving images including amateur webcams, CNN and Hollywood's CGI.