12 Articles in

Meditations on Photographs


Mar 18, 2013

For the past couple of weeks, I have come to this photography, Riverfront, by Curran Hatleberg (if you click on the image you’ll see a larger version). I’ve been trying to find out what actually intrigued me about it. Most likely, it’s a combination of factors. For a start, Riverfront is one of those photographs that is very smartly constructed. It’s complex without it being complex for complexity’s sake. It’s smart, without it being self-consciously smart (like, for example, so much of that “new formalism”/”triangle art” photography: I can’t escape the feeling it’s too satisfied with its own cleverness). It’s a contemporary photograph that, at the same time, feels like a classic; or maybe I should say it references the medium’s history without being nostalgic. Find the full piece here.
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Feb 4, 2013

I am not going to actually show the photograph I am going to write about. I realize this is most unusual. But I hope that my reasons will become obvious in the following. The photograph I am going to talk about shows a young woman in the center of the frame who is surrounded by six male figures (there is a seventh in the background who does not appear to be part of what is going on). Of these six males, five are photographers. They’re photographers we call paparazzi. The young woman - actress Sienna Miller - is caught “mid-action”: Her posture looks defensive, her arms are raised, in particular her right one, as if to defend herself from the paparazzo at the left edge of the frame whose gaze is centered on her. The man at the right edge of the frame does not appear to be a photographer, he is looking at the paparazzo at the left edge. We might add that there must have been at least one other photographer present, the one who took the photograph in question. Find the full piece here.
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Jan 21, 2013

This photograph by Chris Levine, Lightness of Being, is extraordinary for a variety of reasons, the most important one possibly being that it utterly confounds our expectations1. We live in a day and age where usually the opposite is true: Photographs of public figures are made to show us what we expect, ideally in the most glorious form. We could call this our cultural sublime: Getting awed in exactly the way we expect to get awed. In the strictest sense, this type of sublime is at least 50% fake, because what we’re ultimately really in awe of is our own (imagined) sense of good taste. Find the full piece here.
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Dec 31, 2012

I found myself at the local mall yesterday, at the book shop, to look at magazines. I live in the countryside where not much ever happens. A tornado might come through, or a strip club might explode, but those are very rare events. And regardless, they tend to happen further down south. I certainly did not expect to look up from some magazine to see a car on fire right outside of the building I was in. Find the full article here.
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Dec 7, 2012

What you see in this photograph is what I see in it, a man that none of us have ever met. I can say that with certainty because I know just a little bit, albeit not much, more about this man. He is, or actually was, Josef Nowak, an accountant born in what is now the Czech Republic, a citizen of Germany when it was called Nazi Germany, an avid multi-instrumentalist (mostly playing the accordion, though), and, just like millions of others, a soldier, drafted to fight in World War 2. Josef Nowak was killed (“fell”) on 21 March 1942 in what was then the Soviet Union. There was not going to be another spring in his life, and for a long time there was none in his wife’s (now widow’s) who on the very day that her husband died gave birth to their fourth daughter. That fourth daughter is my mother’s youngest sister. Josef Nowak is my grandfather. Find the full piece here.
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Jun 26, 2012

“The face,” Cicero (106-43 B.C.) is supposed to have said, “is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter” (“Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi”), and we know this as “the eyes are the window to the soul.” Scientists, oddly, seem to agree. And this is all fine, except that we have a problem here. What about the blind? Ordinarily, I don’t take those kinds of expressions for more than what they are. In particular, I try to avoid them in my writing, fighting my own hopeless war against cliché (in all likelihood a much paler version of the original one). But I saw this particular photography, a portrait of Frederick Lennart Bentley, taken by Martin Roemers and part of his The Eyes of War (which I reviewed here), and that’s the first thing that came to my mind (which, apparently and much to my consternation, is quite content with cliché). Find the full piece here.
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Mar 14, 2012

Photography obviously is centered on seeing and looking. It’s us - via a photographer’s helping hands and eyes - looking at them - the people in the photographs. For that very reason, I have been quite intrigued by Man peering in window, Knoxville by Mark Steinmetz (from South Central) ever since I first came across it. People love to complain that the subjects in contemporary portraiture do not smile. But strangely, I have never heard (or read) anyone complain about the fact that they don’t look back. It’s not as if they were unable to do that. Just look at Steinmetz’s Man! If you could say one thing about him it is that he clearly is looking back. In fact, it’s almost tempting to tell him to stop looking at us! Find the full piece here.
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Mar 7, 2012

It’s such a sad old feeling the fields are soft and green it’s memories that I’m stealing but you’re innocent when you dream when you dream you’re innocent when you dream (from Tom Waits’ Innocent When You Dream) The first time I saw Tim Hetherington’s Sleeping Soldiers - I think it was actually a video presentation - I immediately had to think of that Tom Waits song. And then I thought what a marvelous piece of propaganda I was looking at. Find the full piece here.
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Feb 29, 2012

We have abandoned our belief in ancient myths and folk tales, we have replaced them with our own, modern, presumably enlightened ones. There is no more goddess Venus, there is the razor instead or the pop song (enjoy counting the ancient myths in this version). Here then is our Venus, photographed by Rineke Dijkstra. Reflecting our times, our Venus is anonymous, but we get to find out where and when the photograph was taken: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, USA June 24 1992. Find the rest of the piece here.
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Feb 22, 2012

There is the idea that photography steals the soul. We think that is a childish, a primitive belief. But photography’s, or more accurately the camera’s presence has a strange power over us that is not that far from stealing our soul. I had to think of that when I came across this photograph while researching images for a class on the history of photography. This is a photograph by Alexander Gardner entitled Antietam, Md. Confederate dead in a ditch on the right wing, one of the many the photographer produced around that Civil War battle (see the technical notes at the very bottom for more information about it). Find the full piece here.
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Feb 15, 2012

Our memories are our own personal histories. As we age, they accumulate, usually in flattering, merciful ways. This is how Nature has our brains operate, to allow us to preserve a modicum of dignity (or what we think dignity might be). On the other side, the literally other side: the surface of the skull, Nature tends to be less kind. Here, we cannot easily hide that which we do not want to share. In our faces, we see our history, we see what life has done to us. As we age, we age visibly. Find the full piece here.
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Jan 30, 2012

(The first in what probably is going to become a new feature.) If someone asked you what photography’s big deal was, all you’d have to say is that it has something to do with “the gaze,” and then show this photograph. Of course, photography is not just this image. There is a lot more - or, if you’re a curmudgeon (there seem to be many these days) a lot less. But there is a lot to be said for talking about the most outstanding examples of any art form to get an idea of their power - instead of focusing on the detritus. Thus, when talking about photography we’d probably want to talk about photographs of the human form, and out of all those we might want to talk about this particular photograph. Its title is “A woman sits for a final photograph with her dying mother,” and it was taken by Eduard Méhomé (the photograph can be found on page 41 of Life & Afterlife in Benin). Find the full article here.
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