Saturday, June 12, 2010

It's About Looking

It’s hard to get the temper of a time, and really understand what the world is about. We look around and it’s kind of obvious that we live in a “connected” world, full of all kinds of amazing techno goodies which supposedly let us live a new kind of life, one that is still being invented and reworked literally every day. Yet, what really are we living? What, beyond the whiz bang amazement of being able to GOOGLE almost anything, has this series of so called advancements given us? Nearly everywhere you go, at least in cities, it’s hard to find people who are just observing, enjoying, or participating. Everyone is fiddling with their mobile device (you can’t really just call them phones anymore), texting and messaging wildly, virtually unaware of the world that is actually around them. Whatever might once have passed for “elevator” conversation (I am from Salt Lake City, and I speak to strangers on elevators… the ones who are ready to hit the ALARM button when I do so…) is now replaced by a deeply intense study of fingertip tapping on iPhones and other mobile goodies. No one looks around anymore. Even if there isn’t much to see, looking around remains a valid preoccupation, even if you aren’t a photographer. Heads are down, looking at baby screens. People seem to feel obliged to write SOMETHING, even if it’s meaningless, simply because they can. Nothing represents the idiocy of our time like a comment (wholly unnecessary, really) like “Ha ha ha” on a Facebook or Myspace entry. The first time “simply because they can” became an issue in the photo community was in the early 1980s when the National Geographic, having just purchased a new visual layout computer of some kind, no doubt the size of a Volkswagen, wanted to use a certain photo of the pyramids on the cover. But the layout wasn’t right for that picture, so they simply moved the pyramid until it fit into the layout. It was quite the hue and cry when the Godfather of modern photojournalism rejiggered what had been a ‘truthful’ photograph to fit their cover, “simply because they COULD.” Since then, the world of journalism and photography has been rocked to the core by those who alter images for a political or creative reason, just because they can. Admittedly if you are an illustrator, or painter, and this is your own self expression, what you choose to do is fair game. But if you are a journalist, allegedly trying to ‘tell the truth’ about a moment in time, changing things takes on a very different meaning. The veracity and believability of journalists everywhere dives each time there is a scandal about adding smoke to a bombing (Lebanon), changing the whole color of a scene from yuk to serene (a million cases) and the like. At this point we have nearly bullshat our way out of the public consciousness as vendors of truth. But it remains the great debate.. how much alteration is too much? When a picture is changed in its essentials, that is too much but the dotted line is often very hard to see.

a family of tourists, NY, looking.
Yet, in this time of too much stuff, and not enough ideas, how do we relate to what’s gone before us. Would Ike loved to have had GPS systems so his paratroopers would have landed where they were supposed to on D-Day?

I’m sure he would have loved it. Would our parents have wanted us to have cell phones so they could know where the hell we were on a Friday night (cruising State St. in the yellow Plymouth)… actually I think not. Because instead of being our pals, they were our parents. They kind of laid out guidelines, a few basic rules, and assumed we would try and figure out how to live with/up to them, instead of strolling down the avenue hand in hand with us, as we have so often done with our kids. Frankly, in an age when there are a lot of great kids out there (some of which are actually ours…) it’s tough NOT to be their friend. Really tough. But I hope that inspite those desires to pal up with them, we have also imparted a little of the “parenting” which parents used to handle. I know we are all in a different place. When you look at the Mickey Rooney films of the 1930s, the pictures of the folks supposedly his “parents” look like today’s great-grand parents. I guess that our having been over fed, and over cared for has given us a little edge in that regard, but I’m not completely sure. Sixty may be the new forty, but it doesn’t mean that the wisdom which used to be owned by our parents and grand parents all flowed to us. We are, remember, the generation that came up with the colossally stupid concept of “zero tolerance,” the idea which proves to children that, absolutely, adults are complete idiots unable to make measured, judicial, and intelligent decisions.

This morning, while waiting for a few 8x10 prints to be made in 11 minutes at my friendly neighborhood drug store (top THAT, 1964!!) I perused the magazine stand. It remains filled with many publications, most having to do with food, clothes, coolness, or celebrities, and which picture budgets (yes, if you have THE pic of Lindsay drinking a margarita in France, you could sell it for a hundred grand!) have depleted those of the news magazines which I have been a part of for so many years. In that newsrack were two special pubs which caught my eye. One from “the editors of TIME” and one from “the editors of LIFE”… both being compilations of photographs from, and a tribute to, World War II. There were some amazing pictures made in WWII, without question. And unlike todays mad-cap digital world, where you can easily shoot a few hundred pics in a stroll across town (“because you CAN”…) the pictures from the War were done by photographers with very limited resources. If they carried a big Speed Graphic, they were limited to the number of holders they could carry, and the amount of film they could pack. If they had a Rolleiflex, or other “small camera,” they had to shoot sparingly, and above all, owing to a lack of tele lenses, get CLOSE to the subject before shooting. But when you look at the magazines, you see page after page of memorable images. And why, in 2010 do you think Time-Life decided to come out with two specials, using nearly identical material? I can’t say for sure but my guess is that they feel the same ennui, worry, and melancholy we all do about these modern times. We remain caught up in two south Asian wars, neither of which is able to have the kind of results which General MacArthur would have called “unconditional surrender.” In fact today’s paper talks of how Karzai believes the west can’t win in Afghanistan, and wants to start back channel talks with the Taliban. Anyone who has read a bit of history (…”the great game…”) and even paid attention in the 1980s when the Soviets got their lickings there, would have thought twice or thrice about trying to tame that country. It’s tough to defeat an enemy who can live on a scrap of meat or a few carrots, because that is what he knows, when your own guys, as wonderful and smart as they are, require such a heavy rear-area support system. Do we really want to commit the next generation of young American kids to fighting in those hills, another decade or two? Ought there not be another way? That doubt, that worry, that wondering, very different from what our parents’ generation felt about WWII, is slowly seeping across the country, at a time when few besides the families of the soldiers themselves, have any direct or personal stake in the outcome. We see the bumper stickers… and yes, everyone “Supports the Troops.” But what does that really mean? To think nice thoughts about them as you hop into the elevator with your iPhone, and text a drinking buddy about dinner plans tonight? There is a lot of support like that, which never really translates into supporting anything except a personal sense of being glad you’re NOT the one being shot at. In looking through the WWII mags, it’s clear to me that this mining of nostalgia is something which we all feel a kinship for. We WANT 2010 to be like 1945. Victorious, and full of great and worthy efforts by our people, yielding an end to a conflict which tears at the soul of the country. But how do we get there? Nothing that you can do with a smartphone will make that world any better. Yet that is where we lie. Bathing in the products of amazing technology, which in so many ways do nothing except create their own means to a solitary end, we fiddle with our thumbs to write inane messages which in the end, even without the sound and fury, signify not very much.

Wrap around that the Gulf Oil spill, where not only is there very little clear information available (in spite of the 24/7 babble and “Live Leak Cams.” but you see a large company (BP) keeping journalists off public beaches, enforced by local sheriffs, because they don’t want the publicity. Is that the kind of counry the heroes of WWII fought for? I just don’t think so. I’m not sure we’ll get out of this funk anytime soon. No one in Washington, either Congressional or Executive seems to be acting much like a grown up (in the “classical” sense of the word.) It’s no one’s fault, either, that the spill happened, or that the response is not up to the task. And when the kind of folks who stepped up in the 1940s and created the tools needed to win, do so now, they are pooh-poohed away and told ‘it’ s under control.’

It’s been difficult for any of us not on the Gulf to understand what the real rubber-meets-the-road effects are. But I nominate a brilliant AP photographer, Charlie Riedel, for this year’s Pulitzer Prize. I know it’s only June, but truly, until Charlie’s pictures came out a week ago, people were wondering just what in the hell the big deal was with the oil spill. In a few frames he has shown that, and more. I can’t recall any pictures in recent memory which have so touched so many people. As of today there are over 3200 comments on the Boston Globe site, alone. The power of the still image remains with us, as long as we are looking. Yes, just looking. And whether it’s a black and white of a soldier in 1944, or an oil drenched pelican in 2010, there is simply no way that you can turn your eyes away. We’re just sayin’… David

cr: Charlie Riedel/AP


Anonymous said...

I cannot even find the words to comment....but here goes...This world is changing in a way that I am not sure the next generation really cares about nor do they want to expend the energy to find out. Parents I am afraid, will finally find out that they did a lousy job in preparing their kids for the responsibility to save THEIR world. But as long as he or she has his or her head buried in the newest techno toy, life will be just fine. Go to any APPLE store any time of day and you will see what I mean. It is mind boggling... and in the meantime, there are these BP travesties and the disregard for other human needs...

susanetheridge said...

There was an article recently in the NYT on the effects technology and smartphones are having on our brains.
The one thing I've noticed lately is the lack of imagination people have. Our pop culture hasn't produced anything original in a long long time (movie sequels). I'd say our constant connection to the internet is one of the reasons why. We are constantly feed our brains media junk, instead of letting them relax and create something new.
I remember reading a quote from the actor Daniel Day Lewis. He was asked what his favorite thing to do was and he responded, "Look out the window." How many of us turn off our computers, tvs, and cell phones to just stop and observe.
I debate whether or not I want to pursue a career in photojournalism when it's main goals seem to be the number of clicks you get when someone views your work. It seems the only way to do that is to have mediocre photographs of mediocre celebrities who have no talent except for being famous.

Anonymous said...

David, your thesis is well threaded and deserves kudos for the thought that went into putting it together. But you're not the first to identify these sorts of societal demises. The opinion of this writer what is lacking here is an attempt to find and give guidance toward solutions.

It's almost like a medical researchers identifying the problem, but not having any means or idea about how to cure the disease.