PBS NewsHour “Honor Roll” – by Vince Leo

It’s been 10 years since the second U.S. invasion of Iraq and 12 years of American casualties in Afghanistan. Everyone’s exhausted, Big Media can’t seem to find a story. Until Iran becomes the next Iraq, no war news seems to be good war news.

Unfortunately the deaths continue despite the news cycle: Sixteen American dead in Afghanistan in March alone. You might be surprised by this fact if you watched CNN 24/7, but you’d know it in the pit of your stomach if you tuned into the PBS NewsHour every night. That’s because, starting on March 31, 2003, 11 days after the war in Iraq began, the NewsHour has been broadcasting a short list of service men and women who have died in the conflict as they become available from the Department of Defense. The casualties appear in two’s or fives’ or ten’s every night for a week, sometimes two nights per week, week after week, month after month, year after year. Titled “Honor Roll,” the segment expanded in 2006 to include soldiers killed in Afghanistan, where they are still dying and still appearing in the NewsHours’ final segment.

The format is deceptively simple. Each soldier is represented for a few seconds onscreen by a photograph along with his/her age, service branch, rank, and hometown. One soldier after another, for as long as it takes, the entire segment runs in complete silence. Even though there’s a silly background illustration of flag, soldiers, and desert, the reportage could hardly be more direct or objective. There is no comment, no break in the solemn procession of dead, no action to relieve the sense of loss. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the NewsHour has used its nightly schedule to create one of the most innovative and powerful instruments of wartime reportage since 16mm cameras brought Vietnam to the nightly news.

It’s not the first time photographs of casualties have been used to make a point about the nature of war. After reviewing the photographs Alexander Gardner had made at the Battle of Antietam, Mathew Brady decided to exhibit 21 large views of piles of corpses in his New York gallery with the simple title: “The Dead of Antietam.” Life Magazine famously published “The Faces of the Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll” consisting of 242 small portraits in the June 27, 1969 issue. Both Brady’s exhibition and the Life article were unabashed attempts to shock their audiences through sheer numbers.

To its credit, “Honor Roll” forgoes the sensationalism of large casualty counts for the dull, ongoing ache of duration. Although the NewsHour couldn’t have known when the first segment aired, “Honor Roll” has evolved into the clearest depiction of what is most crucial about America’s current wars: their length. The continuous procession of fallen young men and women, now in it’s 11th year, signifies more deeply than any expert talking head, what a Long War actually means: the seemingly endless loss of life after life, day after day, month after month, year after year in ongoing military operations that have no clear ending and no objective criteria of success. Forget the fantasies of liberation peddled by our duly elected representatives and the scripts of positive change repeated ad infinitum by the generals: “Honor Roll” isn’t another war story, it’s a day-in day-out description of military occupation.

But in the grind of occupation, even the war-talk talking heads have disappeared, compounding the sense of alienation and waste. There’s something almost monstrously incongruous about watching 57 minutes of chatter about the Republican Party’s difficulties with Hispanic voters, the temperament of Washington, and the effect of sequestration on employment, only to be confronted with three final minutes of silent death. But that is who we have become. Chatter and death, week after week, chatter and death, month after month, chatter and death, year after year. In its own indirect fashion, “Honor Roll” goes about the dirty representational work of re-creating the current national character of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

“Honor Roll” isn’t easy. It takes determination to stay with the whole program and watch in silence as five or eight or twelve more young men and women scroll across your screen. And to complete the NewsHour’s representational proposition, you have to do this night after night after night. The 10+ year investment in time and effort is a testament to the NewsHour’s discipline and high regard for its viewers. It’s also devastating. One night doesn’t seem so bad, but then you remember the night before and then the week before and then the month before and then the year before. The cumulative effect feels like an almost unendurable loss. And in the midst of that unendurable loss, you can’t help but realize that there will be another night and another week and another month and another year (at least) to come. Facing that knowledge is enough to make you want to stop thinking about anything, but especially about the vast numbers of Iraqi casualties, the dead children, the drones. The only thing left to do is commit to watching another night, to honor the sacrifice another week, to mourn wounded families another month, to refuse to turn the channel for as many years as it takes.

Around and through and in spite of the nightly sorrow, there’s poetry in the photographs. Mostly official service portraits with a few snapshots, the photographs in “Honor Roll” reveal young men and women facing the camera willingly, aware that a photograph was in progress, actively shaping the formation of the image. These are not selves captured but selves imagined, selves committed to, selves feared for, selves forged through sacrifice and desire. In almost every case, the photographer has respected that imagined self, committing it to posterity without undue ostentation or artifice. There is in the social nature of this photographic engagement both trust and humility: trust on the part of the sitters and humility on the part of the photographers. Working together, through the simplest of photographs appearing at the very end of the nightly news, they remind us that human social relations can in fact be governed by mutual respect and dignity. It’s the slimmest glimmer of hope snatched from a media landscape both vast and depressing. But in my mind, that glimmer endures, resisting the chatter and death, denying the chatter and death, defining our loss not as body counts but as an ever-expanding communion of souls, haunting our living rooms and our future, repeating in a single voice, night after night, month after month, year after year: War is over.

combo3– Vince Leo




Lebensmittel by Michael Schmidt reviewed by Vince Leo

“Ethical testimony is a revelation which is not a knowledge.” Emmanuel Levinas

schmidtLet’s begin with a little of what we know: We know that industrialized food production has eased hunger throughout the world, that it is decreasing the amount of arable land needed to feed the world’s population, that it has created an economic machine capable of providing animal protein to human beings who could only dream of eating meat a decade ago. We also know that it is depleting valuable aquifers, creating a pandemic of obesity and diabetes, and, through its corporate cultures, contributing to crop monocultures, privatized seed stock, global warming, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But all this is dwarfed by a single inescapable bit of knowledge: that rain or shine, alone or in groups, young or old, we have to eat or we will die.

Despite its 174 photographs, Lebensmittel (foodstuff) rarely provides visual evidence for the things we already know about industrial farming. Using a visceral approach that wrestles with each photographic subject on its own terms, Schmidt explores food production through a densely subjective exploration of photographic processes and techniques. The result is a body of work that encompasses a remarkable range of photographic gestures: from out-of-focus close-ups to razor sharp indoor flash, from violent cropping to uninterrupted landscapes, and then there is the mix of color, color-tinted, and black-and-white. The differing connotations of these techniques transforms each subject, shaping our response picture by picture: the almost gross metallic sheen of flash on fish heads, the bucolic extended tonal range of sunlight on a hillside orchard, the claustrophobia of out-of focus (and in-focus) close-ups of ingredient labels. In the process of trashing the received wisdom of a consistent formal approach to a single subject by a single photographer, Schmidt also manages to trash a unified response to industrial food production. Instead, we are faced with the prospect of endless formal invention and a stream of observations, meanings, and associations that creates equal amounts of certainty and confusion.

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The order of the photographs in Lebensmittel only intensifies these qualities. As with his camerawork, Schmidt has mounted a tour de force of sequential techniques only to frustrate any single structure of meaning. There are repeating images, near-repeating images, images that repeat at various places in the book, images on facing pages, and images facing blank pages. There are recurring shapes (a sprinkler stream, the curve of a farmer’s back) and recurring formal properties (rectangles into grids). Schmidt uses sequence to hammer home mechanization (two facing photographs of the same giant food processing machine) or to remind us that human beings remain an important part of the system (two facing pages of a woman picking onions). In place of a decipherable order (by food, by activity, by production process, etc), there is meandering digression that occasionally coalesces into a concrete relationship only to dissolve with the next photograph. Every time we think the sequence resolves into something we know, it changes direction, forcing us to change perspective. After a certain point, we stop expecting an answer.

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Consider the final sequence: a group of fish heads, a frame full of flowers, a container of apples, a hillside of trees, a curved spray of water, a grid covered by folded plastic, and a bent human back picking onions. Too much beauty to be a complete indictment; too much plastic to be anything but a by-product of spreadsheet capitalism. Ambiguous, unresolved, committed only to what he sees and how he sees it, Schmidt reveals a deeper and broader space of industrialization, a space that overlaps and encompasses both photography and farming. Think of it as a grid that extends from pixel to frame to book to shipping container to hectare, all governed by the same algorithms of control and efficiency. Within this field, Schmidt mounts his own representational resistance: His obsessively exploratory camerawork undermines the logic of the mono-culture with wild organic experimentation while his sequential diversions destroy the notion that efficiency is the cornerstone of every successful system. Lebensmittel is not so much a coherent political statement as it is a systematic destruction of the order of things beginning with the conventions of political documentary and ending with our own preconceptions of both photography and industrial farming. Unrelenting and unrepentant, Michael Schmidt forces us to abandon categorical knowledge as a way forward. What we are left with is a record of what it means to break the rules, the possibilities of an activity taken up against the grain, the fear that what we know about what we eat may not be enough to keep our bellies full.

– Vince Leo

Elementary Calculus by J. Carrier – reviewed by Vince Leo

“Is not impermanence the very fragrance of our days?” -Rainer Maria Rilke

There are two stories in J. Carrier’s Elementary Calculus (MACK), actually a story within a story. Commencing after the title page, the first story begins with a photograph of an ancient stone wall on which a pigeon is perched, and ends with the last photograph of what seems to be that same pigeon in that same wall a few seconds later. Evoking all the associations of massive stone barriers, the story of the walls opens onto the historical: its inescapable presence, brute force, implacable logic, and incontrovertible permanence. Comprising the remainder of the book, the second story begins with the second photograph—an empty phone booth—and continues to the second-to-the-last photograph of another empty phone booth with the handset upside down. In comparison to the larger historical bracket, the second story is about a humble human activity, a simple phone call that almost inexplicably expands into a visual stream-of-consciousness, a day in the life as lived between walls.

The setting of both stories is the intractable historical terrain of Tel Aviv and East/West Jerusalem, a complex and disputed landscape defined on a daily basis by the visual conventions of mass media. But forget the Kalishnikovs and demonstrations; J. Carrier is after something else entirely. Using his own experiences as a migrant to guide his perceptions, Carrier maps the notion of migrancy across streets and alongside sunsets and especially in the public/private implosion of the Africans, Asians, and Palestinians he photographs at phone booths. It’s a revelation, a place in which the intransigent narrative of opposing sides has given way to the subterranean currents of global labor and its stateless wanderers. That said, Elementary Calculus isn’t a social documentary in the strictest sense: Carrier doesn’t depict the living conditions of migrant workers in graphic detail. Instead, he asks his viewers to do something more subtle and risky: to walk a mile in his migrant shoes, to see the world as a migrant sees it, to understand the world as migrants understand it.

In Carrier’s rendering, it’s a world that moves between beauty and anxiety, between bushes exploding into bloom and cats warily looking for shelter. It’s also a world in which migrants know other migrants, notice what other migrants notice, walk the same streets, use the same phones. The sequences pile up through recurring visual cues: African with shadow on sidewalk becomes cart with shadow on sidewalk containing fruit which become the markings in a graffiti die which become the popping buds on a tree branch which become the pock marks of an African’s face which become the roses in bloom on a bush. The historical appears as a checkpoint or a gate with a star of David motif, but it feels subsumed by the ongoing rush of visual associations. More than a simple formal arrangement, the sequential structure of Carrier’s story-within-the-story frustrates the explanations of historical knowledge in favor of the unexpected connections provided by the visual and experiential.

Using this open-ended process of association, Carrier constructs a bittersweet meditation on the nature of the transitory: from birds to fruit to the ever-present phone-callers. What is common to these images is exactly what is elemental to calculus: change, constant yet variable, is the underlying order of all experience. There are undeniable visual pleasures in this view of the world. But even the startling beauty of a lemon tree is tempered by the tragic realization that every moment is fleeting, every social space unstable, every phone call home a phone call about to end. If we believe Carrier, migrancy is nothing less than the inescapable and continuous experience of impermanence.

By nestling his experience of migrancy within the walls of the historical, Carrier has created a complex space of being in which the systematic knowledge of history and the associative empathy of everyday experience become a single visual field. Within this field, Elementary Calculus transforms a rambling depiction of the “the fragrance of impermanence” into an elusive call to justice. It’s not a simple story and the end is nowhere in sight for those condemned to use public phones and who, unlike Carrier, can’t go home. But by pleading for what is crucial to the lives of individuals against what is expedient for the powers that be, J. Carrier has dared us to look beyond the seductions of borders, of history, of walls and to imagine what it might mean to pledge allegiance to each other.

– Vince Leo

Found Photos in Detroit reviewed by Vince Leo

Funny what photographers find on the street once they start looking. Robert Frank found latent disillusion; Gary Winnogrand found random social clarity; Phillip Lorce DeCorcia found the breadth and depth of exchange. Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese, two photographers from Italy, found photographs.

Not just one or two. Walking the streets of Detroit, Arcara and Santese found thousands of photographs. Found Photos in Detroit is a selection of this archive. There are mugshots, snapshots, interiors, police documentation, cars and notes varying in condition from unreadable abstraction to heartbreaking clarity. The only thing we know for sure about these photographs is the most important thing to know: they have all been abandoned. We don’t know who abandoned them: it could have been a family member or a bored janitor, it could have been the photographer or the subject of the photograph. All we know is that these photographs have come unmoored from the ties that bound them into a system of social meaning. They have been lost to the streets of Detroit, moving inexorably through various degradations toward a blank field of dissolution. It’s not a pretty picture. Maybe it never was.

One more thing: Except for a single group portrait, every photographed person in Found Photos In Detroit is African American. Young and old, male and female, staring, glaring, entreating. The message is clear: It is Black culture, their houses, their rule of law, their very selves that have been abandoned. Like homeless ghosts, the social reality of these photographs haunts Detroit and America, signifying a despair so deep that abandonment is the only method left to represent their loss.

Within the form of the book, Arcara and Santese have constructed a shelter for these homeless images and, by extension, renewed meaning and social contact for their subjects. In the process, they have also created a powerful document of contemporary Detroit that moves beyond the bailout and the romanticized urban ruins of good times past to address the human tragedy that are the results of inequality, racism, and political impotence. That said, there’s no walking away from the fact that these images and their subjects tell another story. As so often in the past, these African-Americans have been reconstructed into a narrative not of their own making, revealing their utter representational powerlessness, no matter the intentions of the current powers that be. That is the agonizing contradiction at the heart of Found Photos in Detroit: that the source of its power as a social critique is made possible only by appropriating the despair of the abandoned. To hold those contradictory positions in your mind is to grasp the cost of representation; to hold them in your heart is to know truth as an oppressive other.

– Vince Leo

On raising a healthy blog

Reading Joerg Colberg’s reflections on the ten-year birthday of his blog made me consider the way in which blogging is like parenting. Both take a ton of time and energy and the rewards, while significant, are oblique. You also have to deal with a lot of tantrums.

My biggest frustration with blogging is the same as my frustration with parenting: not enough time. I’m particularly bothered that I’m unable to respond to the fantastic unsolicited books that people send us (if you follow our Tumblr page, you know we get a lot).

One of my favorite recent arrivals, for example, was Found Photos in Detroit by Arianna Arcara & Luca Santese. This book will surely end up on my list of favorite books from 2012, but it deserves more critical attention than just being on another list.

So I turned to one of the best arts writers I know, Vince Leo, and asked for help. Vince just sent me his review and I couldn’t be happier. His text has me thinking about the book, and myself, in an entirely new way.

One of the lessons of parenting is that you need to ask for help. While you may not be able to hire a nanny, it’s essential to splurge on a babysitter now and then. I’m beginning to think the same is true for raising a healthy blog.

– Alec Soth