3.3: ‘Late photography’

TASK

1. Read David Campany’s essay ‘Safety in Numbness’ (see ‘Online learning materials and student-led research’ at the start of this course guide). Summarise the key points of the essay and note down your own observations on the points he raises.

‘”There is a sense in which the late photograph, in all its silence, can easily flatter the ideological paralysis of those who gaze at it without the social or political will to make sense of its circumstance…If the banal matter-of-factness of the late photograph can fill us with a sense of the sublime, it is imperative that we think through why this might be. There is a fine line between the banal and the sublime, and it is a political line.” Campany p 192.

Campany reaches this conclusion first through a discussion of Meyerowitz’s photographs Aftermath and the BBC documentary in ‘Reflections on Ground Zero’.

He questions the trend towards ‘photographing the aftermath of events – traces, fragments, empty buildings, empty streets, damage to the body and damage to the world’ and the way it has come to be prevalent in photojournalism as a response to the overwhelming use of video now as a record of unfolding events. Partly due also to the fact that photographers are now rarely allowed access to conflict sites – unlike for example in VietNam. One could add also since Campany’s 2003 article the ubiquitous use of mobile video phones by people involved in events now able to upload them almost instantaneously as a more ‘democratic’ and immediate (if often shakily filmed) perspective and record on what is happening.

He argues that it is the stillness of late photography that gives it its power – more memorable than events on the move. While its privileged status may be imagined to stem from a natural capacity to condense and simplify things, the effects of the still image derive much more from its capacity to remain open. It is that openness that can be paralysing ‘In its apparent finitude and muteness it can leave us in permanent limbo, suspending even the need for analysis and bolstering a kind of liberal melancholy that shuns political explanation.’

2. Look at some of Meyerowitz’s images available online from Aftermath: World Trade Centre Archive (2006). Consider how these images differ from your own memories of the news footage and other images of the time. Write a short response to the work (around 300 words), noting what value you feel this ‘late’ approach has.

Meyerowitz’s images were taken as the officially sanctioned record of the impact of the attack, partly as a memorial for the relatives but also a historical record. Their monumental ‘sublime beauty’ in the colours and the large cinematic format are apocalyptic – resonant of the paintings of artists like John Martin and Turner. Like much other ‘late photography’ there are few people. Those that are there are dwarfed by the enormity of the buildings, machinery and the hell volcanic fires. Meyerowitz claims that he did not make the images ‘I was told how to photograph it by the thing itself‘. As Campany points out, that means that he is not questioning his own background and assumptions that inevitably underlie his photographic skills and practice.

His approach is very different from that of another on-site photographer – a policeman John Bott. His images have more people in, and are more participatory social documentary of the clear-up activities.

John Botte’s photos of Ground Zero

Unlike Meyerowitz he did not get official permission – as he had done a lot of photography as part of his police work he had been asked to photograph the clear-up work by his boss. This was now leading to various legal complications. His health was seriously damaged by the photography work and he did not profit from the photos he took – proceeds being given to charity.

I agree with Campany that the monumental aesthetic beauty in Meyerowitz’s images seems to anaesthetise and paralyse any political questioning of why the event occurred, and whether and why that particular type of historical record was needed. I was in India conducting an NGO workshop at the time of the attacks and first saw the news with colleagues. On the one hand they had all been through much more serious natural disasters – Gujarat Earthquake and periodically severe monsoon floods – where many more thousands of people had been killed both by the disaster itself, and then lack of emergency aid in the follow-up. Much of that unreported in the Western press. On the other hand, in the light of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, there was also high anti-American feeling. It was only when I got back two weeks later that I saw images at home.

I think that the apocalyptic nature seem to almost glorify the unintended martyrdom of the victims – matched by praise of the way in which the survivors lay their mourning images then get up and move on. They raise no questioning of events in the countries from which Al Quaeda perpetrators come, including but not only American actions, and how the conflict can really be resolved. To me they look very much like images I saw on the TV in Sudan some years later with the US ‘shock and awe’ opening of the Iraq War. But very different from the interviews with people on Al Jazeera Arabic channel of the impact. That time in video footage, some of it live.

This lack of questioning is not however inherent in ‘late photography’, but in the selection of the effects one photographs and their contextualisation in other images or documents that might portray a multiplicity of complex perspectives – even where a clear message in unlikely to be appropriate of effective.

 

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