Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Arms Treaty

In the photo below, President Mahoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is seen flashing a sign (victory, peace, viva Viagra…whatever) while accompanied by the leaders of Brazil (left) and Turkey (at right). The photo was made by Atta Kenare for Agence France-Presse and Getty Images at the announcement of an agreement on Monday that the three countries had arrived at a deal to send about half of Iran’s nuclear stockpile to Turkey.

                                Peace, or Victory? Or whatever...

As reported in the New York Times, the deal would see Iran send about 2,640 pounds of low-enriched uranium—stuff that might be used in a bomb--to Turkey, where it would be stored. In return, Iran could receive 265 pounds of uranium enriched to 20 percent by other countries that could be used in a reactor to make isotopes for treating Iranian cancer patients.

As the Times pointed out, the deal seemed to be brokered in an effort to slow down the drive by the United States for international sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program. On Tuesday, in fact, the Obama administration announced that the US had reached an agreement with Russia and China to impose a new set of sanctions on Iran. Action will now move to the United Nations Security Council, where Iran will try to block the sanctions.

Today’s story in the Times came with the photo below, by Abedin Taherkenareh for the European Pressphoto Agency. It shows Ahmadinejad in what I take to be an awkward embrace with the leaders of Brazil and Turkey. But diplomatic embraces are often not what they seem, and the underlying message of this picture is vague. Are the Brazilian and Turkish leaders protecting Ahmadinejad from UN sancations, or imprisoning him in a web of proposals that would keep Iran from developing nuclear bombs?

                                              Protection, or imprisonment?

It’s clear now that the world’s great powers aren’t buying the idea that the Iran’s recent deal would effectively stop it from developing nuclear weapons. US secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Tuesday’s announcement of the agreement with Russian and China “is as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days as any we could provide.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mount St. Helens

                                A generational and geological moment

Thirty years ago today Mount St. Helens erupted in a savage explosion. The photo here is by Robert Krimmel and is credited to the US Geological Survey.

I recall the event itself from a personal, generational perspective, rather than as a geological one. How else do we remember moments caught in images like this? It's always personal.

At the time, I was a young editor working at Outside magazine, a journal launched a few years earlier as a guide for baby boomers who were becoming increasingly interested in biking, hiking, and other more avid outdoor pursuits (like mountaineering).

When the volcano began to show signs of activity, reporters from around the world descended on the area to interview locals and soak up the ambiance of cool menace. Outside sent its top writer, Tim Cahill, to cover the story, as only he could. Tim delighted us with daily briefings on joie de vivre of the locals and the excited gatherings of thrill-seekers who thought that a volcano eruption in the northwestern United States would be a spectacular show.

It all changed on May 18, 1980. The people who went to Oregon for one of nature's rock concerts got more than they may have bargained for. For me, at least, the event marked the beginning of a certain sobering up--life's perilousness made real. The eruption of a volcano is one of those things that doesn't follow a cause-and-effect time line. It happens. If a lot of people happen to be there for a party and instead have to flee from pyroclastic flows--well, you can take it as a life lesson. 

By the way, Tim's piece for Outside was later included in his very fine book, Jaguars Ripped At My Flesh. And Mount St. Helens, more or less quiet since 1980, is still a very real volcano. You monitor it 24/7 at this website.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Last Liftoff

                                  Spielberg lit scenes like this

Another news photo that looks like a still from a movie. Is this a trend? The result of digital technology? The images look really great on my iPad, by the way. Seen here: the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolling from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad on April 21. Atlantis lifted off last Friday on what is its last mission before being retired. Photo is credited to NASA/Amanda Diller.

What I'm Looking Forward To

Among its upcoming titles, Taschen Books lists Kate Moss by Mario Testino. The 232-page boxed limited edition book (1,500 copies will be printed) will cost $500. I'm willing to bet it'll be worth it. (I can't put up money I don't have, though--unlike some people. Here are some pictures of Moss by Testino.

Live Fire Zone

Is this a wonderful photograph?

The shot, by Athit Perawongmetha for Getty Images, shows an anti-government Red Shirt protester running from violence in central Bangkok. The color photo doesn't feel like a news photo to me. It looks more like it was shot by a unit photographer on a movie set--I assume the effect comes from the odd combination of ambient daylight (was flash added?) and light from the flames in the scene. Ordinarily when I see a picture like this I make the assumption that those fires in the background are coming from propane burners hidden careful out of sight. 

The violence is real, of course: 60 people have been killed in the clash between protesters and government forces, which has declared certain protest areas as "Live Fire Zones."

Naughty Richard Prince

I know there are lots of photographers and other artists who hate Richard Prince. I know it because I’ve talked to them and heard them come unglued on the subject of Prince, who they consider a simple rip-off artist because he “re-photographs” photos made by other people and paints over photos and illustrations made by others.

Keep in mind, most of these people wouldn’t necessarily mind Prince’s work methods as much if his work didn’t sell for enormous sums to collectors of contemporary art. Prince’s “Marlboro Man (Untitled, Cowboy), below, set a record for photograph when it sold for $3,401,000 at Sotheby’s in New York in 2007. Prince’s “Cowboy” series consisted of old Marlboro cigarette print ads that he re-photographed.

                                Would you pay $3.4 million for a cowboy?

At any rate, a lot of artists are sore about Prince’s success. But now, perhaps, we can all look toward Prince in a friendlier context. Last week, during the contemporary art sales in New York, once of Prince’s “Naughty Nurse” pieces went up for bids at the Phillips de Pury auction house. The scene was what Carol Vogel in the New York Times called a “distress sale” of artwork collected by Halsey Minor, co-founder of CNET.

Minor was being forced to auction off artwork because a federal court ordered him to. The proceed from the sale will go to repay a $21.6 million loan made to him by ML Private Finance L.L.C, an affiliate of Merrill Lynch, which in turn is of course now owned by Bank of America, which got some $20 billion of bailout money from the U.S. government during the financial crisis of 2008.

But I digress.

Why should we enjoy the spectacle of a high-flying technology entrepreneur selling off his artwork under such conditions? Because we are human, is the answer. It’s always satisfying seeing something get what my mom used to call “their comeuppance.”

Minor made gazillions and apparently spent multi-gazillions, on lots of things, including art. Minor liked to buy the work of trendy contemporary artists, including Ed Ruscha, Uri Fischer, Takahashi Murakami, and Marc Newson, but his collection didn’t have the splashy results of last week’s other contemporary art sales.

Now, back to Prince: He came out of the milieu of 1980s “post-modern” photographic artists like Cindy Sherman, who created images that re-contextualized familiar types of imagery. Sherman took movie imagery out of the movies and made us see it in a new way. Prince’s re-working of advertising imagery and other commercial imagery created a certain distance between viewers and the visual world that surrounds us. It’s the distance between the Marlboro Man and the “Marlboro Man.”

 His “Naughy Nurses” series are based on the covers of cheap paperback novels published during the 1950s and 1960s with titles like Park Avenue Nurse and Tender Nurse. He transferred the novel covers onto canvas, manipulating them in the process, then painted them with lurid colors. While Prince irritates some artists because he appropriates existing imagery, his nurses have prompted others to ask whether he's a misogynist--or whether he is even merely impersonating one.

                    Nurse fetishism at art

The Prince piece at the recent auction was “Nurse in Hollywood #4, 2004. It sold for $6.4 million, comfortably between the low estimate of $5 million and the high of $7 million. According to Vogel, it was once also owned by Steven A. Cohen.

Cohen is a hedge-fund gazillionaire.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Photo of the Day

Derek Jeter takes one for the team last night in the fifth inning on a pitch from Detroit's Justin Verlander. (Photo by Rebecca Cook for Reuters.)  Here is proof that it doesn't matter how many World Series rings you own, or how many models you date...when you get hit you look like a scared little leaguer. You would never have caught this fraction-of-a-second expression on TV...that's why we still love sports pictures, even in the era of ESPN.

The Gulf

A remarkable collection of image of the oil leak in the Gulf....all from (the Boston Globe).

Gerald Herbert shot whitecaps sloshing against the side of a ship near the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for AP. As we all learned long ago, oil and water don't mix.

One of the many strategies that "experts" have come up with is doing controlled burns of the floating oil. This photo, distributed by Reuters, was taken by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stumberg--US Navy. Another plan now being contemplated is to stuff the leaking well with shredded tires and golf balls. Any plan that sounds like something I could think of is not a plan at all.

Dolphins swim under the slick surface of Chandeleur Sound in the Gulf. Photo by Alex Brandon for AP.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Source

                                Shredded tires and golf balls won't plug this

The primary oil leak at the BP well, nearly 5,000 down in the Gulf of Mexico. (The photo, from the New York Times online edition, is credited to BP/Getty Images.) After all the shots of the surface of the Gulf, we get to see the source of the problem. It's violent and ugly.

Art and the Dismal Science

After the financial crisis of 2008 and the deep, painful recession that followed, journalists began looking for reliable experts to explain what went wrong and what might happen in the future. Suddenly, New York University economics professor Nouriel Roubini became a star. In predicting the collapse of the housing bubble, even as the players at Lehman, Bear Sterns, and other firms dived into the mess ever more deeply, Roubini earned the nickname “Dr. Doom.” Here is a great shot of Roubini, who by the looks of things knows how to enjoy a downturn.

                                          The Law of Supply and Demand

Recently he has been making the rounds of TV shows to promote his new book, Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance. In this interview, he notes that today’s near-zero interest-rate environment may lead to the next financial bubble, as “a wall of liquidity chases assets.” In other words, when companies can borrow money cheaply (think sub-prime mortgages) and take risky leverage positions, bad things can happen.

I have a different way of predicting financial bubbles: The art market. It’s not scientific, by any means, more like a hobby of mine—or just a superstitious reaction to the personal spending habits of people who can spend vast sums on art. But I believe in it, more or less. When prices of art at auction rise rapidly, I always wonder what kind of irrational exuberance is in play. And the results of the recent contemporary art auctions seem to be extraordinary.

In he very active bidding on Wednesday night at Sotheby’s in New York, only a few of the 53 pieces failed to sell, and the total sales came in at $190 million, above the estimate of $168 million. A 1986 Andy Warhol “Self-Portrait” (I love the photo below, taken by Timothy A. Clary for Agence France-Presse) sold for $32.6 million, crushing its $15 million high estimate.

                                          Andy at an angle

The seller of the piece was fashion designer/movie director Tom Ford. The buyer was unidentified.

On Tuesday night at Christie’s, the best-selling author Michael Crichton sold Jasper John’s “Flag” for $29.6 million.

                                           A salute to Wall Street bonuses

There is obviously some money around these days—let’s pray it the good, old-fashioned Wall Street bonus money and not the highly-leveraged, bought-at-zero-percent kind of money that Roubini is warning about.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Number 10

What a difference a day makes, at least in Great Britain. Among the things Americans find fascinating about British politics is how fast governments change there. One moment Prime Minister Gordon Brown steps outside Number 10 Downing Street to announce his resignation...and the next the new prime minister and the new deputy prime minister, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, step up to the same spot to take over.

                                Mirror images, or savvy partners?

The only inefficient aspect of the business is that Brown had to visit the Queen to officially resign, and Cameron had to visit her to officially claim office. But it's still a lot faster than the months of transition we're used to after an American presidential election. The photo of Cameron and Clegg (above), taken by Matt Cardy for Getty Images, establishes the unusual nature of last week's British election. We understand from the image that England's first coalition government since World War II will be a partnership--a reassuring note for a country looking for solid leadership after in inconclusive election. Will Cameron, from the Conservative Party, and Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, get along as well as the picture suggests? Are they mirror images of each other, or will their agendas eventually take them in different directions? For now, the England needed a nice spot of sunshine, and it got it...a new day.

Contrast that with this shot, by Cathal Mcnaughton for Reuters, of the former PM stepping outside Number 10 during the period when Cameron and Clegg were working out their power-sharing deal. The man is imprisoned by his own inability to step out  from the rain cloud that seems to perpetually hang over him.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Tea Party

I recently heard a comedian complaining about all those people at Tea Party rallies who dress up like the Founding Fathers—that is, the Founding Fathers who wore tri-corner hats and Orlando Magic t-shirts.

I thought the joke summed up the mixed bag of imagery surrounding the Tea Party political movement, if indeed it is a movement and not just a loosely joined bunch of individuals with a lot of different grievances. At this point, from the reporting I’ve seen and the photos I’ve been looking at, it’s hard to know what the Tea Party political framework really is. (See Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker piece looking at how the Tea Party has appropriated imagery from the American Revolution for a notion of the inconsistency of its message.)

The media has valiantly been trying to figure it out—they’ve got no choice. If the Tea Party is for real, ignoring it would be a huge journalistic mistake. The danger is that the obsessive coverage of colorful demonstrations could be making the Tea Party seem more important—and coherent—that it really is.

The photographic depiction of the Tea Party certainly has picked up on a range of themes. In the photo below, by Spencer Platt of Getty Images shows a Tea Party protestor at an anti-tax rally in Albany, New York on April 13. This image seems to place the Tea Party in the mainstream of U.S. politics: Hatred of taxes, and the urge to change governments, are both instincts as American as apple pie.

On the other hand, other photographers have focused on darker themes associated with the Tea Party—such as racism. (See this related New York Times editorial piece Charles Blow.)Photographer Nina Berman of the Noor agency has done a critical documentary project on the Tea Party that is available at the Bag Note News blog. The photo below is from a Huffington Post article titled “10 Most Offensive Tea Party Signs.” The images in the article (see below) were collected by what the website called “citizen journalists.”

I chose to show these pictures, by Mathieu Young, because they capture the aspect of the Tea Party movement that makes me uneasy. The line between political protest and irrational anger can get very thin, I think. Caricature is a time-honored form of political discourse, but the opposition to Barack Obama in many of the Tea Party signs goes beyond caricature. Mixed up with the Tea Party message about the evils of taxes and statism is the Birther movement and the oft-repeated sentiment to “Take Back America." Where should America be taken back to? Who is going to be rewarded by this taking back, and who is going to be hurt? Is it the private sector (big banks) or the goverment who is evil?  These are questions the Tea Party hasn't answered, at least for me.

Last winter I picked up an old edition of William Manchester’s The Death of a President is an antique store in upstate New York. It is impossible to read Manchester’s description of the attitudes toward John F. Kennedy in Texas without reflecting on the slogans waved around by the Tea Party. Here he describes a leaflet spread by an anti-Kennedy group:

Earlier in the morning five thousand cheap handbills had appeared on the streets of Dallas. At the top were two offset photographs of the President, on full face and one if profile. The effect was that of a Bertillon police poster, and it was deliberate, because the headline read:
“This man,” the dodger declared, “is wanted for treasonous activities against the United States,” and it offered a seven-point bil of particulars. The Chief Executive was accused, among other things, of betraying the Constitution, “turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over the to communist-controlled United Nations,” betraying such friends as Cuba, having “been wrong on innumerable issues,” including Cuba and the Test Ban Treaty, encouraging racial riots, invading a sovereign State with federal troops,” upholding the Supreme Court “in its Anti-Christian rulings,” and appointing Anti-Christians for federal offices….” In sum, the broadside was an incendiary amalgam of all the invective being spread by Kennedy’s enemies. Any hater, left or right, could find fuel in it.

Here is the poster itself:

At this point, despite all the agitation by the Tea Party and all the news coverage the movement has gotten, do we really understand what it is about?—David Schonauer

Photo of the Day

From today's New York Times:
"The death toll in a double explosion at a Siberian coal shaft climbed to 43 on Tuesday, Russian news agencies reported, and among the dead were many rescuers killed trying to reach trapped comrades."

The photo the Times ran to illustrate its story was taken by Maxim Shipenkov of the European Pressphoto Agency (below). It shows a group of surviving Russian miners working at a rescue effort at the coal mine in Mezhdurechensk, in western Siberia. The print edition of the Times ran the photo in black and white, while the online edition had it in color.

 The black-and-white version is especially reminiscent of W. Eugene Smith's famous 1950 portrait of three generations of Welsh miners (below). Shipenkov's photo would be good in any case, but the reference to a classic photograph from 50 years ago only makes it stronger. The story becomes different--not a single mine disaster, but the ongoing saga of the men who risk their lives to get the rest of us the energy we otherwise would consume without a thought.

The coverage of the Russian mine disaster, comes, of course, after the deadly explosion of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in early April, and the flooding of the Wangjialing mine in northern China shortly before that.

Mining and mine disasters have been among photography's important subjects--in part, I suppose, because the invention of photography and the impact of the industrial revolution coincided. There is probably a deeply psychological component to the photographic fascination with miners, who work underground, away from the light of the sun. Their workplace is an underworld most of us can only think of in the most terrifying of terms.--David Schonauer