Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Fleeting Memories

The first issue of a new photography journal titled Photographies is now available free online. In their Editorial Statement, they express a desire “to construct a new agenda for theorizing photography as a heterogeneous medium that is changing in an ever more dynamic relation to all aspects of contemporary culture.” They chose the title Photographies plural to convey the multiplicity of the medium “rather than a monolithic photography” singular. The articles in this first issue are excellent, although they do get rather academic and theoretical for some, if that’s not your thing. Give it a look now, as future issues are most likely not going to be free online.

I found Andre Gunthert’s article "Digital Imaging Goes to War: The Abu Ghraib Photographs" particularly interesting. (WARNING: The actual Abu Ghraib torture photos are duplicated. Not for the queasy.) Gunthert examines the phenomenon in which those photographs became “the first digital images to be counted among the most celebrated icons of our time.” Sadly, it took these photos to garner for digital photography a status it previously lacked, thanks mainly to the ease of manipulation. First, the criminal case stemming from those photos gave them a legitimacy. Later, the adoption by the media and the repeated reproduction of the photos gave such figures as Satar Jabar, better known as the “Hooded Man” (above), iconic status in mainstream culture. “The iconographic repetitions and exchanges between the press and television channels had already organized the multiple occurrences of these visual documents as news: with the evolution of the electronic network, the Internet became a third actor in this redundancy, which contributed to the production and repetition of such icons,” Gunthert writes. “This aspect is particularly true of the photographs of the Iraqi prison from their first diffusion through three concurrent media and, constituted as evidence, inevitably helped the images to become monuments.” It’s difficult to accept these shameful images as “monuments,” but it’s even more difficult to argue against their monumental status in our recent social discourse.

Gunthert also discusses the sea change the Abu Ghraib photos performed on digital photography itself. Previously, digital photography was known for its ephemeral nature—take as many shots as you like and delete the duds later, as Annie and I like to say when trying to capture Alex at his cutest moments. The Abu Ghraib photos, by becoming iconic, have raised digital photography to the same level of permanence as previous photographic technologies. It would be interesting to know what Stephen Eisenman, author of The Abu Ghraib Effect (my review here) would think of Gunthert’s argument. Not to put words in his mouth, but I’d guess that Eisenman would say that any permanence we find in the Abu Ghraib photos comes from the culturally created cruelty embedded in Western iconography. Even though these are new photos in a new digital format of new abuses, they show us nothing we haven’t seen many, many times before. Of course, as Gunthert argues for the permanence of these images, the collective “amnesia” of America and its press has left them long behind as yet another election looms.

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