A Brief History of Art

For Brecht, of course, this was the worst possible approach to anything. Brecht regarded all feeling—any feeling—as dishonest and dangerous; he associated emotion with the chaos and irrationality of capitalism. Brecht saw—correctly—that this poisonous mix of increasingly hysterical feeling, and the voodoo conspiracy theories to which it lent itself, was the perfect incubator for fascism. Like Brecht, we live in dark times, which is to say times of confusion, violence, and injustice.

We do not—unlike Brecht—live in a society that is the precursor, much less the architect, of Treblinka and Sobibor. And while Brecht feared, and fought against, what he saw as the thoughtless, Pavlovian responses of the audience, I suspect that the postmoderns are motivated by a different anxiety. That is, they worry not so much about the obedient, automatic reactions of the viewer but about her disobedient, politically incorrect ones.

It may be that the images that move us most now—not necessarily into empathy, but into fresh thinking—are not those of pure grief. One image in the book, reproduced in color as a double-page spread, shows six women in a cemetery outside Baghdad. Cemeteries in Baghdad are busy places; in the background of this photo we see two fresh, unfilled graves and the scaffolding for an unfinished structure. The women are gathered around a wood coffin that is adorned with Arabic writing on two sides.

Five of the women face each other and seem to be in conversation; one rests her open palm on the coffin as her other hand cups her face. All the women wear long black abayas; several have covered not only their heads and bodies but parts of their faces too. If the picture, and the bomb, were dated yesterday or today or tomorrow, we would know that it was planted by members of the Baathist or Islamist insurgency, and on purpose.

This is a portrait of deep sadness that merges into anguish; it is amazing how much emotion partially hidden faces can convey. The woman in the foreground—who is clearly part of the group and yet seems isolated from it—has covered her eyes and mouth; what we see is, mainly, her flat nose and her plump, deeply creased cheek. But what an eloquent crease! Something in it speaks of deepest pain. It is as if the accumulated experience of a lifetime—a universe of sorrow—has been compressed into that one carved line.

The crease howls.

Essay about Photography and Art

That universe of sorrow is, in all likelihood, a wide one, and did not originate in the premature death of Mohammed Jaber Hassan. It is probable that the lives of these women, all of whom look middle-aged, have not been good; probable that they suffered through the brutal years of Saddam, the Iran—Iraq War, the first Gulf War and the ensuing, immiserating sanctions; that they have suffered at the hands of the Americans, and perhaps at the hands of their own fathers and husbands too; 8 that they are suffering, right now, through the increasingly sadistic sectarian-political-criminal violence sweeping Iraq.

I cannot pretend to approach, much less share, the depth and the number of these sorrows, and I cannot pretend that, as an American, I am not deeply implicated in crucial parts of this pain. I did not feel empathy, or sympathy, or guilt, though I wished I could and thought I should. Instead I felt impatience, and even disgust: rather than embracing these women, I wanted to shake them.

We have seen, and we will continue to see, countless pictures of women in black abayas or chadors, or burkas wailing over their sons—and often, also, celebrating them as martyrs.

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That wailing and that celebrating have persisted for a very long time, and I am pretty sure they will continue long after the United States pulls out its troops and grounds its planes. In fact, I doubt that such sorrows can even begin to abate until the women in the cemetery take off their veils, and stop wailing and mourning and celebrating, and enter into the modern world to begin making modern politics. I have felt a similar impatience and a similar revulsion looking at other photographs of bottomless, impotent suffering, including some from the Holocaust.

It is not a pretty reaction—and yet why should it be otherwise? Why should our relation to victimhood, suffering, and loss, and to the histories of which they speak, be less thorny than our relation to anything else? This was an unsparing view for Lazare to hold, and it was an unsparing thing for Arendt to write, and it would be an unsparing thing to say to the grieving relatives of Mohammed Jaber Hassan. But I am not sure it is any more harsh, or any less useful, than empathy or sympathy or guilt.

Perhaps, at this blood-soaked moment, cemeteries can teach us little. Two such pictures in Witness Iraq struck me. One was taken by Damir Sagolj, a Bosnian photographer who works for Reuters. It shows a pudgy U. He wears wire eyeglasses, and goggles pushed onto his forehead, and he sits outdoors on a patch of parched ground we are not told the exact location, only that it is in central Iraq ; in the blurry background we see soldiers with machine guns. Our Marine seems unarmed—the caption tells us he is a doctor—and we see, placed neatly in his front vest, a pen, a toothbrush, and a pair of scissors.

He wears blue plastic gloves and looks down impassively into his lap, where he holds. She looks to be about four; she is barefoot, and her naked little toes curl downward, as if her feet are clenching into fists. She is dressed in what look like knit pajamas; they are pink, and one arm is stained with blood. The girl looks straight ahead at her feet—not at the Marine—but one of her hands grasps his chest.

The bulkiness of the Marine seems to overwhelm and yet protect her; she nestles almost perfectly within the enclosure of his arms. It is precisely because these photos are so confusing that they are so valuable: by refusing to tell us what to feel, they make us dig, and even think, a little deeper. What are we to make of this photo? It is a picture of contingent refuge in the midst of violence; of dependence, but of the most unequal kind; of tremendous strength and tremendous vulnerability; of two people who are neither enemies nor friends.

Is the Marine savior or villain? And what of the future of the people in the photo? What has happened to the girl, and to her family? Is the Marine dead or alive? I almost gasped when I saw this picture—not in alarm, but in surprise—and the more I have looked at it, the less I understand it.

It is a mystery that will not be solved. Over 63, images were considered for the prize. The combination of cruelty and kindness that it depicts is discomfiting, almost creepy, and upends any ideas we might have that the two can always be cleanly separated. Bouju traveled with the st Airborne Division so much for the charge that embedded journalists are merely government propagandists , and he took this picture on March 31, , in Najaf.

The photo shows an Iraqi man in what the caption identifies as a POW camp. He sits on dusty ground behind massive coils of barbed wire they are the first thing that we see.


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The unnamed prisoner—who might be guilty of vicious murders, and might be completely innocent, and might be somewhere in between—wears a loose white shirt and pants, and sandals. His head and face, like those of the women in the cemetery, are hidden, though not voluntarily: his are covered by a pointy, shiny black hood, a seemingly medieval artifact many of us now associate with the tortures of Abu Ghraib.

The boy is dressed in a green shirt and pants, and is barefoot; there is a pair of small sneakers nearby.

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The photo is simultaneously obscene what is a four-year-old doing behind barbed wire? But it would be a mistake to sentimentalize this photo: it shows us one innocent, but not necessarily two. These photos speak not just of the plight of children in wartime, though they depict that too. It is time, and it is possible, for photography critics to come out of the cold—not to drown in bathos or sentimentality, but to integrate emotion into the experience of looking.

In approaching photos such as these, the point is not to formally disassemble them in the hope of gaining mastery; nor to reject them as feeble, partial truths; nor to deny the uncomfortable, unfamiliar reactions they elicit. By connecting these photographs to the world outside their frames, they begin to live, to breathe, more fully; otherwise they simply devolve into spectacles.

With changed circumstances should come changed approaches. It is time, and it is possible, for photography critics to come out of the cold. This is plainly not so. A great photographer can make a great photograph whatever the camera.


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A bad one will still make a bad photograph on a two grand digital camera that does everything for you. Photography is the serious art of our time. It also happens to be the most accessible and democratic way of making art that has ever been invented.

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From news images to the Hubble telescope, Photography is the art of real life — however manipulated. And real life creates true art. Seeing Slowly.

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