Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Matter of Media

There's a minor tempest going on in the usual British Academic Photographers circle, around a 2017 reissue of a book by Gian Butturini, London. In the book there is a spread which features a woman in a booth collecting fares(?) opposite a photograph of a gorilla in a cage. The woman appears to be of African descent. This is horribly racist and everyone involved should be killed, and, more importantly, should grovel at the feet of the riled-up twitter heros. When Ben Chesterton rolls up, you know things are gonna get stupid.



Ok, so they're not wrong. In this day and age, one does not publish that sort of thing. Partly to avoid the wrath of twitter heros, to be sure, but also because, well, it's Just Not Done, right? I wouldn't. More on this later.

One could, I think, argue that the point of the spread might have been something like good god, they treat blacks like ANIMALS in this fucking town (or substitute "poor people" if you prefer) but it doesn't matter. One would not make that point in this way, today. Or in 2017 when the book was published. More on this later as well, first there is underbrush to clear.

The trouble is that this this is a re-issue of a book from 1969.

I was told this:

If the pairing of the two images was in the original publication, then at that time (think civil rights movement) it would have been considered deeply offensive and overtly #racist.

Full disclosure, whenever anyone offers as supporting evidence the phrase think X for some X or another, my hackles go up. Personal thing. Now, I have to say, I was 3 years old in 1969, so I was not meaningfully there, but to suppose that the spread would have been read the same way 50 years ago as it is today is simply absurd. Let us consider some history of the idea about representations in media.

The Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan) is published in 1963, and is at any rate one of the earlier notable works that touches upon the harm media depictions can cause. It is talking about the harm "women's magazines" do to the lives of white middle-class women in terms of the standards they set.

Stuart Hall is publishing in the early 1970s and comes up with the Politics of Representation, a formal statement and model for the ideas that media representations of people influence society, influence culture. In potentially harmful ways.

Laura Mulvey published "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in 1975, in which she introduces the idea of Male Gaze in cinema, another watershed moment in the idea that media portrayals, media representation, can be harmful.

1969 in bang in the middle of these. Six years after Friedan's book, six years before Mulvey's essay, and there's other material in play in that same interval. This is a set of ideas that is being birthed, refined, and mainstreamed in exactly this interval.

So, that's a few samples to get a flavor, which I think roughly bracket the interval and give a reasonable flavor of the intellectual environment.

What is some graphic designer (Butturini) in 1969 going to think about the power of a photographic juxtaposition to harm? Well, probably not a lot. The academic community is definitely starting to get a feel for it, but it's not really mainstream thinking yet, by any stretch of the imagination. It is at least credible that some random person on the street would not yet have run into any of these ideas (although, of course, it is also credible that they have.)

What are racial justice advocates likely to think about it in 1969? Like Butturini, they're living in an interval where these ideas are coming forward, but not fully mainstream. What any given activist thinks about these things is unknown, of course, but we can situate this next to some American history: Emmett Till's murder 14 years earlier, desegregation of city buses in Montgomery, Alabama in the same interval, lunch counter sit-ins in the same interval, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and on and on.

In the UK things were perhaps somewhat less dire, perhaps the Till episode would not have happened in London, but in roughly the same interval a little research shows that, for example, black Caribbeans had a lot of trouble simply renting a place to live. In the 1960s and onwards issues like Can I Live Somewhere, Can I Get Paid, and Can I Not Be Beaten Up seem to loom fairly large for people of color in the UK.

What an Italian creative photographing in London thought is anybody's guess, honestly.

In short, we're sort of on the tail end of a historical period in which the overwhelmingly dominant issues surrounding racial justice are things like: Not Getting Murdered or Beaten, and Being Allowed to Vote, and we're still working on a lot of stuff like Getting Paid More Like White People and so on. We're also on the cusp of a new generation of issues, which concerns things like media portrayals, in which one might reasonably have a little space between being beaten up to worry about a spread in a photobook, edition of 1000. Again, 1969 lands right in the middle of these things.

While it's certainly reasonable to suppose that some activists would have found the two-page spread problematic, it's also reasonable to suppose that many activists would look at the same spread and characterize it as not important enough to worry about. To issue a blanket statement it would have been considered deeply offensive and overtly racist is flatly ahistorical.

What we are seeing on twitter is a group of people who are seeing this object in contemporary terms, and insisting on applying their understanding to 1969. Indeed, at least some of them are insisting not only that we should judge the work by modern standards, but that the standards in 1969 were substantially the same as they are today which is simply absurd.

But what about the spread, anyways? Let's actually look at it.



It seems to have been deliberate, both figures are in small boxes, rendered about the same size, and so on. It is credible, at any rate, that we are supposed to compare and contrast the two figures.

But what are we meant to take away from this? More precisely, what would we have been presumed to, in 1969, take away from this spread?

What I see is a sympathetic recognition of similarity. These two figures are, as I see it, similarly trapped, constrained. Both appear to be resigned to an unhappy lot. I don't feel any denigration from the photographer here, only sympathy. Certainly there is suggested an equivalency of the black woman to the gorilla, but is the intention to cast the human down to the level of the animal, to raise the animal up to the level of the human, or is such an analysis entirely beside the point?

Given the sympathy that seems to come through so clearly, I am unable to accept that the photographer intended to cast the human down to the level of the animal. You may read it otherwise.

But that is 1969, right? The relevant intellectual stew makes it credible either that Butturini would have seen that making this equivalence was an act of racism, or that he would not have seen it that way. It depends on just what he had and had not been exposed to. The ideas were there, but not universal. The sympathy I see makes it difficult to imagine that Butturini willfully intended an act of racism here, but if you don't see the same sympathy I do, you may find that jump easier to make.

It is worth noting that contemporary understanding of the harm done by representation in media is never about a single picture, never about a single bite of media. It is invariably about the continuity of all media, the constant flow of the same idea repeated over and over. Only on twitter do we see single images characterized as, by themselves, doing harm.

Seeing this today, we are, whether we like it or not, steeped in modern theories of representation in ways that Butturini was not. At best he might have been aware of these ideas, but they were simply not part of the water he swam in, in the way that they are today.

In today's terms, the spread is unabashedly racist.

Not because it in and of itself does any harm, but because the way one eliminates the continuity of harmful media is one bit of media at a time. One picture is harmless, maybe, but 100,000 are not, but you eliminate the 100,000 by consciously not printing one picture 100,000 times over.

How should this spread have been handled in the re-issue?

I am always loathe to suggest Bowdlerizing, so, I reject the idea that the spread should have been eliminated to broken up.

I have seen suggested on twitter that a suitable essay could have been written to accompany the book, specifically addressing this spread. Having just written such an essay (see above) that sounds like an excellent plan. But then, I always think the right answer is "some sort of essay."

Leave it alone and just publish it as-is? That was the choice made by the publisher, and it stood for 2 years before someone freaked out. The book was reviewed in some of the usual places without fuss. Perhaps this whole tempest is a big nothingburger, in the end.

I will say that watching a bunch of white academics competing on twitter to see who best understands the downtrodden black woman is both hilarious and nauseating.

2 comments:

  1. I think the picture of the woman in the hwy toll both would have been better placed next to a photo of someone on the phone working in a call centre.

    Modern working interiors are an under-examined environment. Maybe workplaces generally, but I guess access is not easy. Aside from the magazine covers, Norman Rockwell did some work showing the workplaces of his time, steel mills, etc.

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    1. A contemporary photobook on the same subject would certainly treat these pictures differently! I'm not even sure you could find a caged gorilla in London, nowadays, anyway.

      I don't know what kind of booth the woman is actually *in*, some other source I ran across while researching this characterized her as, I think, a fare collector. The important thing is, obviously I think, that she is in a box.

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