Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Something to Look At

Via Reading The Pictures, we have this photo:

Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post 

Michael Shaw offers his typically blockheaded discussion here, which I will request that you peruse at some point. Let us inventory the thing. Back to front, let's say.

A sunset, or possibly a sunrise. A statue of some sort with a standing figure, a bowed figure, and some other shit I can't make out. Small and out of focus, but probably recognizable to anyone familiar with the statue, unrecognizable otherwise. A fence and some kind caution tape, possibly but not certainly to barricade the statue. Some people out of focus doing various things, nothing particularly recognizable. One might be taking a photo, or drinking from a flask as far as we can tell. Some temporary waste containers.

Two figures in the foreground.

A young black women with braided hair, un-striking clothing, a bandanna-style mask with writing on it, pulled down off her face. Her posture is mostly relaxed, hip slightly cocked, hands behind her back. Posture might have a hint of some kind of tension in it. Her chin is up, she gazes upwards slightly, eyes rolled further to the sky. Her expression is neutral. She has an attitude, maybe, of studied calm. Consistent with a sense that she is waiting, almost but not quite patiently. Equally consistent with a sense that she is listening intently and with focus.

An older white man a couple of feet away, close, looks directly at the young woman with brows apparently furrowed. One hand is in his pants pocket, the other is spread wide, possibly but not certainly gesturing at the statue. Possibly also at the waste bins, or something else, or nothing at all. He leans forward toward the young woman, there is a clear intensity to his posture. He appears hot, possibly excited. His posture is consistent with talking intently to the young woman, with a degree of tension. He is masked, so we cannot be sure he is even talking, but we guess that he is.

We are, I think, certain that there is some interaction between the two foreground figures, which has been going on for a little while at least. More than the last few seconds. Perhaps at least a minute or two, and maybe a lot longer. The two figures appear to be interacting, with intensity but without any obvious tell of pleasure or satisfaction.

The overall structure of the photograph certainly suggests an intense discussion between the two figures, and the photographer has indeed placed the backlit statue dramatically between them. Since, according to the caption, they were indeed arguing about the statue, the structure of the photo does indeed match the ground truth. Good job, Evelyn Hockstein.

Now would be a good time to read Michael's analysis if you haven't yet. He does his usual prog-left "analysis" which tells us a great deal about Michael Shaw and very little about the picture. He does the weird thing where he notices random geometrical coincidences, and assigns meaning to them. He does not tell us what he intends here, though: Is this meaning the photographer intended? Is it meaning that everyone would see? Is it just meaning Michael sees? Who knows! It could be anything, because Michael is not going to say. He just notices the juxtapositions as if they have import, and moves on. Why doesn't he notice that the texture of tree resembles the texture of the young woman's hair? Why not notice that the word TRASH is written on WHITE plastic as if to label the man as WHITE TRASH? Who the fuck knows.

But let us stipulate that apart from a few minor quibbles what Michael sees in the photo is a perfectly good reading, and much of what he sees people of his political stripe would see.

I will note that Michael says Or who has the greater exposure to the virus? and what he surely means is that people of color are getting sick more than white dudes. What is present in the picture, though, is an unmasked black woman interacting with a masked white man, and let us recall my mask protects you, your mask protects me so we have a little conflict here which Michael, being a prog-left dolt, simply ignores.

Anyways. Michael sees mansplaining, whitesplaining, a white man's rendition of history. Which, sure, you can totally read into this.

What Michael does not notice is the equally reasonable alternate reading, which is of an earnest white man trying to engage with a young woman who is responding by rolling her eyes and waiting for him to stop making mouth noises because OK boomer. This is surely what someone who wants the statue to not be torn down would see in this photo.

The man can be understood as irrationally furious, earnest, tired, or any and all of those things. Depending on your politics, you will see him in whatever way suits you. The woman can be understood as listening intently, or as arrogant and dismissive, or anywhere in between. Depending on your politics, you will see her in whatever way suits you. Regardless, the way you read this photo will reveal much about you, as it has revealed (again) much about Michael Shaw.

Honestly, how can you take the white guy more proximate to the waste bin seriously? Shaw is like my high school English teacher who found symbols for Jesus and for sex in every book.

Me? I think you should take all the monuments down. Monuments are stupid. Or, leave 'em all up, but march all the schoolkids past 'em every year as teachable moments. Anything but leave them there to catch bird shit and do nothing. Honestly, people don't even see these things after a little while.


  1. It's a nice picture.
    My take:
    Her stance and the tilt of her head are beautiful and expressive but I'm not sure of what, except she seems to express an assurance (and she's sharper). But his stance and gesture is what really makes the composition, and that right hand out there is great, against the pretty, darkening sky. He's a big presence.
    (Much is different now that we can't see people's mouths.)
    The statue is a rich blur in the center; we can see what it is, but not too much. It is like the sublime umpire in the great photo of Ty Cobb sliding into third base.
    I'd clone out the Trash sign; it's distracting.

  2. The statue in the background is probably this one:*sQ80yFG0t-zk-MugzWTb2g.jpeg

    You can't see it from the picture, but guess from the political context and the approximated shades of the silhouettes.

    Assuming that it is, it certainly gives a subcontext appropriate to more guesswork about the situation, certainly depending on the readers own political preferences.

    1. Yes, it is the emancipation memorial in DC (there's a copy in Boston). Shortly, I predict that both will be removed. Without knowing that, and without knowing that the foreground figures are -- according to the caption by the photographer -- in fact arguing about the statue, we're a bit at sea.

      In 100 years this photo will require a lot of information to understand: what's with the masks? Is the woman a bank robber? What statue is that in the background, and why would anyone care about it?

      It's anybody's guess how much of an issue race will be, of course, but there this photo is very much of this particular moment in time.

  3. The picture is destined to be in the History Macbook Air's of Time, and you will pay handsomely for the privilege of being able to view it as your dataplan milliseconds run out.

    Oh yes, a future 'Banksy' will make a glue-on 'graffiti' of it in a public back alley, featuring a heart-shaped balloon and a little girl, but that will be instantly auctioned off, and you will pay handsomely for the privilege of being able to view it in a virtual tour of a virtual museum, as your dataplan milliseconds run out.

    So yeah, immortality.

  4. Not much to add really except that I noticed that the man has pulled his mask down so it isn't covering his nose. Which is a move that seriously reduces the masks effectiveness. I've been seeing this basically *everywhere* both in my actual life and in photos and video from around America. It's such an American thing to do too. Make the motions of following the rules, ignore the science and evidence, and basically just do what you want, especially if the danger is primarily to other people.

    If he is lecturing the woman about her not wearing a mask, well, that's some crazy condescending hypocrisy. Which sums up in three words nearly all public discourse in the good ol' USA these days.

    I think this image does an alright job of capturing a quick and dirty gestalt of the times here in 2020 America though. I guess I read it as more of an observation than a statement.

    1. I totally missed his nose! Great observation. And you're right, there's a lot of noses out there.

      My favorite thing about the photo is how I can make her attitude flip back and forth between "dismissive eyeroll" and "intent listening" by an effort of will.

      It's like the body language equivalent of two-faces/one-vase, old-woman/young-woman, and which-way-is-the-dancer-spinning.

  5. Yeah! It's fascinating how ambiguous her expression and body language are. Is she lost in thought? Ignoring the man? Is she feeling threatened and struggling to remain calm while silently standing up for herself? Is she listening to someone giving a speech? Is she hungry and just remembered that her favorite food is at home in the fridge waiting for her?

    Also, the mans gesture seems to have a lot of energy at first glance but on closer inspection his posture looks tired, run down, and a little defeated.

    For all we know he could be saying something like "Hey look at that beautiful sunset." and the picture was taken in the moment before she registered what he said or even that he was talking to her.

    In my experience, when taking pictures of people who are strangers to me, it's really common to capture these ambiguously neutral looking expressions. I think that this is because a persons inner experience is constantly in flux and rarely comes together into an expression that is readable as a clear and unambiguous specific emotion.

    So, whatever was actually happening here is only partially reflected in the picture we see and the inherent ambiguity of the medium is being used by the photographer and editors to further their agendas. IE it's a propaganda piece, just not as obvious and disgusting as that Bruce Gilden hit piece from the other day.

  6. If we're going to nitpick here, it may be worth noting the divine ray of light and halo are *probably* due to dodging in post-process, which *probably* means something if you are into iconography, or if not, clumsy photoshopping.


  7. They probably shouldn't put up monuments to politicians until they've been dead 100-150 years, enough time for all the dirt to come out. Tearing statues down is now a thing, I guess, did it start with Lenin's statues after the wall came down? Got to be older than that, surely.
    I guess it suits someone's purpose to spend time arguing about images and statues instead of making real changes to people's lives, which is more difficult to do. It's not often that propaganda is subtle and well done, works best when you can't tell it's propaganda.

    1. I believe that smashing the monuments (rarely the roads and waterworks) of prior cultures has been a thing for millennia. Someone smashed up a lot of Greek sculpture!

  8. smashing monuments is a time-honoured way of further crushing the defeated, of exerting and expressing your dominance as the new culture in town, of extinguishing the old culture - e.g. the many invasions and occupations of old Egypt and old Thailand pop effortlessly into my mind... yowza. [stone seal]

    1. So black people won the Civil War, but they're only getting around to the monuments now? Interesting.

    2. I don't know for sure, but it seems likely that the civil war is not overwhelmingly relevant to this comment. What I am seeing is an attempt, in 2020, to overthrow the dominant culture of 2019.