Errol Morris, Sabrina Harman and Gaddafi

It was just a coincidence that I had just finished reading “Believing is Seeing” by filmmaker Errol Morris when the uprising in Libya came to its climax with the killing of Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

Morris devotes a significant portion of his book to the story of Sabrina Harman, and the photograph of her bent over a body of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, smiling broadly and giving a thumbs up.

Sabrina Harman at Abu Ghraib with corpse

Sabrina Harman at Abu Ghraib. From "Believing is Seeing" by Errol Morris.

Morris carefully and fascinatingly unpacks Harman’s story, adding context and depth that reveal that there was much more to the story than was encapsulated in that image. I won’t go into a lot of detail, because that’s not really the point of this post. Instead, what struck me was how similar Harman’s pose was to that of Libyans recorded at the scene and time of Gaddafi’s death.

Morris quotes Harman on the thought, or lack thereof, behind the pose: “It was just to say, ‘Hey look, it’s a dead guy. We’re with a dead guy.’…I know it looks bad. I mean, even when I look at [the photographs] , I go, ‘Oh Jesus, that does look pretty bad.'”

Why the thumbs up?

“I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hilla…and so, whenever I would get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands. So any kind of photo, I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just – I just picked it up from the kids…”

Okay, now look (if you can stand it) at the video of Gaddafi. The reactions are chillingly similar. Totally different cultures. Different wars. But, the same reactions.

Okay, so you might say, “well, the Libyans were oppressed by Gaddafi. It was a natural release for them.” But really, is that so different than soldiers in a war zone assigned to guard terrorists who believed that the fastest way to heaven was to kill American soldiers? (regardless of whether or not you believe that to be the case, you have to acknowledge that for soldiers on the ground that was not an unreasonable assumption.)

I wish I had a simple, concise conclusion I could draw from this. But I can’t. It’s not simple and not easy to explain or understand. But, maybe in some way, these two things: the photograph of Sabrina Harman and the video of Libyans posing with the dead body of their deposed leader say something about the way people across cultures react in similar situations. Maybe it says something too about what happens when every possible moment is being recorded in photographs and videos.

When I was a child, my Dad told me that when John Dillinger was shot in front of the Biograph in Chicago, people flocked to the scene and dipped handkerchiefs in Dillinger’s blood. They wanted a souvenir. Today, they’d be shooting video with their iPhones.

Maybe our reaction to death and violence isn’t much different no matter what time and what culture we live in. Maybe it’s just that it’s so much more likely to have that reaction recorded today. And maybe…just maybe…we need to remember that when we freeze someone in 1/60th of second for all eternity, we can capture many things, but the one thing we never capture is the “truth.”

Posted in Books, Criticism and Commentary, On Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Saddest Picture. Ever.

August Sander: "My Wife in Joy and Sorrow"I can’t get this picture out of my head. I’ve been thinking about it for nearly a year now and it keeps tearing at my heart.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, it’s called “Meine Frau in Freud und Leid” (My Wife in Joy and Sorrow) and it was taken in 1911 by August Sander. It shows Anna Sander holding their children, Sigrid and Helmut. But, as you might imagine, only one of the children, Sigrid, is alive. Her brother, Helmut, died shortly after birth.

I’ve looked at the picture and tried to decide which child was Sigrid and which was Helmut. I’m still not certain, but I believe that Helmut is on the left. The only reason I think that is because the baby’s hand is limp. But really, it is very difficult to tell.

I look at poor Anna and think about her pain and the pain of August. They both knew when they took this picture that it would be the last picture they would ever have of Helmut. Anna sits there, almost without emotion, just staring into the camera. I wonder what was going through her mind and what was going through August’s mind at the time.

Surely, the title says it all: “Freud und Leid.” Life is joy and life is sorrow. Could any picture ever capture this better?


Posted in Great Photographers, On Photography | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Genius of Photography on You Tube

The BBC has apparently posted a recent television series “The Genius of Photography” on You Tube.

Each episode appears to be split into four parts.  This is the first part of Episode One. I’ll post more when I get a chance, but in the meantime, watch this one and head over to You Tube for more, at the GeniusOfPhotography Channel.

Posted in Great Photographers, On Photography, Photography Histories | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Camera Lucida in The Guardian

At the same time John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln, Lewis Payne attempted to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward. Seward survived the attack. Alexander Gardner took this photograph, one of several of the Lincoln conspirators, shortly before he was executed on July 7, 1865.

I’ve had Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida on my list of books to read for quite some time. This article by Brian Dillon in the Guardian makes me think I need to move it up in the queue.

“…what Barthes had written was neither a work of theoretical strictness nor avant-garde polemic, still less a history or sociology of photography. Instead, it was frankly personal, even sentimental: an essay in 48 fragments that deliberately frustrated readers looking for the semiotics of photography they imagined Barthes would (or should) write.”

“Camera Lucida, however, was different… a search for the aspect of experience that evaded study or critique. In short, it was a book about love and grief, written directly out of the loss of his mother in 1977… Barthes had composed a ghost story of sorts, in which neither Henriette Barthes nor the book’s ostensible subject, photography, could quite be grasped.”

Continue reading

Posted in Criticism and Commentary, On Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Itsy-Bitsy Spider

Playing around with the macro lens. Intended to try some flower pictures but found this spider instead.

Continue reading

Posted in Personal Photographs | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Reinhold Marxhausen and Seeing

Doorknob by Reinhold Marxhausen

Doorknob by Reinhold Marxhausen

Something recently got me thinking about Reinhold Marxhausen and how he helped teach me to see. Marxhausen was an artist and photographer who spent most of his professional life as a professor at Concordia College in Seward, Nebraska.

In the mid-1970s I had the good fortune to take a brief evening class from him through a local community college. The official subject was photography, but the real subject was seeing. Lessons I learned in those few weeks still guide me more than 30 years later.

Continue reading

Posted in On Photography, Photographers | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Well, this is a little different

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before. Somebody flipping through the pages of a new book, “For Now” by William Eggleston.

Here’s a description from the publisher, Twin Palms: “For Now is the result of film-maker Michael Almereyda’s year-long search through the Eggleston archives, a remarkable collection of heretofore unseen images spanning four decades of work by one of our seminal artists. Unusual in its concentration on family and friends, the book highlights an air of offhand intimacy, typical of Eggleston and typically surprising.

“Afterword by Michael Almereyda, with additional texts by Lloyd Fonvielle, Greil Marcus, Kristine McKenna and Amy Taubin.”

Posted in Books, Great Photographers, Photographers | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Striving for Art

Photography, the Key Concepts by David Bate, Berg Publishers

Where exactly does photography fit into the world of art? That photography is, or can be, “art” has been a settled question for a century or more. Far more difficult to answer is: what sorts of photographs are “art.”

And, who is it that determines the answer to that question?

Edward Weston, Nude,

Edward Weston

David Bate in “Photography the Key Concepts” raises the question early on by pointing out that any attempt to compile a history of photography (or art generally) will inevitably fall into the trap of becoming a history of the taste and style of an era. In fact, it would be more accurate to say it will be a history of the taste and style of an elite group of curators, collectors and photographers of various eras.

Photographic histories almost all fall into the pattern of “Great Man/Woman” histories and most have also traced the history of photography as though it were a progression of advancements in vision: beginning in its earliest days with a quest to develop the technology needed to record images from life, moving then to pictorialism as a heavy-handed effort to turn photography into “art” and finally culminating in “Straight Photography” as the defining aesthetic of the medium. Continue reading

Posted in Books, Criticism and Commentary, Great Photographers, On Photography, Photography Histories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Updating Web Site, Work and a Cold Interferes

I’m been trying to update my web site. Categorizing some photos and creating a few new pages. It’s an ongoing process, but I’m getting there. That, plus my real job and a horrible cold have been interfering with the blog.

Still trying to finish a post on David Bate’s “Photography: The Key Concepts.”

Posted in Books, Criticism and Commentary, On Photography, Personal Photographs | Leave a comment

A few quick thoughts on portraits

Model, Digital Photo Academy Workshop with Alexander Garcia, Feb. 2010. Photo by Mark Gordon.

I’ve had portraits on my mind lately.

I attended a workshop in Chicago put on by Digital Photo Academy, which is a Panasonic-sponsored series of workshops in various cities around the country. Unlike the “tour” workshops that hit a series of cities in brief succession, these are an ongoing series of one-day workshops by (mostly) local photographers. For $150 you get a full day of learning from a working professional photographer. I took a class taught by Alexander Garcia, who works for the Chicago Tribune. Three of the images from the class are shown here.

And, it’s the contrasts between these three pictures that got me thinking. All three are of the same person: a great young photographer who served as the model for the day. She was patient and an usually good sport. My objective was to learn something and maybe add a picture or two to my portfolio. Mission accomplished.

Model, Digital Photo Academy workshop with Alexander Garcia, Feb. 2010. Photo by Mark Gordon.

But, it does raise some questions in my mind about what portraits are all about and what constitutes a “good” portrait. Is the first color image, which certainly is more glamorous than the black and white a “better” portrait? Is the black and white a more “real” portrait? And the third image? Is it maybe the most “true” of the three, since she is a classically-trained cellist? Do any of the three capture something significant about the subject? And, let’s not forget that the purpose of this exercise was not to create an honest or insightful portrait, but rather to learn a bit about lighting.

This all leads me to jump off toward a small essay I just read by Vicki Goldberg in her “Light Matters” anthology published by Aperture. She includes a brief essay from 1992 about celebrity photographer Herb Ritts.

It’s a nice companion piece to Philip Gefter’s 2007 essay on Annie Leibovitz, which I’ve previously written about.

Model, Digital Photo Academy Workshop, Chicago, Feb. 2011. Photo by Mark Gordon.

Goldberg’s succinct insight is that much of portraiture today is not about providing insight into the individual, but rather about marketing. The subjects of celebrity portraits were once as likely (or more likely) to be public figures in the government, military, business, religion and science as much as in entertainment. In today’s entertainment-centric society, almost all celebrity portraiture focuses on performers and portraits are collaborations between the photographer (Leibovitz being among the best known in this genre) and the subject.

While photographers like Cartier-Bresson once aimed to steal the soul of the subject and put it on display for the world to see. Today’s celebrity photographers are more often co-conspirators in selling a carefully crafted image.

Are today’s portraits, like so many of today’s celebrities, beautiful but soulless creations. Superficial images for superficial times? Or, is this just a case of selective memory. No one could possibly argue that Edward Steichen’s advertising images were any more honest than today’s celebrity portraits.

And, that, really is Goldberg’s point. Whether you are marketing Corn Flakes or pop stars, it’s still marketing.

Posted in On Photography, Personal Photographs | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment