Archive for April, 2011
A new website called Tubecrush.net gives women the opportunity to photograph handsome guys they come across on the London underground. Photographs are usually taken with a mobile phone camera allowing the photographer to remain anonymous and undiscovered in the act of photographing. Tubecrush then categorizes these photographs in groups which tend to focus or relate to parts of the body: legs, arms, hair, twinkle etc. This visual fragmentation of the body allows the user to browse images according their personal taste and interests. Visitors to the website can then rate the attractiveness of the men in the photograph. Tubecrush thus represents a complete reversal from the numerous websites such as ratemyexgf.com which habitually objectify and fetishize the female body. Here, instead, it is the male body that is photographed, categorized, archived, evaluated and rated, and because of that, it has become a sensation in London’s gay community. The site has proved to be so popular that, at the time of writing, it can’t be accessed due to a server overload (you might have to wait a few days before you can access it).
Tubecrush and its anonymous photographers are utilizing a visual strategy that has long been established in the history of photography. The American photographer Walker Evans photographed his acclaimed series Subway Portraits as early as the 1930s and 40s. Similar to the Tubecrush photographers, Evans hid his camera in his jacket so that he could operate anonymously. Evans’ series is symbolic for the voyeuristic potential of the photographic apparatus. Here the voyeur thrives on the opportunity to photograph strangers in an enclosed environment. In other words, the proximity to fellow passengers on the Tube or Subway allows the voyeur to indulge in an activity that in other parts of the city would be impossible to perform. The underground is the voyeur’s breathing ground.
Numerous photographers stepped into Evans’ path. Bruce Davidson’s gritty, rough and raw photographs depict New York’s subway system in the 1980s. It was common for people to dress down, so not to attract unwanted attention, while riding the subway in the pre-Giuliani and pre-zero-tolerance era. While Evans’ subjects appear to ride the subway with pride and a sense of purpose, Davidson’s subjects, on the other hand, appear lost and alienated in a sea of urban grime. People went on the subway because they had to, not because they wanted to. The transition from Evans to Davidson depicts the decline of America’s urban centres induced by the widening gap between the rich and poor. Davidson’s pitiless images are more representative of a brutal turf war than they are a depiction of a crawling transport network.
The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans used the cramped conditions on London’s tube network to photograph strangers up-close. Tillmans appears to take advantage of passengers holding on to handles as he photographs them in uncompromising positions. In one photograph he photographs the clean shaven armpit of a female passenger. By completely decontextualizing the armpit, Tillmans creates a visual metaphor to a far more intimate maybe even sexual encounter with the stranger. Tillmans’ photographs are thus venturing on the territory explored by Tubecrush: that the subjects depicted are representative of a fantasy.
For the tireless French filmmaker and artist Chris Marker (born 1921), the Metro in Paris also presents an opportunity to explore a fantastical theme via the medium photography. In photographs that appear to be taken with a low-fi digital camera, he juxtaposes a passengers facial expression or bodily position with renown works of art. For Marker, beauty and the uncanny can be found in the most unexpected places: a woman nursing a child, a girl listening to her ipod, a woman folding her hands like the Mona Lisa. With several references to paintings, it is not surprising that most of Marker’s subjects are women. The Western tradition of associating the female subject in art with beauty, vanity, mysteriousness is doubly emphasized in Marker’s work.
At first sight, Tubecrush similarly appears to tap into traditions of representation inherited by Western painting. This becomes apparent in the photograph that received the most ratings on Tubecrush. It shows a man whose face is barely reflected in the window of the tube car. Like in the Caravaggio’s Narcissus he indulges in the beauty of his own reflection. Yet on closer inspection the man’s gaze is not as much directed at himself at is directed into the darkness of the tunnel. Yet the reason why this photograph received the most ratings and the most attention is, I believe, based on the fantasy that maybe, in the faint reflection of the window, he is looking directly at the photographer taking the picture and, by extension, at the viewer.
For more on this topic, please read Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
It is a simple, yet a strikingly powerful image: a woman looks at family photographs found in the rubble of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. The photographs have been meticulously cleaned and left to dry on clothing pegs in a school gymnasium in the town of Natori, Miyagi prefecture. Survivors are given the opportunity to look at the photographs on display in the hope of identifying friends and family members. In some cases, the photograph will be the only thing that is left behind.
Another photograph by the Russian press photographer Sergey Ponomarev depicts the sheer scale of the collection of photographs, and, by extension, the sheer scale of the disaster. A man is looking at an old family album, so enthralled in the images that he appears to be unaware of the very camera depicting him in the process of looking. In the background, several people can be seen doing exactly the same, sometimes in groups or as individual, trying to come to terms with the images laid out in front of them.
Ponomarev’s photographs are indicative of the complex and troubled relationship between photography and death. In his classic book Camera Lucida, the French semiotician Roland Barthes sought to overcome the death of his mother as he analyzes, over and over again, a photograph of her. In one of his most famous quotes, he writes ‘death is the eidos of photography’. In other words, photography operates on the idea that the photograph will, eventually, outlive the subject photographed. It is this tragic and perverse dichotomy between an inanimate and dead object (the photograph) and the sense of a person liveliness in a photograph – a liveliness particularly apparent in family photographs.
Apart from referring to an universally applicable attribute of photography, the hope to find photographs from deceased friends and family members in the school gymnasium of Natori also displays a culturally specific phenomenon. Similar to other Asian cultures such as China and Korea, funerals are usually accompanied by a formal portrait with black rope on the top corners of the image. These photographs of the deceased constitute a crucial aspect in the process of mourning: they are later displayed on or above small Bhuddist shrines (butsudan) kept in most traditional Japanese households. In the school gymnasium of Natori, the survivors’ search for a photograph of family and friends is partially motivated by a spiritual process that subscribes great value to the photographic likeliness of a person.
In contrast to the sterile and composed black and white portraits associated with the funeral procession and the butsudan, the photographs on display in the school gymnasium represent moments of vivacity and liveliness – moments traditionally perceived as worthy of photographic representation. An image by Hong Kong born photographer Vincent Yu can be read as a collage representing significant life stages: amongst several photographs of new-born babies, there are photographs of weddings, sports days, school groups and holidays. In sum, they are the kind of photographs that represent a lived experience, that situate the subject within a community, that communicate what it means to be human.
As the family photographs in the school gymnasium continue to dry on clothing pegs, those who survived are coming to terms with the discrepancy between the tragic loss of human life and the happiness encountered in the image. The press photographs depicting family photographs are thus deeply self-referential: they are photographs about the very materiality of photography, the collective memories produced by photographs and the photograph, perhaps, constituting a source of comfort.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.
1,500 prison inmates dancing in absolute harmony to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. The video filmed at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) in the Philippines has become an internet sensation with more than 50 million views on Youtube. What makes the video so popular? In the original music video to ‘Thriller’ – a classic artifact of visual culture in its own right – Michael Jackson establishes a distinct visual reference to the genre of zombie movies explored via the dancers’ movements, the set design and the costumes. As opposed to that, the zombie in the prison dance is not signified by an artificially created environment, but rather, the zombie is signified by the prisoners themselves. The song choice of ‘Thriller’, and the iconic zombie dance associated with it, appears to be crucial for the popularity the prison dance performed at CPDRC. The ‘dancing inmates’ periodically become the metaphorical zombie in reference to the actual crime that they presumably committed.
There is another important element in the prison dance that is less visible at first sight. The prison dance is the brainchild of the prison’s governor Byron Garcia who introduced it to the inmates as a means to establish order and harmony within an otherwise chaotic environment. On his website, Garcia points out that the prison dance is part of a rehabilition program as he says: ‘rehabilitation has to be anchored on compassion so that a sinner can be separated from the sin, so the degenerate from the culture and humanity be regenerated into the humane’. Preceding Garcia’s arrival, CPDRC was a notoriously brutal prison culminating in an incident in late 2004 in which inmates serving time for a minor crime were taken hostage by other prisoners’ on strike demanding better treatment. A photograph by Sunstar photographer Alex Badayos shows the hostages desperate cry for help scribbled on cardboards.
As the minor offenders were rescued by the army and the police, a photograph of the mass arrest of the other inmates symbolizes the order the state apparatus sought to instill within the chaotic and unstructured confines of the prison. The colourful clothing of the inmates lying face-down on the floor stands in complete contrast to the uniformly orange overall worn by the inmates in the prison dance. Put in shackles, inmates were then transfered to a new prison facility which would become the backdrop for the prison dance video. According to Garcia, this transfer of prisoners was one of the largest transfers of its kind ever to be conducted in the Philippines.
A new set of images, all featured on Byron Garcia’s website, depicts a complete reversal of the prisoners’ lifestyle under the new regime. Undoubtedly, it is an image that Garcia is keen to foster as he depicts himself as heroic intervener. It would be too easy however to dismiss Garcia’s efforts as a publicity stunt. The introduction of shoes (even though they were missing laces) appears to mark a significant moment in the inmates’ lives. Importantly, and maybe this constitutes a wider master plan for the running of CPDRC, the shoes would of course feauture again in the prison dance to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.
The story of the ‘dancing inmates’ took a bizarre twist when Sony Music recognized that the sheer popularity of the Youtube clip could result in a dramatic increase of sales for Michael Jackson’s back catalogue. A strategy to benefit from Michael Jackson’s vast music catalogue appeared particularly pertinent after his death in June 2009. Sony Music unsuccessfully fought for the removal of the clip and, conceding to it’s huge popularity, filmed their own version of Jackson’s ‘This is it’ at CPDRC later that year. The video, much better in quality than Garcia’s original, depicts a rather perverse effort to financially benefit from a group of prisoners who are otherwise faceless, voiceless and forgotten. Further inscribing the prisoner’s lack of identity, Sony Music decided to replace the prominent front row with Michael Jackson’s long-time choreographer Travis Payne and two of his dancers. The long arm of commerce would reach, through a bizarre twist of fate, the ‘dancing inmates’ of Cebu.
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