Friday, September 22, 2006

How Not To Read A Photograph: Richard Woodward on Frank Rich And Thomas Hoepker's 9/11 Languor

The Wall Street Journal's Richard Woodward neatly summarizes the now unavoidable final chapter in the saga of the 9/11 photograph of the kids who just don't seem to care that the world is falling down around them. (Image copyright Thomas Hoekper.)

Frank Rich took Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker's bait and proclaimed in a pre-anniversary (Sept. 10) column that

from the perspective of 9/11's fifth anniversary, Mr. Hoepker's photo is prescient as well as important--a snapshot of history soon to come. What he caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American.
The false profundity and fuzzy logic should have been cues to his turn of mind. Did he he really expect us to shrug off such callous - and even from a purely selfish standpoint, near-suicidal - behavior as "just American"? Does he really equate "recede quickly" with "not batting an eye while it's happening?" No, and of course not. But damning the photograph's subjects wouldn't fill out a column, and wouldn't feel nuanced. (To build on Stephen Colbert, pundits not in search of "truthiness" are, inevitably, looking for "nuanciness" - arguments that have the ring of nuance.)

Of course, Sept. 10 was not Frank Rich's day for nuance. David Plotz noted the "cheap shot" the next day in Slate, and the web journalist one-upped the print pundit by asking for the photograph's subjects to come forward and shed some light on the photograph's context.

OpinionJournal reports:
First to respond was Walter Sipser, a Brooklyn artist. "A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they're having a party," he wrote. "Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened." Another figure in the picture who wrote in was Chris Schiavo, a professional photographer. She bitterly chastised both Mr. Rich and Mr. Hoepker for their "cynical expression of an assumed reality." As a "third-generation native New Yorker, who knows and loves every square inch of this city," whose "mother even worked for Minoru Yamasaki, the World Trade Center architect," she stated that "it was genetically impossible for me to be unaffected by this event."
Woodward looks for his Big Message too, and overreaches in claiming that such misinterpretations can manipulate "better than any computer program." What seems to be missing from his equation is that a photograph, as a representation of reality, always claims to be representative, even when it is exceptional. Given the proliferation of images around us, this means that we can selectively see (or remember, invest meaning in, what have you) photographs that reinforce our assumptions or suspicions about the world, while those that do not fit our patterns of mind simply don't stick. The impacts of this intrinsic, false claim of photographs is felt cumulatively. In the tidal wave of images that we see every year, month, week, and day there are few "gotcha" moments where the "true" nature of the photograph can be revealed or disputed, for every photograph, insofar as it purports to document life in a way that is both transitory and essential, is a contradiction in terms.

Anyone who interprets new artifacts to tell a current story about our culture will occasionally have to eat their words. The ideas one wishes to express can seem very exciting, and the evidence to support them can seem substantial as a result, even when it ignores reams of counterevidence, personal experience, or basic realities about the nature of photography which, at the moment of formulating that very special opinion, seem hazy and uninteresting by comparison. This is a disease that overcomes critics in any and every field, and it's how one recovers from it is the best sign of one's intellectual integrity. Unfortunately, Frank Rich just published a book, and to be seen eating any crow could hurt sales considerably and thus diminish the impact of his very good work in critiquing the visual and lingustic politics of the Bush administration. It's hard to blame him for trying to let the gaffe slide.

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