Author: tomwink

About tomwink

Graduate student at Rowan University currently researching public spaces and their impact

Progress, NJ

Photographing your hometown is something like photographing yourself. You must consider how much you are willing to show, and you must be aware of the truth you are concealing by doing this. And in both, you must accept that you will never capture an accurate portrayal, and that even if you did, would the audience see it the same way you do?

Progress, NJ is an attempt to figure out where I am from, at a time when I am preparing to leave. Progress, the idea of change, an ironic original name for my hometown, which now exists as a has or could have been. But even this progression to a shadow is indicative of a town’s ability to change it’s identity, to defy an attempt at overly narrow definition.

Change is a natural state of life, so perhaps Riverside is not doing as poorly as people in town think, only going through its latest iteration.

Perhaps I’m wrongfully imposing personality on a town, and by doing so misleading my audience or myself into accepting that presentation of the town.

Progress, NJ, is the story of a town as told by someone there, through what is and isn’t there.

Thinking of Photography as a Rhetorical Device

In order to highlight the ideas of illusory truth and the kindly haze of nostalgia, I decided on using a disposable camera to photograph Riverside, with the lens covered in Vaseline. I did this after talking with the professor about the soft focus that Vaseline creates in photographs and after seeing the hazy, haunting photographs made by Susan Burstine. The goal was to create a sense of dreaminess, something that would suggest a warm hominess.

As I recognized early on through class discussions, the truth is something that doesn’t come out in photographs. Despite this, truth is often looked for in photographs, especially in a series of photos about a town.

Even in my attempt at a random sampling, there is a statement about truth. I am still selecting what to be photographed, from what angle, and what pictures to choose to present to the public as representative of Riverside.

Errol Morris’ writes in Believing is Seeing “the minute you take one picture as opposed to another, or the minute you select one photograph from a group of photographs, you are doing something very, very similar to manipulating reality.”

This is where I thought the benefit of the soft focus in my photographs was. By reducing the images to outlines, warm colors and vague shapes, I could avoid appearing to establish my pictures as the true representation of Riverside by instead presenting the town as I see it, in a forgiving nostalgic glow. The blurry, warm haze is a rhetorical framing of the images, placing them in my memory rather than as an attempt to present a straight, factual view of the town. The disposable camera was meant to enforce the idea of rhetorical presentation. It was my hope that the perception of the disposable camera being sort of out-dated and simplistic-as opposed to the professional, polished, and perhaps calculated feel sometimes given by sophisticated equipment-would lend itself to my goal of attempting to present these images as how I see Riverside.

I mentioned earlier a random sampling. My original goal was to simply take pictures of the many abandoned buildings and vacant lots, but as I discussed my project with the professor, I realized that isn’t all that Riverside is, not even to me. So my focus widened: to photographs of train tracks, small backyard gardens, informal auto repair, flags outside of apartment windows, letter carriers. Old ball fields.

These I hoped would work together as a parts-for-whole semiotic device (individual parts presented as representative for the whole town). I was aware that I was still perhaps limiting Riverside to these things, but I felt it also the town to be more than how I originally planned on displaying it. By not photographing one aspect of town, I am showing that nostalgia blurs an understanding of what a place really is, while also hinting at an awareness that any of my subjects could define Riverside for other people.

I photographed from ten to eleven in the morning over the course of a weekend in order to make use of the very bright sun and the vibrant highlights on grass, brick, etc that I was highlighting. The Vaselined photos I altered in Picasa after scanning them onto my computer. This was both to emphasize color contrast and to highlight building outlines.  These changes were designed enhance the “warmth” of the colors, which I thought would again move them, again, from the exactitude of the real world to the way nostalgia adjusts and glosses over the bad parts.

I made minimal crops to my photographs. Cropping, as we discussed in class, further removes the image from the reality it existed in. Overall, I avoided cropping because I didn’t want to dissociating the images from Riverside. I felt that by framing the pictures as the Riverside in my memory was dissociative enough from the reality of Riverside, so I only made some few edits to bring an object into the foreground.

As pointed out by mapmaker Denis Woods, all visual presentations present a myth, or point of view, a message, about what they display. It would be remiss of me to acknowledge that my selection of subjects was designed with stereotype in mind. These subjects were picked because I felt them most representative of a post-industrial small town. My subjects were things I thought I’d seen in other photo essays about quiet towns; the idea of perseverance or carrying on despite setbacks seems to be a common theme in similar work. By photographing subjects I’d seen in other similar photo essays, I am acknowledging the genre expectations I am working with (and in), and the blurriness is then a visual signal of the sense of nostalgia I am trying to capture.

Former Zurbrugg Hospital

In her discussion of photographs as meaning-making devices, Annete Khun writes that “the photograph is a prompt, a pre-text, it sets the scene for recollection.” Theorist Susan Sontag adds that “the photograph may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is “like” what’s in the pictures.”

What’s in the pictures, as discussed in class, is often less important than what’s left out of the picture, and that absence is something I was trying to highlight.

Despite photographing an empty lot, despite the knowledge that the image would be distorted by the Vaseline I’d wiped across the lens, I approached shooting this site as if it were any other landscape. Indeed, in composing the shot I sought out opportunities to incorporate landscape photography rules into my  pictures.

Facing a relatively empty shot, I repositioned myself to take advantage of the nearby watchcase building. This was to build a sense of depth. The layering of visual levels is beneficial to solidifying and centering the main topic of my photo. Now stacked between a rough shaped building (old Riverside, the past) in the background, and a chain link fence in the fore, the tree in the middle (new Riverside, the potential) becomes centered (semiotic prominence), and serves to focus the viewer to the largely empty middle ground.

The tree is also framed by the chain link fence. The fence, with its recurring shapes and  strong diagonal lines help to draw the eye towards the enter of the image, which is bare.

If, as Sontag writes, photographs are appropriation of the thing photographed, and that these photographs taken and selected are imbued with the values of the photographer, then what stance am I assuming with this picture? Why did I choose this image, what do I intend for it to reflect?

Martin Lister, in writing about the intertextuality of photographs, notes that no picture is isolated, rather, it is located within a network of photographs on a similar topic. The audience, having been exposed to these other photographs before, will then able to understand what the picture is about. This associative thinking is why I incorporated the chain link into this photograph, it was a device meant to connect to help connect my image with other photographs of fenced-off lots. By making this association, I am trying to, as Khun writes, use my photograph as a prompt.

In showing an empty lot, I hoped that the audience would wonder about the lot’s past and it’s future, and why I am choosing this place as indicative of Riverside.

These questions, the statement about Riverside is continued by the irony (vitality amongst the barren) and juxtaposition (tree represents potential for new growth out of wreckage it stands in) of the tree‘s location. As I mentioned before, the tree (newness/ future growth) is juxtaposed against the outline of the watchcase building (old Riverside, lack or end of growth).

Over the course of class discussions, I learned that the biggest question we must ask when considering a photograph is what statement it is making. Through framing, juxtaposition, and centering, I am reevaluating my opinions of what Riverside is and what it could be, and asking the audience to reconsider theirs.

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Second Photo Essay Proposal-Progress, NJ

Originally, my intention for the photo essay was to attempt capturing photos of abandoned spaces in town in an attempt to show what my hometown had become, in the tradition of The Ruins of Detroit.

However, as I began going out and thinking about the photographs I was taking, and after a conversation with the professor, I began to rethink my purpose.

The professor had mentioned that as I was trying to capture decay, my presentation of the town would be incomplete without showing photos of the town doing well.

At first I didn’t think that this went along with what I saw as true to the town, a thought which lead me to my new proposal.

Truth is, of course, illusory. I cannot present any absolute truth about Riverside. So instead, I am trying to show the many things that a town can be.

In order to emphasize this, I am using disposable cameras I’ve altered with vaseline. By doing this I am trying to mess with the focus and clarity of the images.

This is a semiotic choice. As I mentioned earlier, truth is illusory. The vaseline/soft focus distortion is therefore an attempt at reinforcing this notion, the dream-like quality this adds to the photographs is hopefully realized as part of the illusion of being able to call any portion the whole truth.

 

 

Palestine, by Joe Sacco

Palestine is an interesting book, a work of comic-journalism (as the author Joe Sacco identifies himself), in that while exploring and existing in the muddy, unclear politics of the Palestine, Israel, and resettlement zones.

While Sacco the character plays out a fact-finding mission

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Sacco the artist uses a variety of techniques to inspire sympathy for the people he lives with, those without a place in their homeland.

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Abstracting, as explained above by Scott McCloud,comics theorist, is only one such technique, but it is crucial. Sacco turns to abstraction time and again for the natives that he comes in contact with; however his own character remains constantly abstract no matter the setting.

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This is a planned and very powerful rhetorical move. McCloud writes that “when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself  “(p.36). So, by rendering himself-our touchstone in this journey-to a cartoon, Sacco forces us to explore the world ourselves.

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It’s a very Robert Crumb face. This style is also a stylistic choice, as Sacco shows himself quite capable as drawing in a variety of styles.

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So then, why the Crumb references? McCloud writes that “in R. Crumb’s world, the curves of innocence are betrayed by the neurotic quill-lines of modern adulthood and left painfully out of place” (p.126).

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This both separates Sacco/us from the environment, both strengthening our connection to him and emphasizing the harshness/realness of the world of the Middle East.

Conversely, the neuroticism of the world is often and effectively exaggerated.

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Here, the IDF representative attempts to explain why Sacco and his companions can’t get through.

So what’s the result?

By investing ourselves in Sacco’s character, by seeing and experiencing vicariously through him, we develop sympathy for those he (we) lives with. This is of course, his goal. By avoiding making any statement of the rightness of either side, Sacco’s personal journey, which we follow along on, encourages it’s readers to at least become at least critical of the usual presentation of the average Palestinian.

Fallow: A Photo Essay

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For my photo essay, I will be using option one of the assignment for class and gathering 12-15 individual photographs on a theme. My essay is dubbed Fallow, and will be a look at my hometown. This essay will be sort of in the style of The Ruins of Detroit.

My hometown of Riverside is a slightly (though nowhere near the same scale) situation. In Riverside, much has been torn down to make may for new business ventures–yet most of it left undeveloped for years (or forever) as money or interest dry up.  I’m interested in the topic because, obviously, it is my home.

My goal for each photograph is to either match it with the structure that stood there, or else write what stood, and what was/is planned to go there (possibly, how long it has stood undeveloped). This is a big part of why I chose the topic, as many of the demolished structures were large parts of the town’s history.

I will be using a digital camera, and hopefully using some sort of software to layer in what stood over the current situation of the land to create a juxtaposition and to kind of capture a sense of loss in my final essay. If, for any reason–professor vetoes the topic, can’t find software or can’t figure out the manipulation–I plan on using a disposable camera to take the same pictures of the spaces as they exist, and then mess with the developed pictures to degrade them in an attempt to question why something in perfectly fine shape/not hurting anyone would be degraded, as a sort of metaphor for the actual spaces.

Physical Politics in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns

Hate him or love him, Frank Miller-creator of (among other things) Sin City and 300 is very good at what he does. And what he does is propagandize. Ok. So what. All creators are propagandists.

So what’s my problem? Well, let’s avoid the whole tendency to draw swastikas whether there is a need or not, and move into the visual in-group/out-group world Miller creates

I recently watched the animated adaptation of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a comic I had first read when I was a youngling. Batman, I saw, could still kick a lot of ass at 55.

Batman at 55. I should age so well.

For those unfamiliar with the plot,  The Dark Knight Returns is a conservative fantasy. Hardy, masculine, go-getters MEN are marginalized by liberal PC society, and the whole place has gone to heck because of it.

Superman also answers to Ronald Reagan. I’ll get back to that.

Now, this plot I mentioned.

The new police commissioner, who’s in over her head.

 

A woman!

Her first tasks on the job are to ineffectually deal with the youth crime of Gotham and to place a warrant on Batman.It’s quite strongly suggested that gets her job due to gender politicking by the higher-ups. And, she doesn’t agree with Batman’s principles.

Neither does this guy, the psychiatrist.

He is a ruthless send-up of leftist intellectuals,  always with a theory of some sort, spouting semi-Freud while blaming society, or the government, or the overt masculinity of Miller’s Batman, while really only trying to make a name for himself.

These two are visual stereotypes; for Miller they represent liberalism. Miller encodes them carefully; the first only having her job because she is a woman, the second only really interested in personal gain. Visually, their bodies are thin, frail, weak; this being an intertextual, (how images/words/ideas of a culture relate to other images/text/ideas of a culture)  reference to society-at-large’s belief in a sound mind in a healthy body.

Miller intends for these characters to be reviled, or at least have negative connotations attached to them. This we know by comparison, the rhetorical highlighting of differences. Bat-hunk, Superman, even the lefty Green Arrow, Miller draws as big, physical men. They solve things with their fists, they are full of the ethereal quality of “gumption.” These are characters side-lined or frustrated by, as Miller’s Superman remembers, “Parent Groups and sub-committees,” mired by liberal bureaucracy, forced to the margins. Their very existence is a threat to liberal world, and as Superman warns Batman, “We must not remind them that giants walk the earth.”

 

 

Problems with a Face

As a kid, one of the movie genres I really just consumed was the pulp series put out just after the Depression, stuff like Charlie Chan, Lone Ranger, Mr. Wong, Detective: stuff my grandparents knew from when they were young. Good movies, fun, I really enjoyed them.

Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu. Notice how facial features have been changed: eyebrows arched, eyes have been taped to give them slants, mustache added in stereotypical “Oriental” style.

But as an adult, I don’t get the same amount of pleasure from them when I try to watch them.

The big reason is that a lot of the movies I was exposed to are face movies, or at least have face characters. I hope that I don’t seem like I’m bemoaning the fact that my liberal leanings are forcing me to avoid these movies, because that’s not what i’m trying to do.

If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, the most well known example is blackface, but it is also manifested for other ethnic groups, redface for Native Americans, yellowface for Asian, etc.

Ok, so what is the problem?

The portrayals are inherently racist and serve as very powerful visual rhetoric.

Visual characters like this seek to establish themselves as typical of African-Americans. Lips and hair has been embellished, as has the overall backwards-ness of appearance.

Well, like I said, these portrayals are inherently racist and in the least appropriative.  Too often, the characters in “face” makeup are bumblers, lazy, slow, vain, greedy, subhuman. This establishes a stereotype, and the face character is a visual cue; audiences know what to expect from them when seen onstage. Being able to recreate the same features from actor to actor for a face role is a visual manipulation, allowing the movie makers to disregard the diverse realness of humanity and reduce POC to an idealized icon. What POC are actually like is not important. The negative is idealized, exaggerated, and displayed, in order to broadcast/reinforce the message that these aspects are all the targeted culture is. In doing this, POC go from individuals to characters that the audience doesn’t need to get to know; they already understand how they will act. The face character-one person, one role, one character, is allowed to stand for the whole people. Such characters are visual affirmation of race myths.

Johnny Depp’s recent portrayal of Tonto continues the traditions of redface: facepaint, broken English, quasi-mysticism. Is this how we perceive Natives?

These performances do not encapsulate the whole experience of the culture or do them real credit. (There is also the cruel twist: black/red/yellow face performers have also been members of the culture they are stereotyping, often it was the only work they could get. However, this only served as an affirmation of the performance’s reality.) Face performances, in picking and choosing what they want to convey, confirm the idea that the races being mocked are this way, and so deserve to be mocked, and treated as inferiors. We must also remember that these roles are created by a dominant section of society, and are therefore used to reinforce their position of power.

 

There’s something the matter with Henry

Trigger Warning: Gore.

Even Hollywood comes up with some new ideas, now and again.

In an earlier post, I talked how physical deformity is often used as a clue towards explaining the relative evilness/untrustworthiness of a character. You couldn’t count the number of facial scars, eyepatchs, or claw hands if you tried.

By 1986, horror was just lousy with trope portrayals of killers, ensured by the massive success of Friday the 13th, Halloween, their sequels and imitators. Everywhere you looked, mass murderers were idealized as masked murders, monolithic, calculating reapers. The killers were not men, not people, they were death given form.

Wow, such death, very spoopy.

As effective as these killers were, and they undoubtedly, and deservedly did and do inspire terror, they cannot compare to Henry.

He’s just eating a sandwich.

 

He isn’t creepy at all.

 

Oh, I see.

Jason and Michael Myers are wolves in wolves’ clothing; Henry is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

That’s what, for me, makes Henry the scarier. The movie emphasizes the real over the ideal, leaving Henry to play cards and buy cigarettes. He has an unremarkable area of Chicago, no haunted lake or long-abandoned house for a home base.

The mundane surroundings is also visual rhetoric, the same selection of real vs. idealized. His average face, the could-be-a-million-places feeling of his backdrop produces the terror. Unlike Jason, Henry can be anyone. Anywhere. And that’s scary. That’s the real fear of Henry. His face is a mask, and you worry how many others like him are hiding behind masks. He knows it, and tells us, is too smart to use the same method more than once to avoid recognition for what he is.

In showing killers how they really look, rather than relying on idealized icons, Henry, Portrait of A Serial Killer provides chills by stripping away any of the audience’s ability to dissassociate the actions of the killer with the face of a regular Joe.

Army All-Time Killstreak Champion Storyboard

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So–what’s going on in the first thirty seconds of my mashup?

I open with a title screen from a World War Two training film (8th Air Force, for those keeping score) called “Target for Today,” which I like because it has two interpretations you can make the first that this is a training film, and we are seeing kids learning how to operate killer drones, and second (bit more chilling) when paired with the next image, we see that the target for today (for the military) is as always, the next generation of kids. This is a bit of paratext.

The next clip is lifted from a news piece on the USMC’s toys for tots program, but I’ve trimmed it down to just Marines lifting kids into humvees, presumably taking them to some sort of indoctrination camp. I’ve culled some images of child soldiers from Africa that I use later and I am building an intratextual reference here.

Straight from 1988 comes a pair of hands playing Nintendo. This is a very iconic controller, and it’s symbolism for gaming  is the reason I’m using it.

Then, we have a Predator drone cruising through the air. (I learned during this clip that some operators live stateside, which is really weird to me.) This is supposed to develop juxtaposition-that the controller-hands are operating it. This will be built on throughout.

Following that is a vintage Nintendo commercial, with a really chilling slogan. This idea I thought provides a weird intratexuality/intertextuality for the argument that I’m trying to make.

The final 16 seconds of the clip are a montage, using the controller hands, digital footage of drone strike, and Mario celebrating to make it appear that the drone strike is just a game, denuded of real consequences, an idea I will be exploring more later.

The Army’s All-Time Killstreak Champion- A Proposal

“In Desert Storm, the use of night sights made the war seem more like a Nintendo game.”

At some point last year, a friend told me they were  “disturbed” that the Marine Corps had a PR department, a fact that struck me as only natural. Like any other employer, they are looking to connect with job seekers.

What does, to use his word, disturb me, is the Armed Forces growing closeness with the video game industry. While the military has understandably used simulation as a teaching tool, I’m left feeling (again) disturbed by military sponsored video game competitions, and even a video game of their own, America’s Army.

Weird for me, because I’m generally pretty ok with the concept of “Happy Violence.” Upon thinking about it, the juxtaposition of generals and colonels celebrating combo-kills in video games and America’s growing use of drone warfare is what bothers me.

Several close friends serve in the military. My grandfather served in WW2, and my great-uncle on both European and Pacific fronts. Their impressions-to me-come back to one thing researchers find in interviews with soldiers: it is actually quite difficult to kill face to face. 

Targeting recruits who already view war as a game, and removing the human element, could change all that.

My mashup takes audience through an imagined boot-camp, one in which military tradition, parade drill etc is replaced with constant encouragement to “score” more kills. In their room, players compete, seemingly unaware that they are killing people, being spurred on In the end, despite celebration, we are left with coffins.

One of the big risks I’m taking is running the fine line of condemning all first person shooters as propaganda tools that encourage violence. I am not. But, I am talking about using these games to develop a certain outlook when used by the military, and question the emotional detachment of killing via drone. Another having no experience whatsoever with editing video.

To do this, I will be using stock footage of drone combat, WW2 and Vietnam bombing runs, child soldiers from Africa and hopefully video game screens such as the popular Mortal Kombat beckoning to “FINISH HIM!” These will be intercut with children playing video games, and Mario celebrating. For a soundtrack, I intend to use a loop of applause as an icon of approval for the actions.

I hope to raise awareness on a possible reason the military uses video games to bring in recruits, as well as one of the moral quandaries of drone combat.