July 24, 2009

Transmitting meaning: photographs, context, and control

Visual anthropologists like Elizabeth Edwards and Jay Ruby get me thinking about the ways in which photographs, as objects, are circulated, passed around, and actually used as material objects. But what about digital photographs? Are they objects, or just ethereal bits of immaterial information?* And what about context? One of the issues with digital photographs is how easy it is to separate them from their original context and place them within an entirely new, and often fabricated, web of meanings. Sometimes this results in what we call art or interpretation, but when it comes to certain situations, such as news media and copyright issues, problems arise.

Take the case of Shepard Fairey vs. the Associated Press. The iconoclastic artist "borrowed" an image of President Obama and used it as a basis for a widely popular political poster. Is this stealing, or the mere transfer of visual information? Is this simply how cultural information is purveyed? At what point should visual information be controlled and regulated? In the highly contentious world of copyright vs. artistic freedom, this is a huge issue.

Take another Shepard Fairey incident, as written about by James Danziger on his blog The Year in Pictures. This is an image that Fairey created:

Fairey's version is based upon the photograph taken by filmmaker and journalist Edward Nachtrieb:

Nachtrieb argues that Fairey's use of the decontextualized image lacks a certain "depth" of truth, and provides some of the original context of the image itself:

Beijing residents, using busses and their bodies, had blocked a convoy of soldiers attempting to enter the city. This was the first appearance of lethal weapons on the streets and was a precursor of what was to come on June 4. I'm sure the reality of the picture is not relevant to the artist...but I find that disturbing. Images stripped of their context but retaining strong emotional elements are hallmarks of fascist and Soviet propaganda styles - an acknowledged inspiration for this artist. In this case, I think a lack of accurate context for the image drains it of meaning. It's also dishonest. I suggest that Mr Fairey credit those whose materials he uses to "inspire" him. The truth of things might help enhance the depth of how his work is perceived and actually make it more interesting to contemplate and not just cool to look at.

There are, of course, certain legal arguments to be made about this, but from an anthropological perspective I find the use of the image--and the decontextualization of it--to be pretty fascinating. As usual, for me it brings to mind a series of questions: What is lost when the original context is stripped away? What new meanings can then be attached? How does the basic image content function in different environments, and what different uses or meanings do people have for the same basic image?

The original photograph is connected with a specific socio-political event, and obviously involves real people. Fairey's version is connected to a more generalized political stream of meanings, and also the vast world of commercialized art galleries and museums. In one final irony that James Danziger noted when he visited Fairey's show in Boston, photography was not allowed in the exhibit (photograph by Danziger):

To me this is all about the transfer, exchange, creation, and re-creation of cultural information. Watching the whole process at work, for me, provides a rich mine of anthropological information. Equally fascinating are all of the socio-cultural and legal rules that are created in an attempt to control this transmission of visual culture.

*Sometimes I wonder if there will be a kind of digital archaeology in the future, with methods that include ways of exploring old fragments and bits of information left upon discarded heaps of old computer equipment. Just a thought.


Conor said...

I think its interesting that this is the first time Fairey has been under major investigation. His entire portfolio seems to manipulate images for artistic purpose. For 20 plus years he has been doing this, growing steadily in popularity. At what point did officials decide that this was illegal?
Wouldnt it be interesting if people modified fairey's work? i think it would be hilarious!
I also think that when context gets stripped from a picture/image, it sucks. But i think fairey believes that his images stand for themselves. I had seen this fairey piece a while back and had no idea that it was from 20 years ago. Crazy.

PS i always hate it when there is "no photography allowed" in places.

Conor said...

You see this new piece?