Chautauqua Week on Photography – Day Five

Posted by on Jul 30 2010 | Other, Photography

Yesterday afternoon, author, photography futurist, and professor Fred Ritchin challenged me (and others) to recall any iconic images since 9/11 that weren’t celebrity-related.  I couldn’t do it.  Millions of images are generated around the globe every hour – Jimmy Colton at Sports Illustrated told us he reviews 10,000 images each day – but try to bring to mind ONE image representing the war in Afghanistan.  Or Iraq.  Or Iran.  Say “Vietnam” and the images immediately appear in your head.  “Civil Rights movement.”  I bet we’ve got the same pictures in mind. 

So why is it in an era of instant communication via images, we don’t have that shared visual history? Has not enough time passed to declare the icons?  Are we not keeping news magazines on our coffee tables for a week or more, causing the picture to get seared into our gray matter?  Are we scanning online too quickly, or do the images move too fast on the television screen?  I’m told by the experts here that there are just as many photojournalists out there taking photos as there were in past years – yet the images we MAY recall are cell phone images and videos, like that of Iranian teenager Neda.  

Fred contends that journalists are not providing us with reference points –that there are fewer and fewer images that explain to us how the world works.

Fred Ritchin speaking at the Hall of Philosophy.


 His students, he points out, tell him that CNN and the New York Times aren’t needed in a world where we can all upload our own images to flickr. But try to learn about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by typing “New Orleans” into the search field on flickr, and you’ll find scores of images of young people partying in the French Quarter.  Ritchin contends that we’ve moved from “a consideration of life to a consideration of ‘me’” – that there are so many images we can no longer see outside of ourselves. 

Hyperbolic?  Alarmist?  I’m not so sure.  I’ve spent the last 12 hours or so thinking about this, and also about something David Friend said yesterday.  David is Editor of Creative Development at Vanity Fair , and author of the book Watching the World Change:  The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11.” Yesterday he asked the question, “What would be different if 9/11 happened today?” Can you imagine the proliferation of twitter feeds, youtube videos, and photos on flickr that would have emanated from inside the towers?

That’s what I went to sleep thinking about last night. 

 David Friend listening to a 9/11 story

So this morning’s talk by Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States, about the relationship between photographs and poetry, provided much needed lighter moments. 

Why, you ask, end a week on photography with a lecture by a poet?  Well, Billy Collins connected the dots for us all.    

Poems slow time down.  Photographs manage to stop time.  Poetry asks us to come back to a metronomic slowness, but images are lifted out of a stream of time. 

Photography is silent.  Poetry wants to talk.  The power of the photograph is its silence – the strange quieting of the noise and commotion of life, whether it be the powerful silence of a western landscape, or the personal silence of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. 

According to Billy, you can choose not to read a poem, or to stop reading a poem, but you can’t stop the green-eyed Afghan girl from coming into your head. 

 Eastman House Director Tony Bannon and Billy Collins on stage in the amphitheatre at Chautauqua Institution.


Billy Collins started his talk by stating that he’s a bad photographer, as he found himself taking a picture of overturned colorful kayaks, which he realized was actually a picture he’d seen before.  Hmm.  Took this one this morning before hearing him…guess i am a photo plagiarist, too!

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    Pamela Sanchez is a member of the Senior Staff of George Eastman House. She's a blogging neophyte just venturing into the 21st century.

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