The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Archive: 12/2009 - Page 1
When I read Laurie Lambrecht’s recent contribution to click! about wedding photography it triggered more thoughts about the comparisons between photography’s future and its past. While many fine art photographers known for other work pay the bills with work at weddings, by capitol “H” history of photography standards, wedding photography is usually seen as the last refuge of scoundrels, the photographic equivalent of Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer. I heard of one photographer who only shoots people’s shoes at a wedding. But photographs of brides and bridal parties, brides and grooms, and relatives have been with photography from the beginning.
At the moment photography entered the United States and our visual vocabulary it brought with it a mix of conflicting emotions. It was on the one hand a miraculous invention that could “let nature paint herself” exactly. As photography studios proliferated portrait photographs had more and more currency in the world and a walk down most American main streets would be a walk down a gallery of faces that glinted out from studio storefronts. To read any of the many accounts of such an experience the act of seeing could also be a bit spooky. And it was speculated that revealing your face to the camera for a portrait might also produce a portrait of the “inner you,” and that could be embarrassing, even dangerous. Long before the police blotters filled up with mug shots and an entire theory of visual forensics was created, writers speculated that criminals could be revealed by the camera eye. The medium also offered to a mid-nineteenth century America struggling with the chaos of an economic crisis (a national malaise not to be solved financially or spiritually until the 1849 discovery of gold in California) material for an engaging and uplifting story about the good and evil effects of looking, seeing, and posing. Popular fiction, especially in the new form of the sentimental short story, increasingly included allusions to photography. In many stories a hero, usually a young professional man adrift in the big city, sees a cased daguerreotype in a studio’s storefront display, falls in love with the image, and becomes obsessed with meeting its “original.” After several exciting adventures fending off brigands and thieves he finds his true love, and in a daguerreian love-at-first-sight happy ending, marries the girl. The true and noble character of both hero and nation are perpetuated, all thanks to the photograph. Wedding portraits continue to tell a good story and photographs, including some by Laurie Lambrecht, add an important piece to the cultural narrative. Each week the New York Times' Sunday Styles includes a substantial section of wedding photographs. Formal portraits of couples and individual brides wearing white are more often than not surrounded by informal poses of couples at home or outdoors. Following the rules of the pose—couples are urged by the Times editor to keep their eyebrows on the same level—they seem to all be part of a balanced formula of happiness. On the newspaper page a new age of wedding diversity—black, white, gay, and straight—forms a comforting pattern of photographic sameness. Along with the picture is a text that details the courtship. Though individual details may differ, in addition to the usual wedding information of age, occupation, and lineage, the text that accompanies each photograph includes a bit of drama, sometimes tragedy, but always resolution. In the end, someone always gets married.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
Following the Christmas Day capture of a passenger, dubbed “The Underwear Bomber,” who attempted to blow up an American airliner, controversy swirls around the use and efficacy of full body scanners and the fate of the images they generate. At present, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is considering two types of scanning technologies to upgrade its passenger screening systems.
The first kind, millimeter-wave sensors, emit radio frequencies to produce pairs of detailed, front-and-back, 3-D images of passengers that look like photographic negatives, and can detect detect liquids and other potential explosives hidden beneath clothing. Click here to see some sample images.
A second technology being promoted involves backscatter x-ray scanners, which send out low-intensity beams to create a single-sided image that reveal objects carried on passengers’ bodies. To see samples of those, click here.
Full body scanners—dubbed “naked scanners” by those who characterize the security measures as “virtual strip searches”—are, it turns out, already in limited use. According to the New York Times,
full-body imaging machines are in place in nineteen U.S. airports and are the primary method of screening at six. A recent article in BusinessWeek reports that 300 advanced scanning imagers are on order and ready for delivery in 2010, and that prices for shares of stock in companies producing the technology—including Rapiscan, Smiths Group Plc., and L-3 Communications Holdings Inc.—are on the rise.
Whether scanning will or will not contribute to airport congestion and security lines is debatable. Scans take from 20-45 seconds per passenger, although they cut down on the time spent removing shoes, coats, belts, and other concealing articles of clothing. But central to discussions about the use of scanners are privacy and legal issues, such as what, exactly, the images will show. According to manufacturers and the TSA, details of facial features and of other body parts will be blurred when screeners take, see, and scrutinize the images. Screeners will be located in a separate area, away from the scanners, so they will never see the passengers being screened. Security personnel stationed at the scanners will never see the scans that are made. The TSA says it will not keep, store, or transmit images. To get a sense of what the process is like, here’s an ABC News video showing a reporter testing out the process.
So, with all these assurances, why are some people still voicing concern? Surveys show that while many are willing to be scanned head-to-toe for security’s sake, others are nervous. Given recent examples of supposedly-secure digital information that’s been leaked or become available, some skepticism is understandable. Would images that, for example, reveal breast implants or prosthetic devices a breach of privacy? Are scans made of children the equivalent of child pornography in certain locales and states? While it’s not a national security issue, will images of well-known people wind up on Internet gossip sites? Is scanning be offensive to those whose religions forbid them from being seen naked?
The scanning debate raises an interesting question; is visibility a guarantee of public safety? Some security and terrorism experts suggest that other measures, such as tightening up visa reviews in high risk countries, might prove to be just as effective. So, let’s wait, watch what happens, and revisit the story when more news breaks.
If events are heavily promoted as being once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, people are going to want photographs to remember them by. Weddings are one of the best examples of this need. While the statistics on matrimonial longevity don’t look great—in 2008, for example, 46% of all marriages involved a remarriage for one or both spouses and 40% of all marriages ended in divorce—the people who can keep getting married and want to have the pictures taken, as they do it.
Even in advance of the big day, photography proved itself to be a necessity. Brides-to-be flip through the pages of specialized magazines to see what’s available and in style. Newspapers announce upcoming nuptials in sections that feature photographs of the betrothed, but some have become so barraged with “unsuitable” images that they now post photo requirements on their websites. Here, for instance is what the New York Times suggests, if you want changes to your marital status to make news:
“While we continue to include formal portraits of couples and individual brides, we also include full-length images of brides in wedding dresses, as well as informal photographs of individuals or couples at home, outdoors or in other attractive settings. Those posing for pictures should be neatly dressed, and the images should be of professional quality .... Couples posing for pictures should arrange themselves with their eyebrows on exactly the same level and with their heads fairly close together. Couple pictures should be printed in a horizontal format.”
Until cameras became portable, wedding photography was mostly restricted to studio portraits. But once photo equipment became less cumbersome, and as in-love couples—whose lives were already documented in snapshots, home movies, and videos—grew more image-savvy and demanding, the practice of wedding photography was transformed. Many weddings are produced as carefully as feature films and meant to be experienced as a sequence of photo ops. Good thing, too because the photos taken are destined to become memory tools for couples too distracted by the swirl of activity they’ve concocted to see, feel, or savor what actually went on. That’s why they hire professionals like Laurie Lambrecht, who in her piece for click! describes that on wedding days, it’s just as much photography as it is love that makes the world go around.
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