Saturday, May 19, 2018


Civil War historian Chandra Manning uses the Gettysburg cyclorama as a literary theme in Troubled Refuge (2016)This same cyclorama was a point of departure for abstract artist Mark Bradford in Pickett's Charge, a massive work commissioned for the Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall (2017).  Created by Paul Philippoteaux in 1883, four copies of the cyclorama memorialized the bygone war in custom-built cylindrical galleries.  The surviving copy was moved to Gettysburg where it was restored and re-opened to the public in 1962.

Cycloramas, also known as panoramas, were built as immersive, multisensory experiences.  They were the among the first artistic productions to incorporate photography into creative practice: Philippoteaux worked from photographs of the battlefield, as well as his own sketches.  What Michael Fried would later argue about minimalism would prove latent in the cyclorama: viewers were not absorbed in contemplation of the visual, but immersed in a production of theater.  Indeed, the cyclorama cannot be appreciated without a specific architecture, a viewer-centric mode of hanging, the sound and smoke of replicated cannon, the foregrounded pastoral assemblage sperating the painting from the viewer.  Installed as such, the cyclorama operates more as a detailed backdrop for a production than as a painting worthy of artistic contemplation.

Awaiting restoration, the "Battle of Atlanta" cyclorama, painted by a team of unidentified German artists in 1887, amplifies the way that cyclorama painting broke with art historical tradition.  The cyclorama artists deviated from single-point perspective, the Renaissance innovation of centering the eye of the beholder within  the painting's imagined horizon, and the locus for the tradition of absorption (Diderot, Fried).  In fact, the Atlanta cyclorama deviated from any notion of artistic perspective; instead, it relies on a hyperbolic hanging structure to give the illusion of three-dimensional depth. 

Cycloramas are anachronistically compared to the tradition of filmmaking or the contemporary IMAX experience.  Yet film maintains the single-point perspective, and thus follows more from the diorama than the cyclorama.  In locating the cyclorama within the tradition of theater, as latent in Fried's absorption vs. theatricality dialectic, perhaps it would follow that the specialized architecture and multi-point perspective employed in these works are more closely related to theater-in-the-round than to film.  For theater in the round, like cyclorama, breaks through the imaginary barrier between object and beholder. 

Placing the cyclorama in the theatrical tradition, outside of art history, offers both semantic and formal opportunities to consider the abstract Mark Bradford in Pickett's Charge.  

"outside of history" Ralph Ellison
perspective through the canvas
historical timeline of civilizations
Hirshhorn architecture
Monet, Water Lilies Cycle, Orangerie

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Ineluctable Modality of the Visible least that if no more, thought through my eyes.

What is the process of turning that which we see into that which we understand? 

Perhaps it would be fruitful to compare Ulysses to Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, Kurosawa's Rashomon-- to Hamlet, or to a summer's day, for that matter.  Certainly the perspectives of multiple characters, and the kaleidoscopic nature of truth-- and vision-- are fruitful modes of discourse in literature, film, and art.

Still, in victory (finishing Ulysses) I admit defeat (understanding Ulysses). 

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Thursday, April 26, 2018

We Love You Back

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Mist, 1819.

Image result for magritte great century
 RenĂ© Magritte, The Great Century, 1954.

The tradition of depicting a figure from the back perhaps began with sculpture in the round.  In three-dimensional art, attention to the entire figure signals commitment to human representation.  Yet in two-dimensional art, depiction of the back of the figure invites the beholder to consider the background, a view both embodied and obscured by the presence of the figure.  

Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich frequently poses figures faced away from the beholder in contemplation of the sublime.  Surrealist painter RenĂ© Magritte is another retroversion devotee, but for different reasons, saying, "everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see."  The two examples above, respectively Wanderer above the Mist and The Great Century are but two examples of the artists' rear-facing oeuvres. 

In photojournalism, it is not the photographer but the subject whose image is expressive.  Hillary Clinton is one of the most-photographed people in America, yet as a politician, her image is carefully crafted.  New York Times photographer Todd Heisler says, "Covering a campaign is like taking a photograph through a window. The challenge is to see beyond the reflected image — what the campaign is trying to project — and to capture what is really there."  The back of Clinton's hair was surprisingly oft-photographed during the 2016 election, by more than one news outlet.  The subjects in this body of work, like the paintings I have compared them to, transcend the candidate herself.  In the media glare, the crush of a crowd, or the hug of a constituent voter, the Clinton's figure is assumed to be a known commodity, an iconographic self-representation.

In earlier artistic creations, the back of the figure suggested prioritization of the scene.  For Friedrich, the turned-away figure denoted man's place within the sublime; for Magritte, it symbolized the hidden signifier behind the signified.  Photojournalism, in absorbing the artistic practice of identifying the figure from behind, added an iconographic layer to the image: the scene contributes to the icon.

As former president and first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama are likewise icons.  After stepping down from eight years of service in the White House, the Obamas chose to represent themselves from the rear, embracing, facing the Washington Monument.  Online, the photo is emblazoned with the message, "We love you back."  With clever captioning, the visual message not only turns the focus away from the subjects, but also away from the setting, reflecting back to the beholder as a mirror.

Todd Heisler, "Life in the Lights," New York Times, 4 October 2016. 

Image result for hillary clinton back of head time
James Nachtwey, "Hillary Clinton," Time, Feb. 3, 2016.

Ruth Fremson, "Raleigh, NC," New York Times, 23 October 2016.

Image result for obama love you back
"We Love You Back," 2017.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Irish Exit

Vice President Mike Pence has frequently made headlines for leaving events, rather than for what he has done while present.  As a reporter or a photographer, how would one document the absence, departure, or silence of a public figure?

Hamilton performance, New York City.  18 November 2016.
NFL football game, 49ers vs. Colts, Indianapolis, IN.  9 October 2017.
St. Patrick's Day parade, Savannah, GA.  17 March 2018.
US Senate floor, Washington DC.  19 April 2018.