Sunday, April 28, 2013

On Photography - damned either way

Public interest in wrong social arrangements are the heart of most photographic controversies.

Two images come to mind in particular that illustrate tests of public interest,  one far too ordinary, the other not ordinary enough. Both were said, by contemporaries, to distract from, or amplify, somehow, wrong social arrangements.

There is a photograph archived in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, of  Alexandra Feodorovna, Anastasia and Olga Nikolaevna bathed in light, women of the Russian royal family in 1915, seemingly unposed.  The family are busy with needlework, one has her feet up, relaxed, ordinary, familiar even: there is a wrinkled rug in the foreground.  It feels candid, unforced, intimate, real, a photo from a family album, although it is not any more.  It is a moment and a history all at once, and now part of a greater story the library's collection frames - revolution, dislocation, suffering, murder. But perhaps "rare" is a somewhat misleading description: after the Soviet Union disbanded an estimated 150, 000 photographs of the Russian royal family were discovered in secret government archives, suppressed,  in the public interest, from public view by their communist successors for nearly 100 years

There is a photograph of film star Julia Roberts by Mario Testino for a L'Oreal cosmetics advertising campaign in 2010, happy, bright-eyed and unblemished. The photograph  and advertising campaign was banned by the British Advertising Standards Authority after complaints from Scottish  Liberal Democrat member of parliament Jo Swinson that the images were digitally altered, and "not representative of the results the product could achieve." Swinson is a long time campaigner against what she describes as overly perfect and unrealistic images of women in magazines and advertisements.

Communist political parties are, of course, long time campaigners against royal families. But it seems to me that the absence of any regal trappings in the photograph, the ordinariness of the setting and the commonplace and all too human appearance of the Russian royal family posed the greatest threat to the new russian ruling class.  Demonising a ruling elite is one thing. Disappearing women that look like someones sister, aunt or wife is something else altogether. The humanity of the women that belies perceptions of wrong social arrangements had to be disappeared as well.

In modern times it is "overly perfected and unrealistic images of women", and the "deification of beauty", that must be disappeared. Photographs of supermodel Christy Turlington and actress  Rachel Weisz have also disappeared from English magazines. Ms Swinson told the UK Daily Mail  there was sound medical evidence that faked - airbrushed or photoshopped -  images cause harm. "There needs to be much more diversity in advertising – different skin colours, body shapes, sizes and ages."

What was ideologically impermissible somewhere a century ago is essential to the public interest somewhere now. In parts of the world such contradictions are avoided by suppressing images of human bodies altogether. In Western tradition, the human body is central to our humanist  heritage and what we think and say about ourselves, although depictions of it are often contested.

Upon the Protestant reformation the Catholic Church compiled and circulated huge lists of forbidden books, and demanded the censorship of painting:

... all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust...

Seventeenth Century poet, polemicist and propagandist John Milton is often quoted arguing against clerical censorship:

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties (1644)

Ironically, by 1744, Samuel Johnson was observing that a century of democratization of writing and publishing had rendered traditional systems for evaluating their worth shambolic. It was easy to publish and obtain books but difficult to trust their contents.

There are echoes of Johnson's world-weariness in controversies on photography today, and echoes of the old religious and political dogmas in conversations about them. Ironically, it may be that the failure of both religious dogma and political ideology to solve problems of wrong social arrangements that keep those controversies relevant.

The Australian Christian Lobby argued is problematic to measure community standards by the number of complaints generated by a a particular broadcast or telecast. It would come as news to a great number of people within the community to learn that their view of the contemporary media environment was judged solely on their formally complaining...  (2011 Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee Inquiry into the Australian film and literature classification scheme pp10)

Historian Ross Fitzgerald wrote in the Canberra Times

...the fact that an image or a bunch of words may offend someone and is therefore a reason to ban or severely restrict them is a Draconian and intolerant position. I'm offended by lots of things these days - Question Time, alcohol and cigarettes sold in supermarkets, reality TV and religious fundamentalism - but I don't use this as a reason to try to ban these things merely because it's just my opinion.

A very modern case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.

The previous post on this topic is here


  1. I would like to challenge your statement that the photograph shows ' the absence of any regal trappings in the photograph, the ordinariness of the setting and the commonplace and all too human appearance of the Russian royal family'. Life under the Tzar was oppressive for most Russian subjects who worked hard in factories or on farms and were extremely poor. This photo of the Grand Duchess and the Tsarina acutely depicts women experiencing leisure time (something that ordinary Russian people would not have had a lot of) in what appears to me because of the large, draped windows, to be a sun room, decorated with copious amounts of cut flowers probably from an immense and tended garden. The rug on the floor is not thin, but extremely thick and it covers floor tiles, also crafted from the best materials, things that the Russian folk would not have on their floors. The beautiful, ornate, intricate lace tablecloths and doilies and the women's fine clothing also attest to the wealth of the family. This photograph does not in my mind reflect ordinary life, it is a construct, which although attempting to show, as you have said, a relationship between the royal family and other people's families only shows the real differences between rich and poor.

  2. See the 1882 photograph of the Chekhov brothers I mailed you a link to. Also the forensic discussion of Russian demographics I sent you a link to belies ideas about serfs sleeping on dirt floors, although many possibly did. By 1915 Russian serfs had been emancipated for fifty years. PS comment field seems to be spitting links out, dunno whether it is me or a setting :)

  3. This small passage from an article written in the Rabochaya Gasette, Moscow in 1912 describes the conditions experienced by most Russian people. 'Thirty million people have been reduced to the direst straits. Peasants are selling their allotments, their live stock, everything saleable, for next to nothing. They are selling their girls—a reversion to the worst conditions of slavery. The national calamity reveals at a glance the true essence of our allegedly “civilised” social order. In different forms, in a different setting, and with a different “civilisation”, this system is the old slavery, it is the slavery of millions of toilers for the sake of the wealth, luxury and parasitism of the “upper” ten thousand. On the one hand there is hard labour, always the lot of slaves, and on the other the absolute indifference of the rich to the fate of the slaves. In the past, slaves were openly starved to death, women were openly taken into the seraglios of the masters, slaves were openly tortured. In our day, the peasants have been robbed—by means of all the tricks and achievements, all the progress of civilisation—robbed to such an extent that they are starving, eating goosefoot, eating lumps of dirt in lieu of bread, suffering from scurvy, and dying in agony. At the same time the Russian landlords, with Nicholas II at their head, and the Russian capitalists are raking in money wholesale—the proprietors of places of amusement in the capital say that business has never been so good. Such barefaced, unbridled luxury as that now flaunted in the big cities has not been seen for many years'. See:

  4. Carpets and Russia are synonymous, Russian peoples used carpets for everything from walls to houses (the yurt) and you can make out the thick rich carpet the brothers Chekhov are standing on in numerous photographs of them, as well as the kinds of furnishings and tech the Russian middle class had in their houses. There were around one hundred and sixty million Russians in 1912. Demographic information from various historical paperwork belies perceptions of a tiny ruling elite living in palaces and the rest living in sheds and dressing in rags. Demographic evidence is that around fifteen percent of the Russian population were hereditary landowners, with a self-made middle class of around five percent. You challenged my description of the women in the photograph as ordinary looking, on the evidence it is. You might have said that the photograph resonates with patriarchal ideas about the status of women, with which I might agree. But there is not a crown, sceptre, sable collar, tiara, diadem, jewel or heavenly beauty or any other trappings of royalty anywhere in the photo. I'm saying that most photographic controversies stem from ideas about wrong social arrangements, but from my humanist perspective the photographic evidence of wrong social arrangements is not readily apparent, one must resort to ideology and polemic to explain that it is.

  5. Well, 'demographic information from various sources' you say 'belies perceptions of a tiny ruling elite' - sorry, just don't believe it. I didn't speak of the status of women because that was a given and anyway it has little to do with your argument of photographs being suppressed 'as wrong arrangements' - you were setting up somehow that these women were just like ordinary women in the way they were presented - I am saying that they are NOT depicted cooking, cleaning,with children, working on farms or in factories - indeed this photo of a 'royal family' looks like those taken of other Royal Families - check out images over the years of the British Royal Family. I really don't understand the flow of your argument. Are you saying that suppressing this image was political or NOT?

  6. You don't have to believe, there are many photographs of Russian life at the turn of the twentieth century a mouse click away. I'm saying that the women in the photograph look like someones sister, aunt, mother, granny, that the scene itself - a group of women that appear engaged in some craft - is a commonplace one, for the times. I'm also saying that polemic is required to elevate the photograph from a family memory to the scene of a crime. The polemic might explain a political difference sure, or arise from a political ideology, but it is absent from the photograph itself. The photograph of Julia Roberts which was banned had a medical diagnosis attached, which 'proved' the accompanying ideological polemic somehow. But she doesn't look ill in the photo; the diagnosis was that others trying to look like the photo would be harmed. PS there was an attempt in late imperial Russia to raise the status of impoverished female textile workers lace-making cottage industry by improving their skills with traditional techniques.

  7. Did you read the extract I placed here from the Rabochaya Gasette, Moscow in 1912? A report from the people living at the time as opposed to the 'images of Russian people a mouse click away'!!!!!! For me 'the scene of the crime' IS the existence of an elite. So, according to your logic - a photograph of the royal family, which mirrored in some small way an activity undertaken by other Russian women somehow erases the fact that in all other respects they were NOT like the majority of Russian women who lived in poverty. Under the Tzar regimes Russians were primarily peasants, it was only later when they flocked to the cities that they became factory workers, but this created other problems such as over crowding in houses, bad working conditions and low pay. Russians were generally treated badly under the Tsars. I am reminded through all of this discussion (in particular of the fact that many Russian women were employed in making lace for the rich) of the recent fires in Bangladesh (and the death of over 200 people, mainly women) where many women are employed to make clothes for those in Western countries. Cheap labor so that those with too much money can cater for their every whim!

  8. Yes I did. Also Marx and Engels account of living conditions in British cities - three families fourteen persons two rooms no running water, five families eighteen persons three rooms no running water... Appropriate to remember these things I guess on the 129th anniversary of the declaration of workers' right to an eight hour working day, and 127th anniversary of the McCormick Harvester strike for shorter hours. Do overarching ideas about wrong social arrangements give an account, do you think, of why this photograph became a state secret? Or why a woman was prevented from entering a coffee shop with a camera?

  9. Can you provide me with a link that explains when,by whom and for how long were the photograph(s) suppressed and I may be able to attempt to answer your question.
    Re: woman prevented... The woman in question was not prevented from entering a coffee shop. She was told she would not be served coffee (she always sat outside) if she got her camera out. Note that being outside, regardless of who she was photographing would be considered in the public domain and currently allowable. There is a difference between photographs taken of people in their private abode, different rules apply and rightly so.