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A PHOTOGRAPH OF THE PAST AND THE HOPE OF NOW

(Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters)

Last week Michael Shaw of BagNews Notes wrote a piece regarding a photo from a  Mitt Romney visit to a bakery cafe (Sweetie-licious Bakery Cafe) in Dewitt, Michigan.  His comments suggest that although Romney pulls the look off well, there was a lack of sincerity to the photo-op. I agree.

I have a difficult time with such photos in the news.  They are transparent and flimsy and obvious in that they are staged.  At best their strength is that they evoke follow up commentary.  At worst they are perceived as candid.  These photos are the dissemination of information as political strategy.  They work just as well as hot topic words used in rhetoric such as patriotism, freedom, equality, and rights but have very little if any power of reference.  Such words and photos work well to stir a since of pride and nostalgia in us all but do little to act as more than a gesture.  I do not know how the photographer, Larry Downing, felt about covering this event but on the few occasions that I have had to cover such an event (granted on a much smaller scale for local news papers) I feel a bit like I am a part of the problem.

I remember on one such occasion although not political in nature, photographing a food contest in which people of local notoriety served as judges.  At one point one of the judges, who was definitely the headlining judge, at his introduction addressed the crowd sharing his enthusiasm for being here and his delight in that this was an event with ties to a charity to which he was glad to contribute.  As a part of this fund raiser there were mystery bags that would be auctioned off to the attending crowd.  In a display of sincerity, said “celebrity judge” pulled out a very large wad of money from his pocket and pledged to the crowd that he would be hiding away at random inside the mystery bags this money, the hope being that this would sweeten the pot and stack the deck in favor of the crowd.  The equivalent of the dealer revealing his cards at a casino.  

Unfortunately we all know dealers are good at handling a deck of cards.  Just the same, “celebrity judge” was good at handling money.  And by this I mean as soon as he was done addressing the crowd he took the money as promised and began to divvy up the wad into the mystery bags.  Given that I was standing on stage however and could see what the crowd could not, I witnessed the slight of hand.  The large bills which he waved to the crowd: twenties, fifties, one hundred, were wrapped around smaller bills: ones, fives, tens and this wad was quickly flipped inside out.  The ones, fives, and tens shoved into the bags and the twenties, fifties, and one hundreds shoved into “celebrity pockets.”  To be fair, an occasional albeit rare large bill did make its way into a bag, maybe two.  I decided after witnessing this to photograph the lesser “celebrity judges” for the rest of the event.

I am not suggesting that Mitt Romney behaved the same as what I witnessed that day.  I am however, suggesting that this photo and others like it are inherently problematic.  For instance in this particular photo, disparate elements are present.  It is a bit showmanship and a bit slight of hand.  The Romney pie photo suggest that, as noted on BagNews, that he has a reverence for simpler times, the familiar.  Perhaps he does, I do not know but it is what the photo is attempting to communicate.  However, behind the action in the foreground is what I cannot ignore.  Those looming steel cooling racks and heated cabinets.  These are very industrious, heavy duty, large work capacity machinery and are descendant of technology and innovation that has done anything but preserve the past nor, it has been argued, made our lives any better. This nod to the past and embrace that the more industrious and innovative we are is not just a part of our food industry but our understanding of the relationship of the past and the future in our daily existence. Grandma’s cherry pies are baked on machines unlike grandma’s oven with the intent of precision and accuracy as though precision and accuracy are the solution.  And politicians romanticize the ideas of freedom and hope.

So in this photo there exist the idea of leaving the past and remembering the past, of suggesting its importance and disregarding its relevance.  That the future is where we find hope.  But we cannot always hold out for the future because the future is always unattainable, always what is next.  Photographs remember the past and bring the past to the present.  They are not scientific in their approach beyond the technology and the machinery of the camera.  They are not solutions. They are rather, artistic in that they pose questions.  Questions like, “can he bake a cherry pie?” Our hope is not a nod to the past and a push forward to the next innovation or new thought.  Our hope is now.  Photographs do well to illustrate this point.  Photographs marry the past to the present but they don’t tell us what is next.  We have to ask that of ourselves.  So to pose another question, what is going on in this photograph and what is next?

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