September 30, 2007

On Screen In Real Life

(revised 9:41 PST)


(click for still larger)

I’ve been meaning to post this image for weeks now.  It appeared as part of a slide show on the Newsweek/MSNBC site following Fred Thompson’s candidacy announcement.

Photographed in 2004 on the set of the TV show Law and Order, the photo features the program’s star, Sam Waterston, as Assistant Executive District Attorney Jack McCoy (near right), real NYC Mayor Bloomberg in a cameo appearance, and the both real and fictional Thompson, the latter in the guise of DA Arthur Branch.

What is fabulous about this shot is what is also so significant about visual theorist W.J.T. Mitchell’s book, What Do Pictures Want.  Mitchell takes the position that images have two discrete lives, one more literal and another more whimsical or imaginary.  In the mind of the viewer, however, Mitchell argues that each contains a complete integrity unto itself.

How is it that Reagan could have gotten away with “acting the Presidency,” or Americans could bestow credibility on a completely unqualified, yet elaborately framed and consistently stage-managed George Bush?  The answer is that humans, in lending themselves to pictures, are simultaneously wired for a more concrete, factual inspection as well as a more fantasy or “make believe” one.

What is wonderful about an image like this is how it plays both ways.

In other words, at one level of perception, we  understand 100% that this is a set, Waterston is moving around in his day job, and that  Thompson and Bloomberg share equivalency as politicians.  At another level, however, what our brain tells us — given the power of an image to assert its own internal reality –  is that DA Branch and McCoy are real, and that Bloomberg (smiling in recognition?) exists for the moment in that real imaginary world.

(image: Ed Reed / NYC Mayor’s Office-AP.  2004.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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