November 6, 2015

The Art of the Newswire Photo

On the one hand, newswire photos represent one of the most perishable and unheeded art forms ever. On the other hand, the expressive nature of these images has never been higher.

These three photos, for example, all appeared in the same MSNBC “Week in Pictures” slideshow over a month ago. Eye candy, you say? Of course. At the same time, though, these pictures (at least, the first two) are not only impressively graphic but suggest some incisive impression about contemporary culture.

The photo above, for example, features the chair occupied by a dizzying array of world leaders during the recent U.N. General Assembly  in New York. It represents a subtle, artful as well as an emphatic statement about the elevated need for, as well as the vacuum in international leadership.

Perhaps the issue of our time is the gaping disparity between rich and poor, and the rampant development that pushes all else aside. Here, we are looking at:

…an Indian construction worker brushing his teeth as he sits next to a mobile water tanker in front of an under construction residential building complex in Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi.

Yes, the juxtaposition, the scale, the silhouette and the colored partition powerfully express the social divide. Playing on still another level is the echo of public art and visual activism. In other words, the worker could as easily have been left there by Banksy.

Finally, you could argue this last photo is almost purely figurative. With the previous image in mind, however, also consider the phrasing of the caption:

Strong autumn sunlight casts deep shadows on a street as a woman takes her pet dog for a walk in Straubing, Bavaria, southern Germany.

Might “strong autumn sunlight” evoke the same tension as the line in “The Waste Land” about April being “the cruelest month”? When you think about the planet, and the strength of the sunlight when the days should finally be cooling off, what strikes me, at least, is the sense of being baked into the pavement.

(photo 1: Mike Segar/Reuters caption: A man carries out the chair reserved for the head of states that will be used before they address attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, Sept. 29, 2015. photo 2: Manish Swarup/AP caption: An Indian construction worker brushes his teeth as he sits next to a mobile water tanker in front of an under construction residential building complex in Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi, India, Sept. 30, 2015. India’s central bank on Tuesday cut its key interest rate by half a percentage point, aiming to spur economic growth as inflation cooled to the lowest since November.. photo 3: Armin Weigel/EPA ).

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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