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04 October 2007

Richard Ross/John R. MacArthur Lecture, Part 3

The following is the third installment of a conversation between Richard Ross and John R. (Rick) MacArthur, regarding Ross's work and his book Architecture of Authority, published by Aperture this fall.

To read opening remarks made by Diana Edkins of Aperture Foundation, click here.

To read the first installment of the conversation between Ross and MacArthur, click here.

To read the second installment of the conversation between Ross and MacArthur, click

JRM: I wish I’d asked you [why the subjects were so cooperative] when we first met, because the key phrase is “THEY don’t understand the power of the camera.” That’s crucial in understanding why you were able to get away with it.

RR: I did one singular image of a chair which I thought was pure Josef K. Kafka, and they approved it digitally at Guantánamo. And I happened to be there when the military was accused of flushing Qur’ans down the toilet. It wasn’t proven positively or negatively, I think. But the image went to AP, it was picked up by Time, and a great art director there took the image and desaturated it, made it black and white, and had it as the opening spread to the special issue in Time of [Detainee 063] at Guantánamo.

Photograph from Architecture Of Authority, published by Aperture, Fall 2007.

[See the image as it appears at Time’s website by clicking here.—ed.]

And it became one of those rare events in my world, where I had a visual idea of what I wanted, I was able to convince someone to give me access to it, and I got the image that I wanted and it appeared in print, probably, ten days later. It rarely happens like that. It’s always post-justification or some miracle if something like that actually comes to be.

But they did not understand the power of the photograph. They were too concerned with not wanting two landmarks on a hilltop that would compromise fort security and tell some foreign power where this building is versus that building. And I didn’t say to them, ‘Well, pardon me, but this base has been here since the Spanish Civil War. I could go to Google Earth and look at it.” [Laughter.] “If you think it’s gonna compromise something…” Psychologically, they didn’t get that this was a more dangerous photograph for them.

JRM: I just have one thought, which I had before, but has come back to me, that the American military is not obviously monolithic any more than any other big bureaucracy is. And I don’t want to suggest that the Army which Americans, I’m sad to say, …believe is the only redeemable institution left in American society. “It’s the only place you’re gonna find straight shooters.”

But that being said, it has been my experience, in my limited reporting with the military—because I was never a war correspondent—but also in speaking at WestPoint, that the military intellectuals that I’ve met over the years—and this doesn’t necessarily filter down into the lower ranks—are much more intellectually curious and open-minded than a lot of university intellectuals that I’ve met, or rank and file journalists. And I am supported in this thesis by Marjane Satrapi, the author of Persepolis, who had precisely the same experience at WestPoint. She was shocked at how open-minded and interested, conversational, up for any kind of discussion were the teachers and the cadets.

So I’m not suggesting that we pin our hopes on the U.S. Army, but there are elements in the military—in the Marines, too—who are more democratically inclined than you might think. However, I’m still amazed that you got away with what you got away with. Especially with all the bad publicity.

03 October 2007

Richard Ross/John R. MacArthur Lecture, Part 2

The following is the second installment of a conversation between Richard Ross and John R. (Rick) MacArthur, regarding Ross's work and his book Architecture of Authority, published by Aperture this fall.

To read opening remarks made by Diana Edkins of Aperture Foundation, click here.

To read the first installment of the conversation between Ross and MacArthur, click here.

JRM: Probably the emblematic photograph in this context is the one of the 70th precinct… Does anyone have an association with the 70th precinct in Brooklyn? What happened there? [No response.] It’s the Abner Louima precinct.

Photograph from Architecture Of Authority, published by Aperture, Fall 2007.

[In 1997, Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant to the United States, was arrested by officers from the 70th precinct. He was brutally assaulted by the arresting officers at the precinct, and an attempt at a cover-up was made. Several officers were eventually indicted and found guilty of various crimes; the longest sentence issued was 30 years and almost $280,000 as restitution. New York City also settled a civil lawsuit for $8.75 million. –ed.]

…[Richard’s] father worked in that same precinct, what, fifty years earlier. And I suggest that, even in those days, such a thing could not have taken place. Now, I don’t know for a fact that nothing like that ever happened, and I stipulate in the essay that, after all, lynching was going on unpunished in the South into the early ‘50s. But it’s still really different. The 70th precinct is the same building, but it’s a different world. And [Richard] is bridging it.

RR: Well, fifty years ago… history kind of repeats. The scene of one of the more notorious police scandals in New York City history… The claim to fame was when I sit there with my wife and watch Serpico. [Al Pacino’s] Serpico says, “This is so big, this is so corrupt, it’s bigger than the Gross bookmaking scandal!” And it’s something that took place in the ‘50s.

[Harry Gross was a Brooklyn bookmaker who hit his prime in the 1940s, employing public servants, like police officers, in a successful attempt to hide his growing illegal profile. He was eventually charged, tried, and convicted in 1950 and spent eight years in jail.—ed.]

When I found out about what went on and why, a million bits of family history that were well-buried—I did some research in the Times archives and the Herald-Tribune, the World Telegram and Sun—this all bubbled to the surface. I found out more about white collar crime and the ‘50s. Which was all very benign, theoretically, but then repeated itself with crime that was not so white-collar in the ‘80s.

RM: The other thing I wanted Richard to talk a little bit about is what it’s like dealing with the American military, and authorities like the Secret Service and various police organizations. Because—and you picked up on it when [Richard] was talking, probably—there’s a kind of a strange cooperation between authority and our photographer here, which I don’t understand. As a reporter over the years, I’ve bullshitted my wan into dozens of places I wasn’t supposed to be in. But you’re only carrying a notebook. You don’t look threatening in the least. You can convince the person that the stuff you’re scrawling into your notebook isn’t gonna do them any harm; they shouldn’t feel threatened by it. You show up with a camera, it changes the relationship immensely. I’ve had it myself, when I’m shooting pictures myself…when I was in Africa, for example, in Uganda, I’ve had that experience of the guards grabbing for your camera and trying to pull the film out. So I know that cameras are threatening to authority.

So why in the hell were these people so cooperative? There’s that tense moment where they’re almost not gonna let you do it, but then they do let you take pictures of the isolation cells, the outdoor cells.

RR: Forty percent of the military force in Iraq, when I was there, were reservists or National Guard. And these are just absolutely normal people that are caught up in something they didn’t necessarily want to be in. And as long as you treat them with respect, and as long as you tell them absolutely everything that you’re doing and trying to figure out, and don’t bullshit them, they’re fine. They don’t understand the power of the camera. They don’t understand the power of a photograph. And it’s a batting average. You don’t get to everywhere that you want to go to, but if you’re persistent, you get a lot.

Going to Guantánamo took nine moths of persistence, and my hero is always James Garner on The Rockford Files. [Laughter.] Where he would have an offset printing press in his glove compartment and he would be Jim Anderson, insurance investigator. And he would make up a card and go into whatever situation he needed. So I wear the hat of a university professor, I wear the hat of a photojournalist, I work for a European journal, I can work for an American publication… it doesn’t matter.

Photograph from Architecture Of Authority, published by Aperture, Fall 2007.

And also, the nice thing about growing up in New York was that “no” was always a starting point. So if somebody says to me, “No,” that just means I have to figure out some other way of doing it. But I said to Rick earlier, in looking at conversation and interview/interrogation, I was trying to deal with people at Fort Huachuca, in Arizona. And originally they said, “You can come and photograph,” and later they said, “We did some research on who you are, and who you’re working for, and we don’t feel that your photographs will be complimentary.”

So the first day they say, “You can come,” and the next day they say—and this is in an email—not complimentary. And I’m looking at their website and their mission statement from the Pentagon, and it says that the public information office is to make [the fort] apparent, transparent and information accessible, to the U.S. military and the American public. And somehow, it doesn’t say “complimentary.”

Yet this is the relationship that the media has evolved into, where it has to be adversarial. And there are people in the military, and a lot of people in the bureaucracy that feel comfortable, and people that DON’T. And you have to seek out the people that want to help, and seek out the people hat want to tell a story that they feel will be honest. And people that don’t want to be used. And I think the book is pretty honest. It’s drawing some conclusions visually, that are maybe surprising to some people, but I’m not lying or fabricating, and there’s nothing Photoshopped in there.

So it’s an ongoing battle, but it does come back to the idea that is that I’m not a good artist, but I’m a good photojournalist. No matter what Rick says. And I have a hard time accepting no as an answer.

02 October 2007

The Padre, And Cathedrals

A very important figure in the south of Italy is the holy Padre Pino. You will find his image all over the place and in every house there is a picture of him on the wall.A resemblance above, perhaps.Being a very Catholic country, the churches and cathedrals are true pieces of art and richness.Old graves of important priests can be found with the most impressive sizes and decorations.

01 October 2007

Richard Ross/John R. MacArthur Lecture, Part 1

The following is the first installment of a conversation between Richard Ross and John R. (Rick) MacArthur, regarding Ross's work and his book Architecture of Authority, published by Aperture this fall.

To read opening remarks made by Diana Edkins of Aperture Foundation, click here.

JRM: You can see why I had so much fun writing the essay for this. It wasn’t even necessary to write an essay; Rich is a good writer. His afterword is very good, and he describes the work intelligently and in an interesting way. But what this proves when you look at [the book] and, believe me, I don’t classify it in any way as a photojournalist… What we learned as police reporters, when I was a police reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, was that photographers are always better reporters—better journalists—than reporters are, and the way to get to the story, or to get to the heart of the matter, is to follow the photographer.

…I want to urge all of you to buy the book, because I’m not going to give away the secret of Richard’s father’s fascinating story [told by Ross in the afterword]. But what struck me when I looked at the pictures for the first time on the computer screen were the juxtapositions. I mean, [Ross] is a guy with an imagination which is above and beyond what you usually see in photography books. He’s making associations and connections that HE doesn’t even understand. And I saw it as my job to draw some of them out.

Photograph from Architecture Of Authority, published by Aperture, Fall 2007.

Now, maybe he’s going to tell you more about his background when we get a little more into the conversation, or his childhood, but for me it became kind of an investigative interview, and I really wanted to know more about what was motivating him to make these connections. Because to put a Montessori circle at the beginning of a book, with the little opening, for any parents who have individual children in circle time, in any school, and a death chamber, a lethal injection chamber at the end, is something from someone who’s doing something a little more interesting than the usual photography.

Photograph from Architecture Of Authority, published by Aperture, Fall 2007.

The other point I’d make is about what you see when you see these photographs on the screen. To show you how little I know about production and photography, even though I’ve been a publisher for twenty-three years… the stuff looks different on the printed page than it does on the screen. When the book finally came out, I was really jarred by some of the images in a way I wasn’t when I first saw them on the computer screen. Now, what I was looking at when I was writing were, I don’t know what they were… just computer printouts, color Xeroxes, or what?

RR: Some of them were prints; some of them were low-res [digital images].

JRM: Right… they weren’t as good as what you see in the book. Which is a tribute to Aperture, I suppose, and in any event I think the whole project is interesting on two levels. …First of all, Rich is an artist, not a photojournalist, and this is—I believe I quote Arthur Danto in the essay—for me disturbatory art. It’s upsetting, but it’s also working on an aesthetic level that’s very challenging and very interesting. So when I was trying to figure out what to say about it, I gave myself plenty of license. I drove off the road to hit Picasso just for the hell of it, as you’ll read, but I was trying not to turn it into a polemical essay, because obviously when you look at these pictures, you want to make political associations with our policy in Iraq, the invasion, and so forth. America becoming a torture state.

So it’s not easy to look at these pictures and [resist making] the obvious political associations. …Nancy Grubb, the editor of the book, was also very good in getting me to think about the aesthetic point of the book, which is different, I think, from the political point.

So what I wanted Richard to talk about was how he saw the balance between an aesthetic approach to architecture of authority, and genuine political outrage which, believe me, he feels. When we talked about it, it became quite evident. So can you talk a little about balancing it, if you even thought about balancing it?

RR: Part of it is… yes, it is political outrage, and it is a fascination with how we’re—I’m not going to go off on too much of a diatribe—how we’re sheep being led in a direction [that is] unbelievable to me, because I really feel like I grew up in a golden age, absolutely. Going to every play on Broadway for $2.60… my parents were very cultured. Very modest means, but we would go to a lot of museums and institutions. And then I look at what goes on today, and I see a very different world. Especially in terms of Congress. So I try to figure out how we got here.

And I did a talk in Claremont, where instead of being introduced, I asked them not to introduce me. And people are just milling around, and everybody was chatting, and I just stood there. And then, when I didn’t say anything after awhile, people were just quiet. I’m behind a lectern. And a couple of people were still talking, and then it stopped completely.

And then I introduced the whole concept of the authority of silence. In ways that you’re not accustomed to it. You have to become aware of it. So just as Rick and I are sitting up here, and you’re listening to us, sitting there in parallel rows that extend… there’s a certain authority here that you’ve ceded to us.

And we have ceded so much as a society and a culture. It’s unbelievable. And everything that goes on in terms of the perfect timing. People interned at Guantánamo, at trial now—the appellate court has said these people can face military tribunals because they’re now enemy combatants, but they’re something else now… it’s almost like I Spy, or Maxwell Smart, something super-secret that they’re now dubbed, and “Now we can try you [in a military tribunal].” How can you do this? Where is habeas corpus? How has this been allowed to continue?

So in a very simple way, I’m not sure if I’m flattered or insulted that Rick calls me an artist rather than a photojournalist. I’ve always aspired to be a photojournalist. But I feel there’s a limited amount of time in which you can do work that you look at and you say, “Line, form, texture, composition.” It just doesn’t make sense in the contemporary world. It has to be engaged for everybody at every level, to do something that’s more assertive in recapturing something.

Richard Ross/John R. MacArthur Lecture, Opening Remarks

What follows are opening remarks to a lecture and conversation between Richard Ross and John R. (Rick) MacArthur, regarding Ross's work and his book Architecture of Authority, published by Aperture this fall. The remarks were made by Diana Edkins, Director of Exhibitions and Limited Edition Prints.

To read the first installment of the conversation between Ross and MacArthur, click here.

DE: Good evening, and thank you very much for joining us here at Aperture Foundation for our first educational program of the fall season. My name is Diana Edkins, Director of Exhibitions and Limited Edition Photographs at Aperture.

We will be featuring Richard Ross’s exhibition, Architecture of Authority, next May, and I hope you all come back for that. And I am pleased to welcome Rick McArthur, and Richard Ross tonight, for what I’m sure will be a very provocative discussion of Richard’s work.

Richard Ross has taught at the University of California Santa Barbara since 1977. He has published nearly a dozen books, including Museology, published by Aperture in 1989. We are thrilled to be working with him again. He has just received, in 2007, a Guggenheim Fellowship for this project, Architecture of Authority. It is a comprehensive socio-political investigation of architectural spaces that exert psychological power over the individuals within them. Ross’s approach to photography is to show you an idea and then ask you to think it through for yourselves.

Rick McArthur is president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine, and an award-winning journalist and author. He writes monthly columns for The Providence Journal in English and for Montreal’s Le Devoir, in French. Since 1994, the magazine has received eleven National Magazine Awards, the industry’s highest recognition.