Friday, November 14, 2008

The Forever War will continue to welcome the dead until we make it stop

New Arrivals in Land of the Dead
A different take on one of my photographs from the Memorial Mile on Madison's Speedway Road. (Best viewed large: Click on photo to get to my Flickr stream and click "All Sizes.")

The haunting display runs along the edge of Forest Hills Cemetery, which is the resting place for hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as veterans who served in the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Viet Nam and the first Gulf War. The week of Veterans Day, they were joined by symbolic grave markers representing the 4,800 Americans who perished in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have to stop filling our cemeteries this way.

Elton Tylenda has a lot to say about this. He's the member of Vets for Peace I talked to on Veterans Day when I stopped to take photos. He was kind enough to email me the editorial he wrote, "When Will We Ever Learn?" There's not much I can add other than reprinting it below. It's a must-read -- eloquent, forceful and moving. Read it. Pass it around. Email to your friends, using the handy gizmo at the bottom.

When Will We Ever Learn?
by Elton Tylenda

Veterans Day one year later and VFP members once again erected a Memorial Mile of tombstone replicas to demonstrate the growing cost in blood of our illegal wars of occupation. This year the display is along Speedway road in Forest Hill Cemetery. Walking the mile in the cold and gloom I thought of a poem learned as a child titled "In Flanders Fields." A Canadian officer wrote it in 1915 while viewing the crosses of those killed in WWI, "the great war - the war to end wars." The lines of that poem altered in my mind to: In Madison the tombstones grow amid the leaves row on row.

This year it took hundreds of feet of additional ground and tombstones to represent the wasted lives from year five of Bush's folly. In reality "the war to end wars" actually set the stage for WWII and our present wars of aggression actually generate more hatred and terror throughout the world.

The Memorial Mile is one attempt to resurrect the truth which has been lost in the false glorification and heroism of war fueled by the Pentagon's paid propagandists posing as independent analysts and journalists. There are real heroes in times of war but they go unrecognized until people can see through the "fog of war" that propaganda generates. Friedrich Sigmund-Schultze, the German who refused to be part of his country's war of aggression in 1914 and later co-founded the international peace group The Fellowship Of Reconciliation, is a good example. At the time he was berated and jailed as a traitor.

Today we have a growing number of Iraq veterans like former staff sergeant Camilo Majia who was featured in the PBS documentary, "Soldiers of Conscience." He was jailed and dishonorably discharged from the military for his heroic efforts to inform us about, and take a stand against, the slaughter of civilians and other war crimes in Iraq. As a combat soldier in Vietnam I didn't have the courage to take a stand against the brutal mistreatment and murders of civilians there. So unlike Mejia I was rewarded for being a "good" boy blindly following orders and playing it safe. In the light of Majia's heroism my medal, and honorable discharge feel like a badge of cowardice and shame. Majia and veterans like him deserve the highest honor and not just on Veterans Day. They are the conscience of our nation in these dark times.

People viewing the Memorial Mile might consider the following: the thousands of veterans who committed suicide are not represented here, nor are the hundreds of KBR and Blackwater mercenaries killed since 2001; If VFP set tombstones in the same dense pattern to represent civilians killed in Iraq, the display would run uninterrupted for over 200 miles; and active duty soldiers consider this – When I returned to Vietnam 30 yrs after the war I was asked by a woman, "why did you come half way across the world to kill us?" The reasons I would have given her 30 yrs ago have since been exposed as lies - just three remain: control of the Michelin rubber plantations, corporate profits, and permanent bases to protect corporate profits. In Iraq it will come down to control of oil, corporate profits, and permanent bases to protect corporate profits. Is that worth dying for? Or worse, is that worth killing for?

Looking around the cemetery I see thousands of flowers on hundreds of graves of soldiers killed from the civil war to the present, and Pete Seger's song replays in my head: "where have all the flowers gone?...gone to graveyards every one...when will they ever learn?" We the majority can change this with or without the support of president Obama – yes we can! WE are the ones we've been waiting for. Exposing the truth about slavery led to its end. In the true spirit of Armistice – now Veterans Day, together we can do the same about war.

Note: Vets for Peace are looking for volunteers to help remove the markers. If you want to pitch in, show up at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow, Saturday, Nov. 15.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"People should talk less and draw more."

Milwaukee Art Museum
People should talk less and draw more. Personally, I would like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic nature, communicate everything I have to say visually. -- Goethe

The design of Santiago Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum addition has such a sleek geometry and mathematicall purity of line that it looks as if could only have been created on a computer, but Calatrava does not work with either a computer or traditional drafting equipment. He begins by sketching quick, freehand watercolor abstractions of natural forms.

Milwaukee Art MuseumI read about his working methods in Rebecca Mead's New Yorker profile of the Spanish architect recently. It's a wide-ranging look at his life and work, along with his thoughts about the practice of architecture. (He does not like to think of himself as a brand, although his clients seem eager to position his work that way.) There's a section on the dramatic impact his museum addition has had on Milwaukee and its lakefront. But what I most enjoyed was Mead's description of how he works, drawing on his background as a painter and sculptor.
For Calatrava, who is one of the world’s most successful architects, sketching with watercolors is an essential part of his creative process. He does not work with a computer or with drafting equipment; each of his buildings begins with a sheaf of paint-dappled pages. His archive in Switzerland includes more than a hundred thousand sketches; he has also had copies of them bound into handsome keepsake books for his clients, a beguilingly artisanal alternative to a PowerPoint presentation.

Calatrava typically paints images—a leaping figure, a charging bull, a disembodied eye, a skeletal hand—that at first seem to have nothing to do with buildings but, rather, suggest the contents of the sketchbook of an art student who has spent the afternoon at MOMA lingering over the Picassos. The relevance of such drawings becomes fully apparent in Calatrava’s completed structures, which are instantly recognizable for their use of sculptural forms that draw upon motifs found in the natural world.
Calatrava's fondness for the watercolor sketch goes beyond the act of creation and also extends to its presentation. So much is at stake in presenting plans for a new building that most architects try to minimize risk and control the situation with teams of assistants, models and PowerPoint slides. Calatrava apparently revels in the risk or at least has a different idea of showmanship.
In Li├Ęge, Belgium, Calatrava was one of seven contestants in an architectural competition to design a high-speed-train station. His rivals came in teams, armed with examples of their past work; Calatrava showed up alone, with his paintbrush, and won the commission.
The introduction to Calatrava's website consists of a brief video showing how one of the architect's dramatic buildings began with him sketching that disembodied eye that Mead mentions. Calatrava doesn't talk in the video, although he speaks six languages. He simply draws.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Driving down Madison's Speedway Road this morning, the grave markers went on forever

Nov.11, 2008: "Mourn the Dead, Heal the Wounded, End the War"
I took a detour on the way to work this morning. T had reminded me that Madison Veterans for Peace had put up their Memorial Mile along Speedway Road at Forest Hill Cemetery for Veterans Day week. I wasn't prepared for what I saw. Approaching from the West, I could just see a few distant white forms on the right, which resolved into symbolic grave markers as I drew closer. It just didn't seem that dramatic.

Nov.11, 2008: "Mourn the Dead, Heal the Wounded, End the War"Until I crested the hill. Then, the markers seemed to go on forever, stretching all the way down the long hill, practically all the way to Highland and Regent. The sense of loss and waste was overwhelming, and yet there was nothing strident about the message. Just 4,800 mute white markers reminding us of the U.S. service personnel who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Signs marked the different years when the fatalities had occurred, and there were blue Wisconsin flags next to the markers for the 95 Wisconsin men and women who gave their lives.

I parked my car in the cemetery and just sat there for a moment, looking out at the endless line of tombstones. Then I walked over the information tent that was manned by a lone volunteer, Elton Tylenda, a Vietnam vet, peace activist and counselor for Vietnam vets. As we talked, cars drove by and beeped their horns in support. He talked about the meaning of the memorial Mile and its symbols of mourning and remembrance: "Mourn the dead, heal the wounded, end the war."


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Which version of the same photograph of Sarah Palin in the NYT is more 'real'? Why?

The New York Times published this Al Grillo/Associated Press photo in color on the web Friday and it appeared in Saturday's print edition in B&W. The photo illustrated the NYT's story headlined Palin Calls Criticism by McCain Aides ‘Cruel and Mean-Spirited.’ I thought it raised some interesting questions about how photographs set the stage for the articles they illustrate, and specifically about the difference in the way color and B&W can "frame" a story.

The color photo of Palin in her office after her "welcome back" party seems the much more sympathetic of the two, because the scene seems so cheerful. The colors are light and pastel and almost innocently childlike. The color palette is joyful. Even political opponents almost can't help being somewhat sympathetic toward Palin as a person, cutting her a bit of slack. Some might be inclined to think, "Who knows, maybe she's right. maybe they did treat her badly," when Palin fires back at the McCain aides who leaked to the press about her.
Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska fired back Friday at the unnamed McCain campaign aides who have been maligning her in recent days, saying that their criticism was “cruel and it’s mean-spirited, it’s immature, it’s unprofessional, and those guys are jerks.”
In contrast, the B&W picture reads very differently. There's nothing joyous in it. It's a classic morning-after picture of a loser, standing alone among the colorless debris of dashed hopes and a failed campaign. And so it's easy to read Palin's remarks differently, too. They come off as sour grapes, the bitter reflections of a loser unwilling to acknowledge responsibility and blaming her former colleagues.

I'm not sure the NYT meant anything in particular by the different choices of color and B&W here. Probably it was just a reflection of the different ways they use photos on the web (where color is essentially free) and in print (where color always costs more, often substantially more). But the examples are a reminder of how color and B&W versions of the same subject often project a different feeling -- and that these differences can be used to color the words that accompany them.

And I'm not saying the Times did anything wrong, or that they somehow distorted the B&W version to make a point. The NYT B&W version of the photo was a neutral, grayscale conversion in which the color information in the file is simply discarded. This is arguably the most neutral, "accurate" method, but it is also the method least favored by serious photographers, because it tends to produce visually boring photos with a limited tonal range -- and, indeed, the image in the NYT print edition was rather flat. There are other ways to do it.

For example, here's my completely different rendition, which I think of as "The Death of Hope." Now Sarah Palin is surrounded by black balloons. The balloon as memento mori that people love to inflict on coworkers who've turned 40. Even as a joke, it has an edge to it -- an indirect reference to the end of youthful dreams, or worse, being one step closer to the Big Sleep. I used Photoshop settings equivalent to heavy red filtration on a film camera. I like to think of it as representing the total failure of the religious right in this election.

In the old days, photographers made decisions about the kind of film they used, or sometimes, their selection of filters, and darkroom processing that determined what their B&W images would look like. Today the decisions are made in digital post processing, and unless a straight grayscale conversion is used, it's up to the photographer (or whoever processes the file) to decide which colors come out as the darker and lighter shades of gray in a B&W photo.

Which image is the most accurate representation of the scene in Governor Palin's office? There's no one answer. It depends on what the photographer intended -- and what the viewer sees in it. I, for partly political reasons and partly esthetic ones, prefer my version.