Kevin Bjorke
Kevin Bjorke
2 min read

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The Price is Right

(7th Psychological Operations Group, US Naval Air Station Sunnyvale, Moffet Field)

In my blog draining from yesterday: Kristopher Stallworth of Bakersfield found a poster of Gursky’s “99 Cent Store” hanging in – where else? – a 99 Cent Store, and Conscientious has the shot.

When Gursky was here at SFMOMA a couple of years back, he commented that he had met the CEO of K-Mart, who also had a (probably “real” and pricey) print of “99 Cent Store” in his office. It was left ambiguous as to whether the exec felt that the photo criticized or glorified its subject… a little less ambiguous in Stallworth’s discovery?

It reminds me too of the days of ancient Pixar, before Toy Story, when advertisers would repeatedly approach the studio with what they considered their Big Idea: they had seen Luxo Jr. Their quick-reacting repitilian brains had smelled food and would Pixar please do another spot just like the one that Pixar had done for the Luxo company, only for product XYZ? They simply couldn’t imagine that the film had been made for any reason other than to sell more lamps.

(I actually have no idea if it had any actual effect on the sales of real-world Luxo lamps, but that was not remotely the film’s intent – the only intent was to entertain, using Pixar’s then-new pre-RenderMan renderer)

This idea of wrongly-perceived purpose opens a narrow window on a problem that seems inherent with any sort of mass media – its existence automatically valorizes any subject, even when the intent of the maker may be to condemn (a situation not inherent in Gursky – he is usually rather deliberate in his neutrality, at least when speaking about his images). Thus “anti-gangster” films like Scarface are idolized by gangsta wanna-be’s, proliferating celphone videos of misogynist “honor killings” promote more of the same, books of war photos become promoted to politely-fascinating coffee-table items, or used as images not to prevent war but to foment and celebrate it. One man’s horror made into another’s grand circus.

Always the old twisting knot of intent and effect. Natchwey has said he feels compelled to make the very best photos he can, with every aesthetic tool he can muster, out of respect for the people he photographs and their situations. Salgado does the same thing and gets criticized for “aesthetic anaesthesia,” that somehow presenting his subjects in a compelling way wraps them up in Too Much Art. How much is too much? Does less reduce the value to the subject? The more you wriggle, the tighter the knot gets. Andreas? Ed? Henri?

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