Ben O'Leary – Hull based film maker and commercial photographer Ben O'Leary - Hull based film maker and commercial photographer Thu, 12 Oct 2017 17:59:14 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 136782619 Paul Strand & Bob Adelman Mon, 09 Oct 2017 14:03:01 +0000 1910 – 1919 “The White Fence”, 1916 – Paul Strand. This account seeks to understand Paul Strand’s “The White Fence” in the cultural, social, political and historical context of America at the time of it’s creation. By examining the world of 1910-1920 America, one can attempt to uncover meaning or influence in the artistic works […]

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1910 – 1919 “The White Fence”, 1916 – Paul Strand.

This account seeks to understand Paul Strand’s “The White Fence” in the cultural, social, political and historical context of America at the time of it’s creation. By examining the world of 1910-1920 America, one can attempt to uncover meaning or influence in the artistic works of the period.

The early 1900’s were a turbulent time for the emerging Modern world. The industrialisation of the 1800’s had led to mass-migration from the countryside into cities in Europe and laterly in the US. Rapid advances in science and technology saw mankind establish a new level of dominance over the limits of the natural world. Engineers made mass transit a possibility with the invention of the railways, along with tunnels and bridges that made previously impossible journeys a reality for many people. Humans had also mastered flight, indeed by 1919 there had been a staged crossing of the Atlantic by plane. Scientists had proposed the theory of General Relativity (Einstein, 1905), Quantum Theory (Planck, 1900), discovered radiation and linked the world with transatlantic cables. New technology mechanised war with the invention of the machine gun in 1884 and of tanks in 1914, whilst medical science learned to develop vaccines, transfuse blood and use X-Rays.

Whilst the positive benefits of industrialisation were clear for others the experience was different. Poor conditions for women and children, urban squalor and a world fractured by war left millions displaced and disenfranchised. By 1920 around 27 million immigrants had arrived in the US in search of a better life (a third of this total arrived between 1910 and 1920). Against this backdrop of mass immigration, capitalism, industrialised America and global uncertainty, Paul Strand (from an immigrant family himself) began his education in photography under the tutelage of Lewis Hine. Socially conscious Hine was working on a project photographing immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and he “instilled in Strand a deep sense of commitment to the social betterment of humankind.” ( 2004). This sense of social responsibility echoed throughout Strand’s life (he grew to be a committed socialist) and strongly influenced his future work in both film and photography.

Hine also introduced Strand to Alfred Stieglitz, who contributed enormously to the introduction of modern art into America through numerous exhibitions including the work of Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne and the sculptor Rodin (Voorheis, 2004). Strand immersed himself in this new, modern art – especially the work of Cezanne and Picasso to such an extent that in 1916 he undertook a series of photographic experiments to enable him to understand “how you build a picture, what a picture consists of, how shapes are related to each other, how spaces are filled, how the whole thing must have a kind of unity.” (Hambourg, p32. 1997). Whilst much of Strand’s early work was pictorialist in nature his experiments in 1916 saw him testing boundaries and questioning how he could use photography to respond to the modern art which influenced him.

“The White Fence” Strand’s 1916 photograph, is one of the results of his experiments in new ways of seeing through photography. It seems that Strand has de-constructed a typical rural scene, choosing to highlight a picket fence instead of the (more typical) larger picture. This alternative view of an otherwise normal subject has roots in Strand’s cubist influences. As photography began to replace traditional methods of painting, cubism sought to redefine the artists way of seeing the world – in a direct correlation The White Fence sets out to change the way photographs see the world. The image is also stark in contrast to Strand’s other work at the time, which concerned itself primarily with street portraits and the theme of movement within the city ( 2004).

The White Fence is an example of an arts movement effecting the work of a photographer more normally concerned with socio-political image making. If cubism provided the inspiration for Strand to subvert the use of the camera to describe, then our second photograph can be seen as a clear reminder of the stark power of the documentary photograph.

1960 – 1969 “A boy protests segregated education (1966)”, Bob Adelman

Bob Adelman’s “A boy protests segregated education” (1966) has an immediate and clear meaning to the viewer, made emphatic by the placards on display in the image.

Any attempt to contextualise this photograph must begin with an understanding of the Civil Rights movement and its social and political implications. From the origins of American slavery in the late 16th Century to protests on the streets of America in the 1960’s; the African American story is one marked by oppression, degradation, contradiction and war. The modern Civil Rights movement can trace it’s roots back to 1807 and the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire and in the United States.

Following the American Civil War a period of Reconstruction saw races mix in Southern politics and daily life, despite this apparent progress the “Jim Crow” laws enacted at the end of C19 saw black and white segregation made a reality. (Gould, 2001). Segregation argued that blacks and whites should exist separately, but equally – the reality was starkly different. Southern states contrived to prevent black people from voting: “..potential voters had to swear that they were white Democrats, the poll tax where a payment for voting was demanded, and the literacy test that compelled illiterate black and white voters to answer questions before being handed a ballot” (Gould, 2001).

Though the first half of C20 saw some progress for black Americans, culminating in President Truman’s desegregation of the US Armed Forces and racial segregation in schools being deemed unconstitutional, the US remained deeply split over the issue of race. Civil Rights dominated US domestic politics in the 1960’s. Martin Luthor King Jr and Malcolm X became prominent figures, spearheading both non-violent and violent protest – both men were great orators and both succeeded in galvanizing mass-support for their cause; by 1968 both King and X had been assassinated.

The 1960’s were a complicated time, besides the Civil Rights movement there were many other issues on the national agenda: John F Kennedy’s presidency was defined by the Cold War: the failed “Bay of Pigs” assault on Cuba, the Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis (which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war) and the race to the moon. Before his assassination in 1963 the Kennedy administration was growing increasingly concerned by the rise of communism in South East Asia. In the wake of his death America was a nation in mourning – still divided along racial lines, on the brink of war in Vietnam and living in fear of the rise of communism.

Mass media had become a reality, television played a huge role in shaping public opinion, Kennedy’s performance in the first ever televised Presidential debates was cited as one of the major factors contributing to his success in the election and TV images opened people’s eyes to the horror of the Vietnam war. Folk music and protest songs provided a soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement, while recreational drug use (pot and LSD) created a new kind of expanded conscience – personal expression permeated culture and counterculture. Women’s rights and female contraception saw the rise of a second wave of feminism, seeking to redress gender inequalities. The birth of pop culture, consumerism, increased personal freedom, flower power and free love stood in stark contrast to the ongoing Civil Rights and Vietnam issues.

In this postmodern period, the artistic community reacted to the world as it unfolded before them, pop artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein echoed the explosion of consumerism, appropriating and subverting familiar objects and imagery in order to question the perception of art. Pop Art often provided a visual counterpoint to the shocking reality of the decade’s troubles, it’s meanings and motives were often political. Motifs of repetition and subverted imagery represented the emotional detachment which artists like Warhol believed was a symptom of endless exposure to TV news and advertising. Minimalism on the other hand eliminated the ephemera of pop art and reduced the experience of art to simple colours and geometric shapes.

Regardless of the observations and reactions of the artistic community, the issues and politics of the sixties were visible to all. Like Lewis Hine half a century before, Bob Adelman was a photographer that understood the power of images in the fight against social injustice. By documenting the the civil rights struggle he was able to give a voice to the people he photographed. No single event or photograph was responsible for civil rights change in America, a continued and concerted effort of grass-roots protest and activism (documented by the likes of Adelman) allowed the US to observe their own hypocrisy, change was inevitable – the people, and the markets demanded it.


Hambourg, Maria Morris, 1997. Paul Strand circa 1916. Edition. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lewis L. Gould, 2001. America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1914. 1 Edition. Longman.

Griffiths, Richard. 2001. Heinemann Advanced History: Civil Rights in the USA 1863-198. Edition. Heinemann Secondary Education.

Gaiger, J, 2004. Frameworks for Modern Art (Art of the Twentieth Century). Edition. Yale University Press., 2012. “Paul Strand (1890–1976)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004), accessed 17/11/2012.

Murphy, Derrick. 2001. United States, 1776-1992 (Flagship History). Edition. Harpercollins Education.

Bob Adelman’s best shot | Art and design | The Guardian . 2012. Bob Adelman’s best shot | Art and design | The Guardian . [ONLINE] Available at: artanddesign /2008/jan/03/photography. [Accessed 22 November 2012].

Voorhies, James. “Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and His Circle”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

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Lee Miller’s Non-conformist chapel Sun, 08 Oct 2017 12:36:09 +0000 Lee Miller’s Non-conformist chapel, 1941.   Lee Miller’s early life was shaped by a love of art, adventure and a refusal to conform to stereotypes and expectations. As a 19 year old Art Student, Miller fell into a modelling career, wanting more she soon sought to create her own photo-journalism. Time spent in France in […]

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Lee Miller’s Non-conformist chapel, 1941.


Lee Miller’s early life was shaped by a love of art, adventure and a refusal to conform to stereotypes and expectations. As a 19 year old Art Student, Miller fell into a modelling career, wanting more she soon sought to create her own photo-journalism. Time spent in France in her early 20’s exposed Miller to a wider artistic community where she became influenced by surrealist contemporaries, and in turn influenced them. Most notably Lee Miller and Man Ray worked together during this time.

Returning to the states Miller enjoyed success in her own studio before becoming disillusioned with making photographs. She married at 27 and moved to Egypt where her thirst for culture, adventure and independence grew; as did her desire to return to the camera to document her experiences.

Making Europe her home Miller sought work at British Vogue as a photographer. Routine fashion, advertising and celebrity portrait assignments grew dull and she began to collaborate with two fellow Americans on a book titled “Grim Glory: pictures of Britain Under Fire”.

Lee Miller’s “Non-conformist Chapel” was presented in Grim Glory in 1941 alongside 108 other examples of black and white blitz photography, interspersed with text. At first sight the image appears to be an objective documentary record of the damage done to London’s buildings during the night time bombing raids of Hitler’s Germany.

The photograph is in sharp focus throughout and shows a scene composed of stone, brick and twisted metal. The picture is anchored by a single doorway which fills the centre of the frame. The viewer is drawn in by converging lines, compelled to focus on bricks and stone pouring from the doorway.

The scene is rough and disordered, we understand the violence of the apparent collapse; a fragment of a closed door remains in place; the rest of the door has been smashed away. Debris has surged from the doorway, twisting through a wrought iron fence in front of the building, carrying on through the bottom of the frame.

A poster remains in place to the right of the door advertising a “Children’s Sunday School”, the poster shows children running towards an open armed Christ. There is space for a similar poster on the opposite side of the doorway, however the poster is missing – it’s been torn down.

We’re drawn back to the bricks to re-evaluate their appearance, pouring from the doorway, each one shown in harsh contrast. We ask if this congregation is fleeing the church, or perhaps fleeing religion which no longer offers sanctuary. The top face of each brick is brightly lit by the sun creating areas of high contrast; are these faces looking to the heavens with hope or despair, will they be answered?

Columns of stone frame the door and leave the top of the photograph abruptly a couple of feet above the doorway – we glimpse the open sky on either side of the columns. The columns form vertical lines which lead the viewer out of the frame. It is impossible to know how much of the building remains intact, but our eyes are forced upwards in an attempt to seek an answer, just like the rest of the congregation.

Every facet of humanity was tested to breaking point during the horrors of this time. Lee’s photograph goes beyond describing the blitz and perhaps the illusion of the brick congregation hides the base nature of this photograph. As we take stock of the image and of our own thoughts around the story it tells, we stare back at a mouth unable to contain the sickening horror of war.

Perhaps this photograph is simply a mirror.


  • Antony Penrose, 1995. The Lives of Lee Miller. Edition. Thames & Hudson.
  • Jane Livingston, 1989. Lee Miller Photographer. First Edition. Thames & Hudson.

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The Right to Self Expression Is More Important Than The Right To Privacy, Or The Protection Of Particular Moral Codes (i.e. Religious, Violence, War, Taboo etc) Sun, 08 Oct 2017 11:03:27 +0000 Art history is as synonymous with controversy and moral indignation as it is beauty, from Caravaggio’s syphilitic self portrait to Courbet’s The Origin of The World, Duchamp’s urinal and Postmodernism. Artists seemingly express themselves according to their own needs and desires, with apparent disregard for the sensibilities of the viewing public. In our increasingly globalised […]

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Art history is as synonymous with controversy and moral indignation as it is beauty, from Caravaggio’s syphilitic self portrait to Courbet’s The Origin of The World, Duchamp’s urinal and Postmodernism. Artists seemingly express themselves according to their own needs and desires, with apparent disregard for the sensibilities of the viewing public.

In our increasingly globalised world issues surrounding freedom of expression versus the protection of moral norms continue to polarise communities along religious, aesthetic and ethical lines. Questions asking what is right or wrong and indeed what right and wrong mean, have formed the nucleus of ethical debate since the birth of philosophy. Moral frameworks exist in societies as mechanisms to allow them to function, balancing the needs of society against individual freedoms. Through an evolution of systems of laws, conventions, social contracts and religion a general morality is codified. Despite the implied societal benefit brought about by the adherence to moral codes, the right to self expression is also enshrined in Western law. From the American First Amendment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act, freedom of speech and expression is implicit.

This essay will consider various critical perspectives and seek to contextualise the work of Marcus Harvey (Myra, 1995) and Andres Serrano (Piss Christ, 1987) within relevant historical, social and moral frameworks in order to establish an understanding as to why the right to self expression should be protected ahead of the general moral codes of the wider society.

Marcus Harvey’s ‘Myra’ is a large monochrome portrait of a woman’s face; upon closer inspection it is possible to see that the image has been created from a composite of hundreds of black, white and grey prints of tiny hands, creating a pixelated aesthetic.

The subject of the painting is Myra Hindley who, as an accomplice to Ian Brady was responsible for the murder of five children between 1963 and 1965. Harvey’s painting is different to a typical portrait; rather than paint Hindley from sketches or photographic studies he chose to recreate her infamous custodial photograph, which itself was iconic having been embedded into the consciousness of the British public through years of media use. The painting was bought by art collector Charles Saatchi and brought to prominence by it’s

inclusion in the Young British Artists show “Sensation” in 1997, the work was re-produced and

Myra, Marcus Harvey, 1995

used as the chief promotional image of the show propelling Harvey’s vision into the mainstream.

From the outset public reaction to ‘Myra’ was intensely fierce, family members of the victims and the public called for it’s removal from Saatchi’s gallery, however the painting remained. Violating a basic ethical principle that “The right thing to do is that which is likely to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” Thompson (2006: p.65) Harvey had created something which despite causing offence, was allowed to exist within the public sphere in which it offended. Such artwork can be labeled as ‘transgressive’, described in Cashell (2009: p.1) as something which shocks by subverting conservatism and traditional moral beliefs, by going ‘too far’ and violating enlightened culture making it impossible to engage with as one would traditional artworks. In order that this be the case there must be a greater, perceived societal value to allowing the transgressive to exist and indeed be celebrated.

In order to understand the transgression in the case of ‘Myra’ one must attempt to understand the impact of the Moors Murders on the public psyche of Britain. In the new age of mass media, images of the case were beamed across the nation’s TV screens. A single image more than any other became symbolic of the crime: Hindley’s custodial photograph. The photograph is so powerfully imbued with meaning that Harvey’s representation of it created an immediate lens on to every possible connotation of the image with it’s encoded signfiers of murder, peadophillia, infantacide and perhaps most importantly the social taboo of a woman harming a child and the sanctity of childhood. This photograph, the index of a killer, through decades of repeated media use became a symbol of evil enforced with semantic rigour. Hindley’s mugshot is an iconic image, revered and reviled, it is the ultimate totem: “the photo can no longer be regarded without the knee-jerk reaction of merging Hindley the woman, serving her sentence for the heinous and unforgivable crimes she assisted in and perpetrated, with Hindley the monster, an embodiment of an evil without kinds or degrees.” Campbell (2011,

Of course Harvey’s painting is not the photograph, it is indexical, merely the essence of the photograph; his representation of the nadir of humanity. In defence of his work Cashell (2009: p53-67) Harvey describes Myra as purely aesthetic, informing the image of Hindley with a child’s innocence in order to re-establish physical recollection, he describes the original photograph as having a hideous attraction and being powerfully ambiguous. He goes further by stating that the painting’s subject is the photograph, not Myra Hindley and therefore to seek to read the works signifieds is a mistake. Cashell describes this as as absurd as claiming that Myra is as self-referential as abstract modernist painting. Subverting the genre of the portrait as a celebration of a life, Harvey’s work inflates the scale of the image and renders it using a cast of a child’s hand as his paint brush. This decision implicates Hindley’s child victims in the creation of this monumental scale image, “for her image to be constructed out of a child’s palm print is to enlist her victims in its creation.” Julius (2003: p.165). Perhaps these facts alone explain the public outcry at the presence of this work in the canon of modern art.

However, the entire topic of Myra Hindley, from grim event, to photograph to Harvey’s work is incendiary – one may question the works’ apparent ambivalence: “Myra does not provoke questions about the injustice of Hindley’s crimes or the justice of her punishment. Nor does it cause us to ponder that sanctification of childhood, one that leads to the demonising of it’s violators” Julius (2003: p.167). ‘Myra’ exposes the societal transgression of paedophillia and infantacide and by virtue of Hindley’s sex re-fuels the debate around gender role deviance, Hindley “re-invented as the manifestation of a scapegoat, a social and cultural warning to all women … Harvey’s portrait was perceived to have not only re-ignited public outrage but raised the phenomenon to a higher power”, Campbell (2011). Harvey (cited in Cashell, 2009: p77) stated that he was “very aware that the pull of the image was a sexual thing”, this statement raises issues of Freudian sublimation, the redirection of instinctual urges […] towards non-instinctual behaviour (Pooke & Newall, 2007: p.120), in both Harvey and perhaps society at large through its fetishisation of the original photograph, which in turn challenges societal norms and hence morality. Perhaps the nature in which Harvey’s image was forced into the public conscience cause the insuppressible moral rupture, consider of the context of the painting’s public showing – presented to the world with the apparent endorsement of the art establishment, commodified by the Royal Academy of Arts to promote their yBa exhibition which created revenues of almost £2m (Cashell, 2009, p54). ‘Sensation’ branded in Myra Hindley’s image exposed the financial motives of the art world, rendering the special privilege of artistic self expression as little more than a shill for the markets, a phenomena observed by Trotsky 57 years previously, “Bourgeois society showed its strength throughout long periods of history in the fact that, combining repression, and encouragement, boycott and flattery, it was able to control and assimilate every ‘rebel’ movement in art and raise it to the level of official ‘recognition.’” Trotsky (cited in Kurzweil: p.13).

That this, or indeed any work of art can be considered, analysed from a critical and ethical perspectives, contextualised and ultimately enshrined in the canon of art is telling of a central tenet of our democracy – that everyone has the right to freedom of expression. It is this right which is tested again and again when art work such as Myra engage and enrage moral sensibilities and it is with this notion of defending freedom of expression that one should consider Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’.

By the late 1980’s a war had begun in the USA, this was a political war unlike any other – a battle was to be fought over the cultural future of American society, and as the world’s most powerful nation the reverberations continue to be heard around the world over 20 years later. In 1992 Pat Buchanan made a speech to the Republican National Convention, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America…” Buchanan (1992,, accessed 16 November 2013 ). After decades of fundamental change in American politics and society there existed a deep divide, battle lines were drawn along issues of abortion, homosexuality, AIDS, religion, public morality, radical feminism, environmental extremism and public funding of the Arts.

Piss Christ, Andres Serrano,1987

Hobbs (1994) describes Serrano as developing and coming to maturity during Reagan’s deregulation of the markets and as an artist representing issues around politicisation of the body, issues that became the keystones of Buchanan’s war. He goes on to describe Serrano’s use of bodily fluids as seductively alluring and using the visual language of advertising. It was with this aesthetic that Serrano created his Piss Christ, a 60 x 40 inch photograph of the familiar image of Christ on the cross. The cross fills the frame and lays at a slightly oblique angle to the viewer – the closest edge in clear focus the farthest fading to blurred ambiguity. Across the surface of the image are tiny bubbles, the picture is monochromatic with a rich orange hue. Serrano used his own urine, which he had collected over a period of time in order to add a rich, lustrous tone to the image, the work is painterly, peaceful and contemplative. The work was well received, Serrano and nine contemporaries were selected to receive $15,000 fellowships with the South-eastern Centre for Contemporary Art, the work went on to be shown in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh without criticism.

When the work was eventually brought to the attention of Christian right lobbyists it became an emblem of the debasement of what many held to be fundamental Americanisms. Perhaps most obviously the image was seen as blasphemous, the connotations of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for all-mankind literally pissed on. Not only had an artist chosen to desecrate the holy – it appeared to many to be state sponsored “That the National Endowment for the arts (NEA) had funded its exhibition meant that the government itself were endorsing its blasphemy” (Julius, 2003: p24). Piss Christ became a pawn in the culture war, denounced by the (Republican) president, senators, Christians and Catholics alike creating a visceral anger and sense of hysteria or panic: “Serrano’s work, in its outrageous provocativeness, eludes their ready understanding, and their anger thus betrays a mood that is more defensive, less certain” (Julius, 2003: p25)

Piss Christ was emblematic of a split running through the fabric of American society, artistic self-expression was in direct conflict with the twin powers of religious and right-wing political doctrine; art had become the front line in the battle of political and moralistic ideologies. To counter objections to the photograph Julius (2003: p15-51) describes several defences for transgressive work. Arguments around Freedom of Expression provisions and the US First Amendment linked artistic expression to fundamental freedoms enjoyed by the whole population, if the government choose to support one type of art over another it effectively abolished the First Amendment. Further defenses sought to lead the work into the canon of Modern Art; as the earlier description of the image shows, it is possible to read Piss Christ on an entirely formal level – perceived meaning, connotations brought about by the title etc. are not the work and should not be of concern, a theory posited in Sontag (1964: p.10) “Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories”. By drawing comparisons with other artworks, Piss Christ can be shown to exist within a framework, validated by previous works – it can be shown to belong within the canon of legitimate art. Further more one may argue that it is art’s job to compel the viewer to understand new truths about themselves or the world; one way to do this is by a process of defamiliarisation and questioning received wisdom. These formal, canonical and estrangement defences seek to protect transgressive artwork and hence the right to self expression.

King & Levin (2006: p37-47) suggests that this artistic freedom is tolerated because self-expression and self-realisation have been co-opted by capitalism as diversionary pursuits to prevent the middle classes from seeking political alternatives to its hegemony. In this vision the cult of individualism is seen as a foot soldier in the battle between capitalism and marxist/socialist ideals. The complicit role of self expression in the machine of capitalism is echoed in Stallabrass (2006: p125) “the most celebrated contemporary art is that which serves to further the interests of the neoliberal economy, in breaking down barriers to trade, local solidarities, and cultural attachments in a continual process of hybridization.”

By definition self expression is limited only by the bounds of the imagination, it is a right protected both culturally and legally in many countries, yet artists continue to taunt this freedom with work that is provocative or offensive to elements of the moral majority. That this contradiction is allowed to continue is telling of the societal importance of freedom of expression. Moral frameworks are not static doctrines, but evolving systems which are the product of all of their inputs. In order that accepted truths about morality be tested and either re-qualified or updated robust challenges must be made to the status quo. By considering art within the context of re-evaluating the nature of humanity and re-questioning received wisdom a society is allowed to develop and grow. Furthermore self expression and individualism can be seen as essential capitalist control mechanisms, diverting the working middle classes from seeking political change and allowing its capitalism’s hegemony to remain unchallenged.

From time to time there is a price to pay for allowing this freedom; that price is the short-term unreconcilable offence caused to whichever moral group’s sensibilities have been offended. Over time such work is assimilated into the general consciousness until it either helps to reshape moral frameworks, or its potency dissipates. Occasionally work becomes politically powerful and the situation is further confused, for example ‘Piss Christ’ creates an apparent paradox as it challenges conservative politics and ideals, whilst at the same time, perhaps inadvertently serving fulfilling the role of a diversionary tactic for capitalism.

Reference List

Buchanan, 2013. 1992 Republican National Convention Speech – Patrick J. Buchanan – Official Website. [ONLINE] Available at:

Cashell, 2009. Aftershock: The Ethics of Contemporary Transgressive Art. 1 Edition. I. B. Tauris.

Campbell, 2011. Published Work. [ONLINE] Available at:

Hobbs, 1996. Andres Serrano: Works 1983-1993. 1 Edition. Inst of Contemporary Art.

Julius, 2003. Transgressions: The Offences of Art. 1 Edition. University Of Chicago Press.

King & Levin (eds), 2006. Ethics and the Visual Arts. Allworth Press.

Kurzweil, 1996. A Partisan Century. 1st Edition. Columbia University Press.

Pooke & Newall, 2007. Art History: The Basics. Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Sontag, 1966. Against Interpretation. Picador.

Stallabrass, 2006. Contemporary Art. Edition. Oxford University Press.

Thompson, 2006. Teach Yourself Ethics. 4th Edition, Teach Yourself Books.



Fenner (ed), 1995. Ethics and the Arts: An Anthology (Garland Studies in Applied Ethics). annotated edition Edition. Routledge.

Sim, 2001. Introducing Critical Theory. Edition. Totem Books.

Sterba (ed), 1998. Ethics: The Big Questions (Philosophy: The Big Questions). 1 Edition. Wiley-Blackwell.


BBC ON THIS DAY | 6 | 1966: Moors murderers jailed for life. 2013. BBC ON THIS DAY | 6 | 1966: Moors murderers jailed for life. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2013].—

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How Has Capitalism and the Visual Legacy of Slavery Impacted Identity & Representation of African Americans through the Twentieth Century Sat, 07 Oct 2017 19:03:09 +0000 The post How Has Capitalism and the Visual Legacy of Slavery Impacted Identity & Representation of African Americans through the Twentieth Century appeared first on Ben O'Leary - Hull based film maker and commercial photographer.



“American culture endlessly facilitated racial myopia. No matter how race or racism was handled, it was inevitably viewed from the perspective of whiteness.” (Berger, 2010, p. 19)

In 1619 twenty Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia, the first African American slaves. Over the next two hundred and fifty years, at least fifteen million Africans were dispossessed and forced in to slavery (Coombs, 1972, p. 24).

This study was born out of a desire to interpret the modern legacy of African American slavery, in terms of racial representation, through the lens of visual culture. By unpicking one strand in America’s ongoing struggle with race issues, I hope to reveal some useful context, adding to the discourse on racial representation in the twenty-first century.

One hundred and fifty years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, racial inequality continues to blight America. Individual and institutional racism has an enormous negative impact on the lives of a significant section of American society. By framing modern-day examples of racially problematic images in a visual, historical context this dissertation will seek to identify the role of visual culture in perpetuating racial prejudice. Print media has remained largely unchanged in approach and purpose over the past two hundred years, thus by restricting my study to images appearing in magazines and newspapers, I will endeavour to remove the variable of ‘media’ as much as possible from the discourse.

My analysis employs a number of critical perspectives, first and foremost the entire subject is framed within the post-colonial discourse, and as such is informed by the writing of cultural theorists like Bell Hooks, Stuart Hall, Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. When Fanon asserts that “every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality – finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation” (2008, p. 9), he is describing a battle over cultural identity. I interpret the ‘language’ of the civilising nation as the language of capitalism, and thus my study is influenced by Marxist theory and Gramsci’s theories around ideology and hegemony. These critical discourses are encapsulated within the key sources used during my research. Of particular note are Michael Harris writing on race and visual representation; Maurice Berger writing on visual culture; Tom Burrell’s discourse on a ‘black inferiority’ complex; and Micki McElya’s history of the mammy stereotype.

Chapter one seeks to define the territory for discussion, framing the study within the historical context of capitalism and colonialism. An analysis of early twentieth century advertisements helps to identify negative and positive representations of race, and also defines the framework within which capitalistic hegemonic forces ‘negotiate’ new meaning when it is in their favour to do so.

In a more literal interpretation of Fanon’s “language of the civilizing nation”, chapter two considers the visual emergence of literary tropes, established in support of slavery. Ewen & Ewen explain that humans use stereotypes to “make sense of the big, complex, often transient world” (2006, p. 3) that confronts them. Through semiotic analysis, two enduring racial stereotypes are deconstructed in an effort to uncover embedded ideological intent.

Finally chapter three considers the media’s ongoing role in the discourse on race, citing three recent advertisements, deemed to be racially problematic. In an effort to understand the issue I look beyond overt racism and attempt to understand how stereotypes work.


Race and racial identity in America is a complex and divisive issue born out of 250 years of slavery, and a century and a half of ongoing struggle to overcome the deep wounds left behind. Slavery as a commodification of race was made possible through a concerted effort by the dominant culture to stereotype racial difference for their own benefit. Ewen & Ewen (2006, pp. 11-17) frames this process within the historical context of the European movement from rural peasantry to city living and the emergence of mercantile classes during the age of discovery. For Western Europe to succeed as the global economic power development in other regions needed to be stunted in order to serve the needs of the West. As part of this process Western ruling classes formed a system of language and stereotypes which they used to position themselves as superior to those they ruled, “the ability to use words, images, scientific and religious theories to envelop the conquered or the dispossessed in a cloak of moral, intellectual, and physical inferiority helped to make violent contracts and inveterate inequality justifiable.” (Ewen & Ewen, 2006, p. 17). The history of race and slavery in America is inextricably entwined with the emergence of mercantile trade and capitalism in Western Europe.

Professor of History at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Coombs (1972, p. 30) notes that “Capitalism increased the degree of dehumanization and depersonalization implicit in the institution of slavery. While it had been normal in other forms of slavery for the slave to be legally defined as a thing, a piece of property, in America he also became a form of capital”. Adapting the language of corporate America, pioneering marketing executive and author Thomas Burrell (2013) goes further by describing a 400 year “Marketing Campaign” waged by the dominant culture from the very first days of slavery through to modern times. This campaign sees “propaganda” and legislation used to convince blacks of their inferiority to whites; to convince whites that blacks were destined for servitude and condemned by God; and to convince whites that personal and national prosperity depended on free black labour. Supporting these ideas, professor of African American art history Michael Harris (2003, pp. 1-5), makes the case that racial assumptions are so deeply embedded in the American consciousness that they seem natural, resisting any critical inquiry.

Throughout this history of oppression and inequality, visual culture has been used at every juncture to shape and coerce outcomes for the benefit of cultural hegemony, thus ensuring that the dominant (white, patriarchal, capitalist) ruling class interests are protected and become the cultural norm. Burrell (2013, p. 5) claims that African Americans, regardless of how well educated or financially privileged they are, remain susceptible to sophisticated messages designed to reinforce black inferiority.

Despite the enormous detrimental legacy of this colonial view of African Americans, an alternative visual representation of race exists. This view seeks to ‘un-fix’ meaning and create value and change for the Black American diaspora. Writing authoritatively on race, Senior Research Scholar Maurice Berger (2010, pp. 51-54) describes how the author and early civil-rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois envisaged and launched several aspirational, pictorial magazines before founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and launching its influential magazine ‘Crisis’ in 1910. Crisis pioneered a visual approach which juxtaposed examples of racial bigotry with more affirmative images, demonstrating by example the ability of black people to overcome prejudice.

Around the same time, Claude Barnett formed one of the first African American advertising companies where he claimed to “reach the Negro” by offering to place owner-created advertisements within Crisis and leading black newspaper the Chicago Defender. Here Barnett began to experiment with a more positive image of African Americans than other advertisers were using, concluding that in order to successfully market to black consumers companies must approach them “respectfully with attractive advertisements” (Chambers, 2008, pp. 23-26). Barnett’s positive approach, exemplified in his advertisement for The Kashmir Chemical Company (figure 1), stood in stark contrast to typical advertisements of the era. These typically promoted products to help African Americans to ‘achieve’ a more European look by bleaching their skin (figure 2), straightening their hair, and even re-shaping facial features.

Figure 1 – Claude Barnett, ‘The Kashmir Chemical Company’ (1916), originally in The Crisis, November 1916, p44.

Figure 2 – ‘Choose Your Own Complexion’ (c1929), Chicago Defender, Newspaper advertisement.

During the following decades various empirical studies, designed to quantify the spending power of black communities, supported Barnett’s views. One such study by Paul K. Edwards is cited in Weems Jr. (1998, pp. 22-27). Edwards, a white economics professor, discovered that the aggregate income of blacks in the seventeen largest southern cities was $308m. Edwards’ study also canvassed black reactions to advertisements for Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour (see figures 10 and 11 for representative examples), concluding that if white companies wished to reach this increasingly important market they would need to respect the feeling of black consumers, avoiding advertisements which may cause offence. Edwards continued his work, emphasising a broader social context and observing that as a result of “constant and humiliating subordination” African American consumer behaviour became an agent through which a person could “extricate himself from the caste system into which he has been placed”, Edwards (cited in Weems Jr., 1998, p. 27). Both Barnett and Edwards had reached the same conclusion. By deploying sensitive and targeted advertisements, the black dollar could be courted by anyone wishing to profit from it.

Figure 10 – Aunt Jemima Advertisement, ‘I’s in Town Honey!’, (1909), New York Tribune, 07 November 1909.

Figure 11 – Aunt Jemima Advertisement, ‘The old plantation cook who made a fortune’, (1919), Evening Time-Republican (Marshalltown, Iowa), 24 January 1919.

Du Bois and Barnett blazed a trail for others like them. In 1945 John H. Johnson published Ebony, a class-aspirational, empowering monthly picture magazine in the mode of Life magazine. Ebony straddled an important line, in 1950 circulation reached figures in excess of half a million, the magazine represented an irresistible target for corporate America (Berger, 2010, pp. 51-63). Furthermore, Ebony directly confronted racial representations made in mainstream publications. Humanities Professor and Americanist Maren Stange (2001) describes Ebony’s reliance upon photography’s verisimilitude as central to a process of detaching racialised blackness from the familiar signifiers of “degradation, spectacle and victimisation”, in order to intervene in the constant “racist debris” of the popular discourse.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the post-industrial capitalist appetite for new markets created a dichotomy in which racial stereotypes were challenged in order to bring about an effective ‘re-commodification’ of black people under the banner of consumerism. Discussing black consumers Burrell holds that “you couldn’t ask for a better demographic. If a consumer group believes that social status can be achieved through consumerism, why not make millions exploiting that perception?” (2013, p. 149). When Claude Barnett said that black consumers should be targeted, “respectfully with attractive advertisements” (Chambers, 2008, p. 24), he laid the foundations for a new discourse on race representation, one which questioned how stereotypes would adapt to allow the integration of the black dollar in to the wider economy. The dual role of magazines like Ebony, as affirmative agents of change and routes to new capital markets for corporate America, ensured their continued success throughout the Civil Rights era and well in to the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Throughout the early and mid-Twentieth Century, pages of magazines were the site of fiercely contested battles over racial representation. Author, cultural critic and feminist, Bell Hooks (1995, p. 57) states that “The history of black liberation movements in the United States could be characterized as a struggle over images as much as it has also been a struggle for rights, for equal access”. This view is emphasised in Berger (2010, p. 20) who stresses that whilst anti-segregation laws ended white domination of black bodies, they were unable to break the hold which the dominant culture had over images of blackness.

Figure 3 – The General Tire & Rubber Co., ‘General Tire: Nice Legs’ (1948)

The General Tires print advertisement shown in figure 3 dates from 32 years after Barnett’s Kashmir Chemicals advertisement and paints an eloquent picture in support of Berger and Bell’s argument. The image is ripe for semiotic reading. Here an illustration is used to promote car tyres, the image features a car, a black man, a white woman and three pieces of luggage. This image is all about property; the woman carries her treasured possession, a hat, in an elaborate decorative box, her fur coat and car are signifiers of her wealth. She’s an astute lady and her form dominates the foreground of the image to the right of the frame. To the left of the frame is the wing, and a wheel of her car boldly featuring a brand new General Tire. The black man is a porter, or chauffeur, dressed neatly in his servile uniform and carrying the woman’s cases, he is several steps behind and is therefore much smaller in the frame. His head is fixed precisely in the centre of the image, as the only recognisable human face the reader is immediately drawn to him. The reader’s gaze is not returned. Instead, he looks off toward the woman with a deferential smile, she doesn’t notice him. Colour is used throughout the image to enforce hierarchy. The cases and car share the same colour tone as the woman’s legs and are positioned as essential necessities. The more ostentatious possessions, an animal fur coat, a handbag matching the tone of the porter’s skin, and a hat box unique in colour (drawing focus to the hat as a possession), act as a visual corollary to the hat wearing servant, whom in earlier times she may well have owned. Fundamentally, 85 years after the emancipation proclamation, visual tropes were still representing black Americans as servile, doting and subservient.

However, the battle for racial representation was not the only one being fought. An increasingly mobile and affluent black population also meant new capital markets and new opportunities for the mechanisms of capitalism. Concurrent to the struggle for representation was the dual struggle for corporate America to adequately attract and extract the black dollar and for black America to exercise new-found freedoms by choosing where and how to spend their dollar. Making this distinction is essential in attempting to understand both the hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces at play prior to the era widely recognised as that of Civil Rights in America.

Advertising professor Jason Chambers (2008, pp. 44-45) describes Ebony magazine founder, John H. Johnson’s views on black consumer spending. Johnson believed that black consumer loyalty to brand names stemmed from previous mistreatment by merchants selling poor quality products. Branded products offered a degree of fairness, though Johnson conceded that the ability to purchase top brands showed affluence and could be seen as a symbol of status within black communities. Weems (1998, p. 27) suggests that African American consumerism continues to be motivated by a desire to purchase dignity.

Chambers (2008, pp. 58-112) describes the black pioneers who made careers for themselves in the advertising and marketing industry. Their work, characterised by a dichotomy between self-gain and an improvement in the prospects for their race as a whole, sought to educate corporate America, encouraging the use of acceptable racial tropes to displace cultural norms. Black owned agencies struggled to gain white corporate accounts in a segregated marketplace and ultimately failed to compete with white owned agencies, they remained provincial and eventually closed.

Away from the advertising media, greater availability of affordable cameras allowed for a more vernacular approach to image making. Hooks (1995, p. 61) posits the photograph as a territory where a legitimate Black American identity could be formed: “We saw ourselves represented in these images not as caricatures, cartoonlike figures; we were there in full diversity of body, being, and expression, multidimensional”. Defining the camera as the central instrument in the struggle to challenge degrading, racist representations within the dominant culture she notes that “Salt shakers, cookie jars and pancake boxes could be countered by true-to-life images” (Hooks, 1995, p. 59). She goes on to describe photography as a way to reclaim life-affirming bonds, a pivotal aspect of decolonization where images create a link to a “recuperative, redemptive memory”, allowing the construction of identities and images which “transcend the limits of the colonizing eye” (Hooks, 1995, p. 64). What Hooks describes is a reclaiming of the right to define how blackness is represented, a chance to redefine and resist historical racial stereotyping.

Jamaican born cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1990) also seeks to explore cultural identity through a post-colonial lens, suggesting that it can be considered in two distinct ways: Firstly as a single, shared experience relying on a shared history and ancestry to create a ‘oneness’ with which to overcome other, more superficial differences. Here the rediscovery of this identity is held as an essential part of post-colonial struggle, either as an unearthing of something supressed by a colonial past, or even as the production of identity, a re-telling of the past. Secondly, cultural identity is proposed as something which acknowledges critical and significant differences, something which is “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’”. Here cultural identity is posited as something in a state of flux, continuously transforming and being subject to the “’play’ of history, culture and power.” (Hall, 1990, p. 225). Hall seems to be laying down a framework for interpreting cultural identity either as a binding force born out of shared experience and memory, or as an evolving facet of cultural hegemony.


Any attempt to comprehend the entrenched realities of racial stereotyping in America must consider the mechanisms that allowed racial subjugation and slavery to propagate in the first place. Harris (2003, pp. 15-21) proposes black racial identity and associated derogatory imagery as a construct, dating back to the origins of slavery. Slave codes and laws put in place to divide dangerous free whites and black slaves created racial contempt and a racially divided society. Efforts to separate lower-class whites and blacks played on existing imperial social assumptions toward those in service, merging the discourse on black skin with existing ideologies which justified servitude.

Coombs (1972, pp. 31-32) addresses the unique nature of slavery in America by identifying three characteristics: capitalism, individualism and racism. Capitalist drivers reduced the slave to an expense, a part in the machinery of the master’s capital growth. Individualism celebrated individual worth and advancement for whites whilst further dehumanising black slaves. Finally racism, here Coombs notes that as all slaves were African, and virtually all Africans in America were slaves, that skin colour became an irrefutable marker of inferiority. Furthermore, these racial beliefs were forced on to the slaves themselves through a rigorous process of education, discipline, sense of inferiority, master’s superiority, acceptance of master’s standards and helpless dependence. Out of this conceit grew a series of racial idioms which can be found at the core of almost all racist imagery and indeed racist discourse orientated toward African Americans.

Harris and Coombs perspectives correlate with those of Ewen & Ewen highlighted in chapter one. Each places a strong emphasis on the capitalistic drivers behind the formation of racial stereotypes. In his discourse on black representation in early Hollywood, Berger (2010, p. 15) notes that black actors were cast as “reassuring stereotypes: doting mammy, wide-eyed darkie, stuttering fool, flirtatious harlot, and dutiful, long suffering servant”. In turn, these depictions can be traced back to the era of slavery. Professor and literary critic Sterling A. Brown (1933, p. 180) introduces seven types in his treatise on the literary origins of these racial tropes, “The Contented Slave, The Wretched Freeman, The Comic Negro, The Brute Negro, The Tragic Mulatto, The Local Colour Negro, and The Exotic Primitive”. Brown observes that each stereotype seeks to highlight divergence from the Anglo-Saxon norm to the benefit of the dominant culture, and that each is formed from the narrow perspective of an individual viewpoint, based on generalisations and a desire to perpetuate the myth. Exemplifying ‘race’ thinking a “positioning of the self as superior, an accounting of the relationship between self and ‘other’, and an explicit reference to colour as a key marker of difference” (Downing & Husband, 2005, p. 3). Such generalisations allowed for the creation of a framework of racial understanding, or prejudice, which was required in order to justify slavery. Whilst literary tropes established a racial worldview, film historian Donald Bogel posits D.W. Griffith’s 1915 motion picture, The Birth of a Nation (figure 4), as the vehicle which brought “the final mythic type, the brutal black buck” (2006, pp. 10-18) in to the mainstream consciousness. Brown (1933, p. 192) pours scorn on the absurdity of the story whilst warning that “it would be unwise to underestimate this stereotype. It is probably of great potency”. Almost a hundred years later a global fashion brand proved him correct.

Figure 4 – The Birth Of A Nation Movie poster (c. 1915).

In June 2008, US fashion magazine ‘Vogue’ featured a black man on its front cover for the first time in its 116 year history (figure 5). Renowned fashion photographer Annie Leibovitz’s portrait featured basketball superstar LeBron “King” James alongside Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen. The cover immediately garnered criticism on the grounds that it recalled the racial representation of black man as a primitive savage, or Bogle’s brutal black buck. Describing the familiar pose, Burrell (2013, p. 41) notes LeBron’s flexed muscles and bared teeth as he clutched “the tiny, slinky waist of white, blonde supermodel Gisele Bündchen”. Bogle elaborates on the buck stereotype, “bucks are always big, baadddd niggers, oversexed and savage, violent and frenzied as they lust for white flesh”, a myth which makes implicit the link between sex and racism, articulating a great white fear that “every black man longs for a white woman” (2006, p. 13). To begin to analyse the Leibovitz photograph it must be placed both within a visual context which makes apparent the assertion of racial undertones, and within the framework of Leibovitz’s oeuvre and worldview.

Figure 5 – Annie Leibovitz (2008), Magazine Cover, US Standard size, April 2008

Figure 6 – “Destroy This Mad Brute – Enlist”, 1917, recruitment poster, H.R.Hopps.


Figure 7 – King Kong movie poster, c. 1933

The images in figures 6 and 7 were widely cited in the critical media at the time and are relevant to the analysis. Neither is overtly racist, both depict savage gorillas with anthropomorphic traits, in neither case do these traits play to connotations of black skin or blackness. The question of race arises precisely due to the way in which figure 5 resembles the other images, especially figure 6. The intertextuality between the Leibovitz photograph, the ape illustrations and physiognomic dogma causes the reading of the image to immediately become racially charged. LeBron becomes the ape, or the animalistic brute, whilst Gisele reprises the role of white, female flesh. These signifiers stand the test of time. Harris (2003, pp. 28-29) writes that science, religion and ideology justified the subordination of blacks, that their very nature was brutish and whatever level of civility they possessed was imposed artificially by captivity. Burrell (2013, p. 45) draws on the words of 3rd U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, who claimed that blacks preferred the “superior beauty” of whites, to round out his reading of the image of LeBron as the uncivilised buck.

Clearly there is a strong case for this reading, the historical connotations perhaps outweigh the need for an alternate view, but in the interests of a more in-depth analysis further factors ought to be considered. The image itself does not stand alone, it exists within the context of being a magazine cover, and it therefore exists alongside other text and within a sphere renowned for courting controversy through the use of imagery. The magazine cover subtitles the image Secrets of the Best Bodies GISELE & LeBRON and surrounds the image with relatively affirming health/diet copy, here it would be very easy to read the image from a gender perspective. A woman’s magazine showing women what ‘perfect’ looked like, encouraging health and wellbeing, yet emphasising the words Perfect fit and Shape above all others. Furthermore, such readings neglect the agency with which LeBron, Gisele and Leibovitz acted during the creation of the image, they assume a manipulation has taken place, as surely LeBron would not wish to be the butt of a racial joke. Of the three LeBron appears to be the only one to go on record providing his insight in to the image, “I was just having fun with it, we had a few looks and that was the best one we had … Who cares, honestly, at the end of the day”, James (cited in Burrell, 2013, p42).

This benevolent reading does not impress media activist Harry Allen (Allen, 2008) who writes a fierce criticism of the photograph, Vogue, Leibovitz and the popular media response. Highlighting multiple sources of white and black scepticism toward racial criticisms of the image, and concluding that Leibovitz, in the employment of one of the biggest worldwide advertisers and fashion magazines, is responsible for a “white supremacy salute behind the back of arguably the world’s biggest athlete” (Allen, 2008). In support of rigorous analysis, Hooks (1992, p. 5) observes the incredulity of black and white audiences toward the idea that images hold embedded ideological intent, insisting that only “fierce critical interrogation” can penetrate the wall of denial which consumers create around themselves, in order to resist the notion of political domination. Ewen & Ewen (2006, pp. 438-451) discuss the ‘King Kong’ myth at length, interrogating the narrative of the 1933 film along with images like figure 6 and 7. They conclude that the film (and associated imagery) unify the brute stereotype with the global history that created it, forming a comprehensive system of seeing based around Western superiority, brutish lust for white women and prescribed gender roles. It seems unlikely that a photographer as experienced as Leibovitz would be unaware of the likely reaction to her work, furthermore it seems unlikely that Leibovitz would set out to make a racist photograph just because she knew how to. It is more plausible to consider the image as one within the canon of controversial fashion photography to which Leibovitz is a renowned contributor. Indeed, as a photographer known for appropriating images in her work, it is entirely possible that she took her inspiration from the cover of Ewen & Ewen (2006), a book dealing exclusively with the subject of typecasting, or perhaps she was deliberately making an ironic statement. Regardless of intent she certainly tapped in to a deep seated anxiety towards depiction of race and constructed a photograph which was racially charged.

Whilst the brute mythology offered a crude and unambiguous warning to anti-abolitionists, the Mammy myth served a more insidious purpose. Micki McElya, acclaimed author and Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut, describes the Black Mammy as “the most visible character in the myth of the faithful slave” (2007, p. 4), identifying her origin to at least 1830. Around this time, in the face of increasingly radical abolitionist views, the Mammy began to appear in the folklore of plantation owners. Writing extensively on race and gender in America, Dr Wallace-Saunders claims that though the word may have originated earlier, by 1820 ‘Mammy’ was “almost exclusively associated with African American women serving as wet nurses and caretakers of white children” (2008, p. 4). This view is subtly different from McElya’s in that it makes clear a real world basis for the plantation owners’ mythical Black Mammy. It seems likely that during the antebellum years, hegemonic forces were responsible for shifts in racial attitudes and that the Mammy character is a distortion of actual events; in which case both Wallace-Sanders and McElya’s perspectives are equally valid. Continuing her faithful slave analysis McElya notes that “the story of the faithful slave became a cornerstone of paternalistic defences of slavery and rationales for elite southern patterns of domesticity” (2007, p. 7). Here, the Mammy is positioned not as an allegorical character, but as the site for a battle over representation, a construct created to serve the purposes of the dominant culture.

Figure 8 – Fleischmanns’s Yeast Trade Card, 1880s, (Morgan, 1995, p. 102)

Having failed to assuage the appetite for abolition in the years following the Civil War, the black Mammy stereotype took on new roles in postbellum America. Jo-Ann Morgan, Associate Professor of Art History, draws attention to the reconciliatory role played by the Mammy. Arguing that the North and South were economically interdependent, Morgan suggests that “With reunification uppermost in people’s minds … an anachronistic figure from the South became one of the most widely circulated images exemplifying North-South reconciliation” (1995, p. 94). Harris suggests that the Mammy served to act as a control mechanism for the white patriarchy over both black and white women (1995, p. 90). This is a view shared by Morgan who suggests that “By remaining in the kitchen or the nursery, she offered a ready solution not only to the problem of how to assimilate former slaves into contemporary society, but also to the challenge of how to keep the middle-class Euro American woman in her ‘ladylike’ role of home administrator” (1995, p. 88). It seems evident that the Mammy was redefined as propaganda for a new era, mass-reproduction and media advertisements called for totem to help restore harmony and economic viability to a divided country. A trade card from the 1880’s (figure 8) shows a black woman tending to her domestic duties, smiling and engaging in a dialogue with her demure ‘mistress’ over which yeast to use for baking. Confident and in control this Mammy visually dominates her mistress, both in terms of composition and physical size. The image eloquently illustrates the points made by Harris and Morgan; here the antebellum Mammy is recontextualised to a scene of willing servitude and implied dominance (at least in the field of housework) over her white mistress. Wallace-Sanders (2008, pp. 1-5) suggests that the later success of screen Mammies, such as Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar winning performance as ‘Mammy’ in the 1939 motion picture Gone With the Wind, depended on the trope already being deeply embedded in the popular psyche. This assertion is readily demonstrated in figure 9, a still from the film which is remarkable in its similarity to the trade card.

Figure 9 – Film Still: Gone With The Wind, (1939), Victor Fleming et al

In 1889, the Mammy myth was appropriated as a commercial trademark by Chris Rutt, of the Pearl Milling Company. The Aunt Jemima brand is perhaps the most enduring example of the ‘print Mammy’, described by Berger (2010, p. 26) as the “ultimate symbol and personification of the black cook, servant, and mammy”. McElya (2007, pp. 17-19) traces the origins of the brand to vaudeville performances of the song ‘Old Aunt Jemima’. Harris (2003, pp. 84-86) offers further insight, explaining that the lyrics were based on a slave song and performed to a dance satirising whites. The original Aunt Jemima was an act of resistance and black authenticity which had been missed entirely. Rutt’s brand was a “misinterpretation of a character devised by blacks to critique their treatment by whites” (Harris, 2003, p. 90). This act of appropriation served to further commodify the image of Mammy, the contented slave, by galvanising the stereotype in to a concerted marketing effort. The advertisement shown in figure 10 is typical, the instantly recognisable Mammy grins out at the viewer from behind a griddle announcing “I’s in Town Honey”, the language of the advertising copy underlines the nostalgic sentiment: “good old-fashioned, light, digestible pancake”. Accompanying the advertisement is an offer for ‘FREE Aunt Jemima and Her Rag Doll Family’. Harris (2003, pp. 105-106) contends that such offers sent hundreds of thousands of items of Aunt Jemima memorabilia in to American homes throughout the twentieth century, further entrenching the ‘happy darkie’ stereotype. A decade later Aunt Jemima’s advertising shtick turned fiction in to history. Another newspaper advertisement (figure 11) tells the story of a renowned plantation cook from the 1860’s, freed by the war and living close to the Mississippi. One day a former guest of her master, and a representative of a milling company stopped by for cakes, and after a long bidding war she was paid in gold for her secret recipe.

Figure 12 – Jon Ony Lockard, ‘No More’, (1972), acrylic, 40” x 30”

Figure 13 – Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, (1972), mixed media, 11.75” x 8” x 2.75”

Over a period of decades, custodians of the Aunt Jemima brand have manipulated fact and presented a mythical character as one with a real history. Furthermore, their historical references are in many cases based on an interpretation of an antebellum myth, and racial nostalgia. This multi-layered corporate re-writing of history has not met without resistance, and has itself become a site for reinterpretation through the lens of reappropriation. Bricoleurs and artists have sought to hijack the mammy narrative in counter-hegemonic works like Jon Ony Lockard’s No More (figure 12) and Betye Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima (figure 13), which recontextualise Aunt Jemima as an act of resistance to the enduring stereotype. Berger argues that the trademark owners “obliterated any hint of criticism or resistance. Instead they used the fantasy of the servile, devoted mammy to affirm white people’s superior social status” (Berger, 2010). Adding to this view, Wallace-Sanders describes how the Mammy caused “more accurate representations of African American women to wither in her shadows” (2008, p. 2). In 1989, the brand changed to depict a thinner, more elegant Aunt Jemima, with neat exposed hair, earrings and a white collar. McElya points to the juxtaposition between this new Aunt Jemima character and the old font and anachronistic name, asserting that the new brand means that any black woman could be Aunt Jemima (2007, p. 258). These readings of the Mammy myth point to the agility with which the dominant culture is able to manipulate meaning to achieve its goals.


In their treatise on media and race in America, Rojecki & Entman explore the impact of cultural material on the white perception of blacks, acknowledging that “[the media’s] mediated communications help explain the tenacious survival of racial stereotypes despite a social norm that dampens public admission of prejudice” (2001, p. 49). Downing & Husband place racist ideologies within an evolving hegemonic framework, where the media is responsible for defining and manipulating past and present, suggesting that the mainstream media also create future racist ideologies (2005, p. 39). Stuart Hall asserts that “the media are not only a powerful source of ideas about race. They are also one place where these ideas are articulated, worked on, transformed, and elaborated.” (1981, pp. 90-91). Acknowledging that historical racial concepts continue to develop, rather than being fixed entities, and that the media is the petri dish in which this process occurs, is an important factor in understanding the pervasive and enduring nature of stereotyping. Interpreting this in a global, historical context, Downing & Husband (2005, p. 76) posit that structures and ideologies entrenched by five centuries of slavery and colonialism, create a ready supply of racist ideological discourse which media manipulators are able to access and perpetuate. Turning their attention to advertising media specifically, Rojecki & Entman propound that those responsible for creating commercial advertisements may not recognize the “subtle but pervasive way their products may inadvertently perpetuate the traditional racial pecking order” (2001, p. 180).

Figure 14 – Dove Advertisement, 2011

At launch Dove cosmetics’ 2011 advertisement (figure 14) was brought to prominence by the critic and blogger known as copyranter (copyranter, 2011). The advert situates three women in a large gallery room, they are dressed identically in white bath towels. The woman on the left is black, the woman on the right is white and the central woman’s skin tone falls somewhere between the other two. On the gallery wall behind them are two large canvasses, similar in tone and colour to the central woman’s skin, they are labelled before and after. The text accompanying the advert promises ‘Visibly more beautiful skin’ and that it ‘actually improves the look of your skin’. The women are arranged in order of skin tone, dark to light, under the captioned background;  bringing to mind notions of white superiority, black ugliness, skin bleaching and Sterling Brown’s tragic mulatto myth. Just as Doctor Walker urged his customers to ‘Make it like you want it’ in 1929 (figure 2), Dove inadvertently promoted the same message 82 years later. In a statement made to the New York news blog Gawker, Dove’s PR firm made it clear that they “do not condone any activity or imagery that intentionally insults any audience.” Edelman Public Relations (cited in Nolan, 2011). Certainly on the surface it seems unlikely that Dove deliberately set out to make an advert which would be racially offensive, yet despite the obvious interpretation of the image, Dove and their advertising agency failed to identify an issue prior to publication. Perhaps the problem, seemingly rooted in history, is more pervasive than the above analysis suggests. Presently Dove’s parent company Unilever owns the Fair & Lovely brand which offers “safe and effective skin lightening benefits” (Hindustan Unilever, 2014) in over 40 predominantly ex-colonial countries. It is worth quoting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Yaba Amgborale Blay (2011, p. 37) at length:

“Skin bleaching is a widespread global phenomenon. Within the context of global white supremacy, skin color communicates one’s position to and within the dominant power structure. Given this reality, many people, namely those historically subjected to white domination, colonization, and enslavement, have internalized projected notions that the basis of their inferior condition is their skin color. In this context, skin bleaching would manifest as the seemingly most “logical” method through which to approximate the White ideal and thus empower oneself. As the political offshoot of European/White nationalism, global White supremacy continually creates an image of itself in order to perpetuate itself, and thus continues to employ and rely upon the fabrication and projection of imagery to forcibly convince the masses, particularly those oppressed under its systemic exploitation, that the White ideal is in fact the human ideal.”

Figure 15 – Nivea Advertisement, ‘Re-civilize yourself’, (2011)


Figure 16 – Nivea Advertisement, ‘Sin City’, (2011)

In the same year Nivea cosmetic’s Give a Damn campaign, featured two advertisements (figure 15 and 16) based around the conceit of a protagonist ripping off his dishevelled, unshaven mask to reveal a coiffured handsome man beneath. The advertisements were broadly similar, one featured a white man, the other a black man, and each carried a textual component. The text accompanying the image of the white man read ‘Sin City Isn’t An Excuse To Look Like Hell’ and the text accompanying the black man read ‘Re-civilize Yourself’. The choice of the word re-civilize and its use exclusively with the photograph of the black man present another example of a racially troubling image, this time signifying the brute myth, imperialistic colonialism, and the noble savage. In a similar tone to Dove’s defence, Nivea stated that “It was never our intention to offend anyone, and for this we are deeply sorry.” (Nivea, 2011). These examples do not stand in isolation, but rather in an historical and contemporary context within which a constant recycling of visual tropes serves to perpetuate stereotype and encoded meaning. As such, any attempt to employ accusations of racial hypersensitivity, or ‘political correctness’ to explain away racist subtexts seems misguided. The lineage of cosmetic advertisements is rooted in racial exploitation which dates back to the late nineteenth century. Offering to help black Americans straighten “ugly, kinky, scanty hair”, “obtain beautifully shaped lips” or lighten skin to “remove the greatest obstacle to your success” (Weems Jr., 1998, pp. 16-17). It is tempting to consider racist undertones in contemporary cosmetic advertisements to be an unfortunate historical symptom of a particular industry, yet as figure 17 shows, stereotypes are portable and can work equally well in the most modern of industries.

Figure 17 – Intel Advertisement, (2007)

Intel’s 2007 advertisement for their Core 2 Duo processor situates a white man in a confident, managerial pose in the middle of an industrial office space. A text overlay offers to ‘Multiply Computing Performance and Maximise the Power of Your Employees’. Behind each of six desks is a black man, wearing athletic clothing and posed as if on the starting blocks of an Olympic race. The black men are identical and are positioned in such a way that they appear to be bowed over in the direction of the white manager. Further text presents a list of technical specifications and a headline of 40% more performance. The image is rich with embedded racial connotations, and can be read in a number of ways. Clearly there is the assertion of speed, the uniformity of the athletes makes it clear: black men are the fastest. The pose of athletes, black men bowing down to a white boss, equates both to modern-day workplace inequality and the slave/master relationship. Looking further the textual content can also be read as having encoded racial meaning. Multiply performance by impregnating female slaves and maximise the power of your employees with the lash.

If the benevolent intent of Nivea, Dove, Intel and others like them is to be believed, then something else must be occurring within these global corporations. Such advertisements appear to be born out of deeply embedded prototypical thinking, resulting in a resurfacing of subliminally held racial stereotypes. Entman & Rojecki state that “prototypes encode habitual ways of thinking that help people make sense of an uncertain world” (2001, p. 60). By this they are proposing that in order to quickly process and assess a given situation people rely on subconscious recall to define appropriate actions and expected outcomes. Downing & Husband suggest that when these innate thoughts, or prejudices, draw upon racial ideologies, they become racist (2005, p. 10). Hall (1981, pp. 91-92) calls such thinking “naturalised representations of events and situations relating to race”, arguing that the nineteenth century literary construct of imperial adventure informs a modern “grammar of race” based on the premise of total mastery of the colonised by the colonisers.

In the examples discussed above it is evident that a series of decisions made by stylists, photographers, copywriters, marketing departments and managerial teams has led to racially insensitive advertisements being launched in to the market place. These adverts form part of the discourse on race and racism, simultaneously unearthing entrenched ‘race’ thinking and feeding it back in to positive reinforcement loop, engendering further prototypical decision making to take place in all walks of life. Burrell laments that “No matter what the category, blacks statistically trail behind whites and other ethnicities … regardless of our individual social, economic, or media success, it has not affected the black bottom line … I maintain that the unwritten, audacious promotion of white supremacy and black inferiority was (and still is) the most effective and successful marketing/propaganda campaign in the history of the world.” (Burrell, 2013, p. 5). Hall concurs, grimly proposing that “[through the eyes of a racist worldview] Primitivism, savagery, guile and unreliability – all ‘just below the surface’ – can still be identified in the faces of black political leaders around the world, cunningly plotting the overthrow of ‘civilisation.’” (1981, p. 93). It seems likely that the types of decisions made in marketing departments are emblematic of those being made in the wider culture, and that racial stereotyping effects all areas of law, religion, economics and politics.


This dissertation endeavours to develop a greater understanding of the impact of slavery on visual culture, and therefore racial representation in modern day America. Through critical analysis three key themes have been identified which locate the image as a battleground for racial representation. Firstly, that colonial race myths established to support slavery have become deeply embedded stereotypes which influence the way black people are perceived by whites. Secondly, that even when racist intent is unlikely, prototypical thinking leads to the construction of images which harbour embedded racial meaning. Finally, that capitalism has deftly adapted throughout its history, first to commodify race then to co-opt African Americans as business owners and consumers.

Slavery, and by definition capitalism, has had an enormous impact on the way race is represented in America and further afield. Whilst it is desirable to believe that the legacy of slavery was somehow purged by the civil rights era and the subsequent modernisation of laws and public opinion, the above findings suggest that this isn’t the case. Racism and inequality exist because of a concerted effort by the dominant culture to prey on human suspicion and fear throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. By identifying recurrent visual tropes and decoding their original purpose, it is possible to challenge them and in doing so limit their modern day effectiveness.

It would be easy to disregard charges of racism in the Dove or Nivea adverts as ‘political correctness’, but that would be missing the point. Capitalism created a worldview which allowed slavery to happen, its racist constructs are so powerful that they inform race representation and understanding today. Time and again subtle pieces of racist material leech into the public consciousness. Each time this happens, an embedded stereotype is reactivated and the ideal of a society without racial bias slips further away. If one believes that global capitalism remains the dominant ideology, then understanding the mechanisms by which it seeks to coerce is key to preventing future transgressions. Any effort by elites to influence opinion, especially through the media must be read with a critical eye. Racial prejudice is counter productive to the development of the human race. By systematically deconstructing the apparatus of racism it is possible to advance our overall cause. By allowing it to pass by unchallenged we’re either supporting a damaging historical legacy, or creating new pathways for future racism and inequality.

This study takes a large piece of modern history and applies a very specific lens to a small part of it. By virtue of the scale of the subject matter there are numerous areas which would benefit from further study. I purposefully side-stepped the Civil Rights era where an enormous visual legacy challenged entrenched stereotypes. Many print advertisements of the era approach race in a more productive way, largely thanks to the input of black marketing agencies and executives, but also because capitalism had identified a new revenue stream. I only briefly discussed the counter-cultural efforts of black artists, many of whom focussed on re-appropriation of the visual stereotypes discussed above. Another excellent topic for research would be the multi-billion dollar hip-hop industry, which plys its trade through a constant rehashing of race myths. Finally, there are the remainder of Sterling A. Brown’s myths to explore, each one as pervasive as the Brute and Mammy.

“The stereotypes may be missing from public discourse but they exert their power nonetheless in a political culture of distrust and wavering hostility that lies beneath surface politeness.” (Rojecki & Entman, 2001)




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Figure 1 – Claude Barnett, ‘The Kashmir Chemical Company’ (1916), originally in The Crisis, November 1916, p44.


Source: Chambers, 2008, p. 25

Figure 2 – Dr Fred Palmer Advertisement ‘Choose Your Own Complexion’ (c1929), Chicago Defender.


Source: Walker, 2007

Figure 3 – The General Tire & Rubber Co. Advertisement, ‘General Tire: Nice Legs’ (1948).


Source: Berger, 2010, p. 65

Figure 4 – The Birth Of A Nation Movie poster (c. 1915).



Figure 5 – Annie Leibovitz, Vogue front cover (2008), April 2008.


Source:, accessed 17/11/2014



Figure 12 – Jon Ony Lockard, ‘No More’, (1972), acrylic, 40” x 30”


Source: Harris, M. 2003. Colored Pictures Race & Visual Representation, The University of North Carolina Press

Figure 13 – Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, (1972), mixed media, 11.75” x 8” x 2.75”


Source: Harris, M. 2003. Colored Pictures Race & Visual Representation, The University of North Carolina Press

Figure 14 – Dove Advertisement, (2011)


Source: Multiple Google images returns.

Figure 15 – Nivea Advertisement, (2011)


Source: Multiple Google images returns.

Figure 16 – Nivea Advertisement, (2011)


Source: Multiple Google images returns.

Figure 17 – Intel Advertisement, (2007)


Source: Multiple Google images returns.


The post How Has Capitalism and the Visual Legacy of Slavery Impacted Identity & Representation of African Americans through the Twentieth Century appeared first on Ben O'Leary - Hull based film maker and commercial photographer.

Hip-hop as a subcultural and countercultural influence on global visual culture Sat, 07 Oct 2017 18:13:28 +0000 Throughout the 20th century black and ethnic groups in America were marginalised and ghettoised; though segregation laws were repealed, on a practical level black people and white people lived separate lives and developed separate cultural identities. Despite progress during the post WWII Civil Rights movement African Americans continued to endure a systematic, sustained attack on […]

The post Hip-hop as a subcultural and countercultural influence on global visual culture appeared first on Ben O'Leary - Hull based film maker and commercial photographer.

Throughout the 20th century black and ethnic groups in America were marginalised and ghettoised; though segregation laws were repealed, on a practical level black people and white people lived separate lives and developed separate cultural identities. Despite progress during the post WWII Civil Rights movement African Americans continued to endure a systematic, sustained attack on their ability to enjoy the economic freedom and social status that the dominant white culture dictated as the norm.

The problems faced by black and ethnic communities in America are the result of centuries of prejudiced US domestic and foreign policy, combined with the legacy of the international slave trade; such economic disparity made these communities a nexus for criminal gang culture, drugs and the resultant health implications. Despite, or perhaps in spite of this, these communities have been responsible for some of the most significant cultural and political change in American over the last hundred years; from civil rights to poetry, dance, art, music and fashion, black culture has influenced and shaped dominant culture in an unprecedented manner.

This essay considers the first two decades of hip-hop culture, as both subcultural phenomenon and countercultural agent of change. The diverse sources from which hip-hop appropriates its codes and conventions will be contrasted with mainstream culture’s appropriation of hip-hop. Visual and historical examples will be used to demonstrate hip-hop aesthetics as both counter hegemonic devices and as major influences on mainstream visual culture. Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (2007) and Charnas’ The Big Payback provide extensive cultural detail and primary research and have been invaluable in the production of this text.

The development of the South Bronx expressway in the 1950’s and 60’s saw established, stable communities destroyed, soaring vacancy rates and the rise of slum landlords. Over the course of a decade construction forced the relocation of 170,000 people; businesses and the more affluent went north whilst the South Bronx became synonymous with urban decay, poverty and deprivation (Guins & Cruz, 2005, p406-407). Against this backdrop crime, street gangs and drug use quickly took hold; the youth of the South Bronx fought back with “an explosion of creativity – an earnest expression of the sufferers – rose above and conquered this seemingly insurmountable environment” (Fernando Jr, 1993, p.2). The South Bronx youth faced the same daily struggle to find meaning, purpose and relief from the grim reality of their environment. (Cohen, 1955, p.59) states that “the crucial condition for the emergence of new cultural forms is the existence, in effective interaction with one another, of a number of actors with similar problems”. In the case of the South Bronx the new cultural form was to be hip-hop.


figure 1 – Graffiti writers like TAKI183 (1971) and STAYHIGH149 (fig. 1a) (circa 1972) used the cityscape and transport systems to create a bricolage canvas, commercially available spray paints (fig. 1b) were re-purposed into emblems of individual agency.

The dissenting graffiti of the protest movement was appropriated by inner city kids for territorial and aesthetic purposes, first in Philadelphia and then by the early 1970’s in New York including the South Bronx; as (Chang, 2011, p87) describes, “Theirs were not political statements. They were just what they were, a strike against their generation’s invisibility and preparation for the coming darkness”. Drawing from the materials at hand, and repurposing them to meet their requirements, figure 1 shows the work of graffiti luminaries TAKI183 and STAYHIGH149 who used the New York urban landscape and spray paint, to create a bricolage canvas and artists pallet. Around this time gang subculture began to re-organise, around a competitive music scene and block parties became a regular part of Bronx life. (Chang, 2011, p.90). The DJ came to prominence as the central figure at such events, figures such as Kool Herc, Affrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash (figure 2) used their skill and knowledge of music to move the crowds whilst innovating new ways of using technology to develop their sound. This bricolage of vinyl music and turntables to create a new sound was soon augmented by a vocal presence; appropriating the rhyming jive of Radio DJ’s and introducing the most current slang. The Master of Ceremonies or ‘MC’ would hype up and calm down the crowds, as this new argot grew in influence and popularity it eventually came to dominate the culture in the form of rap. DJ’s developed new techniques and learnt to isolate and repeat the most popular drum patterns, a competitive dance culture based around these breakbeats began to develop and mature. Break-boys (or b-boys) were the bricoleurs of this new style – combining moves from kung-fu films, jazz dancers like Earl ‘snakehips’ Tucker and moves popularised by James Brown, DJ Afrika Bambaataa says that the song “Get on the Good Foot inspired crowds to imitate the singer’s dance moves”. (Del Barco, 2002); Rose (cited in Guins & Cruz 2005:p408) concurs, “hip-hop artists used the tools of obsolete industrial technology to traverse contemporary crossroads of lack and desire in urban Afro-diasporic communities”.


figure 2 – Grandmaster Flash (circa 1972) works with a bricolage of turntables and other artists records (fig. 2a) to create a new sound.

The birth of hip-hop as a unifying cultural term can be traced back to the late 1970’s, around the time of the song Rapper’s Delight with lyrics like “With a hip, hop, the hipit, the hipidipit , hip, hip, hopit, you don’t stop” (Fernando Jr, 1993, p.13). This umbrella name describing the urban, working class, afro-diasporic and hispanic cultural youth forms of b-boying, graffiti writing, rapping and DJ’ing became the label for a cultural phenomenon that continues to shape the world today. (Williams, 2011, p.2) describes subculture as “a resource from which to develop a positive self-concept, a confidence in non-formative thinking … and a network of support in a world that often feels alienating and unfulfilling”, these new subcultural forms were a pure expression of creativity by the community which they served, invisible to the dominant culture and out of reach of corporate America. The members of this street culture, aware of their marginalised place in society had found an outlet, a place to attain status and identity; the hip-hop subculture gave individuals the opportunity to stand out and achieve acknowledgement with a scene (Williams, 2011, p55). The success of Rapper’s delight exposed hip-hop culture to Black radio, global pop music charts; ironically this success landed at the feet of a manufactured group, The Sugarhill Gang. (Chang, 2011, p146) The notion of authenticity in hip-hop was tested for the first time and what is ‘real’ or ‘unreal’ would go on to become a central tenet of the culture.

figure 3 – Wildstyle, 1982. Charlie Ahearn’s seminal hip-hop film brought the code of the streets to the silver screen, creating a visual glossary of hip-hop culture. Visual conventions: wildstyle graffiti writing, breakdancing on cardboard, ghetto blaster, b-boy poses and the urban environment which continue to hold true to this day.

By the time hip-hop had emerged from New York boroughs like the South Bronx it presented a wealth of material for cultural mining, figure 3 show the motion picture Wildstyle, directed by Charlie Ahearn, who brought an authentic view of the scene to the masses, “the only hip-hop film and soundtrack that adequately conveys the communal thrill of merging with the tide, riding the lightning”, (Chang, 2011, p.201). Wildstyle brought the aesthetics of hip-hop into mainstream consciousness, injecting these new forms into the mass culture for the first time. At the other end of the spectrum the New York scene began an attempt to appropriate graffiti into the art world, artists like Michel Basquiat claimed ‘street art’, a form inspired by graffiti whilst art groups like the Co-Lab collective brought graffiti shows to central Manhattan where dealers pushed writers to create them more complex work and make statements. Numerous graffiti writers made the leap from street to the gallery and beyond, propelling the graffiti aesthetic into the wider visual language (Chang, 2011, p166-167). Decades later the graffiti art form occupies a duality between counter-hegemonic device and commercial tool, figure 3a shows demonstrates Hennessy’s counter-bricolage of the aesthetic to promote their cognac.

figure 3a – original New York graffiti artist FUTURA commissioned by Hennessy to design their 2012 limited edition bottle.

As the various facets of hip-hop gained exposure and popularity in the early 1980’s, several things began to happen. The creativity and innovation of the original subculture continued to thrive as pioneers grew their genres, pushing the boundaries of their form further and further. Many of the key figures began to enjoy commercial success whilst punk bands like The Clash and Blondie both made rap songs, bringing exposure to white audiences and in the case of Blondie’s Rapture (figure 4) becoming the first rap song to be played on MTV. Meanwhile, growing commercial influences played a huge part in continuing to popularise hip-hop, as record labels raced to sign acts and get a product to market. hip-hop’s commodification redefined the subcultural nature of hip-hop to become somewhat more trivial, as (Williams, 2011, p91) states “consumption is an apparatus of those in power to keep subcultural participants busy with their own culture rather than demanding broader social change”. Control over the profit making process quickly transitioned from neighbourhood black / hispanic ownership to white-owned multinational businesses; Rose (cited in Guins & Cruz, 2005, p412) draws a parallel between Hebdige’s work on the Punk movement, suggesting that at this point the hip hop subculture is assimilated by the dominant culture.


figure 4 – Rapture, Blondie 1981. It took a white, punk band to bring hip-hop to MTV; featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat and hip-hop luminary Fab Five Freddy. The video hinted at the heterogenous New York scene whilst foretelling the homogenising effect of hip-hop’s assimilation into mass culture.

(Hebdige, 1979, p94) calls this process recuperation, a point where subculture becomes a “diverting spectacle in the dominant mythology” – his theory proposes a two stage process, firstly the conversion of subcultural signs (music, dress, art) into mass produced objects; and secondly in the labelling and re-definition of deviant behaviour by dominant groups. With the effective means of production in hip-hop already moving to the control of the dominant culture, the path was clear to begin to label deviant behaviours. Becker (cited in Williams 2011, p110) theorised that deviant behaviour, rather than being something that occurred in societies at all times was in fact “only deviant to the extent that such behaviours were labeled as such by those who held power”.


Best on Earth, Best on Mars

figure 5 – The commodification of hip-hop: Run DMC’s bricolage of Adidas shoes stripped of their laces and heavy gold chains became synonymous with hip hop. Adidas and Nike’s (fig. 5a) appropriation of the hip-hop aesthetic proved to be extremely profitable for both companies.

The mainstream adoption of hip-hop offered access to unprecedented amounts of money and exposure, offering a “precipitous rise in Black entrepreneurship” and realising “the Black Nationalist dream of economic independence” (Charnas cited in Huff, 2011) whilst simultaneously turning hip hop into a spectacle to be recuperated; this is made clear by Hebdige (1979, p96) who notes that as the key signifiers of a subculture become commodities they are codified and made readily understandable, becoming both public property and profitable merchandise. Through their patronage the Rap band Run DMC (figure 5), turned Adidas in to a hip-hop brand and a million dollar plus endorsement contract followed; similarly Nike’s counter-bricolage of the aesthetics of Spike Lee’s movie She’s Gotta Have It propelled the company’s sales past Reebok, the market leader. (Chang, 2011, p431). The dichotomy between subculture and adoption in to the mass culture is considered in Macdonald’s A theory of mass culture (cited in Storey, 2001:p29) which proposes that folk art spontaneously occurs, originating from authentic, grassroots expressions of the people. Conversely Mass Culture is said to be a fabrication of business’, presenting audiences with the choice of buying or not buying, exploiting the cultural desires of the masses to maintain class rule.

Although the boundaries of hip-hop culture, and more specifically rap music had previously been tested by the likes of Blondie and The Clash, a collaboration between Run DMC and Aerosmith (figure 6) cemented the crossover between white rock music and black rap, between mainstream and subculture. Forman (2002:p150) takes the position that this crossover was engineered and timed to coincide with a resurgence of interest in rock music, where images and aesthetic codes of hip-hop culture were carefully merged with the “outlaw stances of white rockers”, and that as inherent differences between the two become blurred, their constructed boundaries began to weaken or collapse. Light (cited in Forman & Neal, 2004, p140) suggests that the crossover was achieved “without compromising what made rap so special, so vibrant”. Irrespective of the motives and mechanics of the crossover rap was in its ascendancy, taking an increasingly prominent role within the mass culture and becoming an increasing area of concern for the neoconservatives of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

The 40 Biggest Hip-Hop Moments in Pop Culture History

figure 6 – Run DMC and Aerosmith played a significant role in bringing hip hop culture into the mainstream consciousness. The 1986 “Walk This Way” video offered a new visual experience, black artists and white artists on stage as equals, the turntables as an instrument, Run DMC’s ubiquitous unlaced Adidas shoes and thick gold jewellery.

With roots in slavery, segregation and civil rights activism, hip-hop was no stranger to politics. The likes of Gil Scott Heron (1969) and The Last Poets (1968) defined rhyme and rhythm as a mode of dissent a decade before the first rap music, hip hop subculture was one of defiance and rappers made this clear in songs like The Message by Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC’s Proud To Be Black. Against a backdrop of inequality rap music became increasingly politicised, the idioms of the civil rights movement were transposed into lyrics with increasing militancy and purpose, Neal (cited Forman & Neal, 2004, p307) suggests that the political potency of hip-hop may have peaked in 1988 with Public Enemy’s It Take a Nation of Millions… and Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary; both artists used strong visual messages and politicised identities (figure 7) alongside charged lyrics, and made no attempt to hide their counter-hegemonic views. Lusane (cited in Forman & Neal, 2004, p351) proposes an elongated timescale, positing that that duality of hip-hop as a “voice of the alienated, frustrated and rebellious” and as “the packaging of and marketing of social discontent” made rap and rappers an “explosive issue in the politics of power that shaped the 1992 U.S elections”. By the late 1980’s America was in the grip of the Reagan administration’s fiscal and welfare reforms, budgets shifted federal funding from combating poverty to bolstering the military, tax reforms benefited elites whilst 80% of households saw their net worth fall (Chang, 2011, p.236). Whilst Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions voiced dissent from New York, the heartland of Hip Hop, a separate group of artists began to make waves within the West Coast hip-hop scene.

figure 7 – BDP, 1988 employed the visual signs of Don Hogan Charles’ photograph of Malcom X; Hip-hop had begun to overtly incorporate, the politics of the Civil Rights era appropriating it’s leaders and slogans. Public Enemy, 1988 (fig 7a) incorporated the political rhetoric of the Nation of Islam into their lyrics and dealt with “political experiences of an urban-based African-American constituency” (Neal cited in Forman & Neal, 2004:p374). Following in the tradition of bricolage in hip-hop PE’s Flavor Flav wears a large clock as jewellery.

The band NWA and rapper Ice T (figure 8) used hip-hop music to represent west coast gang culture, romanticising the criminal lifestyles of drug dealers, stick-up kids, pimps and gangsters. In this mode rappers extended American folk lore of the “wild west”; appropriating the gun slinging cowboy and re-situating his story to the modern urban frontier, substituting the corrupt town sheriff with the Los Angeles Police Department. Songs like NWA’s “Fuck The Police” and Ice T’s “Copkiller” were responses to increasing police brutality and racial profiling; in 1991 Los Angeles was made the centre of the world’s media attention as four LAPD officers were captured on video attacking a suspect; the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial and acquittal of the officers led to city wide riots, hegemonic structures were under scrutiny and west coast hip hop was propelled into the national consciousness and into the political arena (Charnas, 2010). The combination of Gangsta Rap’s violent tropes combined with emerging political and afro-centric rhetoric presented hip-hop as a countercultural agent of change. Concern grew amongst moral guardians that children were being corrupted by rap’s message, which ironically the news media never hesitated to repeat, William’s (2011:p113) points out that “Through news reports and subsequent adult gossip … interested youths are informally given a beginners guide to subcultural participation, thus helping to secure a subculture’s survival”. The resultant moral panic and outrage led politicians and lobbying groups to align behind an agenda of pressurising corporate sponsors of hip-hop to censor or drop the work of their artists, Storey (2001, p17) notes “Those with political power have always thought it necessary to police the culture of those without political power, reading it ‘symptomatically’ for signs of political unrest; reshaping it continually through patronage and direct intervention”. Dominant ideologies were under threat and the recuperation of hip-hop into mass culture looked to be in danger of collapse.

Ice Cube Talks N.W.A. Documentary, Relationship With Dr. DreUntitled.jpg

Figure 8 – By appropriating the idioms and styles of gang culture, gangsta rappers like NWA and Ice T (fig. 8a) presented both a mirror and a theatrical production, a new interpretation of the wild west myth. Real life police brutality (e.g. fig 8b. LAPD’s assault of Rodney King) ensured that boundaries between fact and fiction remained blurred civil unrest followed. Gangsta rap became hip-hop’s most salable product, but also its most toxic, a paradox as corporations funded its counter hegemonic viewpoint.

From the embryonic block parties of the South Bronx to the global phenomenon of gangsta rap, hip-hop has acted as both a lens and a mirror on the lives of many in black and ethnic communities in urban America. As dominant ideologies of the pre-civil rights movement came under pressure, the country struggled to redefine relationships in previously segregated communities; fiscal and social policies served to further the divide between rich and poor. These conditions created a perfect storm for the emergence of hip-hop as a cultural force; the united elements of graffiti, rap music and breakdancing offered a renewed sense of self and identity to the youth of embittered neighbourhoods whilst codifying the black urban experience into a commercially appealing structure. Through a process of cultural osmosis the style and aesthetics of hip-hop permeated mainstream fashion, art, music and film; advertisers sought to leverage the genres popularity and the media industry sought to infiltrate the production and distribution of rap music as a means for capital growth. Throughout it’s history hip-hop appropriated the language and forms of almost every other cultural source, a bricolage of styles and objects repurposed so successfully that the hip-hop interpretation often became the dominant one. Similarly mainstream culture employed it’s own strategies of appropriation and counter-bricolage in an effort to commodify the black urban experience, monetising the suffering and celebration of communities which often fell outside of the dominant ideology. By hip-hop’s 20th birthday the subculture of a minority had grown in popularity to define the dominant culture, despite this the form resisted assimilation into the mainstream and managed, if only for a brief time to undermine the political and commercial hegemony of the worlds richest nation.


Reference List

Cohen, A. 1955. Delinquent Boys

Chang, J. 2007. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Random House

Charnas, D. 2010. The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. Edition. NAL Hardcover.

Del Barco, M. 2002. NPR: Breakdancing. [Online]. [Accessed 21/3/2014]. Available from:

Fernando, S, 1995. The New Beats: Exploring the Music Culture and Attitudes of Hip-Hop. Edition. PAYBACK PRESS.

Forman, M. 2002. The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop (Music Culture). 1st Edition. Wesleyan.

Forman, M & Neal, M (eds). 2004. That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Edition. Routledge.

Guins, R & Cruz,O (eds). 2005. Popular Culture: A Reader. 1st Edition. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Hebdige, D. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style (New Accents). New Ed Edition. Routledge.

Huff, Q. 2011. Walk This Way: The Commodification of Hip-Hop. [Online]. [Accessed 21/3/2014]. Available from:


Storey, J. 2000. Cultural Theory, Popular Culture: An Introduction. 3rd Edition. Longman Group United Kingdom.

Williams, J. 2011. Subcultural Theory: Traditions and Concepts. 1 Edition. Polity.


Bennett, A. 2001. Cultures of Popular Music (Issues in Cultural & Media Studies). 1 Edition. Open University Press.

Blanchard, B. 1999, THE SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF RAP & HIP-HOP CULTURE. 2014. THE SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF RAP & HIP-HOP CULTURE. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 April 2014]., 2008. It’s all about appropriation: Street art and graffiti in studio art. | [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 April 2014].

Del Barco, 1984. NPR : Breakdancing, Present at the Creation. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 April 2014].

Eric, 1998. History of Graffiti. 2014. History of Graffiti. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 April 2014]., 2002. History of Breakdancing. 2014. History of Breakdancing. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 April 2014]., 2002. The Roots of Hip Hop. 2014. The Roots of Hip Hop. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 April 2014].

Hamilton, 2012. Is the Rage Behind Ice Cube’s Rodney-King Rap Still Burning? – Jack Hamilton – The Atlantic. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 April 2014]. Hip Hop History Timeline › Hip Hop 101Hip Hop 101 ‹ . 2014. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 April 2014].

Kamer, 2013. 40. Blondie’s “Rapture” is the First “Rap” Video Played on MTV — The 40 Biggest Hip-Hop Moments in Pop Culture History | Complex. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 April 2014].

Krims, A. 2007. Music and Urban Geography. Edition. Routledge.

Powel, K / Time Magazine Online, 2000, ‘Hip-Hop Is the Most Important Youth Culture on the Planet’ – TIME. 2014. ‘Hip-Hop Is the Most Important Youth Culture on the Planet’ – TIME. [ONLINE] Available at:,8599,55624,00.html. [Accessed 29 April 2014].

Rose, T. 2008. The Hip Hop Wars. What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop – And Why It Matters. Basic Books.

Picture references

figure 1, Don Hogan Charles, 1971, photograph [online]. [Accessed 29 April 2014]

figure 1a, 1972, photograph [online]. [Accessed 29 April 2014]

figure 1b, photography [online] [Accessed 29 April 2014]

figure 2, 1972, photograph [online] [Accessed 29 April 2014]

figure 2a, photograph [online] [Accesses 29 April 2014]

figure 3, 1983, photgraphy/poster [online] [Accessed 29 April 2014]

figure 3a, Futura, 2012, advertisement/artwork [online] [Accessed 29 April 2014]

figure 4, 1981, Blondie, Frame from Rapture Video [online] [Accessed 29 April 2014]

figure 5, photograph [online] [Accessed 29 April 2014]

figure 5a, 1988-1991, advertisement photograph [online] NIKE – [Accessed 29 April 2014]

figure 6,1986, photograph [online] [Accessed 29/4/2014]

figure 7, 1988, album cover [online] [Accessed 29/14/2014]

figure 7a, 1988, album cover [online] [Accessed 29/4/2014]

figure 8, photograph [online] [Accessed 29/4/2014]

figure 8a, circa 1992, photograph [online] [Accessed 29/4/2014]

figure 8b, Holiday, 1991. Still from video camera footage [online] [Accessed 29/4/2014]

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Semiotic analysis of Don Charles’ portrait of Malcolm X at his window. Sat, 07 Oct 2017 17:57:06 +0000 The post Semiotic analysis of Don Charles’ portrait of Malcolm X at his window. appeared first on Ben O'Leary - Hull based film maker and commercial photographer.


This analysis of Don Charles’ photograph of Malcolm X, will consider the elements of the picture (it’s signs) and attempt to uncover its meaning through semiotic analysis.

One over riding connotation of the whole photograph is that it is an accurate and objective view of reality: Here is something that exists, this is what it looks like. This is the photograph viewed as an indexical sign (i.e. a record of light hitting the surface of chemically treated paper). This factual value is important when the image’s context is considered towards the end of the analysis.

It is reasonable to accept that the image’s key signifiers can be understood because of a code which informs us of the concept of rooms and the forms of which they consist. In this code light coloured walls and curtains suggest that the room is probably a residence. The presence of a door next to a window suggests that this room is at the front or back of the residence, leading out onto a street or garden (or backyard). Our code also allows us to identify the person as male (short hair, suit and tie) and the object as a gun. We are also able to understand that his positioning suggests that he is hiding, or at least attempting to obscure his form from the outside world.

The main signs within the photograph (door, window, man and gun) are all iconic, that is to say that they resemble things in the real world. Further analysis and consideration of these signs helps to uncover the innate meaning/message encoded in to the photograph.

The man can be viewed as a number of signs: he’s black, has short, natural hair and wears glasses. He is dressed in a suit and tie, the tie is held in place by a tie-pin. The style of clothes, the fact that the photo is black and white, the type of gun and shape of the glasses (signifiers) suggest that the image is not current; the authors visual code interprets this image as one belonging to the 1960’s, this further informs the reading of the connotations of the image.

Within our code, glasses as a signifier bring about a signified of intelligence, whilst the man’s clothing suggests a degree of affluence, perhaps he holds a position of status or importance. There is a dichotomy between the signifiers of the man and the connotations of the gun. This manifests as a tension within the image.

The signified of the gun is violence, whether through attack or defence. We understand that the upright position is less threatening (the gun is not aimed to fire), hence we read this as representing defence. Further connotations of the gun are of strength and power, but the man’s stance and position suggest wariness or fear, he stands back from sight – avoiding exposure to the outside world.

This man is situated in a residence, hiding from view but holding a powerful weapon. A connotation of this is that he is defending a home (his home?) from some external threat (a signified of his stance at the window). Furthermore his back is facing towards the wall as he stands by the window – a visual signifier of the idiom “back against the wall”.

This authors’ decoding of the image is informed by a general knowledge of the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s – as such there are further connotations of a black male holding a gun at this point in history. As stated, violence is a connotation of the gun therefore this man does not subscribe to an ethos of non-violence. It is likely that he has either a personal agenda, or that he is affiliated to a group which is prepared to use violence for some purpose or other. We cannot see any other people with the man, a signifier of solitude or isolation, further enforced by the posture of the man as discussed earlier.

In summary the signs within the image speak of a man evading the outside world who is prepared to use violence in defence of his home. Beyond the analysis of the pure image it is worth exploring the context within which the image was originally presented and who the likely readers of the original image were. In 1964 Ebony magazine published an article about Malcolm X, a prominent and outspoken figure in the Civil Rights Movement. X had recently left the controversial and influential Nation Of Islam – an Islamist anti-white organisation. The core purpose of the article was to reveal some of the mystery of the man (X) to Ebony’s target African-American audience. Towards the end of the article the photograph of interest to this analysis appears with a caption: “Vigilant about possible attacks by assassins, Harlem leader keeps automatic carbine with full double clip of ammunition ready for action in his home…” (Massaquoi, 1964). This caption adds a linguistic message which anchors the image’s meaning and limits the degree of interpretation which is likely to take place. The text itself could be further analysed, using principles of semiotics, e.g. the choice of the word ‘assassins’ with its immediate connotations of bad / sneaky / commissioned by others to kill.

This photographic sign is both indexical and iconic however, so powerful is the imagery that once published the sign became symbolic, representing freedom and advancement of black civil rights. The image itself is often recaptioned with “Freedom By Any Means Necessary”, a Malcolm X quote. The imagery has been used in lyrics as a signifier of defiance and also as the basis for album artwork, attaching the immediate connotations to the artist and starting the cycle once again as a connotative signifier for that body of work.


Massaquoi, H J, 1964. Mystery of Malcolm X. Ebony, 01 September. 37.

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Image Making on the Periphery of War Sat, 07 Oct 2017 17:54:36 +0000 The post Image Making on the Periphery of War appeared first on Ben O'Leary - Hull based film maker and commercial photographer.


A Comparison Between Photographers Working in the Genre of Photojournalism.

This essay will compare and contrast two images by photographers producing work within the genre of documentary photojournalism. War photography is a mainstay of the genre, but the boundaries of war are not as neatly defined as the conflict imagery we’re used to seeing suggests. For this reason I have chosen images which detail events before and after war, visions of how and why as powerful as any mid-battle reportage. Sebastião Salgado’s image of a firefighter in the oil fields of Kuwait will be compared with Georges Merillon’s photograph of grieving Kosovan women.

By considering why each photograph was made, where it was presented and whether or not the images were intended to serve a specific function, I will explore how the photographers’ approach to image making influenced the final work and whether their intentions had an enduring effect on the way the images are viewed. I will consider whether these images exist as objective testimony and if so, whether that testimony serves a purpose or whether they function as ‘entertainment’ in a news saturated culture.

Salgado (b.1944) spent his early years studying as an economist and by 1971 was working in London for the International Coffee Organisation, during which time he travelled to Africa on missions affiliated to the organisation; moved by what he saw he began taking photographs. Becoming preoccupied with these images Salgado left his career behind, returning to Paris to work as a freelance social documentary photographer. Merillon (b.1957) worked with the Gamma photography agency receiving two World Press Photographer awards and the European Fuji Award. He went on to become editor at Gamma before leaving to work on collaborative projects with other photographers in 2006. (Merillon, 2013)

In Salgado’s black and white photograph fire leeches from the ground to the right of the frame as a lone firefighter approaches, a protective chemical spray arcs into the image from the right; the sky is black from smoke and a sense of choking heat radiates from the page. The fire and chemical spray create a haze of light which dominates the entire picture, two equal but opposing forces in momentary stalemate. Around the source of the blaze we can see twisted metal, another fire burns on the horizon this is indeed an apocalyptic scene. In the context of Salgado’s ‘Workers’ series of photographs, we understand the fire to be a burning oil well, a bookend to the first gulf war. As oil burns out of the ground corporations stand to lose millions of dollars, they are reminded that workers are needed in order to protect their wealth, a moment of parity; for their part in this war for oil many of these men will return home millionaires. Salgado’s envisages the worker as a warrior, but here he is commodified in a battle to protect a commodity. The photograph is rich with the symbolism of conflict: workers fighting fires as one war ends and another begins; burning oil a visual metaphor for the power of the corporations, or perhaps for the lost blood of Iraqi, Kuwaiti and American soldiers; black and white, a power struggle representing good versus evil. Beyond all doubt the picture is visually stunning, a monumental and unashamed testimony to man’s willingness to risk all in a bid to tame the elements.

Merrilon’s “Vigil funeral in Kosovo” shows a group of women gathered around a young man, he is covered by a sheet and his eyes are closed, one woman’s face is turned to the sky as she cries, her arms shaking in front of her, the other women look, or reach toward her. Window light spreads across the image from the right hand side of the frame, creating a sense of depth which pulls us into the picture, we’re transported into the room and feel an immediate sense of both intimacy and voyeurism. The light in the photograph creates richly coloured tones across the faces and clothes of the women, the viewer is reminded of works of art hanging in a gallery – this could be a Rembrandt, Vermeer, or a scene from a Caravaggio. However this is not high art, and we’re reminded of our presence as an observer, or intruder by the unrelenting stare of a girl to the right of the frame, her gaze makes us complicit. In Regarding The Pain Of Others Susan Sontag notes: “We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death, and those being photographed to be unaware of the camera, “off guard.” (Sontag, 2003, p38) – Vigil Funeral does not allow us to passively ‘look’ at the picture without the scrutiny being returned. The photograph is especially poignant given the knowledge of the deaths and war that followed in Kosovo; indeed French artist and filmmaker Pascal Convert argues that Merillon’s photograph was first valued (and lauded by 1990’s Press Photographer of the Year award) on its aesthetic merits, as an imitation of western Christian archetypes of painting, before becoming testimony to the atrocities of the Bosnian war when viewed post NATO’s 1999 intervention (Convert, 1999).

The two images document events at the periphery of war; Salgado’s post-conflict image was taken days after the end of The Gulf War, whilst Merillion captured a single event, a moment in Kosovo’s long descent into war. Both photographs convey an immediate sense of something raw and powerful. Merrilon’s moment captures everything that it means to be human: life & death, love & loss are laid bare on the page, the viewer’s reaction is immediate and visceral as they are compelled to look at this scene. Salgado replaces emotion with awe, showing man pitted in a battle against the power of nature; despite the blistering heat and danger to life and despite the backdrop of war, he chooses to make his image monumental, beautifully toned and expertly composed. The events documented almost certainly happened (that is to say they were not staged for the camera), however they comfortably occupy the territory described by Martha Rosler’s essay in The Contest of Meaning. Rosler suggests that whilst the liberalist origins of documentary photography are all but gone, it continues to serve a social function by acting as a reminder of fear and uncertainty to the middle/upper classes – it’s both “flattery and warning”. (Rosler, 1992, p306-307); these images did little at the time to further the cause of the subjects, Kosovo descended into War and the West continues to wage wars over oil.

That Salgado and Merillon view their work as photojournalism, reportage images for use in the press to document a story, belies their status as lauded objects. Salgado goes to some length to stress this in an interview: “These pictures of workers tell stories .. in the pages of El Pais .. My work is not art and I certainly don’t think of myself as an artist: it is reportage.” (Glancey, 1993). However, despite protestations and original intentions these images have been elevated to the status of art as summarised in Regarding The Pain of Others, “So far as photographs with the most solemn or heartrending subject matter are art—and this is what they become when they hang on walls, whatever the disclaimers” (Songtag, 2003, p78).

Each photographers’ approach to producing their work was very different, Salgado’s image is one of a series of hundreds from his ‘Workers’ project, a six year tour of the world conceived to document manual workers in an increasingly post industrial age. In the introduction to Workers Salgado makes it clear that he aims to illustrate the nobility of the people he photographed, he describes sugarcane workers in Brazil and Cuba as warriors – the Cubans proud of their war effort and rewarded by their boss (the state), whilst the Brazilian warriors are described as day labourers, delivered by truck to the battlefield, part of the production mechanism of large companies. Salgado also uses his introduction to Workers to raise questions around production in the developed world, he states that “the developed world produces only for those that can consume .. the remaining four-fifths, who could theoretically benefit from surplus production, have no way of becoming consumers”. Despite seeing a world in crisis of first world excess, third world need and the ruin of the second world’s socialist ideals, he suggests that mankind must build a new world and “adapt, resist, believe, and survive” (Salgado, 1993).

Merillon’s image is perhaps more in line with our expectations or preconceptions of photojournalism. He travelled to Kosovo in 1990 with no translator or escort, to document growing tensions between the Yugoslavian government and Kosovo Albanians over the erosion of the region’s autonomous status. After witnessing minor protests he followed a news camera crew to a nearby village where they were shown the scene that was ultimately made famous by his photograph (Koch, 2009, p106).

Herein lays the fundamental difference between the two approaches, Salgado worked to his own schedule, choosing when and where to shoot. He knew that he was making a book and that this image would be one of many, he had the luxury of time to execute his ideas and time to build a narrative for the final viewing. That Salgado makes his intentions so clear in his introduction calls into question the documentary nature of the series, instead it is ladened with the overt intentions of the photographer and his world view. Conversely Merillon worked in the moment, a chance encounter leading to his iconic image. Despite different approaches there is, perhaps, a shared motive – as stated by Sontag, “The hunt for more dramatic (as they’re often described) images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value” (Sontag, 2003, p19).

The images serve multiple purposes: They are beautiful to look at and have therefore received prizes or become objects of art, they represent the coming together of the photographer’s vision, opportunity, and the viewers’ desire to access information about a world beyond their own boundaries. They are symbolic of the effect of conflict from both a female and male perspective: Women grieve for their dead sons and husbands, whilst the men enjoy the spoils of war, or indeed are responsible for war in the first place; in this way the texts are a powerful indictment of the nature of war.

By asserting the function of their images as photojournalism Salgado and Merillon must acknowledge the commercial imperative of such work, and in doing so must aim to produce work which is suitable for the medium, i.e. saleable, the images must shock, entertain or in some way illicit the attention of the consumer. Salgado’s stated aims are rich with the language of Marxism, however the final destination of Salgado’s work (the coffee table book, the gallery) is incongruous with the ideology, Workers treads a fine line between celebration and exploitation of the post industrial worker. It seems clear that the progression of his work from camera to high culture was calculated, perhaps inevitable and that his photojournalistic intentions cannot surface under the weight of his polemic approach. Conversely Merillon sought and delivered a ‘news’ photo that depicted a scene of universal suffering which strikes an immediate chord in the viewer; it is difficult to imagine a more raw photograph and its immediacy lends credence to the veracity of the image.

Photojournalism exists in a complex space with conflicting aspects of truth, aesthetics, meaning and saleability, it is apparent that despite the different approaches and motives both works are able to exist in the space of art and photojournalism. The images carry rich symbolism and have powerful connotations addressing themes that are immediately recognisable by the viewer, this ability to seek out and identify the humanistic traits of a story and capture a representative image is the principle skill of the photojournalist.



Convert, P – Pietà du Kosovo (no date) [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 25 February 2013].

Glancey, J (1993) Workers, warriors, heros: Sebastiao Salgado’s ‘Workers’, now on show in London, is an epic account of the world of manual labour. But what does it tell us? [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 23 February 2013]

Koch, R (2009). Photo Box. 1st ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

Merillon, G (no date), Biography [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 23 February 2013], Biography: Sebastião Salgado (2004) [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 01 April 2013].

Rosler, M (1992). In, Around, And Afterthoughts (on documentary photography) in: Burton, R The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. 6th Edition. The MIT Press, pp303-342

Sontag, S (2004). Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador.

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Bert Stern, Marilyn Double X,1962 Sat, 07 Oct 2017 17:46:19 +0000 Bert Stern, Marilyn Double X,1962   Bert Stern’s iconic photographs of Marilyn Monroe were the last before her suicide in 1962 – the image Marilyn Double X is part of a series of nudes and fashion images, commissioned by Conde Naste for inclusion in the Vogue magazine. The picture can be considered from a number […]

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Bert Stern, Marilyn Double X,1962


Bert Stern’s iconic photographs of Marilyn Monroe were the last before her suicide in 1962 – the image Marilyn Double X is part of a series of nudes and fashion images, commissioned by Conde Naste for inclusion in the Vogue magazine. The picture can be considered from a number of critical (or ideological) perspectives which this exercise seeks to outline in the following paragraphs.

A formalist view of the image would concentrate on the elements in the frame, observing the high key tone of the photograph and the fact that Monroe’s arms formed diagonal lines framing her face and disrupting the symmetry of a traditional head and shoulders portrait. The square crop would be noted as choice made by the photographer, eschewing the use of the rule of thirds or golden mean for a more confrontational composition, perhaps indicating strength or power. The scratches and orange crosses added by Marilyn would be seen as adding texture, line and colour – effectively de-harmonising the composition and creating an awkward juxtaposition between the beauty of the subject and her own violent intervention.

The marxist perspective on the picture would choose to consider the idea of Marilyn as a product of a capitalist society: a working class woman moulded and exploited by the American studio system and used to sell movies and magazines. The photograph serves to turn Marilyn into an object of desire, a product to be attained or owned by the viewer. The fact that the images were published posthumously serves to further underline the exploitation of Monroe. Consideration would also be made of the status of the photographer, Bert Stern was a successful fashion and advertising photographer. The marxist perspective would posit that his work did nothing to further the human condition and existed purely to feed capitalist society’s appetite for images of the rich, the famous and the beautiful. Such images create aspirational goals requiring further consumption or acquisition of capital, whilst enforcing existing boundaries between the working class and the elites.

A feminist reading of the photograph would seek to examine the relevance of gender roles in the final image and in it’s production and consumption. Monroe’s status as an object of desire, curated by a male dominated Hollywood studio and posed to fulfil the fantasies of the male photographer, would be seen as a reinforcement of the patriarchal hierarchies entrenched in society. The paradox of her ability to overcome a problematic childhood to become an international star, yet still be used as a decoration to tantalise men and enforce beauty stereotypes on women, is a further example of gender inequality. The image series was sent to Monroe to preview, forcing her to view herself as seen by the eye of the (male) photographer. Monroe’s crosses and scratches could be considered as a sign of non-compliance, of feminist activism – or conversely could represent insecurity and concern that the images did not meet the standard expected by others (the men that made and commissioned the series, or the women likely to consume them from the pages of Vogue).

The psychoanalytic perspective of the image would seek out unconscious meaning in the image, that is to say the subconscious motives at play the creation of the images. Stern had been fascinated by Monroe for many years before he took these photographs, in his own words: “I was preparing for Marilyn’s arrival like a lover and yet I was here to take photographs.” – the series (including several nudes) could be seen as reflecting Stern’s own desires, though his own comments suggest that these may have been more overt than subconscious. Additionally one may consider Marilyn Monroe’s own marks on the photographs – the scratches and crosses take on a new meaning when considered within the context of her suicide a short time after the shoot.

Each critical perspective considers the photograph in a different way, the political viewpoints of marxism and feminism seek to identify the social / cultural context and consequences of an image, whilst formalism looks at the image more literally using the language of description rather than meaning. Finally psychoanalysis attempts to look below the surface of the picture to uncover the subconscious influences on either the photographer, the subject or the viewer.



Terry Barrett, 2005. Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. 4 Edition. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.

Hans-Michael Koetzle, 2008. Photo Icons II (Icon (Taschen)) (v. 2). Edition. Taschen.

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