Age of the Image: Series 1, Episode 2

Continuing on from watching Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 1, I have decided to rewatch episode 2 while making notes. My reasoning for this is there is a lot of useful information regarding art and its history in the series. Therefore while making notes, I could get a better insight into these topics and look at the age of the image in art, not just from a photography perspective. I feel this last point is important because in the past I have focused a little too closely on only the photographic discipline in art.

Episode 2 is titled Power Games and revolves around the notion of images being tools for power. It focuses on how images in their many forms can be manipulated. Starting off with a photograph of Stalin, where one by one his accomplices disappear in the photograph as they fall out of favour with Stalin, creates a powerful introduction for the episode.

What follows are the then-controversial moving images of a woman in power, wearing trousers in Paris in 1930, where it was illegal for women to wear them until 2013. The actress Marlene Dietrich is the leading female figure performing in front of the camera in Morocco (1930) and she manipulates people’s expectations of women back then, and ‘challenge the social conventions of the time’ (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 2, 2020, 00:05:25-00:05:28). She uses the camera (and herself in front of the camera) as a tool to express her vision of women in power.

After this Age of the Image: Power Games turns its attention to Leni Riefenstahl who was a bitter rival of Dietrich’s and most famously made the film Triumph of the Will (1935). Here, Riefenstahl hides behind the film camera, in stark contrast to Dietrich who strode confidently in front of it (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 2, 2020, 00:14:29-00:14:42). Yet again though, the image is manipulated to make a statement but this time it is highly politically charged, being Nazi propaganda.

I found out that comic books are sometimes politically charged too. Both the Superman and Captain America comic books made very political statements fighting the Nazi ideologies within the comic books. These statements have then been attributed to contributing to Americans’ changing attitudes to the second world war and Nazis and were a factor behind the country entering the war (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 2, 2020, 00:19:38-00:19:48). Comic books can be very persuasive for both younger and older audiences and they were very popular so I feel it was clever to use something that is both prevalent and persuasive to instil an idea of fighting Nazism.

Post-war the image manipulation continued. With Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, image was used in both photography and film to portray a symbol of power. The highly televised performance shown widely and the bold, colourful photograph appearing on Picture Post helped to create this image of power; aiming to convey to its massive audience that Britain was again a dominant nation (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 2, 2020, 00:30:08-00:31:57).

With the gaze reversed in George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), ‘A society of watchers, had become the watched.’ (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 2, 2020, 00:34:53-00:34:57). For me this is a kind of meta manipulation of image, because the imagery is reflexive. It remains a very powerful form of image manipulation because it subverts what is conventional. I suppose it isn’t really manipulating the image to tell anything untruthful – in fact Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) was ahead of its time but has become a dystopian reality and remains topical to this day. However, power is implicit in this world where everybody is being watched by someone who they can’t see. This reminded me of the Panopticon system designed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. It has been argued that it is more apposite to compare the Panopticon system to a computer used to collect marketing data than a prison system nowadays (Zuboff cited in The Ethics Centre, 2017). I would agree with this analysis of the Panopticon in today’s society and it is quite scary to think so much data and therefore power lies in the hands on the other side of a computer connection.

One famous director, Alfred Hitchcock, was fascinated by the concept of people being unwittingly surveilled and this was most explicit in his Rear Window (1954) film (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 2, 2020, 00:35:00-00:35:48). The film progresses so that a man trapped in his apartment, starts spying on all his neighbours voyeuristically without them seeing him (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 2, 2020, 00:35:57-00:36:30). In my opinion this definitely adopts something of the Panopticon model, where the lead character can see everyone but they can’t see him. When the tables are eventually turned and the voyeur becomes the observed, the gaze has again been subverted, creating a paradox. Here, the watcher has become the watched and this is a very interesting power dynamic for me. It implicates the viewers of the film as voyeurs themselves and speaks of an uncomfortable yet captivating reality where it is uncertain who is being watched. I feel this film is extremely topical especially for today.

Lastly, Age of the Image: Power Games shows how image can be powerfully employed to contribute to change in civil rights. Specifically Gordon Parks photographed the inequality of America during the civil rights movement in order to help bring about change (see Fig. 1). He then went on to photograph Mohammed Ali who became a selfless fighter for civil rights himself. Ali had previously manufactured a powerful image during his boxing career through not only his formidable boxing skill but also his quick words (Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 2, 2020, 00:51:52-00:52:44). Yet he sacrificed this image in order to campaign for civil rights. Most notably, he didn’t answer the call to join the army because he felt it was unjust. Although Ali’s image was badly affected by this decision, he bounced back with another photographic image for Esquire magazine. Here, Ali appears as Saint Sebastian in a portrait and identifies with giving up something for a cause he believes in. The examples of Parks and Ali are examples of how image can be manipulated for a cause which brings about positive change.

Fig. 1 © Gordon Parks - 'Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-Shopping, Mobile, Alabama' (1956)
Fig. 1 © Gordon Parks – ‘Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-Shopping, Mobile, Alabama’ (1956)

I am glad I rewatched this second episode as it made me realise how powerful images and imagery have been historically. As well as this I realised it is important to be socially aware when creating images because they can be as devastating as they can be motivational. I found learning about Hitchcock’s watcher being watched in Rear Window (1954) enthralling. The images Parks produced during the civil rights movement are still unfortunately topical today. However, through the use and discourse created from a simple, solid black image hopefully new positive and enduring change can happen.

References:

Fig. 1 Parks, G. (1956) Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-Shopping, Mobile, Alabama. [Photograph] At: https://jackshainman.com/artists/gordon_parks (Accessed 09/07/2020).

Age of the Image: Series 1, episode 2 (2020) [Television programme] BBC iPlayer 09/03/2020. At: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000g6mj/age-of-the-image-series-1-2-power-games (Accessed 09/07/2020).

Morocco (1930) Directed by Sternberg, J. [Film] California: Paramount Pictures.

Orwell, G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Secker and Warburg.

Rear Window (1954) Directed by Hitchcock, A. [Film] California: Paramount Pictures.

The Ethics Centre (2017) ‘Ethics Explainer: The Panopticon’ In: The Ethics Centre 18/07/2017. At: https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-panopticon-what-is-the-panopticon-effect/#:~:text=The%20panopticon%20is%20a%20disciplinary,not%20they%20are%20being%20watched. (Accessed 09/07/2020).

Triumph of the Will (1935) Directed by Riefenstahl, L. [Propaganda Film] Nuremberg: Reichsparteitag-Film.

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