Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I love President Obama's response in announcing his support of gay marriage after North Carolina Passed the constitutional amendment saying marriage can only be between a man and a woman, as well as banning same-sex civil unions. This issue has always been one thing I couldn't believe he was not decisive on supporting, so I appreciate the following clip from ABC news and article in the NY Times with him stating that his realization came when he saw people working hard for and with him, his neighbors, friends, etc. that have children in same sex relationships that aren't given equal rights. I'm sure there is more behind the politics of it all but this is a huge step.

Democratic Process Recap

Reflecting on this semester and particularly some of my last posts regarding my Doing Democracy class, made me think about a few things. First being my former advanced photography professor from college, Paul Shambroom, and his photo essay on meetings...

Here is his artist's statement (in red) on this project, an example photograph, the link to his work, and then my thoughts:

“But the township, at the center of ordinary relations of life, serves as a field for the desire of public esteem, the want of exciting interest, and the taste for authority and popularity…”
Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

My photographs of government meetings are part of my long-term investigation of power begun in previous series on nuclear weapons, factories and corporate offices, and currently on homeland security training and preparation.

A common impulse in these projects is my quest as one individual to understand and illuminate seemingly overwhelming and abstract power systems. Although town council and community meetings are open to the public, the process of governance can still seem somewhat invisible and separate from the lives of ordinary people (as evidenced by the fact that many of the meetings I photographed were sparsely attended.)

These photographs emphasize the theatrical aspects of meetings: There is a "cast", a "set", an "audience" (sometimes) and a "program" (the agenda). Seating arrangements, clothing and body language all provide clues to local cultural traits and political dynamics. The subjects play dual roles as private individuals and (sometimes reluctant) public leaders. Power may be relative, but the mayor of a town of 200 has much in common with the President of the United States. We see ourselves reflected (either positively or negatively) in our leaders, exemplifying both the highest ideals and lowest depths of the human spirit. Our reactions to them help define our perceptions of our own place in society, as insiders or outsiders, haves or have-nots

This work was a departure from my earlier series both in presentation and compositional approach. I began with conventional photographic methods, but then digitally scanned and manipulated the images’ tonality and sharpness. By utilizing conventions such as eye-level-centered compositions and panoramic formats, I placed this work squarely in the traditions of historical portrait genres. The large-scale prints on canvas are stretched and varnished to further these references and probe the boundaries between photography and painting.

My photographic road trips were inspired by the traditions of Robert Frank and Walker Evans, but the methodology was decidedly twenty-first-century. Using a laptop computer, mapping software and a database of more than 15,000 communities in over thirty states, I planned my daily itineraries according to geography, population and meeting schedules. After driving several hundred back-road miles I pulled up to the town meeting hall and there had the privilege of seeing democracy in its purest form as farmers, teachers and insurance agents conducted the business of their community. In a time in which there is talk of “exporting democracy” it seems especially pertinent to look at the often imperfect and sometimes beautiful way in which we practice this form of government at home in America. revA/index.html


I don't know why I only thought of his work when I looked back on my mundane photograph of the Lincoln Park High School Council meeting, but after taking Doing Democracy, attending a CPS school meeting among others and seeing firsthand the meaning of democracy in these settings, that sometimes it is stated as such simply to appease the public, and sometimes a single person- teacher, parent, bystander, student- can make a difference. Paul Shambroom's photographs of meetings hold so much more meaning to me now- hilariously, poetically, respectably, amazingly.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Profile of Democratic Process

CPS School Board Meeting / Lincoln Park High School Council Meeting:

Coming from a very small community on Long Island in New York, I had no idea what to expect of my first Chicago Public School Board Meeting. From the protestors outside the building to the seemingly never-ending line to what I thought was going to be the actual meeting but was actually a viewers’ room set up with chairs and flat-screen televisions. I shouldn’t complain though- not everyone made it even that far into the meeting (ahem… Adam and other stragglers).
In my past experience, the democratic process has tended to work in favor of the party asking for change, or the party most affected by the policies at hand. I remember during my youngest brother’s last year in high school, the school decided to raise tuition $5,000 without warning or any gradual incremental increase. Many parents were upset but my mother was the only parent who allowed to local newspapers to interview her and use her name for quotes. They ended up working out a system for current (at the time) and graduating students, since it was too late for my brother to be transferred to another school before graduation.
My point being, I have always been able to put faith in the democratic system, or at least have hope in the idea of democracy when it came to both the public and private education systems I grew up with. If the voting didn’t go in my parents’ or my favor, at least we could visually see the evidence of a democratic system in place with the actual number of votes and voters, etc. The CPS School Board Meeting, on the other hand, felt more like a monarchy with a questionably selected group of kings asking the general public’s opinion then cutting them off mid sentence and eventually disregarding the said opinion and making their own decisions anyway.
Understood, there was an influx of people wishing to speak on behalf of themselves personally, or as concerned parents or teachers or students, etc. so there simply just was not enough time to address every single person’s every bullet point. The way in which each speaker was cut off and told to wrap up not once but several times during their obviously planned and rehearsed speeches was embarrassing. I literally felt myself blushing on more than one occasion and couldn’t pinpoint if I was reacting with empathy for the speaker or with horror at the way they were being treated in this so-called democratic setting.
One of the main issues that seemed to consistently come up was the idea of an extended school day for CPS. The idea being that in light of the current test performance and graduation rates, a longer period of scheduled time spent in the classroom will result in greater positive student outcomes. Parents who spoke seemed to be the only hesitant parties addressing this issue, they seemed mostly concerned about the effects of a longer school day on extracurricular activities as well as the question of whether this proposed extra time spent at school will actually have positive results in their children’s lives.
An interesting parallel to the CPS School Board Meeting was the Lincoln Park High School Council meeting, consisting of parents and teachers in a very much smaller setting discussing a variety of concerns and topics regarding Lincoln Park High School or their children/students specifically. A hot topic during this meeting was how to get students, seniors specifically, to arrive at school on time and/or at all. Questions of commute issues versus general motivation were brought up, defended and debunked. Most of the individuals on the panel and many of the parents seated around me believed that a later start to the day would solve the problem of students being late or skipping their first period class entirely. They also considered incentives such as free prom tickets, which it sounded like teachers had been handing out in an effort to get better grades and attendance in general from the students.
After researching the concluding plans and set dates for the CPS extended school days I looked up Lincoln Park High School to see if anything had become of their meeting afterwards. In response to CPS Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard’s letter regarding the extended school day starting in the fall (“with a 75-minute early release one day a week”) Lincoln Park High School stated on their website: “This planned change will allow us to build on one of the cornerstones of Lincoln Park's excellence-collaborative planning time for teachers. The announced plan is for High School students to get out of school 75 minutes early each Wednesday. We will write an appeal to allow students to come to school 75 minutes later on Wednesdays, rather than leaving school early, similar to our current Thursday late start schedule.”
I am not yet aware of how appeals work with individual schools addressing CPS but many of the flaws of the current CPS system became evident to me over the course of this class. I know that I haven’t begun to touch the surface of understanding it all, but I definitely hope to attend more of these types of forums to better understand what I am getting into as an educator and hopefully as a permanent resident of Chicago.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Angela Strassheim: Social Observation & Interview

Angela Strassheim was nothing short of intimidating as a professor during my early semesters as a photography student at Minneapolis College of Art & Design. With multiple grants and fellowships, a BFA from MCAD, an MFA from Yale for photography, and the 2006 Whitney Biennial under her belt, the idea of having Angela critique my work on a regular basis made me slightly nauseous to say the least. Her photography then stemmed from her upbringing in a conservative Christian family in rural Iowa; Angela either actually used them in her images or reenacted scenes and memories from her own childhood. Angela’s “hyper-controlled, candy-colored esthetic, and focus on the same type of airless, white suburban Minnesota, full of spacious, ordered houses, overstuffed but emotionally vacant rooms and Middle American ephemera. But whereas the idea that she was capturing her family was built into the concept -- and the reception -- of the previous works, here her figures deliberately reach for a more universal significance.” (Ben Davis, ArtNet Magazine)

            Angela’s connection to – yet alienation from – this stereotypical Middle-American world she so publicly makes observations about with each and every minute but entirely deliberate and in-focus detail in her images is one of the things that makes her work so comprehensive and really draws the viewer in. She brought this same fascination to her newer work on photographing inside homes where a familial homicide had occurred in California. One might question the bridge or transition from one to the other but once you see her Angela’s images from Evidence, that same eerie voyeuristic quality is still present, like we are looking into this private and unknown world and we know we shouldn’t be.

“So these are images of what remains from familial homicides. Basically, after a space has been cleaned up, and nothing is showing – all these places if you turned the lights on, you wouldn’t see anything at all – and when you turn the lights off, I spray this product called Blue Star. The base of Blue Star is a luminal-like base and when you mix it with an oxidizing agent and an alkaline agent, and then that comes into contact with blood or the hemoglobin in the blood, it illuminates and creates this chemical reaction that becomes the light in the room. So that was the other thing that was really appealing to me was that this thing that was a stain of someone’s fight for life becomes this light in the room almost as a memorial to the person who fought for their will to live.”

“For me, I think the photographs themselves have the same struggle between looking at something that is beautiful on the wall – and like a striking image (especially the one that is over the bed that looks like fizzled out fireworks that almost come out in a three-dimensional way. So you can appreciate it for that but then you realize what it is and it makes the viewer, if they really want to think about it, struggle with the beauty and then what it is actually representing, something really horrific and something that we can’t really wrap our heads around. So it is this layered meaning that is behind the making of the image and the product of what you’re looking at.”

Angela's incredulity at these familial homicides only informs her ability to photograph them in different and unique ways. Her photographs display the permanence of these tragedies - even after all is cleaned up, painted over, and the people have moved out, there is always some way of finding evidence of what has happened in the past.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011