New York Times Photo Essay

When I see the photograph of Donald Trump holding a fist in the air on Inauguration Day, I think first of Twitter. By the time the photo arrived on my feed, it was already encrusted with commentary from people racing to ascribe meaning to the first moments of the Trump presidency. First: Was he doing … the Black Power salute? And if so, what did that mean? Was he clueless? Racist? Or funny? To those who heralded our new president as the ultimate political jester, the pose was a triumph. To others, it was a menacing taunt to his predecessor: Look what my whiteness allows me to get away with.

In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin wrote that the ability to mass-produce art meant that photographs could now “meet the beholder halfway.” The newspaper allowed news photography to arrive right at our doorsteps — the fastest we could see the world photographers had captured. But on the internet, it feels as if images have the power to storm into our consciousness and start rearranging the furniture. They arrive as horrifying affronts and shimmering diversions that seem capable of remolding our thought processes and reformatting our memories.

If photographs used to be packaged only in a carefully digestible form, to peruse over breakfast or tuck into a briefcase, they now arrive in a streaming glut that can never fully be consumed. We are confronted with the never-ending task of bearing witness. Images of disaster unfolding in faraway lands arrive faster than we can figure out how to pronounce the conflict’s name or spell it from memory.

Calamities of so many different kinds and degrees — Puerto Ricans wading through hurricane waters, a burned-out California trailer park, people fleeing gunfire at a country music concert and the tortoise Lonesome George, the final known member of his species, who died in 2012, returned home to the Galápagos Islands and put on display — pile up alongside apocalyptic jokes from first-world social media celebrities, because LOL the world is ending and nothing matters. It’s appalling and flattening at once. Every caress of an iPhone screen could serve up an image of a stranded refugee or a video of a chipmunk clinging to a confused house cat. The same thing that pulls us into tragedy soothes us through distraction.

And still, photography holds the power to clarify. The so-called alt-right once seemed abstracted in its online alcoves, where white supremacists hide behind anonymous frog avatars. In Charlottesville, Va., in August, we finally looked them in the face — young white men dressed in the corporate uniform of white polo shirt tucked into sad khakis, sullying the reputation of the Tiki torch. The portraits of teenage Nigerian girls who made brave escapes from Boko Haram — their faces covered with veils, flowers or their own hands to protect their identities — are a stunning testimony to heroism in the face of unspeakable violence.

It’s a cliché to remark, at the end of the year, that the time has moved quickly and slowly all at once. But one of the dark powers of our devices is to bend time, to suck us into the screen and spit us out seemingly months later. It can sometimes feel as if the only thing that exists is the one that’s being talked about online right now. To study these photographs is to be perpetually surprised at what has just happened: The last mass shooting before the last mass shooting before the last mass shooting; the hurricane before the flood before the fires. It seems impossible, looking back at a photograph from President Trump’s inauguration, that Barack Obama was actually president of the United States earlier this year.

We can still clip out newspaper images we want to remember and press them in albums. But today, while every photograph we have ever seen feels instantly accessible at any moment, we also rarely recall them. To pause and look back is a revelation.

AMANDA HESS

It has only been a few weeks, but I can already feel the events in Las Vegas slipping away from me. The horror that unfolded there is indelible: A single shooter killed at least 58 people and injured hundreds more. And yet the horror is not indelible; it is fading, as most public tragedies eventually do. (You might even have wondered, reading the above, Which events in Las Vegas?) Since Oct. 1, there has been a terrorist attack in New York City, a mass shooting in Texas and other gun violence throughout the country, as well as numerous distressing public scandals. What trace of these events remains for those of us not personally affected by them? Names, dates, photographs, videos: all retrievable, but most archived away in a cloud of faint memory.

After mass killings, American newspapers do not typically run images of corpses. The reasons have to do with respect for the dead and concern for readers’ sensitivities, as well as restrictions put on photojournalists’ access to crime scenes (these conventions are subtly, and unjustly, different when it comes to international stories). Instead of photographs of bloody bodies in the street, we get photographs of ambulances, medical professionals, law enforcement, people ducking for cover. A photograph we’ve all seen is of someone in distress being cradled in someone else’s arms. Another is of the candlelit vigils held in the aftermath of these horrors. The raw pathos inherent in such moments is now dulled; seen once too often, the situations are not as moving as they ought to be. But even with these diminishing returns, the press is obligated to run pictures. Among them, which are piercing? Which endure? The minor ones, the odd and peculiar ones, the ones that evoke some other history.

The images that have stayed with me from the Las Vegas massacre are of broken glass. Stephen Paddock sprayed bullets down on country-music concertgoers from a suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay resort, smashing two of its windows in order to do so. For photographers arriving after the massacre, it would have made sense to look up and shoot the building (the shared vocabulary between cameras and firearms is both regrettable and illuminating), aiming in the opposite direction to the killer’s nighttime shots. What these photographers would have seen was a golden building, its front part protuberant and vaguely ship-shaped. The hotel’s windows are gaudy in the Vegas style, covered with a thin layer of gold. Near the top of the building are two irregular shapes, nine panels apart, one of them on the building’s prow, the other on its starboard. They look like small black stains or asterisks, or perhaps even like a pair of gouged-out eyes: These are the broken windows.

The postmassacre photographs of the building are documents of fact. They do not feel like “works of art,” nor are they intended to be. But they have a collective ability to draw our attention to the void behind the broken windows, not only the unilluminated void where windows were broken but also the inhumane void that possessed the murderer’s soul, the mournful void that overtook the survivors and the abysmal void beneath our way of life, from which a bewildering violence erupts incessantly.

Glass is everywhere in photography. From Eugène Atget’s reflective vitrines to Lee Friedlander’s sly self-portraiture, photographers have long been in thrall to the visual complications glass can inject into a composition. Glass is present not only as photography’s seductive subject but also as its physical material. Photographs were commonly made on wet-plate negatives (glass coated with photosensitive emulsion) in the 19th century, and then on the improved and portable dry-plate negatives, before film was manufactured at a sufficient strength in the 20th century to serve as a transportable medium for photographic emulsion. Sometimes the very glass of the negative becomes part of the photograph’s story.

Andre Kertesz photographed a view over Montmartre in 1929, presumably through an open window. Kertesz left Paris and moved to New York and was not reunited with the negative until the 1960s, by which time it was cracked and badly damaged. But this damage became the story. Looking at Kertesz’s 1970 print of the negative, it’s easy to think that what we are seeing is a photograph of a city through a broken window, perhaps one shot through with a bullet. It is in fact a photograph of a city printed from a damaged glass-plate negative.

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