Nostalgia, photography and pablum

Because it is summer, my recent blog entries have been shorter (and I am hoping sweeter.) This week I am writing something equally short but maybe not so sweet. I will be exploring a weird convergence of marketing, nostalgia and photography that I recently came across. What I read got me pretty agitated, but I wanted to “sit on my anger” for a few weeks, to see if my initial reaction was still appropriate. Now I can say that what I thought back when I first saw the offending passage is what I still think, a few weeks later.

I have taken some of the specifics of the passage that got me going, which was:

…travelled across … six times between 2005 and 2009. The result … is an extraordinary travel journal and portrait of …. seldom seen by foreigners.… a portrait of what is gone, not just in …. but in all of the advanced world. The images hark back to simpler times and look like they could have been made in the 1940s and 1950s: mechanics are covered with grease and flat tyre repair shops line the highways, people ride bicycles, play cards in … and railroad workers work in gangs with picks, while a foreman blows a whistle. We see almost nothing of this century’s technological advances in ….’s pictures and the relationships between people are close and affectionate.

This nostalgic pablum is from the marketing material for the recently published book, “Deep Sea Diver” by Danny Lyon. You can read more about it at: The book is a portfolio of photographs from contemporary China.

But think about if you were to use terminology like that noted above to describe a set of photographs of the working poor in the U.S. (or for that matter when describing life in almost any sub community in this country.) Frankly, that would be preposterous and offensive.

I do not know Danny Lyons. I have seen much of his work, which I am not as impressed with as some people, but that is not the issue. The issue is that Lyons, or more likely the marketing people at Phaidon (the publisher,) are so detached from the life of real people that they would write and disseminate that crap.

Lyon apparently had a translator with him while he was traveling through China (probably a wise move.) I hope he would have told his translator ask the many people he met if they liked working with just their bare hands and being “covered in grease?” Did they enjoy working on a railroad “with picks” or would they have preferred modern construction machinery, power tools, etc.?

Who are the people at Phaidon to seriously suggest that life was ”better” in that situation? I would bet good money that the Chinese who were photographed by Lyon would not see things that way. If the reality of life in China today is any indicator, my point is proven by the masses of Chinese who are “voting with their feet.” They are leaving behind places where we …“see almost nothing of this century’s technological advances,” to pursue the opportunities offered by manufacturing work in the larger cities.

Of course photography is used to stop time in a way that can spur nostalgia in the viewers who see the images years after they are made. I happen to think that the “nostalgia” angle within photography is grossly overused to sell everything from fine-art photographic prints to retro styling in cards and clothes. Yes, every photography prompts the viewer to think about the fact that whatever is being shown in an image, “happened before.” But the same image also says, “look at what is.” I have always been more interested in the latter and less interested in the former, but then I have never been big on nostalgia.

When I think about nostalgia, I remember what my late mother said about the subject. She was the first female principal in the school district where she worked in Southern California along side a number of male principals. She had a theory about nostalgia, drawn from that fact that many of her friends were Hispanics and other minorities. Even more of them were women, so she felt perfectly comfortable arguing that the only people who really believe in “the good old days” are older, white men. She noted how they once had all the power and they were being forced in her day to share that same power.

My mother’s theory on nostalgia always struck me as spot on, though I kind of thought the problems she alluded to passed with time and somehow went with her when she died in 1993. Sadly, the promotional blurb for the book “Deep Sea Diver” by Danny Lyon, shows that my mother is sadly still right (and that her wisdom has lived beyond the grave.)

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