I seem to have gained and lost focus at the same time. I just bought a sangria-red ZX-5 (which the girlfriend wants to name Velma), but at the same time I momentarily forgot what I was doing. I was having a thought . . . and then real life rushed in. I think I’m having a Jeff Lebowski moment.

Perhaps it was a mistake to convert the six-CD Creedence Clearwater box set to MP3s right away to take advantage of the built-in MP3 player. I’ve started eyeing the 400 watts worth of Linear Power amplifiers that have been gathering dust on my shelf for around six years. But, since I think I’ll probably be making the twelve-hour trip between here and Minneapolis several times in the next couple of months . . . Technology is fun. I’m really starting to get into the whole itunes thing; watching songlists pop-up when I insert obscure Television bootlegs is an awe-inspiring thing. But, I was thinking of something else before all this happened.

Maybe it had something to do with the perception of images as “signals” around the dawn of wirephoto in the early 1930s. In essence, that is what music is becoming— songs can be identified by “codes” in a database. The presence of information as pure signal is one part of the dissemination of images in the early twentieth century. But I think Michael Carlebach, in Photojournalism Comes of Age, goes over the top:

Most professional photographers in the early twentieth century wore their anonymity proudly, like badges. In a six-part series published in the Photographic Times magazine in 1905, a news photographer carefully avoided giving the reader any clue to his or her identity; the author of the series was simply “one of them.” References to newspapers were similarly oblique. It was the profession and the images that ran on the printed page that counted, not the identity or character of the person behind the camera (3).

I think that this picture of journalism as a cohesive profession that thought of the value of its “information” as something existing outside of any name recognition is positively ludicrous. Newspaper reputations were built on having star writers, at least—the scandal over the faked European news bureau in the Hearst papers of the 1920s comes to mind. They often attached names to prestige coverage. Thinking of the Collier’s coverage of the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895) it seemed absolutely imperative that not only the writers were presented on the scene in pictures, but also the photographers to grant credibility to their coverage. There was nothing “anonymous” about it at all—except, perhaps, the absence of individual credit lines for photographs. Actually, from the Civil War onward, the public was used to knowing where their news-dispatches came from.

Carlesbach’s creative re-write of the situation seems to fall in line with the current tendency to want to separate form from content. Journalism, at one extreme, is seen as content without form. Modernist photography, on the other hand (and in the same period) is seen as form without content. Perhaps the unique thing about pictorialism is its retrograde insistence on an organicist notion of cohesion between the two. I think part of the problem of separating things out so neatly is the ethical dilemma involved—if the message is only a signal, then the sender is not responsible for its interpretation. Or, alternately, if the image is only an exercise in form, then culpability for the images content is similarly limited. What does it matter if the image sells insincerity? Isn’t it just meant to be arresting?

I was thinking about this while I was waiting at the car lot. Reagan’s funeral was the only thing on TV. It’s hard for me to avoid sounding callous about the whole thing. I genuinely disliked the man, from the time he was governor of California. Actually, his budget cuts were part of what forced me to drop out of school many years ago. I began to wonder why Nancy didn’t arrange a world tour for the body—prop it up at the site of the Berlin wall, photograph it in front of the Kremlin— after all, a funeral is just an exercise in form. The content doesn’t matter that much at all. Surely we must comfort the grieving world. People will debate what the actual legacy (signal) of the Reagan presidency was for a long time. The funeral is and should be a separate issue.

When form is writ large, it is hard to discern the signal.