PRINT December 1996

Q & A

the Year's Images

1996 has not been a banner year for memorable images. “OJ 2: The Wrath of Goldman” was removed from the fall TV lineup, political scandals were bereft of salacious visuals, and yet another Nintendo bombing raid on Iraq was preempted by Baywatch reruns. Even the “outing” of presidential adviser and hardened toe-sucking enthusiast Dick Morris failed to generate any dirty pictures. In the latter part of the year, we were left to watch two completely compromised politicians struggle half-heartedly to shove each other out of the ideological center. Indeed, the grinding banality of the 1996 presidential campaign had me wishing—somewhat more than usual—that some impossible leviathan would appear and hit the restart button on America.

My wish came true, albeit briefly, in the first third of the most blatant propaganda film since Forrest Gump—Independence Day. The image of our country’s major cities being eclipsed, then flattened simultaneously, by colossal flying saucers—like the Four Horsemen with synchronized Bulova watches—introduced a new level of scale to science-fiction cinema. Even the movie fantasy, though, failed to deliver an ecstatic cataclysm. Instead, from the rubble, a gaggle of pseudopopulist, safely multicultural heroes emerged to save the day and rekindle our flagging patriotism.

It comes as no surprise that many of our contributors chose images from the fearful and loathsome campaign trail. More happily, other respondents sought refuge in the few memorable visuals doled out this year by Hollywood and the media. As for me, all I can say to the aliens is, “you missed.” Though I must admit, I’m still watching the skies.

Andrew Hultkrans

GREIL MARCUS (author The Dustbin of History, Lipstick Traces): It’s a large photo in Time over two pages, right about the time of the Republican convention, grainy black and white: Bob Dole, Ralph Reed, and Pat Robertson, arranged as in some academic historical painting where a certain rite of power is enacted. Here all the stories are told in the way the figures hold themselves: Reed with a casual, even careless confidence, Robertson with a puffed-up, stolid sense of command, and Dole slumped under the weight of his own humiliation, 180 pounds of determination and shame. The only caption I could read onto this tableau: “THE PRESIDENT RECEIVES HIS INSTRUCTIONS.”

M.G. LORD (author, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll): That small chunk of Mars with its wormlike, alleged microfossils was, for me, the most haunting image of 1996. It moved the question, “Are we alone?” out of the trailer parks and into the laboratories. Even if it was simply a NASA public relations ploy to shore up funds for its unmanned Mars missions, it was an effective one.

MICHAEL MUSTO (columnist, The Villiage Voice): The most memorable image of 1996 was that of the flying cows in Twister—the very essence of nature run amok. The rest of the year I felt like a cow who’d lost his grounding.

BRUCE STERLING (author, Holy Fire, Heavy Weather, The Hacker Crackdown): I’d have to vote for Bob Dole falling off the edge of the podium (September 1996). T. S. Eliot would have called this image an “objective correlative.” It’s a cruel image, but it’s been a sorry business, all in all.

CAROL SQUIERS (senior editor, American Photo magazine): There isn’t one most memorable image of the year but rather 6,631 of them, which were on exhibit at the International Center of Photography last September. These small color portraits of children were taken in Rwanda and Zaire in 1994 and 1995 by two young photographers, Seamus Conlan and Tara Farrell. Rather than recording bloody massacres in Rwanda, these photos instead show the faces of children lost or orphaned by the violence and subsequent exodus of refugees. Done in conjunction with the Red Cross and UNICEF, Conlan and Farrell aimed to photograph every displaced child—which totaled 21,000 at one point—and then to display the photos in refugee camps for families to identify. Three thousand children have been located so far in this way, the result of a brilliantly instrumental use of photography.

GLENN O’BRIEN (writer): After hearing that a jetliner bound for Europe had gone down off Long Island, I watched television for hours. I had friends traveling that night. The news helicopters were out and as they approached the crash site there was a field of sparkling lights on the black water. At first I thought it was small craft come to the rescue, but as the copter flew closer I realized that the many lights were flames of burning jet fuel.

ANDY GRUNDBERG (director, the Friends of Photography): The Sharper image ad for night-vision binoculars, produced by Goodby-Silverstein of San Francisco. It was a rough mélange of Merry Alpern’s “Dirty Windows” voyeurism and Thomas Ruff’s night-scope surveillance pictures—and a classic example of how quickly artistic practice can be absorbed and adapted by consumer culture. I take special pleasure in thinking how Alpern’s pictures were perfectly welcome in this broader cultural discourse on illicit observation yet were too frightening for the guardians of the National Endowment for the Arts—who refused her the grant that I and a panel of photography peers had recommended she receive.

RICHARD KADRY (author, Metrophage Kamikaze L’Amour, Covert Culture Sourcebook): A couple of centuries ago when Napoleon was thinking about invading the homeland of the czars he was advised not to “rouse the sleeping Russian bear.” Anyone who saw Boris Yeltsin dancing on stage during his reelection campaign now knows why. The man who had helped face down a phalanx of tanks and an attempted second Soviet revolution was willing, a few years later, to publicly spaz out like one of Iggy Pop’s “hypnotizing chickens.” Lucky Russians. Along with Baywatch and western venture capital, the ex-Evil Empire has glommed onto our election system, one based more on Hulk Hoganian than Jeffersonian ideals. Welcome to Big Media Democracy, Ivan.

R.U. SIRIUS (founder, Mondo 2000; author, How to Mutate and Take Over the World): Most of what struck me personally or politically this year was sans powerful imagery. Somehow, it’s appropriate then that the image that does stand out is a shadowy one of the presumed Unabomber—the antimedia, anti-image, pamphleteer-with-explosives—being led away by Federal Agents. What’s intriguing is his distance. This mad bomber appears passionless, vacant even. This suggests to me that no media may be as detrimental as too much media. Perhaps the Unabomber only needed to be distracted . . . entertained.

A. M. HOMES (novelist/critic, The End of Alice, Appendix A:): The New York Times Saturday, October 5, 1996, photograph Mariella Furrer: A 17-year-old girl is being held down while her genitals are cut the hand of an unseen person is clamped over her mouth. “We don’t care about pleasure,” her mother said. “All we care about is that our daughter is clean, as the community wants her to be.”

JOHN WATERS (filmmaker, Serial Mom, Cry Baby, Hairspray): The strongest images for me still come from the movies. For some reason, my favorite film of 1996, David Cronenberg’s Crash, hasn’t opened in America yet (it’s already a big cult hit in Paris), but when it does, break the speed limit to see it. Adapted by Cronenberg from J. G. Ballard’s 1973 erotic-car-crash novel of the same name, the movie Crash is arty in the best sense of the word; sexy, dirty, radically paced, hilariously tongue-in-cheek, and as elegant as the most shocking fashion shoot. Believe me, Crash gives the word “outré” new meaning.

As someone who’s played “car accident” as a child and later fantasized about picking up sexual partners at the scene of a wreck, I can’t tell you how tickled I am to finally see a film that treats fender-benders as foreplay. Wait until you see a scarred and crippled Rosanna Arquette, dressed in fetish leg-braces and black leather, having sex with Holly Hunter in the backseat of a car that’s just been involved in an especially juicy wreck.

SCOTT BUKATMAN (assistant professor, Media Arts Program, UNM: author Terminal Identity): In the society of the, it’s downright nostalgic to imagine locating or defining a single image—to coax one from the chaos to stand naked and alone, if only for a brief moment. In the era of the image, there is no image of the year.

TOM TOMORROW (political cartoonist, “This Modern World”; author The Wrath of Sparky): The cavernous press room set up in the basement of the Hartford Civic Center during the first of the two presidential debates was catered courtesy of Philip Morris, which also handed out trinkets such as disposable cameras and toy whistles (shaped like the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile) to journalists who had traveled great distances in order to—well, in order to watch the event on TV monitors there in the basement. And to gather sound bites like party favors in a section of the room blatantly designated “Spin Alley.”

There, a massive crush of journalists and party hacks converged immediately after the debate, with Wolf Blitzer and Tabitha Soren and a hundred lesser-knowns chasing George Stephanopolous, Haley Barbour, and poor Jesse Jackson (spinning like a good team player despite his revulsion at the welfare “reform” bill). And it is that image of the giant, self-contained, self-referential cocktail party from hell—at the center of the campaign for the most powerful office in the world—that resonates most strongly in my mind, summing up everything that is wrong with American politics and the media as we slouch toward a new millennium.