Laura Thain's blog

Texans Getting Campy

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst in cowboy attire

Image Credit:

Hey y'all, in case you haven't heard, we're electing a new Lt. Governor this year here in the great state of Texas.  With four Texas Republicans competing for the position, a campaign is taking shape to see who can be the cowboy-iest candidate of 2014.  With a fight like that, you might expect to see some campaign ads that border on self-parody.  And what, my friends, do you get when sincerity fails?  Well, of course, a whole lot of camp!

Documentation of Loss – Observing Failure in the Modern Olympics

Shin A. Lam, olympic fencer from S. Korea, cries in the arena after a loss to her opponent.

Olympic fencer Shin A-Lam of South Korea remains in the arena to contest an unfavorable ruling without the expected stoicism.  Image credit: Korea Bang

What does it mean to document loss?  What is its rhetorical function?  Rhetoric of Celebrity student Iva Kinnaird assembles an archive of defeat from several Olympic games, tracing the intersections of celebrity and sportsmanship.  The documentation of loss, she asserts, commodifies defeat and makes it available for public consumption.  The result is a strange rhetorical landscape where the lines between winning and losing become less easy to determine.

Commercial and Cooperative Subjectivities: Does an Independent Lens See Differently?

A photographic portrait of Robert Capa

Image Credit: Hudson Valley Almanac

"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."--Robert Capa, founding member of Magnum.  d. 1954, landmine accident


Currently on exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center is a carefully curated selection of Magnum photos, drawing from the organization’s archive housed at the Center.  Magnum, an elite professional photographic cooperative, brings together some of the world’s premiere photographers in a collaboration resistant to the commercial demands of photojournalism.   This week on viz., we’ll feature the exhibit and explore issues central to visual argumentation and mass media.  This post will explore what possibilities arise when photographers become their own producers and distributors—what influence do the conditions of production have on the genre of photojournalism itself?


What is graffiti and who does it belong to?

A photograph of Shepherd Fairey's inaugural designs on the HOPE Outdoor Gallery in Austin.

Image Credit: Geoff Hargadon

This week on viz. we'll be exploring graffiti culture in Austin and beyond, beginning with an interactive graffiti map that we'll use to begin archiving graffiti in and around the community in which we live.  Please visit and contribute!

In this post, I'd like to introduce some issues central to reading graffiti as both a performative and political act.  I take as my primary examples the HOPE Outdoor Gallery on 11th St. and Baylor in Austin's Clarksville neighborhood and graffiti from inside a now-demolished bicycle shop that once operated in West Campus.  Using these examples, I'd like to explore definitions of graffiti and raise questions of property and ownership in public spaces.  Join our interactive mapping project and follow our posts this week as we take a closer look at Austin graffiti.

Who Wore it Better? Kimye Edition

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian pose for a red carpet photo at Monday's Met Gala in NYC.

Image Credit: Entertainmentwise

Celebrity fashion is a no-holds-barred spectators’ sport, and, like the fashion industry itself, it features and targets women as its primary audience.  Free Thought blogger Greta Christina described the language of fashion succinctly in her recent post “Fashion is a Feminist Issue, arguing that if we interpret fashion as a “language of sorts…an art form, even,” we can begin to view fashion as “one of the very few forms of expression in which women have more freedom than men.”  But, she continues, “it’s [no] accident that it’s typically seen as shallow, trivial, and vain.  It is the height of irony that women are valued for our looks, encouraged to make ourselves beautiful and ornamental… and are then derided as shallow and vain for doing so.  Like it or not, fashion and style are primarily a women’s art form. And I think it gets treated as trivial because women get treated as trivial.”

This post seeks to read the rhetoric of celebrity fashion coverage in light of remarks like those of Greta Christina.  How can we read celebrity fashion as an arena that in principle grants women more freedom than men, but in practice consistently limits the freedom of both men and women to express themselves?  How do the voyeuristic, hypercritical impulses of celebrity media intersect and inform the world of fashion, particularly women’s fashion?  I take as my case study here the much-photographed couple Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, sometimes known as a couple by their nickname “Kimye.”  

Sources of Fame: Photographer or Subject?

An Arnold Newman "selfie" from 1987.  Image credit: The Jewish Museum

One of my favorite parts of the Harry Ransom Center’s current exhibition on Arnold Newman is the way it resists chronology.  Newman’s photographs are organizes by particular attention to one of ten elements of Newman’s photography as artistic practice: “searches,” “choices,” “fronts,” “geometries,” “habitats,” “lumen,” “rhythms,” “sensibilities,” “signatures,” and “weavings.”  What results is an exhibit that resists a notion of Arnold Newman’s transformation over time.  Instead, the exhibit suggests, audiences might read Newman by his unique manipulation of photography’s formal elements throughout his entire career.

The resistance to chronology is apparent, too, in the weaving, wandering nature of the physical exhibit.  Temporary half-walls throughout the exhibition space designate no beginning or end point for audiences.  Instead, the exhibit inspires audiences to accept Newman’s particular artistic practice across ten themes as definitive criteria for photographic excellence, and therefore evidence for celebrating the photographer himself.

Such a construction has encouraged me to think about the relationship between celebrated photographer and celebrated subject.  Are there ways that these two categories inform each other in the case of Arnold Newman?  Can we trace, even amidst the Harry Ransom Center’s achronological curation, a chronological shift in fame from photographer to photographed?  How does fame work as a mechanism for those who garner fame by representing it and perhaps cultivating it?  Can those who represent fame create it as well?

Violent Encounters

image of Kevin Ware's teammates' reaction to his gruesome leg injury during 2013 March Madness.

Louisville Cardinal players react to Kevin Ware's leg injury during March Madness.  Image Credit: Yahoo Sports

I’ll admit, I stayed up way past my bedtime last night listening to the Boston police scanner, following as closely as I could the developments in the Boston Marathon bombing.  In the wee hours of this morning, I thought about documenting the dozens of news items (as well as widespread speculation across message boards and social media) to take a tally of how much of the information proliferating in the uncertainty of Friday morning would be disproved by Friday afternoon. 

As I began the project, it soon proved futile—there was far too much information and I ran into (as I might have anticipated) problems discerning journalistic fact from fiction right from the get go.  It was only when I stopped documenting and trying to quantify the evidence that I began to think about the relationship between violence and speculative practice and assemble a quite different archive.  [GORE WARNING: the images beyond this cut are NSFW and may shock and disturb some viewers.  Discretion is advised.]

“Memeing” Silence—the Gif and Silent Film, Part 2

A tumblr user asks who the actor who appears in a gif is in a post to his followers.

Image Credit: Deeras23

In my previous post, I outlined DeCordova’s arguments about the emergence of a discourse on acting in the early 20th century, and the contributions that discourse made to modern conceptions of celebrity, beginning in silent film.  In this post, I’d like to translate those arguments into a discussion of 21st century media and attempt to outline a discourse on “gifing,” and what that can tell us about the intersections of gifs and celebrity in the 21st century public sphere.

“Memeing” Silence—the Gif and Silent Film, Part 1

A gif composed of a scene from Chaplin's _City Lights_.

Image Source: Gorgonetta

As gifs begin to occupy more and more space in internet discourse, I’ve been contemplating the various ways they reinvent older media forms.  New media theory tells us this is an inevitable historical trajectory; it is not just a characteristic of post-broadcast media but embedded in mediation as an ideological concept.  What I find particularly interesting about gifs is not just how they remediate the television shows, films, Youtube videos, and memes from which they derive meaning, but also how they relate to a much older form of media: silent film.  And in such a reading, the overlap between the production of fame and celebrity in the silent film tradition and in current gif discourse is remarkable—and worth discussing.     

Reading Django Unchained as Camp

A juxtaposition of the costume design for Django as valet and Thomas Gainsborough's "Blue Boy"

Image Credit: Vanity Fair

Although it’s been two months since its initial release, the internet is still abuzz with social critique of Tarantino’s newest film Django UnchainedRoxane Gay, a staff writer for Buzzfeed, argues that rather than encouraging a national discourse on slavery, slavery is instead “the movie’s easily exploited backdrop.”  The movie functions instead as “a white man’s slavery revenge fantasy, and one in which white people figure heavily and where black people are, largely, incidental.”  Finally, she concludes, “Django Unchained isn’t about a black man reclaiming his freedom. It’s about a white man working through his own racial demons and white guilt.”

Many of Django’s critics couch their arguments in similar terms—that is, that while Tarantino claims to reignite a discourse on slavery in Django Unchained, he in fact privileges genre over content in a way that dangerously decontextualizes our most central national trauma.  I have argued in an early post that privileging medium over content can function as a form of censorship.  Here, I want to discuss how the same aesthetice practice can simultaneously suggest and defer engagement with tragedy and trauma. 

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