Walter Benjamin once wrote that allegories are to thought what ruins are to history, suggesting that the pursuit of truth is an allegorical process. The truth remains obscure, but around it we create meanings that change with time.
The photograph can be thought about like an allegory, especially photographs that enter into public circulation through news media. Some of them muster together so much allegorical information that they come to represent whole periods in history – the Iwo Jima flag raising for instance, or Dorthea Lange’s photo of a mother with children taken during the depression that has resurfaced in recent weeks as visual accompaniment for our current economic meltdown.
An allegory – or photograph – is meaning made through an arrangement of elements. It is in their arrangement that the meaning resides, not the elements themselves. The woman with her children whose faces are turned away from the camera (in Lange’s photo) link together desperation, the absence of a protective male, economic catastrophe, and point towards shared responsibility and depression era public policies to help those in need. In a similar way, a ruin can suggest a castle, but does not and cannot produce the castle. Truth resides in the allegorical and invisible suggestion.
In this spirit, I present the photograph as political ruin…
(photo from Reuters photo wire taken after the presidential debate October 15 at Hofstra University)