It’s been about a year since The New Republic’s re-design under new editor and CEO Chris Hughes, implemented by creative director Dirk Barnett and the “digital shop” Hard Candy Shell, was introduced, and I was struck again today by one to me quite glaring aspect of the team’s approach: their presentation of photographic images, specifically on pages devoted to single articles. I think TNR’s designers or editors may have underestimated the value far beyond clickbait-y headline writing of “countenance,” the strong impression a face can make all on its own – even, it is said, upon infants and dogs – though I do find this peculiarly unprepossessing stylization interesting in its own right.
Here’s the main part of the heading that shows up on a current post on Brian Stelter.
I don’t remember precisely why I clicked on the twitter link that led me to the piece, and reading the headline and introductory paragraphs confirmed my initial suspicion that, no offense to Stelter, I’m as a matter of fact not at all interested in “TV’s Biggest Fanboy” or maybe in any kind of “Fanboy.” The one thing I now know, or trust I know, my main takeaway, is that Brian Stelter is mostly bald and wears glasses. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a much better chance of picking him out of a line-up now than I would have before viewing those parts of the photo not fully obscured by text and overlay. Photos of Stelter may appear elsewhere in the magazine in various formats and sizes, but, on the basis of this view – the only view that, as a casual web passer-by, I’m sure or at all likely to get – I’d retain a much clearer visual idea of the “Reliable Sources” backdrop than of the show’s new host.
I first took note of this approach to, or against, the photographic image, or perhaps against foregrounds and in favor of backgrounds, when perusing the issue from January of last year that debuted the new design, and that featured a “sit-down” with our newly re-elected President. Here’s how the article still renders on my browser:
Him, I’d be able to identify without TNR’s help, and maybe just from his eyes. President Obama is also depicted on the same issue’s cover in all of his usual glory, though being on the cover of a magazine is not what it used to be: I never saw a real live hard copy TNR of that issue, and rarely see any issue’s cover anymore. In any event, my first reaction to the depiction as above was that it was implicitly disrespectful: It put TNR editorializing in a somewhat literally superior position to the President of the United States of America and Leader of the Free World. Not just with the President but with anyone else seemingly not worthy, in TNR’s opinion, of actually being seen, the implicit statement also may recall the old New Republic, or its pretensions. The design puts TNR’s own ideas and words between us and the subject. To put the stylistic question as positively as I can, the layout seems to stress ideas, or words, over image, as though the attached article is going to supply us with a substitute, even a correction, for the obscured, possibly misleading and certainly superficial two-dimensional photographic image: We’ll get, as perhaps we should prefer, the proverbial thousand words instead of, because better than, any particular picture.
In diverse aesthetic theories going at least as far back as the late 19th Century avant-garde in painting, as well as in belief systems of non-Western or ancient provenance, the photographic or, before that, the naturalistic image is often highly problematic. Its apparent trueness to life offers only one kind of truth that we may be prone to mistake for the most true or most nearly true, for the truly objective if not for objectivity itself. In this sense TNR’s web designers would hardly be the first to make war on the image or on some other mode or claim of representation. The sentiments such claims inspire in relation to art, religion, and politics, whether taken separately or as is often the case wound up together, often seem bizarrely disproportionate. They hardly seem to justify the still commonly encountered protests against radical or formerly avant-garde art. Yet they have often been the subject of lethal violence, even before we move from relatively narrow questions of artistic representation to the notions of collective mimesis in “representative” democracy and its alternatives: The iconoclasts fought the iconodules in Byzantium over the course of generations. The followers of the established Church and protestant radicals clashed violently over church decor throughout the English Civil War. Prohibitions on pictorial depictions of the Prophet, or even of anything at all, are a notorious feature of Islamicate cultures, while the prohibition on “graven images” goes back to Moses and the Ten Commandments.
I strongly doubt, however, that the TNR designers were taking a stand on anything at all, neither in favor of one or another faith nor, least of all, against intellectually debilitating media culture. Indeed, I think they saw themselves as wading right into the latter, substituting style for substance just like everyone else. They may not even have considered their gestures irreverent in the least. Like the rest of us, they have very probably forgotten the risks of irreverence that ever made displaying it, or now its fading after-images, an act requiring courage.