Tom Sutcliffe: The accidental art of a lasting image

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That picture of Barack Obama and White House officials watching the live coverage of the raid on Osama Bin Laden's country retreat very quickly became a photographic celebrity. The tech site Gizmodo reported the other day that within hours of it being posted on the White House's Flickr site it had registered more than 1.5 million views, making it a virtual certainty that it would end up being Flickr's most viewed photograph ever. And we haven't even begun to count the number of people who saw it elsewhere, on newspaper pages and news websites. That it was a telling news photograph is beyond doubt. But I found myself wondering whether it would eventually classify for "that photograph" status in a grander sense, achieving the kind of durable fame that is preserved for only a handful of historic images. What I have in mind is the instant mental recognition I would get if I wrote, "That photograph of a Vietnamese girl running from a napalm strike", or "That photograph of a Spanish republican soldier falling in battle". In both cases, I'd guess, you would not only know which image I'm talking about but be able to summon a ghostly print of it in your mind. While the White House ops room certainly has that quality right now, only a very special set of conditions would ensure that it achieves a life beyond the current moment.

It does have some merits as a picture beyond its sense of privileged access (which is paradoxically increased by the presence, at the centre of the image, of a document which has been pixelated for security reasons). There's the intensity with which everyone is looking at something that we can't see, for one thing, all eyes locked on the same spot. And then there's the poised absence of expression on all those faces. Of all the people present in the room only Hillary Clinton looks to be reacting to what she's seeing – and her pose is ambiguous. Is she holding her hand to her mouth in shock, or is this the intense, abstracted tension of someone who's waiting for the cliffhanger to end? If we hadn't been told what they were looking at, would we be able to guess from this image how weighty the matter was? (They could be watching a crucial putt at Augusta.) And, if we didn't already know that Obama was the most powerful man in the room, could you possibly guess from this image who was the Commander in Chief? A naïve viewer would surely point to the Brigadier General at the head of the table, in the power seat. What's more, he's the only person in the room with his eyes down, which suggests that he's doing while all the rest are merely watching.

Its merit, then, is that it is an anti-climactically truthful picture of a climactic moment – which is to say that they often don't look very momentous at all. This is what American power-projection looks like from one end. A bunch of people in shirt-sleeves looking on as violence unwinds halfway around the world. (It isn't tactlessly truthful, of course. It doesn't show us what these people looked like when they heard that the mission had found its target.) And because of that I don't think it's likely to have a really durable life. Too much of its potency as an image resides in the caption and too little in the picture itself.

As it happens, the Atlas Gallery in London is currently running an exhibition called Moments of Our Times, which includes some of the most famous pictures of the last century – including Nick Ut's image of fleeing Vietnamese children and Robert Capa's controversial picture of the falling soldier. And what is true of all these really iconic pictures (the ones we know by heart, as it were) is that they stumble into art in someway, finding a rhythm and a pattern in a contingent moment that lifts them above their particular history.

The White House picture doesn't have that. It's interesting because we're interested, but that fascination will fade and the image will become a documentary record only. Truly great news photographs are something more than that. They look, however authentically accidental their creation, as if a composer has been at work. The White House picture's artlessness has a grip all of its own – but it rules it out of the pantheon.

Why urban legend George is worth a gamble

If I was a betting man I'd think about putting a few quid on George Shaw for the Turner Prize – though at the time of writing I couldn't find any bookie that had got round to offering odds. Perhaps they'll take a similar view and my very weak attraction to gambling (which only tends to operate when the odds are so ludicrously compelling that it is a virtual certainty that I will lose) won't be tickled into action. Shaw's competition on the shortlist is recognisably Turneresque, in the more recent sense of that word. Karla Black makes "process-based" sculptures that look, to the unreceptive eye, as if something has gone wrong in the studio. Martin Boyce's "practice" – also sculptural – involves a fascination with modernist design and Hilary Lloyd works in video and photography. Shaw's work, on the other hand, is Turneresque in the old sense. He paints pictures that capture a very specific sense of light and atmosphere. They're also pictures of recognisable things, which wasn't always the case with J M W Turner, and which might be thought of as a handicap given the rarefied tastes of some Turner juries. But my guess is that their combination of conservative means and calculatedly drab subject matter and material (he famously uses Humbrol model paints to depict melancholy, slightly foxed urban landscapes) might just give him in edge. And whatever odds you gave me, I'd bet my house on the fact that he'll be the most popular artist when it comes to the Turner Prize show.

This could damage your health

The health warning at the entrance to a theatre has now become commonplace – preserving those with epilepsy and weak hearts from strobe lighting and gunshots, and preserving the theatre from any prospect of legal action. I can't think of any drama production up to now, though, that has required audience members to fill out a health questionnaire and asked for details of their last two country walks. But anyone wanting to attend Louise Ann Wilson's Fissure – a site-specific production taking place over three days and a sizeable swathe of the Yorkshire Dales – will have to answer questions about their cardiac condition and mobility before getting their tickets.

Wilson's piece – which draws metaphorical connections between the topography of the human brain and the local landscape – involves a 12-mile "strenuous" walk. It also marks another inflationary moment in the history of site-specific theatre, to go with Port Talbot's recent 72-hour performance of The Passion, in which Michael Sheen played the Christ figure. Things can only get tougher. I'm now working on a site-specific two-hander about Mallory and Irvine's assault on the north-east ridge of Everest, to be staged at Advanced Base Camp just below the North Col. Audience members should be very fit and must supply their own oxygen and sherpas.



t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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