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American Journalism Review
The Powerful Reality of Images  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   July/August 1993

The Powerful Reality of Images   

Picture Perfect: The Art and Artifice of Public Image Making
By Kiku Adatto
BasicBooks

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



Picture Perfect: The Art and Artifice of Public Image Making
By Kiku Adatto
BasicBooks
200 pages; $20

For several elections now, since Joe McGinniss' "The Selling of the President 1968," journalists have grown increasingly noisy in exposing the blatant manipulation and deception with which politicians manufacture settings and images. So why does this fakery continue? Doesn't anyone care?

Critic Kiku Adatto provides a thoughtful answer in this lucid and original book on the "new image consciousness in American culture."

Her theme, in brief, is that many of these political and cultural images, while obviously phony or corny when taken literally, connect us to enduring myths about ourselves that we fervently want to be reminded of — myths that have a powerful reality of their own.

Drawing on television, photography and cinema, she dissects several curious ironies related to image-making. Not the least is the love-hate relationship that has characterized the visual era from its infancy.

"For over a century," she writes, "Americans have vacillated between celebrating pictures and worrying about their contrived nature, their association with commercialism, and their tendency to crowd out words."

Even as we tell ourselves knowingly that the camera can and does lie, part of us remains doggedly devoted to its images as keepsakes of reality. "Alive as we are to the pose, to the artifice of imagery, we retain, in settings private and public alike, a large measure of the traditional aspiration that the photograph can create an authentic document of our lives," Adatto points out.

Even as they scorn the contrived political images, journalists depend on them. The dominance of visuals on television "prompts reporters and producers to seek the best pictures they can possibly get, even if this requires a certain complicity with the advance men and image makers who stage the media events. Meanwhile, the journalistic impulse prompts the same reporters and producers to expose as artifice the pictures they have helped produce."

But this journalistic "theater criticism" fails, she argues, because "calling attention to the image as an image may not be enough to dissolve its hold. The reason is not that images are more powerful than words, but that certain images resonate with meanings and ideals that run deep in American culture." Confronted with these reminders — the maverick crusader, for example, or the common man or woman propelled into superheroism — Americans don't scoff and turn away. They respond because the images, "for all their staging, for all their politically motivated design — [speak] to something real, something genuine in America's understanding of itself."

The use of icons, from Rambo and Rocky to George Bush at the flag factory or Bill Clinton on a bus tour, often intensifies rather than undermines the force a message carries. Intellectually, we know better. But the power of myth abides. It's the same way, Adatto says, that Florida's Disney/MGM Studios attraction actually increases our attention to movies even while "revealing the painted plywood facade" of a sound stage.

While these are understandable tendencies, Adatto does not suggest that they are benign. She describes an increasing public disillusionment linked to "the failure of the democratic promise of television." A medium that presented itself as offering "a direct access to reality" more and more serves the gods of manipulated images.

Where images once functioned as "documents of news events," now their principal role is visual stimulation, not truth-telling. The result, at least in the political arena, is a public perception that both politicians and journalists have become "entangled in a politics of imagery and artifice that left the substance of politics behind."

Adatto is short on recommendations for reversing these trends (and, oddly, her book contains no illustrations or images at all). But by so vividly analyzing the issue, she has moved the dialogue to an important new level.

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