Phantom Lady and Reproductive Choice

Deny me the right to make choices about my own body - Paul Day

This image was photoshopped by the comedian Paul Day. (You can learn all about him in the update to my article, Billy Bob Neck in Heaven?) I thought it captured rather well the conservative mentality that all women secretly desire an Aryan demigod to tell them how to live their lives so they don’t have to worry their pretty little heads.

I don’t know who drew the original panel. It’s a classic style. Even Johnny Craig used it in some of the most ghoulish of EC Comics’ horror titles. But what I find really interesting is that if you go back before 1954 and the establishment of the vile Comics Code Authority, there were a lot of racy comics. Consider how Phantom Lady was portrayed:

Phantom Lady - Comparison

What’s important here is the idea of women as nonthreatening helpers, just waiting for a man who they can follow. This was only ever an image that the power elite and its status quo chorus pushed on the rest of us. It was never real. Of course: Phantom Lady is explicitly a character of male fantasy. But the neutering (Spaying?) of the character is all about the proper role of women in society. Mae West was out and Barbara Billingsley was in.

Female Power Isn’t Safe

The reason that things like Paul Day’s image above works is because we know all those “safe” comic book representations of women were a crock. Just the same, today Phantom Lady is about as close to soft-core porn as you are likely to see. But even in that, she has a power that would terrify the American man if she weren’t confined to the pages of a comic or any other non-threatening media. No man would try to deny her reproductive choice. And that’s why conservatives want to portray women as dictated by the Comics Code. If that’s who women are then we men really do need to step up and make all the decisions.

It’s not surprising that the most conservative of men find pornography so titillating. Whether it is some Baptist minister or Osama bin Laden, the fantasy of explicitly sexual women is very appealing. But these same men are far too afraid of this same power in real life — both explicitly because such women would never find such cowering men attractive and implicitly because of what such women would expect in other areas of life — namely: equality.

Jack Kirby’s Evolution

Jack KirbyWhat Jack Kirby drew is figures in time. The fist in the foreground is in a different time zone as the foot in the back. And I think he’s the only artist that I’ve ever observed who was able to do that.

Someone who might just blank out the power of his work, might look at something and say, “That’s a little out of drawing.” But that wasn’t the case.

I mean, Jack, in the beginning, academically, knew how to draw the human figure.

As he evolved as an artist, he became an impressionist.

Then I think he became an expressionist.

–Mike Royer
Interviewed in Jack Kirby: Story Teller

Carol Highsmith, Getty Images, and Art as Commodity

Bale Grist Mill - Carol Highsmith

Regular readers know that I’m not too keen on modern copyright law. Actually, I’m not that keen on copyright law at all. There are other ways to pay creative workers. But I would go along with a copyright system that gave the creator ten or even twenty years of protection. But the 95 years we now have is ridiculous. And that’s just until 2023 when Mickey Mouse goes into the public domain. I’ll bet that yet again copyright will be extended for that vile little rodent. But copyright is even more bizarre than you likely know as can be seen in the case of Carol Highsmith.

Carol Highsmith is a photographer. She travels the United States taking photos and then gifts them to the Library of Congress and, by extension, the world, because they are placed in the public domain. That is why I can display the gorgeous image of the Bale Grist Mill above. Carol Highsmith took the photo and then gave it to the Library of Congress. It belows to the world. All of us can enjoy and use it for free. Well, we can if we know where to look. If we don’t, there are rat bastards who will sell it to us.

Carol Highsmith Is Not Pleased

On Friday, Michael Hiltzik reported, Photographer Sues Getty Images for $1 Billion after She’s Billed for Her Own Photo. It seems that after Carol Highsmith used one of her own images — you know, one she put in the public domain — Getty Images sent her a bill for $120 for using it. How can this be? Well, Getty Images takes public domain images and sells them. Well, that’s not quite the right word. According to the company, it charges a fee for distributing the photos.

Getty Images will, for example, sell you the rights to use Dorothea Lange’s most famous photo from the Great Depression. Buy it now! I entered some data, claiming that I wanted to use it for a magazine cover, and Getty image offered to sell distribute it to me for a mere $10,335. It must be an awfully heavy photograph to require that kind of distribution fee!

High Prices for “Distribution”

Getty Images will “distribute” the Bale Grist Mill image above too. Or they would. They’ve taken down the page for buying it. I assume that’s because, you know, Carol Highsmith is suing them for a billion dollars. But we know that they used to sell it because Google knows all. Plus, they haven’t taken down their watermarked image, which I reproduce here under the clearest case imaginable of Fair Use:

Bale Grist Mill - Getty Image Watermark

This is what happens in the society that values commodity above all else. It also shows that the problem is not just copyright and other intellectual property rights. After all, when Martin Shkreli raised the price of Daraprim, it wasn’t patent protected. We have, rather, a bigger issue regarding capitalism itself. Capitalism worked so long as people knew each other — as long as the seller understood that raising the price of a drug over 5,000% would cause their neighbors to die.

Capitalists of the last hundred years have convinced themselves that acting like psychopaths is actually good — creative destruction and all that nonsense. There are no more norms. If a business can do it, the business will do it. But outside the business world, things are different. Carol Highsmith gives away her work. And Getty Images takes them and sells distributes them. They add no value. They just prey on the ignorance of customers.

American Gothic and the Meaning of Art

American GothicMany of you know my special weakness. Because of my intellectual pride, I cannot stop myself from clicking on a link such as, 7 Pop Culture Classics That Don’t Mean What You Think. Is that so? Well, I’ll just have to see. And, of course, in my effort to show how knowledgeable I am, I am just like all the other fish who got hooked.

I wouldn’t have clicked on this link, because I don’t know much about pop culture. But it went along an image of American Gothic. And since I went slightly crazy about the painter Grant Wood for a couple of weeks, I kinda doubted that the article would surprise me. But I was kind of confused as to what anyone was supposed to think that American Gothic meant.

On Wood’s birthday two years ago, I wrote:

He is best known for the painting American Gothic. I think it is a remarkable painting just because of its composition. Thematically, no one seems to really agree about it. Some have claimed that it is satire about American repression, and others think it is a celebration of American hard work. I side more with the satire crowd. Wood, of course, was satirizing nothing.

My point was, as I have made many times before, that artists don’t define the meaning of their works — those who experience them do. And look at this Google Images search of Wood’s work. Does it seem like Wood was doing anything other than bringing together a few different American artistic trends and creating something all his own? Not to me.

I Never Knew!

So what is it that I didn’t know? “The American Gothic Painting Is Mocking Farmers.” But even the writer can’t hold onto that claim. After explaining how it is all about mocking farmers, the article says:

On the other hand, Grant Wood was a born-and-bred Iowan who, prior to painting American Gothic, spent more than six years studying art in Europe. That’s enough time to make anyone nostalgic for their childhood home, even if that home was a desolate hellscape. So, although Wood eventually poked fun at it, it’s not hard to imagine that, during his travels, he developed a loving appreciation for his people’s fortitude.

This gets back to this idea that the artist decides what the work means. This is one of the reasons that I’m not all that interested in American Gothic. It’s been so parodied that it is really hard to get past other people’s ideas about it and see it with fresh eyes. It’s easier to see his other work, and that’s where I see more clearly what he was doing. The fact that the artist would have gotten tired of this one painting and mocked it, is not surprising.

The Artist Does Not Know All

But the article is filled with this kind of “artist knows all” nonsense. There’s a Pearl Jam song that means whatever because the writer said so in an interview. Well, that’s fine. But I know with my own work that what I say it means changes over time. Apparently, Tolkien didn’t like people thinking Lord of the Rings was a World War II allegory. Okay. I think it is kind of silly myself. But who cares? I’d still be interested in reading a thoughtful discussion of the subject.

Moving on, you’ll learn Uncle Tom isn’t a coward, which you would only have thought if you took the book entirely out of context. You’ll also learn that “‘The Road Not Taken’ Is Robert Frost Making Fun Of His Friend.” This is based upon something Frost once said. Except that he said other things at different times. But again, who cares? “The Road Not Taken” is much like American Gothic in being so soiled by others’ opinions that I can’t really find any meaning in it because there is too much meaning piled on top of it.

Meaning Is Not Static

I love dealing with the meaning of artistic works. One of my articles, The Meaning of Marlene on the Wall, is one of my most popular articles. In it, I provide a detailed meaning of the song. But it is my meaning — based on a close analysis of the song. It isn’t the final word on the subject.

And how awful it would be if it were! I was talking to a (very open-minded) Christian friend of mine the other day about how heaven could never be a place where all the secrets of the universe were explained. That, in fact, would be hell. It’s the questions that make life interesting. Ultimately, American Gothic is just a bunch of oil paint applied to beaverboard. It’s meaning transcends that, of course. But it also transcends what any given person or group thinks it means.

Two years ago, I wrote that I tended to see the painting as satire. Today, I don’t really see it that way. I see the painting as kind of sad — two people living the Schopenhauerian dream: getting through today so they can get through tomorrow. But as usual, that says more about me than it does the painting.


For the record, the painting is staged. The man is Grant Wood’s dentist, who was in his early 60s at the time and lived into his 80s. And the woman is Wood’s sister, who was about 30 and lived to be 91 years old. She died three years after I got on the internet.

Leif Skoogfors and Photography Copyright

Oscar Romero by Leif SkoogforsAs you all know, I’ve gotten serious about image copyright around here over the last nine months or so. The truth is that I always thought that I could use any image on Wikipedia because they were free and that was that. Well, that was not that. Most of the images on Wikipedia at least require attribution. And a large number of them are Fair Use, which is a whole legal can of worms.

I got a good and fast introduction when I started working for Quality Nonsense. It’s not that anyone took me aside. But I found myself editing a bunch of articles on copyright and plagiarism. It made me paranoid. And then, I got put in charge of finding images for our biggest website Who Is Hosting This? So getting serious about the use of images was easy enough. Just the same, with over 7,000 articles on Frankly Curious, I haven’t been able to go back and fix my previous problems.

It’s easy to be casual about image copyright when you are running a tiny blog that no one reads. But Frankly Curious has become big enough that people start to notice. And what’s more, I’ve decided that I would like to make the blog as professional as possible with a set publishing schedule and my prohibition against coarse language in articles. But until you reach that point, a blog is like a collage that you put together during the commercial breaks of Dancing With the Stars — something you do without the thought that what you are doing is going anywhere. It’s just for fun or your own self-actualization.

Leif Skoogfors

Well, this morning, I got an email message from Leif Skoogfors. He had noticed that I was using the image above in an article, Religion Is Politics. I had provided no attribution, as was my habit in those days. He was extremely nice about it and only asked for credit, which I gladly provided on the article and another where I had used the image, 35 Years Without Óscar Romero.

Leif Skoogfors is more or less the romantic archetype of a photographer. I know a lot of photographers. I greatly admire the visual arts, although I have no talent for it. But most of the people I know work in studios or forests. And that’s great! But Skoogfors was working in El Salvador in the late 1970s! Looking over his career, he seems to have gone wherever he had a good chance of being killed.

An eight year old child of Fatah Jordan, 1969

Of course, it isn’t just the romantic aspect of the photographer throwing himself in harm’s way to get the shot. Much of Leif Skoogfors’ work is stunning. Take, for example, Eight Year-Old Child of Fatah. It was taken in 1969 at the Baka refugee camp in Jordan. You can see men marching in the background and some buildings and other structures. If there were no people in the photo, it would be a fine bit of nature photography. I think that’s an olive grove in the upper right hand corner. But instead, we focus on this child, holding a machine gun and wearing… sneakers. When the picture was taken, I was 4 years old. My life was utterly different. It’s hard to imagine that the boy in the picture is still alive. What a sick and arbitrary world we live in.

Check out Leif Skoogfors’ other work. (Here too.) He does have a great eye and documented some of the most important things that happened in the world over the last fifty years. He is certainly a man who should be acknowledged. And compensated.


I received a followup email message from Leif Skoogfors. Part of the text above was changed based upon a correction he alerted me to. Here is part of the email, that adds a little more to the story of that photo:

The guide translator who showed me around was thoughtful and pulled the loaded drum magazine out of the weapon and replaced it with an empty one, thinking that the boy might get nervous and pull the trigger.

It was a few years after I’d been there that I realized the very nice “freelance journalist” in Cairo who’d arranged the introduction to Al-Fatah for me was with the CIA. Perhaps the first time I’d run into one of those guys…

I appreciate the article on copyright. Many folks have pointed out, if artists don’t get paid for their work, how can they continue to create. When I ran an image search on the Oscar Romero photograph, over 400 sites showed up. Only 9 were licensed.

Yes, I feel sorry being in that list of 400. But I’m glad to get the chance to highlight the work of Mr Skoogfors.

Anniversary Post: Mathew Brady’s James Polk Photo

James Polk by Mathew BradySupposedly, on this day in 1849, James Polk became the first sitting president to have his photograph taken. It’s that one over there on the left and it was taken by the 27 year old Mathew Brady. I’ll talk about it in a moment.

Polk was a very effective president. But he was also a slave owner and what I would call pragmatically pro-slavery. He seems to have been aware that the slavery advocates were just piling up sandbags to keep out the rising waters. It was all doomed to failure, but there was Polk filling the bags and stacking them.

I have this problem. When slavery was based upon losing wars, and being a slave meant bad luck, I can see people supporting it. But slavery in America is a different matter. I don’t care how far back you go, there really was never a time when it was acceptable to be in favor of it. But Polk was pro-slavery long after any apologetics can be applied.

Of course, I don’t think much different about the titans of industry today. These are all people who are in the business of dehumanization. When you get right down to, the basis of conservatism is that there isn’t such a thing as human dignity. Any dignity that humans have is contingent. In the past, it was based on birth. Now it is based upon wealth, which just so happens to be mostly based on birth. Clearly it is different from slavery, but it is a similar system of control.

Mathew Brady

Mathew BradyThat photograph was taken by Mathew Brady — an early American photographer. And Polk was not the first president he photographed. He had photographed both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson sortly before their deaths. And boy oh boy did Jackson look bad! But James Polk was the first sitting president. Interestingly, just a few months later, Polk was dead too. If I had lived at that time, I would have been suspicious of the young Mr Brady.

Mathew Brady is very well known for his photographs of the Civil War. He spent $100,000 taking 10,000 photographs of the war. He had expected that the government would pay him for the photos. Perhaps if Lincoln had not been assassinated, they would have. But instead, he was left holding all that debt and all those pictures of an event no one was keen on remembering. Like many great artists who are celebrated long after it does them any good, he died in 1896 at the age of 73, penniless in a charity hospital.

Yay capitalism!

When Bad Editing Meets Professional Graphics

Gold Graphic 1I want to show you the process of editing with an example I recently went through in getting an IG created. When the whole thing is posted, I will see about putting a link in here. But it doesn’t much matter. What does matter is that one small part of this very large infographic was about Mansa Musa, the great 14th century ruler of Mali. On his pilgrimage of Mecca, he spent so much gold that he caused its value to plummet and set off a years long depression in the Middle East. I often use this as an example to explain to gold bugs that inflation greatly effects gold based economies.

The artists that I work with appear to be from Asia: Russia, India, wherever. I don’t actually know because I don’t work with them directly. But they are brilliant. I am constantly amazed at their work, as you can see in the following infographic that I edited, How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Chatbot. And they came up with the graphic you see above to illustrate the issue of gold deflation: beggars could be covered in it but still need to beg.

Gold Graphic 2I responded to the image, “This is clever, but will be seen as racist in America. And the sign doesn’t make much sense. How about a larger sign that reads, ‘Will work for food — but not gold!'” The artist responded to my editing suggestion with the graphic on the left.

This is the kind of change you get when you are working with a professional. I wasn’t clear about what my problem was. But I asked for one specific thing and they gave it to me. And I like it. Of course I do! It was my idea! But I also think they rendered it perfectly. But I think it is clear to an American eye what’s wrong with this. It just will be seen differently here than it will be in most other areas of the globe.

So I responded, “This still bothers me. Either: no smiling (he’s a beggar after all) or a full set of shiny gold teeth.” Again, this is my mistake. I’m working with really professional, talented artists. And I’m a solid professional writer, but in the art of editing, I’m still learning. What I should have asked for was simply a lighter skin tone. I think that would have fixed it.

Gold Graphic 3What I got back was just what I asked for. And I’m afraid that it made it worse. I really hate this situation, because I’ve found myself on the other side of it many times. People ask for changes but they are unclear or don’t even know what they want.

So I wrote back, “I understand he is supposed to be some guy from the Middle East. But he comes off as the ‘happy negro’ stereotype. I think it will be fine to make him not smile and not show any teeth. I don’t want to beat this one to death, but I think it’s important.” I think that was the breaking point with the artist. I still think that so much pain could have been avoided if I had just written, “Please make the beggar a lighter color.” But like I said, I’m still learning.

Gold Graphic 4So the artist, realizing that they were working with an idiot client just changed graphic as you can see on the right. The inforgraphic lost what I thought was a nice joke. But this entirely new graphic is actually a better representation of what we are talking about. And it is beautifully rendered.

Clearly, I do a much better job when I’m editing writers. (I also edited the writing of this infographic — that’s where most of the time is taken.) But it shows just how hard the process is. It also speaks rather well for the company that I work for that it is willing to pay the artist and me to work out issues like this. A lot of companies just don’t care.

Anniversary Post: Overpriced van Gogh

Self-Portrait Without Beard - Vincent van GoghOn this day in 1998, Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait Without Beard sold for $71.5 million. At the time, it was the third most expensive painting ever sold. Now (adjusted for inflation), it is 26th. As regular readers know, I’m not a big van Gogh fan. But he is unique. Still, prices like this for a work of art say nothing of the work and everything about the narcissism of the art collector.

And if you look at the most expensive art there is a remarkable sameness about it. It is overwhelmingly Impressionist (more accurately, post-Impressionist) and representational modernist work. And there is a smattering of Abstract Expressionism — Rothko and Pollock. But the main thing is that you know the people buying these works would have hated the works when they were being produced. For all I know, they hate them now. It’s just something to impress the swells with.

I do all my writing sitting right next to what I know was once a beautiful painting by Bernard Frouchtben. But like far too much art that no one has been told is good, it was badly abused. In its case, it was left out in a carport for years. But even if it had been treated with the care and respect it deserves, it probably wouldn’t even be worth as much as $10,000. As it is, it is worth nothing in terms of money. But I dearly love it, even though it also saddens me to look at it.

I love art. But art as commodity offends me. For the price of that one van Gogh, a hundred Bernard Frouchtbens could have been supported in perpetuity. Imagine what kind of works would have result from that kind of investment. But instead, these people buy art the way decorators do when they are furnishing a new Days Inn. And the truth is that if you told these art collectors that paintings of bullfighters on black velvet was the thing, they’d be spending millions on every Edgar Leeteg that went on the market. And I’m not saying that Leeteg is bad. But his paintings don’t sell for millions for the same reason that van Gogh’s do — at it has nothing to do with what the buyers like or don’t like.

Beautiful but Anonymous Art by Barry Mangham

Barry ManghamI have a constant complaint about people who publish on the internet: a lot of them want to remain anonymous. I understand this to some extent when it comes to political bloggers. And I understand it when people are writing about their struggles with drugs or pedophilia or any number of other things that would cause them to be ostracized. But I see this tendency toward anonymity related to totally benign activity. And nowhere is it more common than among graphic artists.

I ran into this a couple of month ago when I featured a photo collage by Kassandra. I posted an image called Opium Dreams, which blew me away. All of her work is outstanding. But who is she? Certainly a professional based upon her work. And I think that she is Russian. But why hide? The world wants to know about you! And in her case, I would certainly like to know more about the craft of what she does because it isn’t pure photography. I can understand the desire for privacy, but I suspect that most people remain anonymous by default. They aren’t writers or they don’t realize that people would like a little context for their work.

This is the situation with an article I discussed a couple of years ago in an article, The Beauty of Abandonment and Decay. The artist is Barry Mangham who uses the moniker Pixog. I have been able to hunt down a little information on him. Over at 500px, he wrote, “Taking photos is purely a hobby for me. I experiment quite a lot with post processing…” I like that. It goes along with my general belief that our society is overflowing with unheralded artists of great creativity.

Given that Pixog doesn’t seem to mind that people post his work as long as he is credited, let me present some of his stuff that I find really compelling. The first is Abandoned Bumper Cars Prypiat/Chernobyl. You should click over and see it at full resolution, because much of the detail is missing here. He provides the following description, “Abandoned bumper cars found in the amusement park in the city of Prypiat, Ukraine. The city is preserved in time, having been evacuated in 1986 due to the explosion of reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.”

Abandoned Bumper Cars Prypiat/Chernobyl

I love back-lit photography. This is something that friend of the site Robert Langdon excels at. This one by Pixog is very much in that style, Sunset over the Slovenian Coastline. He describes it, “A shot of people on a pier, silhouetted against the setting Sun, near Ankaran, Slovenia.”

Sunset over the Slovenian Coastline - Pixog

He doesn’t do much black and white work, but what he does do is really stark as you can see in some of his work at 500px — specifically USA, New York, Broadway. But I just love this one, B&W Balloons at Dawn, “Hot air balloons rising up at the same time as the Sun.”

B&W Balloons at Dawn

Go check out the rest of Pixog’s work. You can purchase it for things like wall hangings. You know: buy one, take it over to Reprint Mint and have it properly mounted. A lot of them would make great Christmas gifts — much better than the worthless crap people normally buy.

But I do wish these artists would be a little more forthcoming with who they are.

Anniversary Post: The Eternal Jew

Der ewige JudeOn this day in 1937, Der ewige Jude opened in the Library of the German Museum in Munich. In case it isn’t clear, it was an art exhibit with the English title, “The Eternal Jew.” It was a display of “degenerate art.” That was basically art that Hitler didn’t like. You know: modern art. It was all a Jewish conspiracy. So much was. But the Nazis loved these “degenerate art” exhibits. It reminds me of people who love to look at pornography because they think it should be abolished. I’m sure the Germans quite liked the art.

Interesting thing about the Nazi approach to art was that they loved Romantic stuff. This is, interestingly, the same belief of Ayn Rand and the Objectivists. It doesn’t really matter where you scratch at that philosophy, it all comes out the same: fascist. I know: they don’t hate the Jews. But the point of fascism isn’t to hate any particular group; it is just to separate the world into the good and the evil. The Nazis had the good Aryans and the evil Jews and Gypsies. The Objectivists separate the world into the good industrialists and the evil moochers. I don’t think there is any question but that if the Objectivists got power, they would round up all the poor, put them in work camps, and eventually murder and incinerate them. Did I mention that Paul Ryan is an Objectivist?

But the good thing about all those “degenerate art” exhibits is that it did protect the art for a time. And it exposed people to the art. Ideology is rubbish. If people see art that works, they know it. I’m sure a lot of people looked at that stuff and thought, “Oh, that’s rather nice.” Of course, I’m sure there was lots of explicitly antisemitic art as well. The image above is a poster for the exhibit. I don’t think it needs much explanation.

Anniversary Post: Republican Elephant

Republican ElephantOn this day in 1874, Thomas Nast created the first major representation of the Republican Party as a elephant. He is also remembered for popularizing the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party. So if you’ve ever wondered about the use of these curious animals as the symbols of our two big political parties, you can blame or credit Nast.

Thomas Nast was a really important political cartoonist of the second half of the 19th century. And his work is really good. This is no doubt thanks to the improved ability of newspapers to render graphics. I’m still amazed that people of that period got anything done. In general, the work was done on blocks of wood. It was then engraved and printed based upon that. And I think PhotoShop is hard.

Anniversary Post: Peanuts

Peanuts First Strip

On this day in 1950, the first Peanuts cartoon was published. Now, it is easy to discount Peanuts because it certainly is not as good a comic as Calvin and Hobbes or Bloom County. But it can’t be judged like that. It has to be compared to Beetle Bailey — which started less than a month before Peanuts. Or the dreadful Family Circus, which was launched a decade later. When I was a kid, I read the comics every day. I didn’t like Family Circus from the age of 8 onward. And Beetle Bailey was always meh. But Peanuts was consistently enjoyable — and that was 25 years after it was created.

My only distaste for Peanuts comes from the television shows. And it’s not the fault of the cartoon. In fact, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is really quite good — wonderfully written. But why the producers decided to get really bad child actors to do the voices, I’ll never know. It’s just ghastly. But again, it looks great and the writing — as with the strip — is solid.