Long Beach Police Detaining Photographers for Taking Pictures With “No Apparent Esthetic Value”

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08/16/2011 12:15 PM |

Yes, officer, but is it Art?

  • Yes, officer, but is it Art?

Like many small American cities, Nassau Los Angeles County’s Long Beach, the City By the Sea, Proud Home of the 1992 and 1993 Little League World Series Champions, carries in its heart a misplaced sense of itself as a likely target of a tourist attack: earlier this summer, local photographer Sander Roscoe Wolff was stopped by a Long Beach policeman for taking a photo, pictured at right, of a refinery, as reported in the Long Beach Post (via).

New York City’s subways, of course, have long been contested subjects for amateur and professional photographers, with the MTA having unsuccessfully sought a photo ban in the decade following 9/11—though cops still regularly threaten people with arrest for taking pictures on the subway, I’ve seen it happen. The cops in Long Beach are evidently equally vigilant against the prospect of terrorist reconnaissance: Police Chief Jim McDonnell confirmed to the LB Post that official departmental policy is to stop photographers and videographers taking pictures “with no apparent esthetic value.”

(Other suspicious activities, per the Long Beach PD protocols as reported by the Post, include using binoculars, “asking about an establisment’s hours of operation,” and “taking notes.”)

Pressed for comment by the local paper, to which the detained photographer is a sometime contributor, Chief McDonnell clarified that there is no set definition for what is art and what is terrorism: officers just know it when they see it. The Post notes that “while there is no police training specific to determining whether a photographer’s subject has ‘apparent esthetic value,’ officers make such judgments ‘based on their overall training and experience.'”

The Dia Art Foundation owns a number of beautiful silver gelatin prints of refineries taken by the German husband-and-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, part of their series Buildings We Later Bombed

  • The Dia Art Foundation owns a number of beautiful silver gelatin prints of refineries taken by the German husband-and-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, part of their series “Buildings We Later Bombed”

“‘If an officer sees someone taking pictures of something like a refinery,'” McDonnell explained, offering a sweeping critique of the assumptions driving several decades of urban decay art, “‘it is incumbent upon the officer to make contact with the individual.'”

So then. Does the photo have “no apparent esthetic value”? Only if you hate Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic,” I would submit. Clearly the responding officer is an acolyte of Manny Farber, who in his famous essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” lamented that:

The private voice of Motherwell (the exciting drama in the meeting places between ambivalent shapes, the aromatic sensuality that comes from laying down thin sheets of cold, artfully cliché-ish, hedonistic color) is inevitably ruined by having to spread these small pleasures into great contained works. Thrown back constantly on unrewarding endeavors (filling vast egglike shapes, organizing a ten foot rectangle with its empty corners suggesting Siberian steppes in the coldest time of year), Motherwell ends up with appalling amounts of plasterish grandeur, a composition so huge and questionably painted that the delicate, electric contours seem to be crushing the shalelike matter inside.

Wolff, in the end, was not detained, probably because that’s an awful lot to fit on an arrest report.