By Scott Rosenberg
"Material World" is a photojournalism project whose concept is subtler than it sounds: Get 30 "typical" families from around the globe to trundle their worldly goods into the open air outside their homes, and photograph them there.
These "Big Pictures," as "Material World" creator Peter Menzel calls them, are at once straightforward tableaux of people and their stuff and also powerful icons of cross-cultural comparison. They are the centerpiece of an ambitious "global family portrait" that also includes detailed questionnaires about daily life, world-almanac-style statistics, photographers' diaries and household inventories. Together, these portfolios translate the notion of "haves and have-nots" into a detailed spectrum of have-precious-littles, have-somes and have-lots.
Informative and often provocative as "Material World" is, however, its appearance in CD-ROM format (from San Francisco-based StarPress Multimedia) also conjures a number of ironies. Most obvious is that this digital technology is pretty much unavailable to most of the project's subjects, who will have to check out the book version of "Material World" to see how their pictures came out.
You won't find a CD-ROM drive piled up in any of the "Material World" families' front yards. In fact, the only families that even have computers are (unsurprisingly) the Skeens of Pearland, Texas, who represent the U.S., and the Zaks family of Tel Aviv, Israel.
Less noticeable, but even more important, is the ironic tension between "Material World's" subject and its medium. The photographs focus, obsessively, on tangible objects -- the rugs, furniture, gadgets and gear that make up the daily lives of families around the world. But the digital medium -- the 0s and 1s that represent these photos and all the other information in "Material World" -- is fundamentally intangible.
And just as the physical object of the photograph disappears into the abstract information recorded on the CD-ROM, the local, material-based economies that support the traditional lives portrayed here are rapidly disappearing into a global information economy -- a new, largely invisible web of dependence that disengages wealth from objects and attaches it to abstractions.
These are changes that are already shaping the lives of families around the globe -- not just the relatively wealthy Europeans, North Americans and Japanese but the dung-burning Ethiopians and insect-munching Thais to whom "Material World" introduces us, as well. The CD turns our eyes to the disparities between rich and poor lifestyles, but it rarely gets beyond factual comparisons to causal understanding.
To some degree, that's a limit of the way Menzel and his collaborators designed their project. Interestingly, it's also a function of the "interactive" CD-ROM medium, which allows you to browse photos and graze facts at will. The same technology that permits you to chart your own course through the information discourages the authors from organizing facts into arguments, underscoring significant comparisons or drawing conclusions.
Perhaps that's good -- it forces us to draw our own. But it leaves "Material World" feeling oddly bereft of perspective. The conventional documentarian uses sequencing and editing to impose a point-of-view on ostensibly "objective" material: "Look at this," says the filmmaker. "Now look at that. What do you think?" Without those tools, all that's left to the CD-ROM designers is what the multimedia industry calls "interface design" -- the map of the material, the structure of how we're encouraged to get at it.
"Material World" features a state-of-the-art interface, which means tasteful background textures, multiple ways to move forward and backtrack through pictures and text, and even TV-documentary-like segments narrated by Charles Kuralt. It's elegant and informative and -- aside from a compression process that makes too many of the photos look grainy -- technically astute.
Still, it's dissatisfying; you're always aware that you're skimming the surface of much deeper, more complex questions. "Material World's" limits are those of a medium that hasn't yet found a way to organize expeditions beyond the superficial.
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