Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where We've Been; Where We're Headed


A Column of Arts Criticism by J. Ross Baughman

The edge of a single great photo can work like a knife, cutting far sharper than a mere one thousand words. In fact, a good picture can win a thousand arguments.

Since 1952, a New York publishing house and gallery named Aperture has earned a preeminent reputation in the world of photography, discovering and mapping all the branches and leading lights during that time.

With two recent books, Aperture cuts away the chaff from our visually cluttered life, explaining where we have been and what's coming next. They peel layers of taste from the underlying culture, and show how errors begun long ago will form scars nearly impossible to tear away.

In Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1955, the editors fillet some 125 of the most memorable magazine picture layouts of all time. The actual magazine pages are handsomely reproduced in this thick, coffee-table book, including the yellowing patina of their original cheap paper.

There are simply too many good photos to do them all justice; and so viewers must settle for a sample biopsy. Along comes Abraham Zapruder's sequence of J.F.K. in Dallas, and, also courtesy of LIFE magazine, mug shots and senior yearbook portraits assembled into a week's toll from Vietnam.

But there are also plenty of things to bring a smile. Henri Cartier-Bresson found plain joy in the fox trot of Ukrainian boys and girls behind the Iron Curtain. We also get a walk on the moon and a microscopic view inside the womb.

Mary Panzer's opening essay offers a rich and detailed history of the medium. Editors in Europe began to wield pictures in a much more threatening way by the mid-20th Century, showing gritty, passionate people in the midst of life-and-death struggle. Lurid pages abound from publications that no longer exist, or that are little-known in America, such as Die Woche, Ojo, Proceso, Geo and The Mirror.

The choice of stories to include in this book fell to an international panel of 100 photographers, editors, art directors, historians and magazine collectors. The board which organizes The World Press Photo Awards served as a principle sponsor. The International Center of Photography gave the effort their prestigious Infinity Award as this year's Best Publication, and an exhibit will travel throughout the U.S. this year.

Aperture and their blue-ribbon panel want us to see the magazine cover and several spreads from Larry Burrow's "Yankee Papa 13" the landmark photo story of a young Marine door gunner in Vietnam during his gut-wrenching baptism by fire. One of the other best stories of all times came from photographer Eugene Richards, who watched and documented with full emotion as his wife fought and died from breast cancer.

The war correspondent Don McCullin went to Northern Ireland where troops charged down a neighborhood street in full battle-cry. In the same frame he caught a horrified housewife who stopped luckily short at her front door. Sebastiao Salgado came upon a nightmarish pit in Brazil filled with workers, all reduced to the size and individuality of insects as they scratched for gold in the muddy walls.

For most of its life, The New Yorker magazine never used photographs to illustrate its stories; but when it published the first pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the whole world noticed.

It is a good thing that editors published the many significant pictures here taken by non-professionals. In part, this can be attributed to the millions of cameras in the hands of amateurs who will inevitably bump into historic moments. But this fact also stabs editors and photographers with the most painful challenge. After all, their most valuable skills are analyzing and anticipating where to position themselves tomorrow, but they are so often in the easy spot, the wrong spot or still at home in bed.

Donna Ferrato became the first journalist to look long and hard at domestic violence, and knew that she would have to be at home with victim and tormenter in order to see it. She succeeded brilliantly, but throughout many years of investigation, Ms. Ferrato could not get her usual magazine sponsors to publish the work, and turned instead to the Sunday magazine of The Philadelphia Enquirer. The book's cover photo came from Nicaragua, where Susan Meiselas found masked rebels with their fists full of rocks, beckoning the viewer to come along.

But Eric Valli also deserves a place in the longer story of photojournalism, even though his headlines did not make such earth-shaking news. He and the editors of National Geographic magazine allow us to tag along while mountain climbers in Nepal risk falling to certain death just to harvest honey. The chance to record passion and heroic risk fills these pages, most memorably published in an issue of Paris Match, where jaunty rebels in Hungary meet their Soviet executioners.

It could be tempting for readers to soak in this warm bath of recent history. While these books can do a good job of that, they also offer a much more valuable insight.

Unfortunately, most of the photographs swirling around us can only be described as dull. To have any effect, they must be used in a sufficient flurry, working more like the attack of a thousand cuts. Here is how some dull-witted photographers and editors think. Number One: Think of a topical question. Number Two: Think of something to look at that reminds us of the question.

Richard Avedon's roll-call of powerful Americans in 1976 cut them all down into paper dolls - perhaps an interesting enough premise - but a courageous editor might have assigned instead a patient witness to the manners and appetites of our leaders. The way they treat a cabinet member, a spouse or an intern could reveal a great deal more.

Likewise, a stark headcount for genocide in Cambodia does not reflect a proud moment in magazine photojournalism, but rather the failure of that medium's language to bring the genuine story - the record of how people treated each other - to light.

Bold words stenciled on a traffic sign do not qualify as literature, and neither do the visual equivalent. Phone books are useful, sometimes interesting, even life-saving, but for all the density of printing, they are by no means a pinnacle of language. One day, telephone directories may even feature a picture of every person next to their phone number, but this will not make them into picture books either.

Including such examples in a serious book on the potential of photography is self-limiting and insulting to all those who hope for more. Too often, these old editors forfeited a visual language of far greater potential. Pictures can do an excellent job telling a story, but less and less are being called upon to do so.

To the great discredit of all concerned, we are often afraid of pictures, and in the long view of history, turn out to be squeamishly, shamefully wrong. LIFE's editors left out the most crucial photographs of President Kennedy's assassination, claiming the responsibility to protect America from the awful truth. Eugene Richards, also mentioned above, tried to get his story on cancer published for years, but faced rejection by every serious leading publication until only a magazine for, by and about photographers agreed to publish it.

So how to predict the future of photography? Aperture used a second book named reGeneration to wander through the questions, "How much will the next generation of photographers respect, build on or reject tradition? Will any of the images being made today still be known in 20 years' time?"

Curators at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne chose the pictures from hundreds of portfolios offered by more than 60 of the world's top photography schools and picked out a slice of 50 promising students. They were especially proud of looking in every corner of the world, avoiding the habit of seeing Britain, France and the U.S. as the home of all meaningful work.

If the documentary or photojournalistic tradition had a chance of appearing here in any greater proportion, they might have checked with a few of the schools best known for such training. Overlooked programs include graduate-level work from universities in Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio and quite a few others in New York alone.

In reGeneration, the subject matter shifts from a world in crisis to the end of the rainbow, primarily in the civilized, developed nations. Quite properly, there is a potent sense of place, a territory of plenty.

Here we find "a volley of questions about a society in which... the humanization of objects have become common currency, making it increasingly hard to tell the difference between true and false, real and ideal."

Keren Asaf stages people in modern, distant, dream-like landscapes. Her view of two young boys in Israel lolling on an evening lawn popped out of her imagination, but she chose to execute it in an entirely realistic way. Are these the boys left over from an outdoor birthday party skit? Maybe.

Nicholas Prior of New York shows us a young child sitting quietly on the carpet, keeping a posture fitting for a rascal in his Time Out, or perhaps an autistic boy in deep conversation with a pattern of vines on the drapery.

Two exceptional portfolios offered both a new look and rich content. For an extract from the long project "Familial Endurance," Jaret Belliveau of Canada studied the effect of catastrophic illness on the children of an elderly woman. There can be seen the honest but painful exchanges of helpless regret. Lucy Levene also bucked the trend to formalize and ritualize the act of photography. In her series "Come and Be My Baby," Ms. Levene clutches tight to a cloak of invisibility, and this allows her and us to scrape the surface of young people in a night club, already afraid of who they might be becoming. Her remaining self-portraits, however, fall back in line with the vast majority of the book.

Much more typically, Pieter Hugo found South African albinos and Raphael Hefti collected Swiss beauticians, but for all their effort, every polished encounter has been reduced into a dispassionate mug shot.

The climax of the book comes with the close-up of an uncooked chicken drumstick, and one must believe that the student Chih-Chien Wang of Taiwan, already in sparkling command of photography, deliberately wanted it to appear amateurish, flat, unappealing. What becomes the difference though between an unappealing idea and the failed expression of that idea?

Aperture takes on an unmistakable world view in reGeneration. It may seem like a fresh approach for communication-minded students, teachers and editors, but it remains nevertheless one of profound alienation. Out of the 323 photographs at hand, nearly two-thirds show places deserted of all people. The next largest category (58 examples) shows people without faces, without identity or with expressions so blank as to be impenetrable. If that combination fails, there are plenty of pictures (23) with miniaturized, bug-like people, or scenes where people are entirely dropped in favor of things (19). People experiencing clear emotions (20) or having exchanges with others (3) seem more like an after-thought.

That the search for reGeneration turned up such pictures should be no surprise. Twenty-first Century magazine photography looks quite distinct from everything else in the last 50 years. Without a doubt, the pictures reveal underlying technical discipline and ability.

They can often surprise, and that does satisfy one of the most basic requirements of the medium, namely, "Show me something I've never seen." People who feel a vague unease, perhaps a bit ambiguous about our times, should see this book as quite beautiful and feel right at home in its pages.

All this is not a symptom of ivy-towered thinking. For the last five or six years, the photo editors of The New York Times Magazine could have easily published any of them. Magazines that used to lead the way in narrative photojournalism have given in to just two kinds of pictures, with seemingly nothing in between. There's either the numb head shot or the view of a robotic, parking lot surveillance camera – compositionally aloof, random, high on art-school, abstract lines, a landscape lost and useless for understanding a specific human story.

Far and away, the photos chosen to represent this next generation say, "People aren't so important. I can't even begin to describe why, dear viewer, or what it is that makes them worth your attention. I don't believe that photography can capture the soul, or get anywhere below the skin. I won't even pretend that I understand them, or would even know when the best time would be to watch what they do, and I'm sure not going to stick around for it.

"My view of the world is all about surface and style and what mood I'm in, and the fact that the photographic tricks I choose to superimpose on them could work just as well in Washington on Tuesday as they will in Hong Kong on Thursday."

By concentrating on yesterday and tomorrow, these books may have overlooked the needs of viewers in the present tense, what we want from pictures. The art of story-telling requires some basic familiarity with the laws of gravity, with affinity, with dramatic tension. Discard these at the peril of slashing the contract between what's being shown and those doing the seeing, the number one promise between reporters and their viewing audience.

Although the pen may be mightier than the sword, somewhat like the contest between a rock and a pair of scissors, both can be buried in our Media Age beneath a single, effective, story-telling picture.


Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1955, essays by Mary Panzer, Michiel Munneke & Christian Caujolle (Aperture, New York, 2006) pp. 384, 500 illustrations; $75

reGeneration: 50 photographers of tomorrow by William A. Ewing, Nathalie Herschdorfer and Jean- Christophe Blaser, editors (Aperture, New York, 2006) pp. 224, 323 illustrations $35

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