Engaged Observers: At The Getty

There are times when viewing art and photography so profoundly transcends the realm of aesthetic appreciation that the emotions it evokes make it impossible to even begin a dispassionate discussion. Imagine how much more impossible it is to write about. This is exactly the conundrum I face at this moment as I try in my feeble way to confront the current photography exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. About the only thing I can write with any clarity is this: “Go to the Getty. Go now.”

“Engaged Observers” banner above the Getty Photo Galleries.

This deeply moving exhibition, subtitled Documentary Photography since the Sixties, now hanging in the Getty’s expansive photo galleries until November 14 (it won’t travel), focuses on the work of ten “engaged” photographers. They are not merely photojournalists out on specific assignments, though several bodies of work did begin this way. These men and women have committed their careers and lives to creating demanding, long-term photo essays, often spanning years, that document in a near cinematic sense a broad range of socio-political experience.

The Richard Meier designed Getty complex, the so-called “Castle on the Hill,” has transformed itself in recent years with its many community and educational outreach programs. Long a tourist destination renowned for its great panoramic views of Los Angeles, as well as for its founder’s predilection for ostentatious decorative arts, the Getty also houses world-class art conservation facilities. The Getty photography department has one of the world’s most important collections. And since the opening of its expanded galleries a few years ago, the photography exhibitions have attracted ever-increasing numbers of visitors. On a recent summer afternoon, the galleries of Engaged Observers had stronger attendance than the signature exhibition of Gérôme's paintings. The Getty’s commitment to photography, begun under Weston Naef’s scholarly and historic eye, has become paramount and the institution's scholarship is central to its mission—no more so than in this passionately curated show by Brett Abbott.

Each of the nine projects exhibited presents a different stylistic approach; they are as distinct one from another as the temperaments of the men and women who created them. These photo essays give lie to the old saw about objectivity in photojournalism; not a single one of these artists could deny the depth of the transformative effect of their work. Their commitment to each project gives new meaning to the term “embedded.” As for the title of the exhibition, there may at first seem to be a certain lassitude in the word “engaged” as a label, as if it were a sort of social rite. The French word “engagé” may be more apt, bringing with it the fierce philosophical underpinnings of a Camus based humanist existentialism.

All of these “engaged” photographers have put their lives right at the film plane of their cameras, none more so than James Nachtwey who was injured in 2003 in Iraq when a grenade exploded in the Humvee in which he was riding. He was med-evaced to and operated on at a trauma hospital.

A list of the nine projects (many of them affirming their full power in books) confirms the broad range of work presented in the Getty show. They are: Leonard Freed’s Black in White America; Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc.; W. Eugene and Aileen Smith’s Minimata; Susan Meiselas’ Nicaragua, June 1978-July 1979; Mary Ellen Mark’s Streetwise; Lauren Greenfield’s Fast Forward and Girl Culture; Larry Towell’s The Mennonites; Sebastião Salgado’s Migrations and James Nachtwey’s The Sacrifice. The dates of these photo-essays range from Freed’s civil rights era of the early 60s to Nachtwey’s trauma wards from 2007.

The link to the exhibition on the Getty website gives thumbnail backgrounds of each project with its place in the socio-political milieu.

Getty.edu—Engaged Observers exhibition link

But it is the exhibition catalog's introduction written by Abbott that provides a deeper perspective into the time and place of each project. Abbott traces the history of the photo essay, not just from the founding of Life magazine and Luce’s statement in the June 26, 1937 issue, “The Camera as Essayist,” or even from the work of editor Stefan Lorant for Britain’s Picture Post. He follows the traces of the photo essay back into the 19th century, to Alexander Gardner’s and Roger Fenton’s war photography, and to the social reform agendas of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Abbott’s essay is must reading, not just as an introduction to the exhibition, but as a capsule view of the arc of humanist photography.

Amazon.com—Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Sixties link

Exhibition catalog

If you go back to the Getty web link you will notice that there is an audio icon just below most of the photographs. Four of the artists make comments about their projects, while Abbott gives an overview of the Griffiths’ essay and provides contextual background for the Freed photo.

Philip Jones Griffiths: Quang Ngai, Vietnam, 1967. copyright Philip Jones Griffiths Foundation/Magnum Photos
Leonard Freed: New Orleans, Louisiana, 1965. copyright Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

There is also a particularly compelling discussion of the Minimata series of Aileen and Gene Smith. Seriously wounded in the Pacific in WWII, Smith, a maverick his entire career, broke with Life magazine after many tumultuous years. I discussed his turbulent life and work in The Jazz Loft essay earlier this year.

John Bailey’s Bailiwick—“W. Eugene Smith, David X. Young and the Jazz Loft” blog link

Smith was beaten by thugs from the polluting Chisso Corporation as he worked on the Minimata series. Chisso tried to prevent him from revealing the horrors of methyl-mercury poisoning of the citizens of Minimata, including that of a young, disfigured girl, Tomoko. She is the subject of one of Smith’s most haunting images, Tomoko in her Bath—a pieta-esque photo that is not included in the Getty show, in deference to Aileen Smith, who several years ago withdrew it from publication. The decision to do so is recounted in the catalog essay and it highlights the complex issue of personal privacy that is always much in the foreground of in-depth documentary photography.

W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith: Shinobu at the entrance of her house, Minimata, 1972. copyright Aileen Smith.   W. Eugene Smith Archive, Center for Creative Photography, Tucson

Susan Meiselas’ comments explore the role of ordinary Nicaraguan citizens in the revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, and of her many months spent there as witness to its unfolding. Her compendious photo book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, which came out of her 1991 trip to Iraq, was described in a review by Christopher Hitchens as, "... everything that scholarship and journalism and humanism ought to aspire to be." Meiselas was awarded a Macarthur Fellowship in 1992.

Susan Meiselas: Car of a Somoza informer burning in Managua, Nicaragua, July 5, 1978. copyright Susan Meiselas/ Magnum Photo
Susan Meiselas: Traditional Indian dance mask adopted by the rebels during the fight against Somoza, Nicaragua, 1978. copyright Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photo

Mary Ellen Mark, for whom I promise to do a future essay on her wonderful book of behind the scene film stills, Seen Behind the Scene, speaks here in an audio clip of how she and filmmaker husband, Martin Bell, came to select Seattle (then called “America’s most livable city”) as the site for their investigation of child homelessness.

Mary Ellen Mark: Lillie with her rag doll, Seattle, 1983. copyright Mary Ellen Mark

Lauren Greenfield describes herself as the daughter of a feminist mother who spoke to her of sexual oppression by men. In an ironic audio clip, the artist discusses how painful she now finds the sexual judgment and cruelty of young girls toward each other, reflected in their low body image of obesity and self-inflicted cutting.

Curator Brett Abbott speaks of Meiselas’, Mark’s and Greenfield’s parallel work as filmmakers. All three have made documentaries that develop the themes of their photo essays. Meiselas worked also as an assistant editor on Frederick Wiseman’s documentary from 1971, Basic Training. The quotations in the book of Marks’ Streetwise are extracted from filmed interviews. And Greenfield’s film Thin was born out of her photos for the book Girl Culture.

Canadian photographer Larry Towell talks about how he discovered migrant Mennonite farm workers in his native Ontario and of their migration to Chihuahua and Zacatecas, Mexico, in a fierce struggle to maintain their traditions.

Larry Towell: La Batea Colony, Zacatecas, Mexico, 1994. copyright Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

There is no audio on the Getty website that serves to supplement the Salgado and Nachtwey work. But the final section of Abbott’s catalog essay, “Assumptions and Challenges,” addresses the too-oft and ill-conceived charge of aesthetic pornography launched at the well-composed and haunting images of these two artists. Neither man has immersed himself in these inane controversies; they have continued their work, though I have wondered what may have led Salgado to cease at least for the moment such demanding projects as Migrations.

Sebastiao Salgado: Tanzania, 1994. copyright Sebastiao Salgado

Was it solely a personal retreat that led him into the very different world of pristine landscapes and Antarctica and its icebergs? Or is constant immersion in the world’s most impoverished regions more than any human can in the long term endure?

Nachtwey, however, has never retreated from his tireless commitment to photographing the most painful and distressing events and places in the world, many of which are chronicled in the mammoth, dark labyrinth of his book, Inferno. Nachtwey needs no Getty audio clip. He speaks most eloquently, and often, of his bearing witness to mankind’s unrelenting violence toward his fellow man. I wrote an essay last October that discusses Nachtwey’s work; it includes scenes from the Oscar nominated documentary about his work, War Photographer.

John Bailey’s Bailiwick—“Bearing Witness” blog link

Several prominent critics have written about the subject of aesthetization in documentary photography, of a “pornography” of poverty and violence. Ingrid Sischy in the September 9, 1991 issue of the New Yorker (“Good Intentions”), and Susan Sontag in her seminal book On Photography, have written that  graphic images of ethnic and internecine violence, and of third world deprivation, render them “ordinary,” less moving, creating an aesthetic umbrella of "poverty-chic." In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag partly recanted this harsh judgment shortly before her death:

Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function.

This must have been a bitter pill for the critical sage of American letters to swallow. You can’t help but feel her residual condescension in the face of such powerfully demotic photographs. Even her finely crafted words are no match for  visceral, gut-wrenching images.

Anyone who stands before James Nachtwey's The Sacrifice, which occupies its own slant wall at the end of the exhibition, will experience the most profound disquiet. There are simply no words to explain what you are seeing. In reality, it is no more than a montage of 60 photos linked together by ink-jet printing onto a single paper strip, each image abutting the next—3 photos high by 20 long, 60 photographs total---  31 feet in length. What this singular photo-essay records is not an incident; it is an indictment, a j’accuse on paper unfurled in a relentlessly explicit scroll, a grey scale of blood, carnage, and death, the images so painfully hard to bear that only one, the least graphic of all, seem suitable for press distribution.

James Nachtwey: One image, #5, from “The Sacrifice.” copyright James Nachtwey

This epic scaled work is more than a dirge on human suffering; it lays its harsh evidence of lives wasted at the feet of war-mongering legislators, executive office despots, and heads of corporate greed, the men who drum up phony pretexts to send America’s impressionable youth into a cauldron of pointless violence, stoked by a fire that sears their brains and scars their memories for the rest of their lives— that is, those who survive, those who escape with only lost limbs or lost psyches. In a June 30 story in the LA Times James Rainey reflects on an interview he conducted with Nachtwey at the exhibition’s opening:

When the Nachtwey piece debuted three years ago at a New York City gallery [401 Projects], it overwhelmed one ex-Marine. He suggested the installation. . . be displayed on Times Square's gigantic billboards.

A showing in Times Square [he writes] wouldn't be a bad start. Then how about loading "The Sacrifice" on a flatbed truck and taking it to town squares around America?

The final three images, top to bottom, in this Guernica-like litany of suffering, picture a nurse pulling a sheet over a dead soldier; an empty operating table covered in blood, the floor littered with bandage wrappings; and finally, inexorably, surgical-gloved hands holding a soldier’s dogtags, a blanket covered gurney in the background, out of focus.

Nachtwey: "The Sacrifice," 2007, a 60 photo mural at the Getty Museum. photo by Rebecca Vera-Martinez, copyright 2010 J. Paul Getty Trust
“Engaged Observers” installation looking toward “The Sacrifice.” photo by Rebecca Vera-Martinez, copyright 2010 J. Paul Getty Trust

I realize there is nothing I can write here that would compel anyone in search of a feel-good photography exhibition to go to the Getty. After all, most of the photo-exhibition community is pre-occupied with whether recently found Yosemite photographs are or are not by Ansel Adams; so intent is the mercantile focus on fashion, celebrity, animal, and landscape subjects, that an exhibition like Engaged Observers is an anomaly. Major NYC Chelsea galleries are filled with mural-sized, staged tableaus and portraits in a quasi-cinematic style; however, these tepid copies of movie iconography command prices in the six-figure range. Photojournalism may occupy the high moral ground with photography critics, but it has never commanded the marketplace.

So, do something for your moral valence. Take a break from next weekend's box office drivel and  experience the visceral power of great photography. Escape for a few hours into the real world beyond our cinematic fictions. Go to the Getty. Go to Engaged Observers.

(All photos courtesy of The Getty, the artists, Center for Creative Photography and Magnum Photo Agency.)

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