Documentary photography--an endangered art


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The 10 photographers in “Engaged Observers,” opening June 29 at the Getty Museum, are at once storytellers, witnesses, advocates for justice, investigative journalists, consciousness raisers, evidence gatherers and educators. They’re also something of an endangered species, threatened by the destruction of their professional habitat. Magazines that used to commission such photographers to create in-depth chronicles of social phenomena, cultural conflict and struggle and change within communities have either gone out of print (the most legendary, Life, died as a weekly in 1972 and as a monthly in 2000) or are operating on scarcer and scarcer resources.

Assignments from print media largely supported the projects on view in the exhibition: Leonard Freed’s incisive look at what it meant to be “Black in White America” in the 1960s, Larry Towell’s sensitive portrait of Mennonite colonies in Canada and Mexico, Sebastião Salgado’s epic study of human migration and others. For many of these photographers, assigned and self-assigned work could overlap and feed into one another, but not anymore, according to Mary Ellen Mark, represented in the show by “Streetwise,” her tough, intimate portrayal of Seattle’s runaway kids in the ’80s.


“There’s no more balance. That’s over,” Mark says by phone from her New York studio. “You wouldn’t find a document like ‘Streetwise’ in magazines anymore.”

Publications now are spending their money on projects she describes as “decorative and safer,” or on tracking wars and world crises, rather than on ongoing social issues.
“It’s been shifting for the past 10 years, and in the past three or four it’s gotten worse. It’s harder and harder to get work sponsored.”

For a closer look at the exhibition, click here for the Arts & Books section article.

--Leah Ollman