When it paid to photograph hard truth
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.”
“Streetwise” began as an assignment for Life and was published as an essay in the magazine in 1983. Mark continued working on the project on her own, making an Academy Award-nominated film by the same name with her husband, Martin Bell, and publishing a book of the photographs in 1988. W. Eugene and Eileen M. Smith’s “Minamata,” chronicling life in a Japanese fishing village tainted by industrial pollution and a classic in the annals of concerned photography, also appeared in periodicals before coming out in book form in 1975.
Philip Jones Griffiths spent five years probing the clash of cultural values underlying the Vietnam War but couldn’t interest the press in pictures that took such a nuanced look at conflict beyond the battlefield. He funded his efforts instead through publishing candid shots he made of Jacqueline Kennedy on a purported rendezvous in Cambodia and published “Vietnam Inc.” in 1971. Susan Meiselas was photographing independently in Nicaragua in the late ‘70s when the Sandinista revolution broke out. Her vivid images on the unfolding action were in demand worldwide. Sales of the pictures enabled her to craft her own visual narrative of events in the 1981 book “Nicaragua, June 1978-July 1979.”
Origin stories and developmental paths of each project in the show, subtitled " Documentary Photography Since the Sixties,” differ, but all, except for the most recent, James Nachtwey’s 2006 series on emergency medical treatment of casualties in Iraq, have culminated between hard covers.
“The book is the truest medium for these kinds of stories,” says L.A.-based Lauren Greenfield, whose first two volumes, “Fast Forward” (1997) and “Girl Culture” (2002), take an anthropological look at the tight knot of consumerism, identity and body image as it affects young people today, especially women.
Greenfield started “Fast Forward,” a chronicle of accelerated youth culture in L.A, on her own and finished the project with support from a National Geographic grant. The pictures didn’t run in the magazine, nor was there any expectation that they would. “It was edgy work for the magazine at the time. If it had been published, it would have been very different from the work I ended up making. These are the kinds of stories you can tell a lot better in the form of a book than a magazine article.”
Books can accommodate lengthier, more complex explorations of a subject. They can trace, as in Greenfield’s case, the development of an argument. “I didn’t go in with any agenda,” she says, “but I came out the other side with something important for people to see and talk about. There really was a message to the work, an element of social commentary that has a point of view.”
Photo essays that find their way onto magazine pages do so after passing through an editorial filtering process that, for the photographers, at least, can be marked by friction and compromise. Working in book form grants artists control over the selection of pictures, their sequencing and accompanying text — control over the definition and expression of their singular point of view.
What binds the artists in “Engaged Observers,” beyond the similarities in their professional practices, is that strong personal perspective in their work. Objectivity is rejected as a concept, much less an aspiration. “The journalistic photographer,” Eugene Smith wrote in 1948, “can have no other than a personal approach; and it is impossible for him to be completely objective. Honest — yes. Objective — no.”
As Brett Abbott, associate curator in the Getty’s department of photographs, points out, this mode of photography emerged in tandem with the New Journalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, exemplified by Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote and others. Both visual and verbal practitioners immerse themselves in a subject over a long period of time, delivering first-person accounts that are experiential, engaged.
In organizing the show, Abbott began with what he identifies as the first generation of photographers to apply this kind of independent approach to photojournalism. “These photographers represent a tradition, and I wanted to map the boundaries and goals of that tradition.”
To select only 10 artists out of the dozens who could easily have been included (think Eugene Richards, Bruce Davidson, Larry Burrows, Larry Clark, Bill Owens, Jill Freedman, Gordon Parks and more), Abbott focused on diversity of both subject matter and approach.
“I wanted to represent war as well as social issues, domestic as well as international, macro issues like Salgado’s project and someone like Mark, looking at a specific issue in a specific place with named individuals. I also wanted a balance between projects that were subtle and those that were loud, confrontational.”
Roughly two-thirds of the more than 200 works in the show come from the Getty collection, including many recent acquisitions intended to build upon the museum’s strong foundation in documentary work, particularly that of Walker Evans. One section of the exhibition glances back through photo history to early examples of war reportage and social documentation. The rest of the show brings that continuum to the present.
But the future? The tenuous state of print journalism, with so many publications closing or contracting, suggests a rough road ahead for photographers (as with writers) needing time and support to address subjects with depth and complexity. The Internet offers myriad new avenues for exposure but no viable system to pay for such work to be produced. Also, viewing an extensive essay on screen is not the same as making one’s way through the pages of a book or magazine.
“Internet viewing is mostly a scanning experience, rather than being enveloped,” Abbott says. “A lot of these projects are so dependent on nuance and context, I don’t know how this will translate to the Internet. I don’t know if it can be translated without new strategies.”
To survive in what most agree are increasingly hostile conditions, photographers are having to adapt. Opportunities in the press still exist, but, as Mark wistfully notes, magazines aren’t clamoring for ideas the way they used to, nor are they backing them up with cash, like in 1978, when Geo paid for her to spend three months photographing prostitutes in Bombay. (The magazine ended up not printing the pictures, considering them too explicit.)
Some support their work by teaching and applying for grants. Most exhibit and sell their work in galleries, a practice made possible by the emergence of a vigorous market for photography. That shift can be easily traced on the museum walls, as the physical properties of the works change over time, starting with Freed’s and Griffiths’ small press prints, made solely for reproduction, moving toward larger prints made for museum display by Meiselas, yet larger prints for gallery shows by Greenfield and Towell, until finally reaching the stunning, immediate present in Nachtwey’s 33-foot-long installation print, composed of 60 individual images.
“I have a lot of faith in the resourcefulness of these artists, even while recognizing they’re facing a difficult situation,” Abbott says. “We are entering a new chapter.”
Mark, a realist by trade and temperament, is determined to carry on. “I became a photographer because I was fascinated with people, who they are and what they do. I’m not going to give up. I’m a fighter, and this is what I love to do.”
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