05
Nov
10

Exhibition: ‘Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography since the Sixties’ at The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Exhibition dates: 29th June – 14th November 2010

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Many thankx to the The J. Paul Getty Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting.

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Leonard Freed
(American, 1929 – 2006)
New York City
1963
Gelatin silver print
24.6 x 16.4 cm (9 11/16 x 6 7/16 in.)
© Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos, Inc.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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W. Eugene Smith
(American, 1918 – 1978)
Industrial Waste from the Chisso Chemical Company
1972
Gelatin silver print
24.4 x 34 cm (9 5/8 x 13 3/8 in.)
Minamata photographs by W. Eugene Smith & Aileen M. Smith – © Aileen Smith
H. Christopher Luce. Courtesy of Robert Mann Gallery, New York, New York

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“In the decades following World War II, an independently minded and critically engaged form of photography began to gather momentum. Situated between journalism and art, its practitioners created extended photographic essays that delved deeply into topics of social concern and presented distinct personal visions of the world. On view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center, June 29 – November 14, 2010, Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography since the Sixties looks in depth at projects by a selection of the most vital photographers who have contributed to the development of this documentary approach. Passionately committed to their subjects, these photographers have captured both meditative and searing images, from the deep south in the civil rights era to the war in Iraq in 2006. Their powerful visual reports, often published extensively as books, explore aspects of life that are sometimes difficult and troubling but are worthy of attention.

“This exhibition focuses on the tradition of socially engaged photographic essays since the 1960s,” explains Brett Abbott, associate curator of photographs and curator of the exhibition. “Working beyond traditional media outlets, these photographers have authored evocative bodies of work that transcend the realm of traditional photojournalism.”

Engaged Observers is structured around suites of photographs from the following projects: “Girl Culture” by Lauren Greenfield, “The Mennonites” by Larry Towell, “Streetwise” by Mary Ellen Mark, “Black in White America” by Leonard Freed, “Nicaragua, June 1978 – July 1979” by Susan Meiselas, “Vietnam Inc.” by Philip Jones Griffiths, “The Sacrifice” by James Nachtwey, “Migrations: Humanity in Transition” by Sebastião Salgado, and “Minamata” by W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith.

Although one does not always associate style with photojournalism, where objectivity and neutrality are traditionally valued, aesthetics have been an important consideration for all of the photographers represented in the exhibition. One of the strengths of this tradition has been its ability to harness artistic decisions in reporting on the world. Meiselas chose color film for her Nicaragua project because she felt it better conveyed the spirit of the revolution as she experienced it. Salgado noted that the solemn beauty so characteristic of his approach is important in conjuring a persistent grace among his migrant subjects, allowing him to present them in a dignified way while calling attention to their plight. Nachtwey used tight framing of messy conglomerations of tubes, instruments, and arms in The Sacrifice as a way of conjuring the atmosphere of controlled chaos that he experienced in trauma centers in Iraq. In this kind of work, subject and style, message and delivery, are deliberately intertwined.

All of the photographers in this exhibition use a series of images to address conceptual issues. For instance, Freed was concerned with bridging cultural divides to engender support of basic civil rights, while Griffiths denounced violent commercialization; Salgado pointed to the effects of globalization, while the Smiths addressed the related issue of industrial pollution; Meiselas engaged and countered the fragmented process by which we receive news and understand history, while Towell challenged the meaning of “newsworthy” and explored, as did Greenfield, how cultural values affect life; Nachtwey found the human toll of war unacceptable, and Mark, the idea of homeless street kids in one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Many of the photographers have published books to further convey their socially engaged messages. Books allow for a greater depth of reporting than magazine articles since their length can be tailored to the needs of a particular project. And because they can be read in private, books are conducive to extended contemplation and the slow absorption of ideas, both of which are important to understanding projects that are broad in scope and have layers of meaning that, in many cases, were developed over the course of years. Moreover, they provide photographers authorial control over the presentation of their work. Each artist has the ability to decide how pictures are captioned and with what information.

A final section of the exhibition is devoted to tracing the origins of the documentary photography tradition, touching on American Civil War photographs by Alexander Gardner, turn-of-the-century activism by Lewis Hine, Depression-era photography, and photojournalism in pre-World War II picture magazines. This section also looks closely at the formation of Magnum Photos. Founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Besson, and several other photographers, Magnum provided a new platform for an independent documentary approach to photojournalism and became one of the world’s most prestigious photographic organizations. Magnum was structured to allow its members to pursue stories of their own choosing, spend as much time as they wanted on a particular topic, and be as involved as they desired in the editing, captioning, and publication of their work. The organization was meant to harness commercial assignments as a base from which to pursue independent work, and the concept has given rise to generations of independent photographers, including many of those in Engaged Observers.”

Press release from The J. Paul Getty Museum website

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Walker Evans
(American, 1903 – 1975)
Sharecropper’s Family, Hale County, Alabama / Bud Fields and His Family, Hale County, Alabama / Bud Woods and His Family
1936
Gelatin silver print
19.4 x 24.3 cm (7 5/8 x 9 9/16 in.)
© The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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Philip Jones Griffiths
(Welsh, 1936 – 2008)
Vietnam
1967
Gelatin silver print
21.3 x 31.8 cm (8 3/8 x 12 1/2 in.)
© The Philip Jones Griffiths Foundation / Magnum Photos
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Limits of friendship. A Marine introduces a peasant girl to king-sized filter-tips. Of all the U.S. forces in Vietnam, it was the Marines that approached Civic Action with gusto. From their barrage of handouts, one discovers that, in the month of January1967 alone, they gave away to the Vietnamese 101,535 pounds of food, 4,810 pounds of soap, 14,662 books and magazines, 106 pounds of candy, 1,215 toys, and 1 midwifery kit. In the same month they gave the Vietnamese 530 free haircuts.

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James Nachtwey
(American, born 1948)
The Sacrifice
negative 2006 – 2007; print 2010
Inkjet print
111.8 x 983 cm (44 x 387 in.)
© James Nachtwey
James Nachtwey, New York, New York

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Sebastião Salgado
(Brazilian, born 1944)
Church Gate Station, Western Railroad Line, Bombay, India
negative 1995; print 2009
Gelatin silver print
34.3 x 51.4 cm (13 1/2 x 20 1/4 in.)
© Sebastião Salgado
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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Photographic Essays

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LEONARD FREED

BLACK IN WHITE AMERICA

Photography shows the connection between things, how they relate. Photography is not entertaining, this is not decoration, this is not advertising. Photographing is an emotional thing, a graceful thing. Photography allows me to wander with a purpose.

Leonard Freed (American, 1923–2006), interview in Worldview, 2007

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While working in Germany in 1962, photographer Leonard Freed happened to notice a black American soldier guarding the divide between East and West as the Berlin Wall was being erected. It was not the partition between the forces of Communism and Capitalism that captured Freed’s imagination, however. Instead, he was haunted by the idea of a man standing in defense of a country in which his own rights were in question. The experience ignited the young photographer’s interest in the American civil rights movement raging on the other side of the globe. In June 1963 Freed headed back to the United States to embark on a multiyear documentary project, published in about 1968 as Black in White America, that would become the signature work of his career.

The Black in White America series is a kind of visual diary with a moralizing purpose. It is highly personal and socially engaged with an implicit goal of effecting change through communication. While Freed made pictures of important events in the civil rights struggle, including the 1963 March on Washington, he quickly found that his interests lay not in recording the progress of the civil rights movement per se but in exploring the diverse, everyday lives of a community that had been marginalized for so long. Penetrating the fabric of daily existence, his work portrays the common humanity of a people persevering in unjust circumstances. His sensitive and empathetic approach sought not to stimulate outrage but to foster understanding and bridge cultural divides as a means of transcending racial antipathy.

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LAUREN GREENFIELD

FAST FORWARD AND GIRL CULTURE

Girl Culture has been my journey as a photographer, as an observer of culture, as part of the media, as a media critic, as a woman, as a girl. . . . I was . . . thinking about my chronic teenage dieting, my gravitation toward good-looking and thin friends for as long as I can remember, and the importance of clothes and status symbols in the highly materialistic, image-oriented Los Angeles milieu in which I grew up.

Lauren Greenfield (American, born 1966), Girl Culture, 2002

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Photographer and documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has built her reputation as a chronicler of mainstream American culture. In 2002 she published a photographic project, Girl Culture, that delves into the ways consumer society affects the lives of women in America. Of central concern to Greenfield was the exhibitionist tendencies of contemporary American femininity. Visiting girls of all ages at home, in doctors’ offices, and out with friends,

Greenfield examined personal issues of public consequence, providing an intense and intimate

exploration of girls’ relationships to their bodies and the effects of popular culture on self-image.

Many of her pictures and accompanying interviews focus on what she refers to as “body projects,” the daily grooming rituals undertaken in an effort to express identity through appearance. Others look at the social and consumerist influences from which these young women take their cues as well as the difficulty of living up to such expectations.

Girl Culture grew out of an earlier study, Fast Forward, that critically surveyed what life is like for children growing up in Los Angeles. The work revolves around her perception of an early loss of innocence among her young subjects and traces Hollywood’s role as a homogenizing force in their lives.

Greenfield’s lens becomes a mirror in which to reflect upon ourselves. Together Fast Forward and Girl Culture sensitively explore how culture leaves its imprint on individuals.

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PHILIP JONES GRIFFITHS

VIETNAM INC.

The “bang-bang” aspect of any war is the least likely to offer any explanation of the underlying causes. My task is to discover the why, so it’s the actions surrounding the battlefields that present the best clues.

Philip Jones Griffiths (Welsh, 1936–2008), Aperture, spring 2008

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A lifelong desire to leave the world a better place drove Philip Jones Griffiths, whose work is marked by a fiercely independent approach, deep engagement with his subjects, and a skeptical view of authority. Vietnam Inc., the photographer’s critical 1971 account of America’s armed intervention in Southeast Asia, is one of the most detailed photographic stories of a war published by a single photographer. The project’s exploration of the why, and not just the what, behind the war’s failures made it a particularly engaging and ambitious work of advocacy journalism and a model to which many photographers still aspire.

Griffiths’s independent approach is remarkable because of its sensitivity to the people of Vietnam and its eschewing of a Western point of view. In Vietnam Inc. there are few photographs documenting American troops and the might of their military prowess. Instead, his primary focus was on Vietnamese civilians and a culture in crisis. His book put the conflict in the context of Vietnam’s history and culture, showing the ways in which the Capitalist values that America promoted in its efforts to contain the spread of Communism were out of sync with Vietnam’s predominantly communal and agrarian way of life.

Vietnam, for Griffiths, became a “goldfish bowl where the values of Americans and Vietnamese can be observed, studied, and, because of their contrasting nature, more easily appraised.” And in Griffiths’s appraisal, it was America’s “misplaced confidence in the universal goodness” of its own values that would ultimately lead to an imperialist failure and, more importantly, the unjust devastation of a people.

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MARY ELLEN MARK

STREETWISE

One of the reasons we chose Seattle was because it is known as “America’s most livable city.” Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York were well known for their street kids. By choosing America’s ideal city we were making the point “If street kids exist in a city like Seattle then they can be found everywhere in America, and we are therefore facing a major social problem of runaways in this country.

Mary Ellen Mark (American, born 1940), Streetwise, 1988

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Mary Ellen Mark has reported on the state of our social environment for more than four decades. Far removed from the immediacy of war and conflict, her work plumbs the basic commonality of human experience.

In 1983 Mark traveled to Seattle to do an article for Life magazine on runaway children. Focusing on a set of streets in the city’s downtown area, she began building a sense of trust with the community of runaways and learning about their survival methods. Her pictures showed teenagers who managed to survive on the tough streets through petty crime, prostitution, foraging in dumpsters, and panhandling. She presented the abandoned buildings and underpasses they inhabited and the bonds they built with one another in the absence of family. Mark’s compositions are striking and uncomfortable, emphasizing her subjects’ youth while capturing them engaged in activities beyond their years.

Following publication of an article in Life, she continued to develop the story as both a documentary film and still photographic project with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, and reporter Cheryl McCall. The film, titled Streetwise, was released the following year and was nominated for an Academy Award. Mark published her still photographs from the project in a book of the same title in 1988.

The Streetwise project provided dimension to an important issue of its day. In giving specific shape, individuality, and visibility to the problem of runaway children, it called for greater social and political commitment to addressing America’s epidemic of broken families.

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SUSAN MEISELAS

NICARAGUA, JUNE 1978–JULY 1979

We all cross histories, and the ones that we cross shape us as much as we shape them.

Susan Meiselas (American, born 1948), in conversation with the curator, 2010

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In 1978 Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas traveled to Nicaragua. Tensions were high following the assassination of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the editor of an opposition newspaper critical of the repressive, hard-line government. Meiselas witnessed the eruption of a full-scale revolution in August of that year. Aware that a momentous process was taking place, she stayed to record its unfolding, including the celebration of the revolutionaries’ victory in the central plaza of Managua in July 1979.

Meiselas was taken by the bravery of those who were willing to risk their lives against the dictatorship for the promise of a better future, and she took pains to photograph the action from the perspective of those involved in it. The record of her movements around the country formed a narrative about the progress of their insurrection. She made a decision, which at the time was still considered somewhat unusual in serious war reportage, to record the revolution on color film, seeing it as a more appropriate medium for capturing the vibrancy and optimism of the resistance.

The photographer’s compelling pictures were picked up by major newspapers and magazines around the world, giving individual images a public life, but one that was beyond her immediate control with regard to captioning and that was fragmented from the context of her larger body of pictures. In collecting seventy-one of her photo-graphs into a book, first published in 1981 as Nicaragua, June 1978 – July 1979, Meiselas reasserted the narrative of the revolution as she experienced it and gave greater permanence and coherence to her documentary endeavor.

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JAMES NACHTWEY

THE SACRIFICE

For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war. And if it is used well, it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war.

James Nachtwey (American, born 1948), from the film The War Photographer, 2001

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For nearly thirty years James Nachtwey has dedicated himself to delivering an antiwar message by documenting those around the world affected by conflict. Traveling with emergency medical units in Iraq in 2006, the photographer began a photo essay, The Sacrifice, that documents the struggle to save and rebuild lives. The series depicts the helicopter transfers from battle sites to treatment centers, the emergency rooms where lives hang in the balance, and the difficult process of recovery.

In anticipation of showing the work, Nachtwey created a monumental installation print, consisting of sixty individual trauma-center images, tightly framed and digitally collaged into a grid. The work stands as a grim reminder of the human costs of war. The object’s sheer size, in which one picture gives way to the next in a seemingly endless stream of torn flesh, metal instruments, snaking tubes, and bloodied hands, effectively conveys a sense of the controlled chaos that permeates these medical centers as well as the overwhelming volume of casualties flowing through the medics’ hands on a daily basis.

While it may be easy to contemplate and even support war in abstract, strategic terms, it is difficult to face Nachtwey’s portrayal of its inevitable results. In its aggressive scale, his intentionally unsettling work demands that we reconcile the goals and achievements of armed conflict with its human costs, that we be prepared to acknowledge in particular visual terms the sacrifice it entails and the valiant work of those who do their best to mend its path of destruction.

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SEBASTIÃO SALGADO

MIGRATIONS: HUMANITY IN TRANSITION

My hope is that, as individuals, as groups, as societies, we can pause and reflect on the human condition at the turn of the millennium. Can we claim “compassion fatigue” when we show no sign of consumption fatigue?

Sebastião Salgado (Brazilian, born 1944), Migrations, 2000

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Trained in economics before taking up photography, Sebastião Salgado has used his camera to raise awareness of the world’s economic disparities and provoke discussion about the state of our international social environment. Between 1994 and 1999 Salgado pursued an enormous project to document migrant populations around the world. Published in 2000 as Migrations: Humanity in Transition, this epic work of twentieth-century photojournalism documents people across forty-three countries who have been uprooted by globalization, persecution, or war. The pictures in this exhibition represent several themes in Salgado’s study, including the effects of population surges in cities of developing countries, the conditions of refugees fleeing war in Africa, and the process of migration from Latin America to the United States.

Salgado’s work is marked by a heightened attention to aesthetic grace that attempts to endow his subjects with dignity even as it communicates the discomfort of their circumstances. His photographs are constructed with careful attention to dramatic lighting, elegant contours, and striking visual impact. Ultimately, Salgado sees himself as a storyteller and a communicator, a bridge between the fortunate and the unfortunate, the developed and the undeveloped, the stable and the uprooted. Portrayed lyrically and sensitively, his subjects are transformed into metaphors for complex inequities that exist in the world – problems that must be recognized and acknowledged before they can be addressed.

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W. EUGENE AND AILEEN M. SMITH

MINAMATA

[Pollution] is closing more tightly upon us each day. . . . After reflecting on the rights and wrongs of the situation in Minamata, we hope through this book to raise our small voices of words and photographs in a warning to the world. To cause awareness is our only strength.

W. Eugene Smith (American, 1918–1978) and Aileen M. Smith (American, born 1950), Minamata, 1975

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In 1971 W. Eugene Smith, a major figure in the history of socially concerned photography, and his wife, Aileen M. Smith, were told of a controversy over industrial pollution taking place in the small Japanese fishing village of Minamata. Beginning in the 1950s, thousands of people in the area were severely affected by mercury poisoning, brought about by eating fish contaminated with chemical waste dumped in the bay by the Chisso Corporation. Victims were afflicted with brain damage, paralysis, and convulsions. The ailment, which came to be known as Minamata Disease, is not reversible.

When the Smiths arrived in Minamata, lawsuits had already begun, and the couple set out to document the progress of the claims. They spent three years on the project, calling attention to the victims’ cause. Aileen acted as an equal collaborator, making pictures and writing texts with W. Eugene. The work resulted in numerous magazine publications, exhibitions, and a coauthored book, Minamata, published in 1975.

The Smiths’ study records the course of the trial through the court’s ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in 1973. The essay relates the importance of the sea and fishing to the town’s culture, reports on the company’s drainage pipes into the sea, chronicles the lives transformed by the disease, and depicts the demonstrations that took place in opposition to Chisso. As a tale of the dangers of industrial pollution, the project gained traction within the political atmosphere of the 1970s, when the environmental movement was taking off.

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LARRY TOWELL

THE MENNONITES

When a Mennonite loses his land, a bit of his human dignity is forfeited; so is his financial solvency. He becomes a migrant worker, an exile who will spend the rest of his life drifting among fruit trees and vegetable vines, dreaming of owning his own farm some day. But for these who struggle with God at the end of a hoe, the refuge of land, Church, and community may be at least a generation away.

Larry Towell (Canadian, born 1953), The Mennonites, 2000

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Wary of the media’s commitment to speed, photographer Larry Towell insists on the integrity of extended-coverage reporting. In 1989 he came into contact with members of a Mennonite community near his home in Canada. The Old Colony Mennonites are a nonconformist Protestant sect related to the Amish that originated in Europe in the 1500s.

Over the centuries, they have migrated between countries to preserve their way of life, living in colonies where faith and tradition are intertwined and modern amenities, such as cars, rubber tires, and electricity, are not welcome.

The Mennonites Towell befriended had migrated to Canada from colonies in Mexico in search of seasonal work. Due to shrinking water tables in Mexico, the effects of international trade, and a rising population in the colonies, many Mennonites have found themselves landless and economically marginalized, forced to compromise their beliefs in order to survive. Towell was eventually invited to join them in their treks back to Mexico for the winter. With his unique and intimate access, he spent the next ten years photographing their activities, capturing their struggle to preserve a lifestyle incongruent with the larger world on which they have become interdependent.

Towell’s work documented the Mennonites’ way of life for the historical record and inspires greater understanding today for a group whose attempts to embrace life could be easily overlooked. In spending a decade on a subject that would be of only passing interest to mainstream media, he asserts a form of visual reporting in which reflection takes precedence over profitability and immediacy.”

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum

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Sebastião Salgado
(Brazilian, born 1944)
U.S. – Mexico Border, desert of San Ysidro, California
negative 1997; print 2009
Gelatin silver print
34.4 x 51.4 cm (13 9/16 x 20 1/4 in.)
© Sebastião Salgado
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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Mary Ellen Mark
(American, born 1940)
Lillie with Her Rag Doll, Seattle
1983
Gelatin silver print
22.6 x 34 cm (8 7/8 x 13 3/8 in.)
© Mary Ellen Mark
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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Mary Ellen Mark
(American, born 1940)
“Rat” and Mike with a Gun, Seattle
1983
Gelatin silver print
22.8 x 34.2 cm (9 x 13 7/16 in.)
© Mary Ellen Mark
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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Lauren Greenfield
(American, born 1966)
Sheena tries on clothes with Amber, 15, in a department store dressing room, San Jose, California
negative 1999; print 2002
Dye destruction print
32.5 x 49.1 cm (12 13/16 x 19 5/16 in.)
© Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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Lauren Greenfield
(American, born 1966)
Erin, 24, is blind-weighed at an eating-disorder clinic, Coconut Creek, Florida. She has asked to mount the scale backward so as not to see her weight gain
negative 2001; print 2002
Dye destruction print
32.5 x 49.1 cm (12 13/16 x 19 5/16 in.)
© Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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The J. Paul Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, California 90049

Opening hours:
Tues – Friday 10 – 5.30pm
Saturday 10 – 9pm
Sunday 10 – 9pm
Monday closed

The J. Paul Getty Museum website

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2 Responses to “Exhibition: ‘Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography since the Sixties’ at The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles”


  1. January 21, 2013 at 5:38 am

    I am really loving the theme/design of your website. Do you ever run into any browser compatibility issues?
    A small number of my blog visitors have complained about
    my blog not working correctly in Explorer but looks great in Firefox.
    Do you have any solutions to help fix this problem?

    • 2 Dr Marcus Bunyan
      January 21, 2013 at 7:29 am

      HI the older version of Explorer may not work but it is such a small percentage these days of the viewers that I do not worry.
      Most people if they have any sense have ditched Explorer!
      Marcus


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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