Via John Laxmi
Late as this post may be, it’s an exhibit not to be missed (click on the link below for the NYT article). The NYTimes review mostly pans the Magnum (a premier photo agency) photo exhibit but it is nonetheless an important collection to peruse should you find yourself in NYC.
Since the exhibit runs through September 6, perhaps we could arrange a trip during the SAJA Convention. Registration for the convention is now open. Discounted (Early Bird) registration is from April 15 to May 7. Advanced registration is from May 8 to June 11. While on-site registrations may be possible, save the disappointment and register early because the SAJA convention almost always sells out!
THE NEW YORK TIMES
April 2, 2004, Friday
PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW; Pictures of the Picturesque, Not Necessarily of the Truth
By KEN JOHNSON
Before television, Pop Art, Deconstructionist theory and the digital revolution, it was possible to believe unreservedly in photojournalism. It was back then, in 1947, that the renowned photojournalists’ cooperative Magnum Photos was founded by the photographers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour.
Magnum’s mission was to liberate its members from the formulaic requirements of mainstream magazines and newspapers, to enable them to bear witness more directly and truthfully to the tumultuous unfolding of 20th-century history.
Times have changed, however, and today hardly anyone takes for granted the transparent veracity of journalistic or any other kind of photography. Even Magnum’s Web site acknowledges, ”In today’s ‘information age,’ if the reader can be enjoined to enter the quest for meaning, then one has succeeded.” Which brings us to ”Magnum’s New Yorkers,” an exhibition of pictures by Magnum photographers at the Museum of the City of New York.
Culled from the Magnum archives by the museum’s curator of photography, Bob Shamis, the show’s 130 pictures by 35 photographers are meant to add up to a portrait of New York. Dating from the late 1940’s to 2002, the pictures show people from many walks of life in all kinds of situations: celebrities and crack addicts, politicians and strippers, Wall Street businessmen and East Village bohemians, political protesters and fashion models and so on.
While perusing this occasionally diverting but ultimately enervating display, you may wonder if this photographic panorama truly represents New York and its huge and hugely diversified population. Of course it doesn’t, and probably no selection of 130 photographs could. There’s just too much to cover, especially if you stretch it out over 50 years. But the show — in which, by the way, there are no photographs involving technical deceptions, digital or otherwise — also affirms deeper doubts about photojournalism itself and its ability to tell us the truth about our world.
What photojournalism mostly trafficks in — or, at least, the photojournalism in this exhibition — is not the truth but the picturesque. Photojournalists don’t bring us the news: they give us professionally processed images and stories — polished, plausible fictions — that we effortlessly understand because they are so much like stories and images we’ve seen before.
This explains the many photographs of famous people in ”Magnum’s New Yorkers”: James Dean walking through a wintry Times Square with his overcoat collar turned up and a cigarette dangling from his lips; a luminous close-up of the young Marilyn Monroe; Grace Kelly emerging like a goddess between two men watching her from the foreground; Miles Davis coolly blowing his horn in a smoky jazz club. At their best such images become icons permanently installed in our culture’s fantasy life.
Beyond images of the glamorous, rich, powerful and famous, pictorial clichés run in every direction: boys jumping into the East River; a sprawling inner-city family picnicking in Central Park; children playing in the spray from a fire hydrant; the sleeping man’s bald head down on a cafeteria table; Fulton Fish Market workers romantically silhouetted against the early morning sun; a woman and her child visiting a man at the Tombs; a young man throwing himself into the mosh pit at a punk rock concert; a recently arrived Chinese immigrant breakfasting in his briefs on a fire escape above the Bowery; women examining handbags piled on a street vendor’s display table.
There are, as well, the expected sorts of quirky and incongruous pictures: the long neck and little head of a llama sticking out of a car window; the short, stout, conservatively dressed white man standing next to the tall, slender, black dude in a plaid suit; the masked man in a maid’s outfit in the parlor of a private club for sadomasochists.
All these and many others have human interest and sometimes genuine entertainment value, and they are all made with impeccable professionalism.
Yet there is not one that looks different from thousands of similar photographs that we have seen before in magazines and newspapers. The deadening familiarity extends even to the kinds of gritty investigative work that the most adventurous photojournalists pursue. See, for example, the portrait of a hollow-eyed young woman hungrily watching a glass pipe pass from hand to hand in a squalid crack den, from a series on addiction by Eugene Richards.
All the photographs mentioned above were made, of course, by particular photographers: the show includes pictures by the four Magnum founders as well as notables like Cornell Capa, Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt, Inge Morath, Susan Meiselas and many others whose names you may know. (Magnum now has 62 active members.) Yet a curious sense of anonymity prevails throughout the show. It’s as if a single collective mind, the generic mind of photojournalism, were being channeled by different people with only superficially varying inflections.
To put all this into perspective it may help to think of two photographers who are not in this show but who made some of the most compelling New York photographs ever: Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand. Both pursued particular kinds of subject matter, Arbus seeking out socially marginal people and Winogrand compulsively stalking beautiful women on the street. But what distinguishes the work of each is not what they were looking at but how the formal qualities of their pictures reflected their deeply idiosyncratic ways of experiencing the world.
It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: what changes your world is not seeing different things but seeing things differently.
”Magnum’s New Yorkers” is at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, near 103rd Street, (212) 534-1672, through Sept. 6.