Photojournalism, at its best, can often present a truth about a situation like no other art form. No amount of paintings depicting the civil rights movement or the war in Nicaragua can have the emotional and intellectual impact of seeing one candid image of a peaceful protester being lifted off the ground by armed police, or a rebel protecting his anonymity by wearing a raggedly beatific traditional Indian mask.
To honor the last 50 years of photojournalism, The Getty is exhibiting Engaged Observers through November 14, and I can’t recommend the exhibit enough. I’ve always been fascinated with photojournalism because there’s usually no time to set up or stage the shot. The photographer has to rely solely on what his or her eye is seeing and trust that there’s a deeper meaning to be found. And in image after image presented in this exhibit, the meaning is not lost, no matter how long ago the image was captured.
Most memorable is Leonard Freed. His images from Black in White America chronicle not just the civil rights movement, but the day-to-day life of African-Americans at the time. The images from the marches and protests are seared into our collective consciousness, but it’s the simpler images of a white female drinking and reveling under a sign that says “White Female” or a young biracial couple from North Carolina holding their toddler son accompanied by the text that they had to marry in Ohio because, in 1965 when he shot the image, they couldn’t legally be married in their home state and were “living in sin” that illustrate not only how far we may have come but how easily we can slide back, considering that the same discussions are being had over the rights of gay men and women to marry.
Another memorable photographer featured is Susan Meiselas and her images from Nicaragua chronicling, in vibrant color, the revolution in the late 70s. Her most haunting image is her most serene: a rebel crouching behind a barbed wire fence wearing a graceful mask to protect his anonymity. The gentle nature of the mask washes over the moment and gives this man a respite from the turmoil of life in a war zone. Of course, the man himself is at the heart of the turmoil, but by covering his face he exposes his humanity. War often reduces people to statistics, but Meiselas’ images reminds us that every number represents a life.
The other standout of the exhibit is James Nachtwey’s The Sacrifice. It’s a collage of 60 images shot in trauma units throughout the war in Iraq. The size of the collage and the volume of images is overwhelming but the collage’s most striking element is how the individual images lose their effect as they repeat and repeat, all similar in composition, but each featuring a different casualty of the war. Some American soldiers, some Iraqi civilians, all tended to by American military personnel who never betray whatever emotion he or she is feeling to offer these men, and sometimes boys, the medical attention they need. It has the opposite effect of Meiselas’ images in that, between the use of black & white photography and repeating similar images, the individuality and humanity of each casualty is lost in the sea of imagery.
The exhibit also features a side gallery called “Evolution of a Documentary Tradition” highlighting some of the more famous early photojournalists. The side gallery includes images from Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, as it should, but they also included the controversial “Falling Soldier” by Robert Capa without ever addressing the doubts about the image’s authenticity. This is the one flaw in the otherwise well researched and presented exhibit.
While the oversight is a glaring error, it doesn’t detract from the impact of so many photographers being presented at once, showing how their singular visions can combine to present the world in ways so many of us could not have imagined it.