Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review of Gallery Artists Larry Towell and Susan Meiselas in Group Exhibition Titled 'Engaged Observers' in The Los Angeles Times

When It Paid To Photograph Hard Truth

Written by Leah Ollman, Special to the Los Angeles Times

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, SebastiĆ£o 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."

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