Truth In The Age Of Teflon
February 1990
by Mark Lapin

Teflon, the world's most slippery substance, first invaded American homes in the late Fifties as a coating that kept scrambled eggs from sticking to the bottom of frying pans. In the next two decades, Teflon applications multiplied at an astonishing rate to include everything from artificial limbs to armor-piercing bullets. But it was not until the Eighties that Teflon was used to keep egg from sticking to the face of an American President, then to shield the members of his administration, and finally to insulate the conscience of an entire nation from painful or unpleasant realities.

While conventional Teflon coatings are composed of polymerized fluorocarbons, the type used to coat our conscience is composed largely of images, and a great many photographers have prospered in the last ten years by contributing to the Teflonizing of the American mind. But images can also be used to cut through the layers of indifference that atrophy our emotions, and perhaps that accounts for the fact that this period has also seen a stubborn, against-all-odds renaissance in socially conscious documentary photography.

The streets may be meaner in our times, the economics harsher, the mass audience less interested, the moral issues more complex, but all the hidden problems of the feel-good age have been studied in-depth by talented photographers willing to walk in the footsteps of Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange and Eugene Smith. Their method, basically unchanged since the early years of this century, is to take their cameras wherever people are in distress, to stay with them for as many weeks, months or years as it takes to get to the heart of the matter, and then to wrestle with a recalcitrant media system in order to reach the widest possible public.

What has changed, and changed drastically in our times, is the amount of energy that must be devoted to that last item-struggling with the media to get the message out. Documentary may be the most non-commercial aspect of photography, but the irony is that no one can realistically hope to succeed in it today without sound entrepreneurial instincts for marketing, promotion and the cultivation of contacts.

Peter Howe, photo editor of Life, expresses the general view when he says, "Every day more good documentary work goes unpublished in this country than finds its way into print. But the optimism I feel is that a huge amount of extremely good work is being produced. We're talking about a healthy, vital, active form of communication. That kind of activity is bound to find an outlet. It's like a volcano. You can't keep it capped forever. Especially since some of the best people in the field are whirlwinds of entrepreneurial activity."

Howe's view is widely shared, but there are dissenters. Some claim that documentary is as starved for talent and vision as it is for financial support, while others insist that both economically and creatively conditions are better today than at any period in the past.

Photographer Walter Rosenblum looks at today's work from the perspective of an earlier generation and finds it deficient in human feeling. Rosenblum has been involved in photography since the early Forties and was president of The Photo League, an influential group of documentary photographers, in 1948. With his wife Naomi Rosenblum (who wrote the World History of Photography), Rosenblum helped organize the exhibition that revived Lewis Hine's reputation in the Seventies.

"I think social photography is in a parlous state," he says. "There are individuals, such as Sebastiao Salgado, who are doing a great job. But the general level of what's going on worries me a great deal. There are few who look directly at reality. They lack insight, they lack perception, they lack the time necessary to explore an area of experience and find the truth. They're so influenced by gimmicks and new ways of seeing that they give us generalities instead of individuals."

Rosenblum and others point out that earlier documentarians such as Hine and Lange were careful to preserve the dignity of their subjects, to suggest their full human potential while show­ing the squalor of their current circumstances. Some of the most controversial documentary work of the last ten years, for example Richard Avedon's In The American West or Nicholas Nixon's portraits of people with AIDS, has moved very far from traditional humanism to a rather chilling view of people as victims or victimizers.

Carole Kismarick, who has played an active role in distributing documentary work by editing books and arranging exhibitions, feels that the harsher view of humanity may be a reflection of our times. "No one today could do a book like The Family of Man," she says. "Because we're not just one big happy family. Sometimes I wonder why the work isn't even more angry."

The most positive view of recent documentary photography comes from Cornell Capa. As founder and director of the International Center for Photography in New York, as past president of the Magnum agency, as friend and colleague to some of the most distinguished people in the field (and brother to the legendary Robert Capa), Cornell Capa certainly speaks with a voice of experience.

He claims that the bleakest times for documentary photography occurred in the early Seventies, just after the demise of the weekly Life, and that there has been a slow but powerful expansion ever since. "In 1974," he says, "I couldn't put together an exhibition of my brother's work because no one was interested in showing it. Now there are flourishing groups such as Magnum that market photojournalism on an international scale. Book publishing has become a big item. There is a great amount of collecting, auctioning and displaying of photography. The field is just wide open for both men and women."

But where are the major outlets for their work? Dependable magazine markets make a depressingly short list. Many people credit Life under Peter Howe with making an almost single-handed effort to sustain documentary photography. But there are also skeptics on that point, such as Steve Dietz, editor of Aperture Books. "They run ten pages of Gilles Peress on Ireland," he says, "and the rest of the magazine is about George Bush's dog."

Cornell Capa contends that National Geographic under Wilbur Garrett has become a "more modern, caring magazine willing to do extensive photo essays on controversial subjects." The Sunday supplements of the New York Times, the Philadelphia Enquirer, and the Sacramento Bee have also been credited as a source of support. Then there are maverick magazines such as Mother Jones, which has a serious social agenda and a commitment to documentary photography.

But even at magazines that support documentary, photo editors feel constrained by limited resources. Kerry Tremaine at Mother Jones can run four major photo essays a year, usually eight to ten pages long. Howe at Life would seem to have vastly more resources to command, but he, too, feels the pinch. "What I completely fail to understand," he says, "is why it's considered extensive coverage when I run a 10-page essay in Life, whereas European magazines such as Stern, L’Express, and Paris-Match routinely run 12, 14-, even 16-page photo spreads."

Cornell Capa agrees that European magazines are much more open to and supportive of serious photo essays. And he includes the European market as among the new opportunities available to documentary photographers.

The economics of magazine work, however, remain pretty excruciating for committed photographers. Day rates have stagnated since the Seventies. That presents a severe problem for all photojournalists, but it's devastating for someone who is depending on a few days of magazine assignments to support several months of personal work in the field. And even those few days are getting harder to come by.

"In the early Eighties," says Susan Meiselas, vice president of the Magnum agency and a photographer known for her efforts to document the life and struggles of Central America, "it was possible for someone to be freelance in any part of the world, do documentary work at their own pace, and still have a chance of selling to the magazines. If you were in a hot-news part of the world, you knew that Newsweek and Time would buy a piece of your work. That's not true now. The newsmagazines prefer to send staffers, and the wires are looking for color."

While magazine opportunities have declined, books have opened up as a major channel for documentary work. The great advantage of books is that they allow more subtlety and depth than magazines. Gilles Peress, for example, has spent 20 years covering Northern Ireland. A ten-page photo essay in Life cannot possibly convey the richness and scope of his exploration.

Carole Kismarick, who's been a photo editor for many books, says that her recent work, Forced Out (a study of the worldwide refugee problem) is, "a repository of everything I know about book-making." Using images from many photographers and text from many sources, Kismarick has created a book that is almost too moving, too disturbing in its presentation of the refugee's plight. For all that, Kismarick ends her work by saying, "In reality, this account only skims the surface of the refugee experience. To wrench more truth from the story, to come closer to the terror and humiliation each must endure, Forced Out would have to bleed with every turn of the page, cry out when you skip a word, and scream when you close its covers."

Forced Out raises one of the central questions for documentary books: how to deal with a subject that most people would prefer to ignore in a way that is true to the experience, yet palatable to the viewer. Each artist finds his or her own personal answer. But documentary books, as a whole, have not been successful in finding a large audience. Steve Dietz of Aperture Books, says, "We have 210 million people in America. Photo books like A Day in the Life can sell half a million copies. But average sales for a book of documentary photography are around 3,000, maybe 5,000 after a couple of years. My optimism, to the extent that I'm able to summon it, is that documentary photography is poised for an explosion in the next ten years."

The best way for a photographer to reach more people is to turn a book into an exhibition, and hope that the exhibition turns into an event. While shows of 'pure' documentary work usually draw small crowds, exhibits that surround a genuinely serious subject with an aura of commercial appeal can make it very big. I Dream A World, Brian Lanker's portraits of black women who have contributed to American life, has been a blockbuster success both as an exhibition at the Corcoran gallery in Washington, D.C. and as a book. Avedon's In The American West drew huge crowds as an exhibition, and sold very well.

This year, the Magnum agency, which has always been a center (perhaps the center) of concerned photography, is celebrating its fortieth anniversary with a bang by simultaneously publishing a book and staging a massive exhibition called In Our Time. According to Catherine Chermayeff, Magnum's director of special projects, "The exhibit shows the world as seen by Magnum photographers, from Robert Capa's first shot of Trotsky giving a speech in Copenhagen all the way up to Tiananmen Square… In a sense, it shows Magnum returning to its roots in concerned photography after the excursions into advertising and corporate work in the Seventies."

Pointing out that over 350 images were displayed at ICP's midtown gallery and another 200 greeted visitors to the center's uptown venue, Cornell Capa feels that a show of this scale demonstrates the new potential for reaching the public with exhibits of documentary work. "In 1964," he says, "we had two galleries in New York showing photography on a part-time basis. Now we have 30 to 40 galleries. ICP alone produces 24 to 30 exhibits a year of various proportions. There's more activity today than we ever dreamed of before."

One of the advantages that exhibitions have is that they allow more innovation and experimentation in the way the work is displayed. Jim Goldberg, a young photographer who wants to push the boundaries of traditional documentary work, described his exhibit on street kids in San Francisco as follows, "You entered through a bashed-in door like you'd find in a squat where the kids would live. One whole wall was covered with huge prints, unframed, just thumb-tacked up, big faces that really grabbed you. Another wall was covered with graffiti that the kids wrote. There was a video going. I wanted to do everything I could to get people to open their eyes again and see."

As the younger generation of documentary photographers takes over, we'll probably see more innovative, even jarring exhibitions. But, as always, the question is: will the outlets be sufficient to accommodate the volume of deserving work?

"It's very hard to find walls," says Susan Meiselas. "There is more space today, but it's not necessarily available for documentary work. The halls are consumed with the latest look, rather than with the substance of what's being represented."

Ann Tucker, curator of photography at the Houston Museum, agrees that museum wall space for documentary work is a depressingly scarce commodity. Although she personally supports the work, she says, "The general art world is quite uncomfortable with it. Documentary is the aspect of photography that's least like painting because the work often has a flat surface, smooth texture, an issue orientation and a black-and-white format. Besides, who wants to spend Sunday afternoon at a museum looking at blown-up bodies? What's fascinating to me is why so many good photographers still seem to be committed to documentary in the face of such minimal encouragement."

Only the photographers themselves can answer that question. Brazilian-born photographer Sebastio Salgado is one of the most respected people in the field. He is widely published in America and overseas and is currently engaged on a three-year project (funded by Life, Kodak and several European museums) to document the disappearance of manual labor around the globe.

His two books Sahel: Man In Distress (about famine in Africa) and Other Americas (about traditional peoples and cultures in Latin America) are among the most influential works published in the last ten years.

The great paradox of Salgado's work, and the great hope he holds for other photographers, is that while his subject matter and his message are heavy, his images are full of a mysteriously moving light. Ann Tucker of the Houston museum said, "There is a spiritual quality to his work, something timeless, eternal, contrary to the topical nature of documentary photography. His Brazilian gold miners become all people who have labored like ants in the same way that Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother is not just that mother in the camp that day but all women who cannot feed and clothe their children."

Perhaps one reason for the timelessness of Salgado's images is the fact that he is willing to spend a great deal of time to get them. He spent, for example, seven years working on the book Other Americas. In this sense, his work is classic documentary, based on a deep and intimate knowledge of his subjects.

"You have to spend time," he says, "to be with the people from morning to night, so that they know you and accept you almost like a doctor. Then you can capture beautiful moments without making any intervention. Sometimes I see TV news people come in a big hurry with one idea in their minds, a thesis to prove. I come to learn, not to judge."

Salgado's images also remind us that every documentary photographer puts a great deal of himself into his work. The book Other Americas is based partly on his personal feelings about returning to Latin America after the rise of a dictatorship in his native Brazil forced him to spend years as an exile in Paris. "The book was about going back to my place, to my home," he says. "I waited to recharge my batteries after years in Europe by finding the most deep, the most pure Latin America. That's why there are no pictures of modern society, tourism, cultural corruption. I photograph with my mother, my father, the place where I was born, the feeling of mystery I always had about the hills of Bolivia and the people who live there."

Although Salgado is at the peak of his profession, he still describes the life of a documentary photographer as one of sacrifice and struggle. "I fight to the maximum," he says, "to do the work that is right for me. I live simply. I would like to be home more often because I have two children (one of whom suffers from Downs syndrome).

But it is a kind of sacrifice. The pictures I want to make don't happen in front of my door."

Salgado's statement about coming "to learn, not to judge" applies to another documentary photographer who has achieved international stature: Mary Ellen Mark. Defining herself as someone who "wants to photograph the unfamous, the people who don't have a voice and need one," Mark has worked with subjects ranging from street kids in Seattle and junkies in London to the terminal patients at Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta. But Falkland Road, her book on a notorious street of prostitutes in Bombay, is perhaps her most daring and most personal statement.

Prostitutes from Falkland Road in Bombay.

The "cage-girls" of Falkland Road, so-called because they display themselves in wooden cages that line the busy street, work on the lowest level of prostitution in India. Many are barely into their teens. Many have been sold into the profession by their families. The traditional approach to their lives would be to say that they are doubly victims, first of the poverty of their country, then of the sexism of their culture.

But Mark does not take this "black and white" approach. She photographs in vivid, sensuous color. She suspends moral, political and economic judgments that might come between herself and her subject. She opens her heart to the denizens of Falkland Road in order to create a deep and disturbingly intimate portrait of their life, expressing not only exploitation and degradation, but also tenderness, sensuality, and the vulnerability of beauty in a very rough world.

These were not easy pictures to take. "For ten years," Mark wrote, "I tried to take photographs on Falkland Road and each time met with hostility and aggression. The women threw garbage and water and pinched me. Crowds of men would gather around me. Once a pickpocket took my address book; another time I was hit in the face by a drunken man. But... as the days passed and people saw my persistence, they began to get curious. A few were surprised by my interest in and acceptance of them. And slowly, very slowly, I began to make friends."

Mark admits that this kind of experience has etched some pretty deep lines on her face. "In all documentary photography," she says, "you're exploiting the subject in some sense. I deal with it because I'm a photographer and making pictures is important to me. But I don't deny that I'm taking something from someone that I can't repay. When I'm there, I have a lens, a shield, a piece of glass in front of my eyes. But the experiences stay with you. They take a toll."

Mark, like so many other documentary photographers, is discouraged by the media's obsession with the rich and famous. What sustains her is a belief not in magazines and the people who put them out, but in that much-maligned entity-the general public. "The public wants photos about things that are important," she says. "People want to see what's real and true. The magazines seem to be underestimating people. But that just makes me want to fight harder."

While most documentary photographers share Mark's sense of struggling against media limitations, there is at least one outstanding shooter who has something kind to say about magazine work. Eugene Richards believes that even if editors lack the resources and enthusiasm to run large-scale photo essays on controversial subjects, magazine assignments can pique a photographer's interest and set him off in a direction he might otherwise have ignored.

Richards, for example, received an assignment from Geo in 1980 to do an essay on an emergency room at a typical urban hospital. He went to Denver General, where he found the human and medical dilemmas of the emergency room so gripping that he resolved to do a book. It took him eight years to achieve that goal, but his work, The Knife and Gun Club, immediately surpassed the modest sales expectations of the publisher, and seems destined to reach a much wider audience than most photo books.

More recently, Richards went into a Brooklyn housing project to do an essay on drugs for Life. Again, the assignment opened his eyes to a world he wanted to explore in greater detail, and he is now trying to find sponsors for a full-scale study of the drug scene. "Assignments bring me to places where I haven't gone," Richards says. "Usually they're places where I'm kind of ignorant and have a lot of street learning to do."

When asked how he manages to work in environments as volatile as a drug-plagued housing project, Richards replied, "Well, I'm just a relatively slow-moving person who holds up well to stress on the street. When I'm working on a story like drugs, I carry no long lenses, make no sudden moves. I try to be very upfront with people. After a long period of waiting, sometimes doors open, sometimes they don't. But the drug scene is becoming more dangerous than many combat situations. It's like Beirut where everybody has a gun and is willing to use it without a second thought."

Since Richards has a distinguished record and is now working on the very hot topic of drugs, he ought to have ample financial support. The truth is, however, that the issue of sponsorship is still "a nightmare" even for him. "I'll get the work out," he says, "but sometimes you spend so much time on that end of things that you get worn down."

From Salgado to Meiselas, the photographers discussed so far have two important things in common: all are at the top Of their field, and all are current or former members of the Magnum agency. That means they devote a considerable amount of time to magazine work, and derive a considerable amount of income from assignments. But in our shrinking media market, that option is open to only a handful of people.

Ken Light is perhaps representative of the majority of documentary photographers who carry on their work in the absence of major media support. Light has been documenting the lives of agricultural workers from the Mexican border to Mississippi for almost 20 years, and he has published three books. His work has been featured in 50 museum and gallery shows and included in 11 catalogues and portfolios. Yet each project begins, for him, with a very massive commitment of his own time, energy and money, without any assurance of financial return.

Light's most recent book, To The Promised Land, is a three-part study of undocumented immigrants from Mexico. He spent four years on the project, making countless trips to the border, seeking out the villages in Oaxaca and Michoacan from which most of his subjects came, then following them to their new homes in San Diego, L.A. and Fresno.

In the beginning, Light financed the work with his earnings as a teacher of photojournalism. When his project was about half completed, he succeeded in interesting the California Historical Society and Aperture Press in putting out a book.

Now Light's book is out, the exhibition is making the rounds, and he is off on a new project in Mississippi, once again shooting first, and asking financial questions later. Why does he do it? "The most successful work comes from the heart," he says. "The things that are motivated from inside become your own in a way that an assignment never can."

If Ken Light's work preserves classic documentary values, Jim Goldberg's approach is to scrawl graffiti on the temple walls. A member of the new generation, Goldberg feels that visually and technically it's time to shake things up. He raised a lot of eyebrows (not to mention a few hackles) with his book and exhibition, Rich and Poor in America. The book offers a series of very intimate portraits of the rich and poor.

Scrawled on the portraits are comments by the subjects, expressing their own feelings in their own words and handwriting. The distillation of many conversations with the subject, the comments are a simple step beyond traditional captions, yet they add a disturbing sense of immediacy and involvement.

In a remark that may well point the way to the next ten years, Goldberg says, "Traditional documentary has no power now. People's eyes were opened by the work of the Thirties through the Fifties, but now we're blunted again. We're insensitive to that approach. My work may not live up to the need for newness at all. But we need a changing thing, a new thing to open our eyes all over again."