Going Beyond Illustration
An iconoclastic exhibition examines photojournalism as an art.
September 8, 1986
‑By Richard Lacayo
Picture editor: Arnold H Drapkin

Photojournalists tend to stay aloof from talk about camera aesthetics. Something about dodging gunfire in Beirut seems to discourage ruminations on style-‑understandably enough. More to the point, no one who catalogs bloodshed and catastrophe wants to be thought of as one more vendor to the senses. Some news photographers spend half their lives chasing war, so who can blame them if, when they hear the word art, they make for the door?

Yet even with "soft" news pictures, the benign shots of a street festival or a spelling bee, to look for converging lines or the distribution of shadows seems to miss the point, as though dwelling on style means slighting the substance. Worse, it suggests that the work was preconceived in a way that no reporting is supposed to be. The examples of artist‑-reporters like W. Eugene Smith and Henri Cartier‑Bresson prove otherwise, but the assumption survives that artists have visions, journalists have assignments. They both may think to themselves, "I am a camera," but each means something different.

So what does it mean today to call photojournalism an art? An iconoclastic exhibition now touring the country composes its answer out of 120 prints by twelve photographers, all of them affiliated with photo agencies that distribute their work to magazines and newspapers. "On the Line: The New Color Photojournalism" originated earlier this year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. This week it will complete a stop at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Me. From there it will travel over the next two years to Chapel Hill, N.C., Lawrence, Kans., Austin, Pittsburgh, Aspen, Colo., and Toledo. Adam D. Weinberg, who organized the exhibit, describes these pictures as "on the line" between art and journalism. He tends to draw the line at the point where both art and reporting reject the cleanly composed image that makes a plain statement. These pictures make statements too, but in a more offhand language.

At a religious feast in Guatemala, a man playing the role of Judas is "hanged." Most photographers would show his whole figure. Gilles Peress gives us just his feet, dangling from the top of the frame, an acknowledgment that this bit of village pageantry has its share of the airborne sublime. A statue is carried through the streets in a Holy Week procession. Peress crops out the bearers, the better to invest the figure with an unearthly life of its own. His colors are deeply saturated reds and purples that push his shots into the realm of theatrical fantasy. These are not just pictures of a festival but equivalents of the festival spirit: flushed, headlong and maybe a bit tipsy.

The work by Peress is typical of the pictures in this show, the best of which go well beyond the confines of illustration. Indeed, four of the photographers‑-Harry Gruyaert, Alex Webb, Rio Branco and Jeff Jacobson-‑are represented largely by shots that have never even accompanied a story. For one thing, many of these pictures strike a note sounded earlier by photographers like Lee Friedlander and the late Garry Winogrand, men who used the documentary approach for more personal ends. In the 1960s they discovered from snapshots (and from the groundbreaking work of Robert Frank) how the eccentricities of naive picture taking-‑the awkward gestures, the uncomposed views--can be a style in themselves when adopted deliberately. Eventually, their work legitimized photographs in which the scene could be tilted, limbs could be sliced by the edges of the frame and the mood of the main figures could be contradictory, ambiguous or just plain impenetrable.

Chromatic Punch
The human comedy à la Mark:

Community Center Swim Group

Senior Citizens, Late Afternoon Singing, Two Songs Only

Harry Hessel in His Room

Working in a profession that puts a premium on action shots, photojournalists have long turned out scenes with the same laissez‑faire approach to composition. But in general, the exemplary pictures of the camera‑reporting tradition have bowed to pictorial convention, treating the edges of the frame like a proscenium arch around a quickly readable image. Anyone who doubts that this time-honored method can still be affecting need only look to David Burnett's elegant and straightforward pictures of minor league baseball. But Burnett is the odd man out in this show, where the prevailing tone is more hectic or quizzical.

Two of the photographers in the Port­land show, Yan Morvan and Alfred Yaghobzadeh, have worked in Lebanon, and from some of their pictures one can grasp the moral implications of that tone. Their best images are their least polished: Morvan's scene of the aftermath of a car bomb, Yaghobzadeh's shot of two men bearing the victim of heavy shelling. For photographers working in the rubble of failed diplomacy, the most decent impulse is to use the camera as a branding iron--the right pictures are blunt, scorching and indelible. That they can also look raw and haphazard is merely proof that style can echo the facts. The coherent images of classic photojournalism carry an implied message, namely that life is cogent even in the midst of catastrophe; that while events may be terrible, the human dilemma holds a familiar shape. The atrocities of Lebanon can shake that faith. In a place like Beirut, throwing aside design is no less a moral gesture than the tenderest lighting of "concerned photography."

Color sends its messages too. Most photographers now take to it comfortably enough. At the very least, fierce tones give a second life to black‑and‑white clichés ‑what better than a heated format for rewarming old chestnuts? But color also has special advantages for dealing in deadpan ironies. Even before the eye takes in the subjects of Mary Ellen Mark's photo essay on Miami, the sheer chromatic punch says that Florida is a great setting for the human comedy. The lemony sunlight, the all too scrumptious blue of the sky: even the elements are in on the joke. And surprise, they make a perfect foil for the elderly locals, who strut with a vehemence that she finds both funny and fetching.

But bright colors can be inflected to deliver bad news too. In Mark's picture of an old man in his single room, a stark but sickly light signals that the indignities of age are no less painful for being suffered in the sunshine. The red label on a jar of coffee peeks from the refrigerator, an emblem of that sparkling world just outside, but the atmosphere is keyed to the humble brown mess at the bottom of his cooking pan. There must be times in this sunny town when the laughs come hard.

That picture points to the prime dilemma of color reporting. Color is pretty, misery is not. Susan Meiselas followed the war against Somoza in Nicaragua. Jean-Marie Simon covered life in Guatemala during the worst years of military repression in the early 1980s. When men with automatic weapons stalk the streets, how do you keep the pinks and greens of Central America from trivializing the image? Meiselas and Simon do it by letting both elements-‑beauty and mayhem-‑make their simultaneous statements.

What their pictures prove is that in the right hands Kodachrome can go to the heart of an important paradox: that suffering can happen in sensual settings, that a place can be cruel and inviting all at once. This is something different from the plain bass note of tragedy played in black-and‑white photography. Just as the world does, these sweet‑and‑sour pictures leave us to face the contradictory visual facts and to sort them out for ourselves. The chance to sharpen the moral faculties may be this show's most unlooked for benefit. Any exhibit can introduce some little pictures. How many help to clarify the big one?