- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2006

THINGS AS THEY ARE: PHOTOJOURNALISM IN CONTEXT SINCE 1955

By Mary Panzer

Aperture, $75, 384 pages, illus.

reGENERATION: 50 PHOTOGRAPHERS OF TOMORROW

By William A. Ewing, Nathalie Herschdorfer

and Jean-Christophe Blaser

Aperture, $35, 224 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY J. ROSS BAUGHMAN

Since 1952, a New York publishing house and gallery named Aperture has earned a preeminent reputation in the world of photography, showcasing the work of almost every significant photographer in the last 50 years. With two new books, Aperture cuts away the chaff from our visually cluttered life, explaining where we have been and what’s coming next.

In “Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1955,” the editors feature 125 of the most memorable magazine picture layouts of all time, handsomely reproduced down to the yellowing patina of their original cheap paper. The choice of stories fell to an international panel of 100 photographers, editors, art directors, historians and magazine collectors. The International Center for Photography gave the book the prestigious Infinity Award as this year’s best publication, and an exhibit will travel throughout the United States.

Highlights include Larry Burrows’ “Yankee Papa 13,” the landmark photo story of a young Marine door gunner in Vietnam during his gut-wrenching baptism by fire. In Northern Ireland, the war correspondent Don McCullin captured troops in full battle cry, charging past a horrified housewife. Sebastiao Salgado discovered a nightmarish pit in Brazil filled with an endless sea of workers, who from above resembled mere insects as they dug for gold.

The editors also published many significant photographs taken by amateurs, who inevitably bump into history with camera in hand (sometimes when the professionals have positioned themselves in the wrong spot or are still home in bed.) Without amateurs, we would not have the pictures we do of the assassination of John F. Kennedy or of genocide victims in Cambodia.

Some of the photographs reproduced in the book were initially rejected for publication by uncertain or squeamish editors, to the public’s detriment. Donna Ferrato, the first photojournalist to take a long, hard look at domestic violence, captured images of victims in their homes. Though she succeeded brilliantly, she could not convince her usual magazine sponsors to publish her work. Instead she turned to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday magazine.

Life’s editors left out of the magazine the most crucial photographs of President Kennedy’s assassination, claiming the responsibility to protect America from the awful truth. Eugene Richards documented his wife’s losing fight with breast cancer, but every serious, leading publication rejected his story. In the end, a magazine for, by and about photographers agreed to publish it.

But there are also plenty of photographs that bring a smile. We get a walk on the moon and, in microscopic detail, the sequence of an embryo’s development. Then there are the events off the beaten track that do not generate big headlines but are every bit as vital to humanity’s story. Eric Valli, with National Geographic magazine, gives us photographs of the “honey hunters” in Nepal, who use rope ladders to pluck honeycomb from the sides of cliffs — at heights so great a fall would mean certain death.

Some photographs do leave us wanting more. In 1976, Richard Avedon did a roll-call of powerful Americans (including George H.W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Henry Kissinger), each individual set separately against a white backdrop. The idea is interesting enough, but a courageous editor might instead have assigned a patient photographer to shadow these leaders and capture the way they treat a cabinet member, a spouse, a nanny or an intern. Such an approach could have revealed a great deal more. Likewise, individual photos of genocide victims in Cambodia do not reveal the events that precipated their deaths or explain how such a campaign of violence was waged.

How to predict the future of photography? In the second book, “reGeneration,” the editors consider the questions, “How much will the next generation of photographers respect, build on or reject tradition? Will any of the images being made today still be known in 20 years’ time?”

Curators at the Musee de l’Elysee in Lausanne chose the work of 50 promising students to feature in the book, after sifting through hundreds of student portfolios from 60 of the world’s top photography schools. Subjects include both the undeveloped world in crisis and the utopia to be found in developed nations. We find “a volley of questions about a society in which … the humanization of objects have become common currency, making it increasingly hard to tell the difference between true and false, real and ideal.”

Keren Assaf stages people in modern, distant, dream-like landscapes. Her photograph of two young boys in Israel lolling on an evening lawn was a product of her imagination, but she chose to execute it in an entirely realistic way. Are these the boys left over from a skit about an outdoor birthday party? Perhaps.

Nicholas Prior of New York gives us a young child sitting quietly on a carpet — a rascal in the midst of a “time out,” or perhaps an autistic boy in deep conversation with a pattern of vines on the drapery.

Then there is Lucy Leverne and her series “Come and Be My Baby,” which resembles nothing else in the book. She blends in with young people at a nightclub and gives us an unstaged glimpse of their frequently staged interactions. Her other contributions, self-portraits, fall back in line with the rest of the book’s content.

Aperture adopts an unmistakable world view in “reGeneration.” Of the 323 photographs in the book, nearly two-thirds show places without people. The next largest category (58 photographs) includes people without faces, without identity or with expressions so blank as to be impenetrable. There are also plenty of pictures (23) with miniaturized, bug-like people, or still lifes that feature some object (19). People experiencing clear emotions (20) or having exchanges with others (3) seem more like an afterthought.

Although still full of technical discipline, 21st-century magazine photography looks quite distinct from the photography of years past. It can often surprise, which does satisfy one of the most basic requirements of the medium, namely, “Show me something I’ve never seen.” People who feel a bit ambiguous about our times should find this book to be quite beautiful and feel right at home turning its pages.

Magazines that used to lead the way in narrative photojournalism have given in to just two kinds of pictures, with seemingly nothing in between. There’s either the numb head shot or the robotic, parking-lot-surveillance-camera shot (compositionally aloof, random, high on abstract lines — without a landscape to understand a specific human story).

By concentrating on yesterday and tomorrow, these books may have overlooked the needs of viewers today. The art of storytelling requires some basic familiarity with dramatic tension and how to establish an affinity with a subject. Discard these at the peril of slashing the contract between photographers and their audience.

J. Ross Baughman is the director of photography at The Washington Times and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist.

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