Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography since the Sixties is currently on view at the Getty Center. Curated by Brett Abbott, this exhibit presents the recent history of the world’s mistakes and triumphs.
An excerpt from the essay accompanying the show states:
“In the decades following World War II, an independently minded and critically engaged form of photography began to gather momentum. Its practitioners have combined their skills as artists and reporters, creating extended photographic essays that delve deeply into topics of social concern and present distinct personal visions of the world.
Engaged Observers looks in-depth at projects by a selection of the most vital photographers who have contributed to the development of this approach. Passionately committed to their subjects, they have authored evocative bodies of work that are often published extensively as books and transcend the realm of traditional photojournalism.”
I found Engaged Observers to be the most commanding exhibit that the Getty photography department has presented to date. Sometimes documentary photography can be hard to view. Documentary photographers deal with subject matter we would rather be in denial about. I believe it is important to view photographs that present issues of human challenge. The images of history show us the direction the world has taken since that period time. We can see the positive changes made through awareness, then action.
I spent hours in this exhibit, taking in every photograph. The one(s) that touched me the most were James Nachtwey’s multi-photo collage called The Sacrifice. In 2006, Nachtwey traveled with the Emergency Medical Units (EMU’s) in Iraq. The result is 60 individual shots collaged together into a grid of 20 photos across by 3 photos down. There was no information as to the exact dimensions of the piece, but my estimate is 30′ across by 3 1/2′ down.
Nachtwey photographed the images from the height of the operating room table. A powerful point of view in which the viewer becomes the patient. The only softening factor about The Sacrifice is the back & white presentation. Lost limbs, burns, blood, tubes, and the agonized faces may be too hard to look at in color. Some of the wounded soldiers appear as if they are about to die, or possibly have just died. You are not sure. The questions in The Sacrifice are who lives, who dies, and is it worth it?
Photographers included in this exhibit are Phillip Jones Griffiths, Leonard Freed, W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith, Susan Meiselas, Mary Ellen Mark, Lauren Greenfield, Larry Towell, Sebastiao Salgado, and James Nachtwey. The wide-ranging issues cover race, industrial pollution, homelessness, war, self-image, and migrant populations.
Engaged Observers left me with a feeling of calm confidence. Many of the problems presented have been greatly improved or altogether eliminated since the photographs were taken. It reinforced the fact that we have the power to correct injustice in the world.
Engaged Observers runs through November 14th, 2010 at The Getty Center.