'Engaged Observers' at the Getty

Susan MeiselasThis week, several of the brightest lights of the photography world turned out to honor the still image.

Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey and Lauren Greenfield are three of the photographers whose work is represented in a Getty Museum exhibition called Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the 60's. They were treated like celebrities as they autographed books and answered questions on opening night.
Indian dance mask worn by rebels in Nicaragua, 1978. Copyright Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

I remember looking at some of these very images in the 70's and 80's, at the time I was just beginning my career as a photojournalist, and I was moved by their power and emotion. Meiselas' photos of the revolution in Nicaragua from 1979, Nachtwey's reportage of wars on foreign soil, Walker Evans' and Dorothea Lange's images that captured the Depression era in the United States and its effects on the people across the United States who were struggling for their survival. They inspired me and seeing them on the walls of the Getty was like reconnecting with old friends.

Sheena and Amber, San Jose 1999. Copyright Lauren Greenfield/Institute

As we now know, things have changed for photography and photographers. Meiselas is working in video along with stills. Greenfield, who has documented the effects that money, marketing and society's emphasis on beauty has over young people in books like "Fast Forward" and "Girl Culture," has also begun working with film. Her last effort was "Kids + Money," a powerful film that explores how teens feel about the role money plays in their lives.

Even the photographers at Magnum Photos, one of the few remaining photo agencies and whose members are among the elite and most accomplished in the business, recently had several intense days as they met for their annual business meeting.

The agenda that made things so stressful? "Survival," said Larry Towell, a Magnum member and one of the photographers whose work graced the walls of the Getty show.

El Cuervo, Chihuahua, 1992. Copyright Larry Towell / Magnum Photos

The exhibit provides a welcome respite from all the worry, and a chance to revel in the pure power of photography.

The show features the seminal and iconic work of some of the best documentary photographers working since the 60's, each of whom have passionately pursued personal projects. Two whose work are represented, Leonard Freed and Philip Jones Griffiths, recently passed away but not before the Getty purchased their collections. Freed, whose work on civil rights highlighted the struggles and pride of the African American community, and Griffiths, whose early work in Vietnam helped to document the effects of the war on both the American soldiers and the Vietnamese people, are strongly represented at the show.

In addition, some early documentary work by Lange, Lewis Hine, and Walker Evans, among others is on exhibit, to give a historical perpective and show how the work of the more contemporary photographers evolved. Also in the show is the work of Sebastião Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark and W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith.

Nachtwey, who has dedicated his 30-year career to doggedly documenting war and its toll on humanity across the globe, hopes that his work will serve as a statement against man's inhumanity to man. His riveting images from Iraq were represented by a photographic collage that flowed across 32 feet of the gallery like a river of pain. It was made up of 60 11x14 images digitally rendered to form one continuous print. Called "The Sacrifice," Nachtwey says it is something he "dreamed up and then found he could do" with special software on his computer.

One of the images in "Sacrifice," 2007. Copyright James Nachtwey

"The only way to see this is on the wall," he says. "The single images were good, and they were published, but I really wanted to convey the sense of chaos and carnage that I saw when I was witnessing this. To really show what it was like, the real...urgency to save lives."

The images are hard to look at, each one showing a wounded soldier being cared for in field trauma centers in Iraq, and were made by Nachtwey in 2006 and 2007. It stands as a testament to Nachtwey's fortitude in pursuing a story and graphically shows the human toll of war.

Meiselas' work, composed of seminal images shot during the start of the revolution in Nicaragua, began when she arrived shortly after the assassination of publisher Pedro Chamorro, whose opposition newspaper was critical of the repressive government in power. She recalls being "pulled into history" and as one of few women doing such work, and the photographs reflect her personal commitment to show the struggle of the citizen army up close.

Meiselas said this work could not have been done today. "It was sustained by reproduction in magazines and newspapers," she said, many of which no longer exist. "But photographers are very entrepreneurial, innovative and flexible in their partnering," she said. "I'm optimistic, even though it is a dark time for photographers," she said. As Larry Towell says, "We are trying to stay ahead of the curve, but don't know where the curve is headed."

Despite the challenges ahead, Meiselas says she still has the same advice for young photographers. "I tell my students, commit to something you care about. Then adapt and do whatever needs to be done to continue doing the work."

Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the 60's is at the Getty until Nov. 14.

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