Veteran war photographer Don McCullin started a controversy last month when he declared, after receiving the lifetime achievement award at Perpignan's Visa Pour l'Image Photo Festival, "We haven't changed a thing. Once the Syrian war is over you can bet your life there will be another tragedy in my lifetime. We will not see the end of war and suffering." McCullin has spent decades documenting war and cruelty, from Vietnam to Biafra. But rather than feeling satisfied that his images raised awareness of the tragedy of starvation, or the cruelties of war, he feels disillusioned and inadequate. On a panel discussing the merits of war photography with David Douglas Duncan, 97, famed photo editor John Morris, 96, and several younger photographers, there was much disagreement. Certainly, the images brought home from Vietnam shaped public opinion, turning many against our involvement in that war. But McCullin seemed deeply troubled by his time spent documenting unspeakable horrors he did not try to halt, but only document. "You have to suffer the shame of memory and then you have to somehow live with it, sleep with it, understand it without trying to become insane," he said.
The pull of war is strong. Whether it's the search to expose evil and human suffering, find the adrenalin rush or make a name for yourself, there are many young and old photographers still traveling the globe to document the battlefields and disasters that the world never seems to run out of. McCullin himself headed to Syria last year. But in looking back, he realized he was just too old to run for his life wearing his equipment and a flak jacket. He deemed the mission a mistake. Several photo editors on last month's panel said the risks are just too great, and they no longer will take freelance photos from Syria, not wanting to encourage anyone to risk their lives in search of a great photograph. Most major agencies and newspapers do not have staffers in Syria now, citing its danger.
Iceberg between the Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. 2005 © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery. Below: Nenet Nomads (Windstorm). Siberia, Russia 2011. © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images
Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery.
Sebastiao Salgado is another photographer of conscience who has spent much of his adult lifetime documenting the world's conflicts and mayhem. He recently decided, for very different reasons, to change course. In a recent TED talk, the renowned and respected photographer, whose luminous black and white images--of drought in the Sahel, gold miners harvesting gold by hand snaking up a mountaintop in Brazil, looking more like ants than people, or oilfield workers, faces stained black with oil, dealing with the gushers running rampant after the Persian Gulf War--almost belie their tragic overtones. He revealed that his doctor told him he must stop shooting disasters and tragedy as his own health was suffering along with that of his subjects. It forced him to reevaluate his life and work, and put the brakes on a career that spanned several decades. "I had lost all faith in humanity," he says in the introduction to "Genesis," his impressive new book.
Salgado, 69, retreated with his wife to his family's farm in Brazil to ponder his future. The two decided to issue their visual wake-up call to the world by spending several years documenting the pristine landscapes and cultures that are at risk unless we change our ways and begin addressing the environmental issues that threaten the earth.
The resulting images, as one would expect from Salgado, are exhilarating, compelling, breath-taking. He spanned the globe on an eight-year odyssey that he calls his "homage to the grandeur of nature," seeking out tribes and landscapes untouched by the modern world. You can feel the cold of Northern Siberia as you gaze upon the Nenets tribespeople walking through a snowstorm or feeding their sled dogs. The book is filled with one natural wonder or remote tribe after another, captured in a way that makes you feel you are right there next to Salgado. These majestic landscapes are so remote it's easy to imagine the sound of the shutter piercing the silence as Salgado worked.
The resulting photographs are available two ways: as a coffee table book published by Taschen, affordable at $65, and as a limited edition two-volume book, each one almost three-feet long, with a wooden stand of its own designed by architect Tadao Ando. In a pre-publication ad in many major newspapers, Taschen offered the two volumes for $3,000. If they didn't need a room of their own to view them properly, I would have made the purchase. Having them nearby to gaze at seems to restore your faith, if not in humanity, then at least in Mother Nature. This is photojournalism at its purest. No ego involved, just conscience and artistry perfectly combined. Two rooms of large prints are currently on exhibit at the Fetterman Gallery in Bergamot Station.
Two other large photo books offer photo collections from masters of the craft. The first accompanies a small show also at Fetterman Gallery by National Geographic and Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. The show marks the publication of his book "Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs." McCurry, 63, has spent most of his career as a Magnum photographer working on assignment for many publications, including National Geographic. He has traveled the world, to India, Tibet, Cambodia, Kashmir, the oil fields of Kuwait after the Gulf War and Afghanistan. It was there in 1984 that he made the most iconic photo of his career: a green-eyed Afghan girl whose face graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and riveted its readers. He returned to Afghanistan 17 years later and miraculously found her again, and told that story for Geographic. This large book presents fourteen of his photo essays with text that tells how he got the photos. The chapters present rich color images from his travels around the world and clearly, McCurry is extremely gifted. His images, often bathed in ethereal light, provide a travelogue of diverse locales and faces, showing daily life as well as monsoons, war and hardship.
Unfortunately, though, rather than letting his work speak for itself--and the photographs do, eloquently and powerfully--he decided to package the photography with newly commissioned essays and ephemera collected over the 30+ years of his career. The first photo in the book is a full page picture of McCurry armpit deep in water in India, camera hoisted above his head. The book travels down the path of "how he got the picture" with essays written by someone, not McCurry, reverently describing in detail how these stories came to be and relating how, as a young boy looking at a Brian Brake photo essay in National Geographic, "he could not have imagined that he would one day inherit Brake's mantle as the master of the photo essay..." Of the many qualities that made McCurry a good photojournalist, humility was not one of them.
The book also has pages of beautifully photographed letters, journals, visas, press passes, passports, foreign currency, well-worn shoes, perfectly preserved tearsheets from every magazine and newspaper that ran McCurry's photos, every journal and note he scribbled to himself and seemingly every receipt for every purchase McCurry made over the decades of his career. While it's interesting to see the paper trail that his assignments created, in the end I found it distracting. I kept wondering, where did he keep all this stuff and how did he keep it in such pristine condition while wading through waist-deep water or running with rebels in Karachi? Perhaps that's part of what his Geographic assistants were for.
For me, there is too much McCurry here. Each chapter includes photos of McCurry, often posed with his subjects who oddly seem like props. These add a sour note to an otherwise beautiful book. To my mind, a photojournalist is a fly on the wall, unseen, unheard. The most egregious of these "I was there" mementoes is a series of photos taken by McCurry's assistant on September 11. Sad for all the wrong reasons, his assistant photographed him photographing the twin towers going up in flames. Why were they included? Why were they shot, for that matter? Didn't his assistant have more important photos to take that day? It's quite obvious that McCurry was there, given the hauntingly beautiful images in the book. I wish McCurry had let the photography speak for itself and saved the ego-trip for a presentation to a photojournalism class.
Elliott Erwitt, 85, has also published a scale-tipping new book called "Kolor." Erwitt's sense of humor and sardonic eye has kept me a fan for years, and after a long career, he is at the point where he probably has rooms full of unpublished images. Erwitt has said in interviews that photos take on special significance when they are put together and published in a book, which he does periodically--there are 8 titles on the backflap from his latest book. He felt it was time for another one, and so he went through his stockpile of unpublished Kodachrome slides, edited them and published "Kolor," which he calls his homage to George Eastman, founder of Kodak. The book presents a huge collection of never-seen color work made over the years, including outtakes of his Hollywood film work shot on the set of "The Misfits" and many images taken while shooting commercial work in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Erwitt always kept a second camera at his side on commercial jobs and found time to shoot personal pictures. Many of those are published here, offering a glimpse beyond the black and white photography he made his name with on assignment for Life and other magazines, while working in the editorial and advertising worlds as a member of the prestigious photo agency Magnum.
His humor shines through, even if not every image published here makes it onto the top rung of his impressive body of work. Even Erwitt's rejects are worth seeing, and they are paired across the spreads in a way that takes advantage of his off-kilter sense of timing and humor. It's fun to wade through. After decades of producing stellar images, it's impressive to see the result of his longtime passion of documenting life and its simple moments. As a side note, Erwitt, who has always been somewhat reclusive, has recently appeared in a video for a Cole-Haan marketing campaign that featured four still-vibrant artists born in 1928. All beautiful seniors and creative souls in their unique way, they are people whose commitment to their craft keeps them going into their 80's. In Erwitt's case, we appreciate the many laughs he brought us as he held up a mirror to our society while exposing our humanity along the way.