“Engaged Observers” At The Getty : The photographic essays that change your mind

The human condition can be a brutal thing. Or a thing of beauty.
There is a poetic manner in which photojournalists approach their subjects, and tell you the story.
When you can look beyond the single image, usually highlighted for titillation or shock, there is a deep river of thought and story to be told in the photographic essay format.
Then you have this exhibit, Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since The Sixties, which traces a history of that journalistic form.
One thing that is always great about a Getty photo exhibit is the curation. In this case, Mr. Brett Abbott breathed life into this show.
We are not only speaking about the images included, but the way they are presented to the viewer. The placement in the various rooms, and the manner in which the observer is lead around the space at the Getty brings the viewer through the history in a very approachable manner, allowing you to concentrate on each photographers work, separately, while maintaining the thread of the entire show. The short descriptor boards by each section, give you a concise insight into what you are about to see. And you might as well get the headsets too. Nothing like a full experience.

Lauren Greenfield (American, born 1966)
Title/Date: Sheena tries on clothes with Amber, 15, in a department store dressing
room, San Jose, California, negative 1999; print 2002
Copyright: © Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE
Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The opening gallery slips you in-between 2 worlds: That of Lauren Greenfield’s examination of Girl Culture, her now famous look at the effect of our NA culture on the woman in America, coupled with her disturbing look at both sides of eating disorders,all in color, living in the same room as Larry Towell’s Mennonites series in B&W, telling the story of a simpler life, based on single digit values and the wants and needs of group who shun the fast life of technology.

The extreme contrast is engaging though, as you then continue around the bend to Mary Ellen Mark’s work. The B&W photos of child runaways on the streets of Seattle, are disturbing of course, yet the revelation of new info comes pointedly into view when she shows the various sides of a single subject. Not quite before and after, but lateral looks at the same person.


Leonard Freed (American, 1929 – 2006)
Title/Date: Washington, D.C., 1963
Copyright: © Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos, Inc.
Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

As you duck into one of the first rooms, you get to see the early work of Leonard Freed and prints from his classic book, Black And White in America.
This is some of the definitive work on the subject culled from the 60’s in America, and instead of depicting the horrific clashes, you see a quieter tension, realized only in daily life.
A bonus feature in this room is a case featuring his Leica, and original marked up contact sheet, and a copy of the original publication, now available in reprints.

A slightly separated space takes you on a journey through the history of the genre including Lewis Hine and his photos of the child laborers in the factories from the turn of the century. A perfect illustration of the power of the still image as labor laws were changed after theses were published.
It’s a very rich room with includes an album from the civil war giving you a look from over a hundred years ago of a quiet battlefield littered with bodies, shattered by their brothers.
Along with a glimpse into the formation of the great photo agency Magnum, the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson ( who has gracefully told us about the irony of our lives in photographs better than he?), Robert Capa and more are included.

Philip Jones Griffiths meant for you to be disturbed when you looked at his photographs. These are the travesties of war and you are not meant to revel in them or enjoy them but be perhaps repulsed. The victims are here and that’s all you need to know. His emotions were not kept in a journalistic safe zone, and there are very apparent in these photographs.

In the middle of it all is the showpiece of the exhibit.
James Nachtwey has created this one of a kind installation print, entitled “The Sacrifice” which will affect you like no other photo montage you have ever seen.
It is an emotional narrative of the emergency hospital rooms of war, consisting of 60 images, laid out in an approx. 45 ft black and white single image. The visual stops at specific point along the way bring you further down the rabbit hole of the atrocities, and more importantly, the humanity of war.
It is an gut wrenching story that will leave you speechless, as you move from one end to the other of this masterpiece.
In the preview last night, we spoke to the guard assigned to that image, who had to maintain all evening.
As it turns out, his mother worked in a hospital and he remembered having to visit there after school and seeing the human carnage. His father was a military man with 2 tours of duty in the Army. Sure, he may have been familiar with such things
but standing in front of this piece all night, he said he never knew the horror on the wall in front of him.
Bad luck of the draw on security assignments.
This is not to be missed. And you can only see it here, at the Getty. There is only one print in existence, as Mr. Nachtwey told us he destroyed any previous print to this one.
No image here, or in a book, will do it justice.

Once you’ve gathered yourself, and look to the Susan Meiselas’s work from Nicaragua, you are struck by the colorful nature of the images of revolution. It speaks to a modern world and perhaps a more uplifting look at a country in turmoil, on the brink of massive change.


Sebastião Salgado (Brazilian, born 1944)
Title/Date: Church Gate Station, Western Railroad Line, Bombay, India, negative
1995
Copyright: © Sebastião Salgado
Object Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

On the back wall is the work of one of our favorite photographers of all time, Sebastaio Salgado.
who takes a term he calls” compassion fatigue” and presents his vision of the inequities of the world through lyrical imagery, and almost fools your esthetic eye into exploring the plight of the under served and under privileged.
These images can live on your wall with grace and beauty, and still tell the tale of the drastic human conditions.
His balance of this emotional visual story telling is masterful.

In the last room is the work of W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith, with Minamata.
I was a student in Toronto when he came to speak of this series. It was still fresh in his mind as he told us of the mercury poisoning in the Japanese fishing village of Minamata. The Chisso Corp had been dumping chemical waste and the polluted fish consumed by the people caused brain damage,paralysis, and birth defects.
He was beaten up by the company’s goons for making the photos and trying to help.
With his wife Aileen, they told the world a never to be forgotten story about the dangers of chemical waste.
These images will sear your heart, with the damages the people suffered for no other reason than corporate greed.

Once again the curators of this show have worked tirelessly to bring to the public a world class exhibition.
Along with the Nachtwey installation being unique to this show, you will get a brilliant overview of the subject.
We’ve tried to walk you through the space, as we experienced it, but nothing is a substitute for in person viewing.

As much as we are fans of the accessibility of images, we will always encourage you to visit the museums and galleries for a first hand look. There is a depth to original pieces that will enhance your experience.

Not to be missed is the accompanying catalog. Think of it perhaps as the DVD of the show extras.
Even if you have attending the show live, the materials included in this Getty publication, give you the deeper information and background on the documentary subject along with many additional images for illustration.
Mr. Abbott started this project in 2005 with a minor exhibit, and then spent 2 years, every day, putting this one together.
If you are a photographer, collector,enthusiast, student or scholar you should pick this catalog up.
Even though the James Nachtwey piece cannot be truly represented here, they have made a best attempt.
Highly recommended!
Hmmmm…maybe a good idea for a giveaway.

So, if you are coming to the southern California area, you have 2 great photo exhibits to check out this summer: Engaged Observers at the Getty and the POYi exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography.

Have a great weekend!

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