New York is awash in photojournalism—but is it art?

[22 October 2007]

By Jodi Mailander Farrell

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

NEW YORK—The panoramic photograph of a bootless soldier, sprawled almost gracefully in death in Afghanistan, might have made readers pause for a moment if it had appeared in a newspaper or magazine. But when “Taliban Soldier” filled a New York City gallery wall—blown up to near life size—it made the art world take note.

Taken with a large-format camera, the monumental 4- by 8-foot print was presented for $15,000 four years ago at the Ricco Maresca Gallery, a Chelsea stop usually favored by folk and fine art collectors. It catapulted the Paris-based photographer Luc Delahaye, who shot the image on assignment for Newsweek, into international prominence. And it signaled a turning point for a small club of international war and “conflict” photojournalists, who now see their images appearing regularly in gallery and museum shows.

Suddenly, the reality of war, famine, poverty and pain has turned into fine art.

“Great collectors are always looking to be delighted by something that they don’t know about, and this excites some of them,” says Bill Hunt, the former Ricco Maresca co-director of photography who introduced Delahaye to gallery crowds.

Two years ago, Hunt opened his own Chelsea gallery, Hasted Hunt, with co-owner Sarah Hasted. Their inaugural show featured photos by members of VII Photo Agency, an international collective of professional photographers whose images regularly appear in Time, Newsweek, New York Times magazine, The Guardian and the New Yorker.

If you travel to just about any major American city this fall, you will find the work of photojournalists on display. Photos by Delahaye, for instance, are up through Nov. 25 at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, where a show that opens in December will feature seven decades of photos from Hungarian Andre Kertesz, one of the seminal figures of photojournalism.

But when it comes to totally immersing yourself in the world of photojournalism in its current state as art “du jour,” there’s no better place than New York, backdrop to some of the last century’s best street photography.

In addition to photo-conscious galleries mostly clustered in Chelsea, Greenwich Village and Midtown, the city is home to the International Center of Photography, a museum and school where you can always catch the works of historical and working photojournalists. The center has a quirky gift shop, with cheap pinhole, fisheye and Holga cameras; and all kinds of trinkets—pillows, purses, trays, coasters—with images on them. Book signing receptions with photographers occur regularly.

New York also has Dashwood Books, a two-year-old independent bookstore in the Village devoted entirely to contemporary photography. The place is owned by David Strettell, former cultural director of Magnum Photos, another international agency of working photographers.

Photo books have risen to their own art form in the past decade. Many curators now feature books as a significant part of exhibitions. For budget-minded picture fans like me, photo books—which sell for as little as $40—are the next best thing.

Here is where I should admit to a personal tie to photography. My husband, Patrick Farrell, has been a staff photographer at the Miami Herald for 20 years. But, like others in my 40-something age bracket, my interest in photography goes back to news images burned into memory soon after birth: UPI photographer Stan Stearns’ image of a three-year-old JFK Jr. saluting the flag during his father’s funeral procession; AP photographer Eddie Adams’ close-up of a Vietcong prisoner’s execution in Saigon; Boston Herald American photographer Stanley J. Forman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning image of a white man using the American flag as a spear to attack a black man at an anti-busing rally in Boston; and, later, Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin’s photo of a lone protestor trying to stop advancing tanks at the Tiananmen Square protests.

It’s no surprise that a generation raised on multi-media and consumerism would not only want to look at frozen moments in time, but also “own” them.

Despite the eyebrow-raising sale price of Delahaye’s billboard-sized photo, the fact is that most photos by professional lensmen and women today are relatively affordable compared to other art forms. That’s part of the medium’s appeal, especially among young art collectors. While a Matisse or Picasso—or even a Diane Arbus photo—may be out of reach, images by prominent working photojournalists can be purchased for under $1,000.

And they’re accessible. Intimidated by walking into a hushed art gallery? An original print by Weegee—a news photographer from the 1930s known for stark black-and-white photos of New York crime scenes and car wrecks—recently appeared on eBay for $1,250.

“Photojournalism has emerged from the backwater of art collecting, especially among people in their late 30s and early 40s who want to collect art and have a greater affinity to the photographic medium,” says Frank Evers, VII Photo Agency’s managing director and a photo collector. “People are reaching out and broadening their horizons, saying `How can I get great art that’s not crazily priced? I don’t want to collect classics; I want something meaningful to me.’ “

There are an estimated 20,000 newspaper photographers in the United States alone today, compared with half that number a decade ago. Most photojournalists presenting their works in galleries come from independent photo agencies, such as VII, Magnum, Sygma and Black Star. That’s not only because they’re tops in their field; they also own their work, a copyright privilege most staff photographers at newspapers and magazines do not possess.

Today’s globe-trotting photojournalists draw inspiration from the war and street photography of Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as the storytelling abilities of American magazine photographers, such as W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Curators call it “reportage,” but most observers will recognize the haunting images hanging on gallery walls today as last week’s magazine spreads documenting some of the world’s most troubled spots: Somalia, Rwanda, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Bosnia and Chechnya.

The photos are not the result of working journalists thrust into news events, shooting what they see and relying on the “F8 and Be There” philosophy. They’re not just in the right place at the right time, their camera’s f/stop aperture stuck on the reliable F8 setting.

“Collecting photojournalism is not a trend or fad—it’s because first and foremost these photographers are artists,” says Evers, the husband of VII photographer Lauren Greenfield, whose images of youth culture and body image sell for $1,500 to $6,000 at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York.

“Their day job as a journalist does not take away from the fact that they see the world and craft images in a way that creates a response from curators and collectors,” Evers says. “It doesn’t matter how you get there—if you have an artist’s eye, they’ll collect you.”

Among the names to watch for on your next New York gallery visit:

  • James Nachtwey, president of VII Photo Agency, who has been covering world crises since 1981 and was one of the first photographers on the scene at 9/11.

  • Eugene Richards, another VII photographer known for unflinching black-and-white photos that have captured breast cancer, aging and poverty.

  • Mary Ellen Mark, a former Magnum photographer, addresses social issues such as runaway children, drug addiction and prostitution. American Photography magazine readers once voted her their favorite woman photographer of all time.

  • Alex Webb, a Magnum photographer who has documented life in the American South, the Caribbean and Mexico.

  • Christopher Morris, a founding member of VII who has covered more than 18 wars and foreign conflicts, as well as the presidency of George W. Bush in an essay he calls “Republican America.”

    Morris, long-haired and usually sporting a scarf around his neck, has in particular resonated with some collectors. (The scarf, by the way, is more about function than fashion—foreign correspondents wear them to filter smoke and stench.)

    “If anybody captures the quintessential photojournalist, it’s long-haired Chris Morris, jumping from war to war, with his scarf around his neck,” says VII’s Evers. “He sees the world in a different way and he has a drive to capture that into an image.”

    Striving for perfect composition and color, these shooters also are focused on finding what Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment”—a truthful photo that captures the poetry of life without exploiting it. Like a stern tongue-lashing, these images stay with the viewer. They elicit a response without descending into the sentimentality of a Hallmark card or the sensationalism of a screaming headline. The end result looks more like an Old Masters painting than a mug shot.

    “‘Taliban’ has the gravity, clarity and resonance of a great history painting,” raved a Village Voice review by critic Vince Aletti at the time of Delahaye’s first New York gallery exhibit. “Sprawled in a ditch among dead leaves and scorched grasses, the soldier regards us through half-opened eyes. His mouth hangs open, as if for some final words, but there’s a deep, red gash in his jaw and a splatter of dried blood on his dusty clothes. Someone has taken his shoes and rifled through his wallet, which was left nearby; there are footprints all over the sand, but he’s alone now—or would be, were the photographer not hovering above him and all of us looking over his shoulder.

    “It’s a terrible thing to peer at death like this, to look it in the eye, but Delahaye’s picture never feels voyeuristic or propagandistic,” Aletti wrote. “Rather, like Mathew Brady’s photos of the Civil War dead or Larry Burrows’s pictures from Vietnam, it allows us to glimpse the very mundane, very human toll of war.”

    Should death and suffering be a collector’s item, hung on a home’s wall? With photos from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina now appearing in art galleries, the controversy is not just over photojournalism as art; it’s whether art should reflect reality, particularly when that reality is still fresh in our minds. Today’s news consumers have become accustomed to seeing images of dead people in newspapers and on TV, but seeing a huge print of one in an art gallery is quite different. And it makes many people downright uneasy when that image is sold for a lot of money.

    Delahaye, for one, avoided the debate. The Frenchman left Magnum Photos and declared the end to his photojournalistic career in 2004. Now, he says, he’s an artist.

    But, like most art, that’s all in the eye of the beholder.

    Bruce Silverstein of Silverstein Photography, one of New York’s most prominent photo galleries, represents the estates of such historic greats as Robert Doisneau (known for his playful images of 1950s Parisian street life) and Ernst Haas (a Magnum photographer who shot innovative color essays for Life magazine). Silverstein favors “documentary” photography from street shooters out to get art, not an assignment. While he recognizes that some photojournalists today have artistic tendencies (he admires the work of Nachtwey, a contract photographer for Time magazine, in particular), Silverstein says there’s a big difference between capturing a historic event and shooting “art.”

    “A few of these guys are really good, but one of the difficulties with photojournalism, which makes it hard to cross over into fine art, is that photojournalists depend on their subject matter to make an image,” Silverstein says. “It’s the same problem with a fashion photo: If you take a picture of a beautiful woman, does it mean you have beautiful picture? There are so many people covering events today, someone really has to be unique in order to shine through in this field.”

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    NYC PHOTO STOPS

    CHELSEA

    Hasted Hunt Gallery, 529 W. 20th St., third floor, 212-627-0006. Home to a wide range of photography from classic vintage to contemporary; represents most members of VII Photo Agency.

    Yancey Richardson Gallery, 535 W. 22nd St., third floor, 646-230-9610. Works by Sebastiao Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark and Chan Chao, as well as vintage.

    Silverstein Photography, 535 W. 24th St., 212-627-3930. Fine art photos spanning the history of the medium; represents the estates of Robert Doisneau, Ernst Haas and Andre Kertesz, among others; vintage prints by Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others.

    Aperture Gallery, 547 W. 27th St., fourth floor, 212-505-5555. Its current exhibit, “Lisette Model and Her Successors” (through Nov. 1) showcases edgy photos of 1940s and `50s social New York by Viennese photographer Lisette Model, as well as photos by successors Diane Arbus and Bruce Weber, among others.

    GREENWICH VILLAGE

    Leica Gallery, 670 Broadway, Suite 500, 212-777-3051. Traditional and modern photojournalism. Exhibits have included works from Alfred Eisenstaedt to Alex Webb.

    Dashwood Books, 33 Bond St., 212-387-8520. Independent bookstore devoted to photography; owned by a former cultural director of Magnum Photos.

    MIDTOWN

    Howard Greenberg Gallery, 41 E. 57th St., Suite 1406, 212-334-0010. Specializes in classic 20th century photography, including works by Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier Bresson, Imogen Cunningham, W. Eugene Smith and Weegee; plus collection of photo books.

    Pace/MacGill Gallery, 32 E. 57th St, 9th floor, 212-759-7999. Art and photography, including Chuck Close, Walker Evans, David Byrne and Alfred Stieglitz.

    International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, 212-857-0000. Museum and school with fun, photo-centric gift shop. “This is War! Robert Capa at Work” runs through Jan. 6, as does an exhibit of photos by Gerda Taro, a pioneering photojournalist who covered the Spanish Civil War and worked alongside (and was romantically involved with) Capa; she was killed by a tank in battle in 1937.

    PICK ONE UP

    “Photograph,” a bi-monthly guide to photo exhibits in New York and around the world, can be picked up for free in most photo galleries, as well as the International Center of Photography and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It includes calendars, New York maps and a list of private dealers. View it at www.photography-guide.com.

  • Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/new-york-is-awash-in-photojournalism-but-is-it-art/