08 September 2006

Larry Towell

On Sunday afternoon I am going to a talk by Canadian photographer Larry Towell at the George Eastman House. Towell will be there as part of an odd series entitled "Wish You Were Here: Travael Photography Lecture Series." I will explain in a moment why I think it odd and how I account for the oddity.

First, though, let me say that I am excited to hear what Towell has to say. Just coincidentally I recently bought his book No Man's Land published by Chris Boot in collaboration with the Archive of Modern Conflict (which is evidently located in London but about which I can find nothing much on-line). Towell won the Cartier-Bresson Award for this work and it is indeed impressive. The back cover of the book reads: "No Man's Land is photographer Larry Towell's account of his journeys to Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank between 2000 and 2004 - the years of the second Palestinain intifada. Born of an identification with the dispossessed, Towell's essay reveals a scarred and battered landscape, and the physical and psychological walls that separate its people." This blurb seems accurate. Here is what Towell has to say about his work:

"I guess what I'm trying to do is explore power. Look at power, what it has done to the world, and particularly its victims. I don't think we should be photographing the politicians.

I don't think we should be listening to them. I think we should be looking at the victims of those policies, and having a camera around your neck gives you that freedom. That excuse. The only thing really worth documenting is the civilian victims."

I do not entirely agree with Towell here, but that is grist for a later post. This, though, leads me back to the oddity I mentioned above. It seems odd to me, given Towell's professed motivations and commitments, to say nothing of the content of his images, that he is speaking in a series on travel photography. Sure, he traveled to Israel/Palestine. But the other photographers in the series will be talking about their work on everything from Adams-esque pictures of Yosemite to the grisly forensics necessitated by political repression in Guatemala. The common element here is "travel"? I would ditch the Yosemite stuff (or at least shift it elsewhere) and then re-label this series as one about power and politics and repression and violence. That, of course, would likely be discomfiting for the Rochesterians who frequent the staid Eastman House. It likely would be troubling for the donors and trustees too. That is my explanation for the oddity. Just another example of why photography is poorly served by museums.

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