On Susan Meiselas: Times Critic Misses the Point, Captures his Own Eye in the Viewfinder
Nicaragua, Sept. 20, 1978.” Photograph © Susan Meiselas.
Today The New York Times ran this astoundingly mean spirited review by Ken (no relation) Johnson of the newly opened Susan Meiselas retrospective at ICP in NYC. In the guise of reviewing the show Johnson actually generates a caricature of cynical, resentful photography criticism.
Johnson's overall estimate is that this is "a sad, disturbing and fascinatingly problematic exhibition." He starts like this:
"How do you reconcile the demands of professionalism with those of human compassion? To her credit and that of the exhibition, Ms. Meiselas — whose coverage of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1978 and ’79 made her one of the world’s most celebrated and criticized war correspondents — does not try to duck the question. On the contrary, the tension between opportunism and conscience emerges more or less inadvertently as the main interest of the exhibition — to the point that it trumps its ostensible subjects."But he proceeds to castigate Meiselas for failing to navigate this predicament at virtually every turn.
Johnson describes her early project Carnival Strippers as “a form of adventurous slumming — like riding with a motorcycle gang” undertaken by “an ambitious young photographer with degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.” You'll note how he tacitly marries here a charge of elitism to his complaint about opportunism. Yet Johnson's complaint hardly seems in keeping with his observations about Meiselas's own concerns as she produced Carnival Strippers:
"The photographs are sympathetic to the women, but they have a grim, tawdry, hellish feeling. Sensitive to the possibility that they might be seen as exploitative, Ms. Meiselas recorded conversations she had with some of the strippers as well as with people who ran the shows and some of the exclusively male customers. Excerpts from these interviews are playing in the gallery, but they don’t do much to humanize the participants, who mostly sound jaded or pathetic."He admits that Meiselas had been completely aware of the potential for exploiting her subjects. He admits too that she took steps to try to address that risk. So, while she may not have wholly succeeded in addressing her predicament (and it is not just hers), Meiselas hardly was mindlessly along for the ride.
It is hard to see, too, how Johnson's complaint addresses the work Meiselas actually produced. Just maybe photography of the sort we see in Carnival Strippers is not meant to "humanize." Just maybe - as I indeed think - it is neither possible nor desirable to humanize dire circumstances or the people compelled to inhabit them. It would therefore be a big a mistake to reproach photography and photographers, as Johnson does, when they fail to do so. Perhaps the images and interviews Meiselas produced are more usefully understood as evidence of just how "pathetic" people can become when faced with a "grim, tawdry, hellish" existence. The photographer did not make the strippers (or customers) pathetic and she did not make their lives grim. And while Johnson may prefer not to be reminded that there are many people who face precisely such lives and that they are all around him, that is not Meiselas's problem. It is his problem.
About “Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History” Johnson writes:
"It is hard to know what to make of the bewildering array of old pictures, letters and documents displayed in glass cases at the center. Mainly it supports the exhibition’s celebration of Ms. Meiselas as a tireless champion of the dispossessed.With the Kurds now sitting on big oil reserves and engaged in what promises to become a Dubai-like program of building and development — barely hinted at by nondescript photographs Ms. Meiselas made in the region in 2007 — you wonder whose cause she will harness her career to next."
Finally, about her work in Nicargua and El Salvador and especially of Meiselas's subsequent effort to track down and speak to the subjects of that early work he first concedes "The brief interviews are riveting." But we then immediately get:
"Ms. Meiselas’s impulse to return, reconnect and try to give a bigger historical picture seems at once admirable and self-serving. It is good for her image as a moral heroine, but it’s hard to see what difference it makes in the long run for the people she talks to. You feel like saying, 'Susan, it’s not just about you.'"Johnson is right. This is not about Meiselas. But she hardly needs Johnson to remind her of that. Her initial work involved covering conflict that largely resulted from the decades-long support American administrations supplied to various Central American dictators. Her attempts to return to her subjects was an attempt to confront the predicament that Johnson finds so disturbing. And it is an attempt to get Americans - who , after all, will be viewing the work - to do so as well. On what grounds does Johnson criticize Meiselas? Why not go and find other photographers of her generation who never took the initial risks nor, having done so, never revisited the images and the predicaments that her early work exemplifies? Why not go and complain about Annie Leibovitz?
Johnson begins his report by discussing the photo I've lifted above as well as Meiselas's reflections on the situation in which she made the photograph. He transforms this oral predicament - take the picture or help the woman and child - into the hook for his report. yet he never seems to acknowledge - perhaps that would be too risky - that it hardly was a coincidence that there was Civil War in Nicaragua at that time. And he does not raise the issue of how government troops, say, might've treated photographers who assisted the locals whom they sought to terrorize. The stark moral choice he poses is too simple by a considerable distance.
I have not seen this exhibition. Perhaps the show does create these impressions. I doubt the problem resides with the exhibition. But even if it did, why then is Meiselas the focus of criticism? Why not criticize the curator, Kristen Lubben?
I suspect that the problem here is Johnson's own cynicism - a trait entirely too common among critics of photography. He "knows" all this. So does everyone else. And everyone has "always" known it all. So the only reason that someone like Meiselas might be photographing the episodes and subjects she does is opportunism and self-aggrandizement. What other motivation might there be? Johnson's cynicism easily and un-self-reflectively morphs into an incredibly arrogant moralism.
What if we shift attention from the ethical to the political. What about showing American viewers the consequences of the policies that our government has implemented in various exotic places. What if the point of Meiselas's work is to try, somehow - and with mixed success to be sure - to face up to things in the world with which we'd prefer not to come to grips? It turns out that there are many such things. And cynicism is a reactionary response to all those things on the part of those who don't want to admit their own complicity and their own powerlessness in the face of broader forces that shape politics and history.
The problem, Ken Johnson, is that this exhibition is about the nasty and brutish things that have taken place "In History," many of which are directly or indirectly the result of intervention or conniving on the part of the U.S. government or its minions. It is not, in other words, "just about you."