26 September 2008

On Susan Meiselas: Times Critic Misses the Point, Captures his Own Eye in the Viewfinder

“Fleeing the bombing to seek refuge outside of Estelí,
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."
Here, in addition to the charge of opportunism Johnson serves up a truly astonishing red herring. So, the Iraqi Kurds are sitting on top of oil reserves. First, much of what in geographical terms might have been Kurdistan has stood on top of those reserves all along. Did that protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein (supported by various U.S. administrations)? No. Will it protect them against the non-Kurdish Iraqis in the future? Let's just say I'm dubious. The same goes for the Turks and Iranians, who have scant love of the Kurds either. And what of the Kurds in those countries? Is Johnson claiming that the Kurds have not been dispossessed and oppressed over an extremely long period of time? Is he saying that bringing that history to light is somehow dishonorable? Is he saying that (purported) access to oil reserves erases the accumulated suffering and responsibility? Even for staff at The Times this is shoddy reasoning. But, were Johnson even slightly reflective, he might have taken his own bewilderment at the aka Kurdistan project as a hint.

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."

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Blogger Andy Levin said...

As far as the comments go, these are all issues that relate to documentary photography as a whole, and we photographers are used to this discussion and even engage in a certain amount of guilt and self-criticism about these issues. Yes, we often stand by and photograph while others struggle. Sometimes we help out as well. Its a difficult position to be in as a human being, and I can assure you that Meiselas is very much of a human being. In the end with Susan and with all of us that do this, its about the ideas that we try to champion, not and not about us, as egotistical as we may be. Lets give credit where credit is do-- there are those who make their daily bread at exploiting, much less putting their lives at risk to report on the suffering of others.

Andy Levin

26 September, 2008 16:51  
Blogger Tom White said...

I have to say I find Johnson's position bizarre, in that it seems he has no idea how hard it is to work as a documentary photographer without falling prey to the charge of being exploitative.

I agree with Andy Levin in that Meiselas works very hard to avoid exploiting those she photographs and instead of accusing her of 'self-expiation' (a ridiculous claim I think!) he should be praising her efforts to make the people in her photographs as real as possible and not just nameless faces in a 2 dimensional document of something somewhere.

It is certainly an aspect of her work I admire greatly myself, especially as I - and many of my colleagues - struggle with precisely the issues raised and what to do about them. We are photographers, but we are human beings first. This exhibition is a reminder of that.

26 September, 2008 23:55  
Blogger Stina H. said...

(I apologize by advance for my English. As my name shows it, I was raised in another language).

Mr. Johnson may not be wrong about photojournalism.
If I remove Ms. Meiselas' name, I find myself agreeing on everything, even though Johnson doesn't seem to analyze formal matters : style, the numerous archetypes of photojournalism, etc. By avoiding that effort, he weaknesses most of his points. Photography is about form and language - you can mock Meiselas' background and portray her as a middle-class girl in search for emotions, it can't be relevant if you don't dig further.
But a judgement such as " a tireless champion of the dispossessed" is be totally appropriate to quilify the works of most of the great photojournalists of today who make huge efforts to built their own statue and to whom the subjects - the victims? - are just interchangeable supporting actors.

Susan Meiselas seems to me more intelligent and rigorous than that, though. At least, she is far from being the worst. Johnson reaches a target, and right in the middle.
But is it only the right one?

27 September, 2008 02:05  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Of the myriad of photographers that this criticism would most accurately describe, it's bizarre this guy would choose Meiselas, of all people. When Bruce Davidson suffered similar criticism for his E100 St back in the day, it was an especially relevant issue to raise- although he too was singled out unjustly. You'd think that several decades later, critics would be able to differentiate between hit and run exploitation v dedicated documentation of a people, their history, and their plight far from the celebrity spotlight.

28 September, 2008 01:03  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Somehow this comment found its way to another post. I am taking the liberty of moving it here, where it belongs. (I will leave it in the original location too.) Needless to say, it is extremely edifying to receive positive feedback from artists of Ms Leonard's stature.

"Dear Jim Johnson:

What an excellent blog and terrific, important commentary about k. johnson review of Meiselas on your blog.

My colleague, Carol Jaoobsen and I (we are both professors at U of Michigan) wrote a letter today to the editor of the Times. Having struggled to get our comments to fit the required 150 words, I'm all the grateful for the way in which you used your more expansive format. I think you covered many crucial points and did so with extraordinary clarity and attention to the very issues ken johnson so badly misunderstands.

Here's our letter:

Ken Johnson's anti-intellectual rant on Susan Meiselas' exhibit at ICP shows ignorance of Meiselas' work and commitment, missing, in particular, her insight that photographs often objectify and silence their subjects. For over 30 years, Meiselas has made explicit and public the questions she asks about her role as a photographer and her responsibility to her subject/s, something too few photographers have done.

Meiselas' 1979 book Nicaragua and her 199Os project about the Kurdish people (book, website and archive) are typical of Meiselas: they center entirely on the events and experiences of the subjects in her photographs. She does not point to the risks she took in war or her generosity in devoting her entire MacArthur award to the creation of pictorial cultural history for the Kurdish people.

It is hard to understand publishing a review that so completely misses the power and significance of Susan Meiselas’ work at the ICP.

joanne leonard"

29 September, 2008 10:19

29 September, 2008 11:04  

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