12 January 2013

Parachuting In To Rochester

". . . we are trying to make a documentary archive of Rochester at this particular moment in time." ~ Alec Soth
Rochester von oben: Am Stadtrand leben die Weißen ruhig in Einfamilienhäusern.
(Rochester from above: on the outskirts, the whites living quietly in single-family homes.)
Photograph © Paolo Pellegrin für ZEITmagazin.

I noted here last spring that a gaggle of photographers from Magnum had descended on Rochester and dispersed around town to pursue individual projects. They were nearly departed before I knew about the enterprise. You can read about their stay here at The New Yorker (work up from the bottom - the comment from Alec Soth I lifted above comes from the initial entry). A couple of days ago two of our smart graduate students called attention to the first  installment of work from the Magnum visit that I have seen (Thanks Barbara and Peter!). It is a series by Paolo Pellegrin published in Germany by die Zeit.  You can find the written story here and photo-essay here. I have to say that while the photography, unsurprisingly, is striking in many ways, the overall story Pellegrin presents is rather shallow and moralistic. We get a cat and mouse interaction between drug dealing ghetto youth (mostly racial/ethnic minorities) and officers (mostly white residents of the suburbs) from the Rochester PD.  That "game," I suppose, is meant to stand in for the racial and economic segregation that characterizes the Rochester metro area. There is a garnish, but no more, of reference to underlying political-economic and racial complexities that generated this stereotypical view of urban America. In short, we get a narrow glimpse of how things are, but nearly no understanding of how things got this way or, god forbid, any insight into what might be done to remedy the current, dire situation. It makes me wonder what photojournalists do to prepare for assignments and what they think their work is for.*

Coming to Rochester, for instance, the Magnum folk might have viewed local filmmaker Carvin Eison's feature July '64 about the racial and political-economic circumstances prevailing in the city at mid-century and the explosive consequences those circumstances generated. They might have read urban sociologists like Bill Wilson or Doug Massey (to pick only two luminaries) about the complex underlying processes that generate urban disasters like Rochester - think industrial collapse, high crime rates, crushingly bad public education, concentrated poverty, and so forth overseen by political and economic elites who seem (at best) interested in containing or papering over rather than remedying those conditions. I have noted these things here repeatedly in the past. They might have consulted with photographers like Brenda Ann Kenneally or Greg Halpern who are from or currently live in urban upstate New York. And they might've done some or all of that together so that they had some sort of shared background, however partial or incomplete. Perhaps the Magnum photographers did some or all of this. Pellegrin's essay - despite the skillfully crafted images - provides no evidence that they did. If this is part of an "archive" of Rochester, as the Magnum folks suggest, they seem to have missed the history and context and underlying dynamics almost completely.

Maybe, as one of our students suggests, this sort of presentation simply appeals to German sense of superiority. Here in the U.S., though, we - meaning people who reside in and around decimated cities like Rochester - need considerably less moralism and many fewer neo-liberal responses (like feel-good music festivals, ineffective mayoral control of schools, official indifference to inequality and poverty) and more attention to underlying political-economic realities. The Magnum photographers might have tried to demonstrate that need. The evidence so far is that they did not.
* Let me be very clear. These are fabulously talented photographers.  And everything I know about the individuals involved suggests they are men and women of conviction and integrity. That includes Paolo Pellegrin. 

My complaints here are not about their intentions or talent. These reflections instead are about the practice of photography, the conventions that dominate the field. If the Magnum crew, with all the resources and prestige at their disposal, misses the  story, I fear what less talented, more mercenary photographers might do in analogous circumstances.

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