On the first day of my first photography class, my teacher laid some ground rules: “no cemeteries and no homeless people.”
In one fell swoop every idea I had was voided.
As a sensitive lad who wished more than anything for others to know, viscerally, how deeply I felt things, I was at a loss. After all, weren’t the homeless my spiritual brethren—unwanted, out of place, in need of a shower? And what subject could evoke my uncertainty about the future or which girl to ask out
better than a gravestone?
The teacher claimed these types of images were exploitative, capitalizing on the misfortune of others. He claimed they were cliché. But that wasn’t my fault. I felt I was being unfairly punished for the clumsiness of others. Dejected, I turned my camera to other, more appropriate subjects like rust, broken glass and my roommates.
About a decade later, I have concluded that we are both right. Taking a picture of someone who lives in an arroyo is probably not going to benefit that person. On the other hand, because of its evidential capabilities, I still believe photography has a special power to move people in a way that no other medium can. And the Magnum Photos exhibition that recently concluded at Verve Gallery of Photography proved both points.
Four photographers, stricken with anti-war sentiment, founded Magnum in 1947. The organization was conceived as a co-op so its members could have more control over their images and where they were published. Instead of being commissioned by a publisher to cover an event, the Magnumeers worked independently, covered the stories they were most interested in and then sold their work to print media, while retaining the use rights. (Mind you, this was at a time when cameras were not the ubiquitous tools of surveillance they are today. The images were exotic, depicting things that had frankly never been seen by most of the world).
It was an extremely successful enterprise and it changed journalism forever, supplementing and, in some cases, eliminating the dominance of the written word.
Part of Magnum’s success must be credited to technology. Innovations such as faster film and smaller cameras allowed these photographers to go mobile. For the first time, action and low-light shots—which accommodate the spontaneous nature of photojournalism—were possible. But make no mistake, these guys are masters, having produced some of the most famous photographs ever taken. Eventually the organization expanded to include women, and the roster continues to grow today.
For a small sample of Magnum’s work, the exhibition at Verve was a well-rounded display, which included examples by two of the original founders (Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson). The work spanned the organization temporally as well as stylistically: from black and white to color, from far-flung poverty to celebrity portraiture, from impassioned editorializing to mannerist navel-gazing. Magnum has suffered from a bit of mission creep over the years, but not enough to detract from its most stirring photographs, including Bruce Davidson’s portraits of New Yorkers and Susan Meiselas’ series of a Vermont strip club.
Are some of the images exploitative? It does seem unfair to turn a human into a symbol for one’s own political agenda. But how does one create awareness of something without showing it to others? Photography’s role in this dynamic is special. Its vivid realism can create a connection with the viewers as emotionally powerful as actually being there. When done well, a photograph awakens the conscience of the viewers, and its stillness and silence stay with them forever. Photography can cause an epiphany and change a mind.
Viewing a photograph can be akin to a revelation. As the character Stanley Spector put it in the 1999 film Magnolia: “This happens. This is something that happens.”