Bearing “Witness” to the History of Modern Life on Both Sides of the Camera
Photo: Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
Although the photographer usually stands behind the camera, they are present in every shot they make, from the choice of subject matter and the framing to the moment of release and the selection of the print from hundreds, if not thousands, of others that remain unseen in the archive. Every photo taken and shown bears the eye of the photographer, just as every painting and sculpture bears the hand of the artist. We can consider the photographer many things: provocateur, mastermind, or more “objectively,” witness to scene they are recording for posterity.
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The photographer as witness is a popular conceit celebrated in Western art as it embraces the impossible ideals of detachment, neutrality, and independence from the subject and the creation of the image. It carries the noble, even heroic, connotations that elevate the photographer to a status all their own. This response was most recently seen after Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici took a picture of Turkish police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas moments after he assassinated Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov. While the world lay agog at the perfectly orchestrated act of a cold-blooded killer, many in the photography and art worlds took the opportunity to disassociate, waxing rhapsodic about the aesthetics of the image and the valor of Ozbilici.
Which brings us back to where we began, to the photographer as witness—and to what s/he observes. What gets to be seen as “evidence” and what does not? Who defines the value of the photograph—and of the photographer? How pliable are these definitions? What is at stake in a brave new world where most people’s phones can take pictures and record video? Where is the line between document and art—and, more importantly, why do we feel compelled to draw lines at all?
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago grapples with the role of evolving role of photography in Witness, currently on view through February 12, 2017. Organized by Karsten Lund, former Curatorial Assistant, the exhibition explores the complex dynamic between photographer, subject, and viewer, all who bear witness in one way or another. Drawn largely from the Museum’s collection, Witness begins in the 1940s with the works of Walker Evans, an early master of the documentary photograph. Evans set a the high water mark that many aspired to reach, seamlessly navigating through the porous boundaries of art and artifact with ease.
With his work as a prelude to modern life, Witness whisks us into the 1960s, where we encounter the legendary Larry Clark, whose book Tulsa showed the underbelly of the American Dream. This is life without hope and seemingly without remorse, stripped to its raw, viscous core of blood and guts, into which Clark fully immersed himself.
It makes for a revealing contrast when set against Dawoud Bey‘s The Birmingham Project, which symbolically commemorates the four young girls and two boys whose lives were lost on September 15, 1963, in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Here we have the tale of two Americas shared with us. With Bey, we reflect on history through our inheritance, immersed in the changes that have been made, and all that remains to be done. Unlike Clark’s nihilistic realm, this is the story of a people determined to overcome.
Witness focuses on works made between 1963 and 2010, with photographs by Sophie Calle, David Hockney, Kerry James Marshall, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, Collier Shorr, and Carrie Mae Weems, among others. As we peruse the works included in the show, we begin to recognize that as viewers we are a kind of witness all our own. It is not the actual events that we observe, but the silent dialogue between artist and subject. We can take things at face value, reading no deeper into the image than simply what it is—or we can begin to question the dynamics that have created this moment of contemplation.
Why him? Why her? Why then? Why now? What does it mean to us? Does it illicit emotion, attraction, or disgust? Are we being manipulated into feeling something by the formal elements, or can we perceive the three dimensional experience in the photograph? The answers may never come but the best questions deserve the floor. We are invited not just to observe but to engage and interact. What greater significance do these photographs possess outside their aesthetic value and financial worth? What can we discover from these disconnected fragments of time and space, brought together for our consideration as we witness the witness of history?
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.