The New Photojournalism

5 January, 2009

I went to see the Robert Capa and Gerda Taro exhibition at the Barbican over the New Year holidays and can thoroughly recommend a visit. It finishes on the 25th January.

Republican militiawoman training on the beach, outside Barcelona, August 1936

Republican militiawoman training on the beach, outside Barcelona, August 1936 by Gerda Taro

Also showing is a collection of four contemporary photographers, Omer Fast, Geert van Kesteren, An-My Le and Paul Chan, grouped together under the title “On the Subject of War”.

The collection of Capa’s work “This is War!” encompasses the Spanish Civil War with the iconic image of the Falling Soldier, China during the Japanese invasion in 1938, the D Day landings and American troops in Leipzig at the end of the war. It is by no means a comprehensive collection of Capa’s work but attempts to show us a photojournalist at work during conflict. Much heralded are the unseen images from the Spanish Civil war recently discovered in a suitcase. I am generally suspicious of the value of unseen work and to a large extend remain so here as I don’t think the found images add a great deal to Capa’s legacy as a war photographer.

D-Day landing by Robert Capa

D-Day landing by Robert Capa

Alongside Capa’s work is a retrospective of his lover and collaborator, Gerda Taro. Taro’s work is a foil to Capa’s edgy snapped pictures. Shooting on square format Rollei her work is more considered. Where Capa’s images work brilliantly on the page, showing us the action through their cumulative presence, Taro’s photography is more pictorial and attempts to portray the story within each frame, seeking context and pathos.

In glass cabinets we are also shown Capa’s and Taro’s images as they appeared on the printed pages of international magazines of the time and it is here that their photography makes sense. Their form of photojournalism was intended for the pages of Life magazine, Picture Post and similar publications. It is in the collective presentation of sequenced images and page layout that we gain a sense of the action and consequences of war on humanity. Viewing the photographs on the white walls of the Barbican compromise the urgency of the work. Displayed as art it becomes rarefied and isolated, a pretension to art that belies its original meaning.

One of the most intriguing set of pictures in the show, wasn’t the infamous Falling Soldier, although I did spend a lot of time trying to work out whether it was a staged performance or not, rather it was a set of pictures taken by Taro that were openly faked and captioned as a reconstruction of a battle scene for Taro and Capa to photograph.

One of Gerda Taro's images from the re-staged battle

One of Gerda Taro's images from the re-staged battle

Presumably the photojournalists had missed the great heroic scene and felt it necessary for posterity to record it. What this almost nonchalant reconstruction demonstrates is that there has always been a tension within photojournalism about conveying a truth. Right back to Roger Fenton’s canon balls in the Crimea, photojournalism has been about the primacy of the message. For Taro and Capa and indeed the western media as it was then constituted, sympathies lay with the Republicans and it was their responsibility to show the courage and heroism of the International Brigade. There was no attempt by Taro or Capa to work alongside Franco’s troops to provide a more even handed approach to the story of the Spanish Civil War.

Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855 by Roger Fenton

Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855 by Roger Fenton

In the introductory text to the exhibitions the curators have asked the familiar questions about partisanship and a journalist’s own political boundaries and whether or not the 21st century photographer is more or less a practitioner of journalism of attachment. They have left this question hanging and are asking the viewer to provide the answers.

My answer is to suggest that the question is the wrong one. Photojournalism or indeed all journalism has always been about a process of attachment to an idea, a cause. In choosing to shoot one image over another, covering one story rather than another, printing/broadcasting one story over another, is always to some degree a reflection of the media’s political boundaries.

As this exhibition shows photojournalists have always been partisan. What is more interesting is how the viewer’s attitude has changed. Photojournalists have not stopped taking photographs. Rather it is we that have stopped buying the magazines that printed photo essays, choosing instead to be shown the world through television.

How we perceive images and their inherent truth has also changed. As a society we have grown increasingly sceptical about truthfulness of journalism, blaming the media for all our crises.

Instead we are looking elsewhere to gain an understanding of the world and it is through culture that meaning is sort. We increasingly turn to the artist, playwright, or author to lend an insight into the complexities of our world and how we might exist in it. Photographer Simon Norfolk recently stated that he used the aesthetic to seduce people into paying attention to his politics. Norfolk has recognised that his audience visit the art gallery, so he creates images that sit well on the wall rather than on the printed page. Our perception has become that the artist has a greater truth to offer than the photojournalist.

Capa is quoted as saying “If you call yourself an artist you won’t get anything published. Call yourself a photojournalist and then you can do whatever you want.” Capa saw the term as a means to an end, it was through photojournalism that he could get his ideas published. For today’s image makers this imperative has changed as the viewers have turned their backs on journalism. Capa’s quote should be reversed. Now calling yourself an artist gives you a freedom to do what ever you want.

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