EYE-CATCHING TO BE SURE A frame from Tomasz Tomaszewski’s “Hades?” series.
In the 1930s, the New Deal-era Farm Security Administration compiled arguably the most influential photo dossier in American history, enlisting nationally prominent photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to capture scenes of rural poverty during the Great Depression. In the '70s, the EPA reprised the idea, tasking freelance photogs to study US environmental pollution. That initiative became Documerica, a 15,000-photo set that spurred major advances in environmental policy.
Visiting "Crisis and Opportunity," the international photography exhibition produced by SocialDocumentary.net and the Center for Economic and Social Rights, a whole lot has changed. There have been numerous technical advances, of course, and it's safe to say that nobody's getting any government funding (far from it, in fact — the content of SocialDocumentary.net is user-generated), but mostly, there are notable differences in the way we view photography itself.
One of the show's strengths, somewhat perversely, is the unsubtle irony in demonstrating the poverty of global labor communities using an artistic medium of incredible surplus. Fine art or no, photography is now one of the world's most popular hobbies. We absorb countless photos daily, and increasingly rely on them to make our persuasive arguments and selling points. "Photographs furnish evidence," Susan Sontag wrote in 1977's On Photography, but as a cultural practice, that's less true now than ever. Most examples of modern photography are commercial, which has changed the way we view pictures as a whole. While that may make the task of today's photojournalists a little tougher, these photographs certainly do furnish evidence of some very real and unsettling scenarios.
In seven black-and-white photographs, Michael McElroy's "An American Nightmare" tells the story of Howard Mallinger, a middle-aged man who loses home, health, and savings in attempting to forestall his ailing wife's death. It's a highly effective documentation of unassailable veracity, and if that's all we take from it, it's nobody's loss. But there's also something queerly sickening about these photos, and it goes beyond the familiarity or pathos in the story. For some reason, McElroy's shots seem staged. Howard, his wife, his adult son, the doctors, each appear like actors on a film set, which makes looking in all the more distressing because they're not, of course. It'd be naive to suggest this is an accident. McElroy's pictures are the most memorable in the exhibit not simply because we feel we've seen them before, but because we become conscious of the horrifying double-take we perform in "recognizing" them. Although Howard is presented as a character, we understand that he is not, and have to perform the work of re-assimilating him into real life ourselves.
Tomasz Tomaszewski, a 20-year contributor to National Geographic, employs a much different tactic. His "Hades?" series finds workers in Upper Silesia, Poland, performing hard manual labor and reflecting on their waning culture of industry. Tomaszewski's photographs are the richest and most strikingly detailed here, owing their composition to Renaissance battle paintings and making this drudging coal mine look like a circus. Unfortunately, you can also see traces of his employer's dramatic style. Tomaszewski tends to lionize his depictions of laborers and officers, and while the pictures are visually stunning, the subjects can often appear heroic and statuesque to the point of caricature.