Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontiéres) is a French-based organization that defends journalists and promotes freedom of the press on five continents. In 2010, it observed the 25th anniversary of its founding.
Magnum Photos, founded in 1947, is to photojournalism what the Yankees are to baseball or, to use a comparison that’s more fitting (and less irksome), what Cristal is to champagne. Legend has it that the Magnum name came from that size of champagne bottle, which had been shared over the lunch where the idea for the agency was agreed to.
The show “101 Photos for Press Freedom” honors a quarter century of Reporters Without Borders with that number of images from Magnum. It runs through April 22 at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and is also sponsored by the consulate-general of France. More than 60 Magnum photographers are represented.
The photographs are neither matted nor framed, with the extensive captions (in both French and English) printed on the same large-format sheet as the images. They’re pinned to the wall, as dorm-room posters might be (but what a dorm). This lends them an immediacy and accessibility, which is welcome. This also makes them seem casual or even vaguely disposable, which isn’t. Disposability is in the nature of journalism, there’s no denying that. Some of these images, though, are among the most indelible of the 20th century.
The show begins with two such: Robert Capa’s photograph of a dying soldier in the Spanish Civil War and one of the pictures he took of the D-day landing. Predating Magnum’s start, they’re included as a tribute to Capa, the founder most closely associated with the agency. There’s also the last picture he took, in 1954, moments before he stepped on a landmine in Indochina. There are images from Magnum’s other founders, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour, and George Rodger, too.
Some other extremely famous images follow (the show is hung in roughly chronological order). Josef Koudelka’s juxtaposition of wristwatch and a deserted Wenceslas Square just before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia merges Surrealism and reportage. Though taken in 1979, Susan Meiselas’s picture of a Sandinista fighter about to hurl a Molotov cocktail might qualify as a visual summing-up the 1960s. Steve McCurry’s portrait of a young Afghan woman is nearly as well known as Stuart Franklin’s photograph of the “tank man” during the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.
Seeing these photographs is like hearing the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — or, for that matter, “Layla.” Reaction is as much a function of recognition as admiration. The relative novelty of others makes them stand out through surprise and intrinsic interest.
A 1952 Werner Bischof photo of a POW camp shows North Korean prisoners forced by their American captors to square dance — that’s right, square dance — in front of a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The sight is so bizarre it almost doesn’t seem shocking. A 1986 Jean Gaumy photograph of Iranian women in chadors taking target practice would be comic if the sense of visual dissonance weren’t so menacing. Perhaps nothing in the show can match the simplicity and eloquence of Gilles Peress’s 1994 photograph of a pile, horrifyingly large, of machetes used in the Rwandan genocide.
The famous names in “101 Photos” don’t just belong to photographers. There are also such subjects as Gandhi, Khrushchev, Nixon, a young Dalai Lama, Che Guevara, the Beatles, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. In a nice curatorial touch, King hangs next to Malcolm X, captured in profile by the late Eve Arnold. Malcolm wears a fedora so rakishly angled (speaking of visual dissonance) it could be a ring-a-ding-ding loaner from Frank Sinatra.
After about 1970, the famous faces all but disappear. Might it be that the powerful finally caught on to how subversive the uncontrolled image might be? Or is it that as we entered an age of celebrity, with renown increasingly a drug on the market, the best photojournalists looked elsewhere? Whatever the reason, the only exceptions are Radovan Karadzic and Hugo Chavez.
Maybe that paucity of famous faces reflects the growing anonymity of those on the other side of the camera. Surely more able and dedicated photojournalists are working now than ever before. But none of them, not even a James Nachtwey, say, is a star the way Capa or Cartier-Bresson was.
That’s more than just a matter of talent. What photographer has ever had a better eye – or set of reflexes – than Cartier-Bresson? The status of photojournalism has much more to do with the visual climate in which they work. A devaluing of pictures inevitably devalues the status of picture takers. Images inundate us. Try to imagine what your computer screen would look like without YouTube and Flickr and the “Images” option when you use a search engine. We crave images ever more even as we ponder them less and less.
Maybe this shift began when a clothing manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder recorded John F. Kennedy’s assassination on 484 frames of Kodachrome II with his 8mm movie camera. The things we prize in a good photographic image – such elements as composition, framing, clarity – were absent in the Zapruder film. That didn’t stop it from becoming as studied a set of documentary images as there’s ever been. Many viewers of “101 Photos” may recognize the photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy at JFK’s burial. A few may even know who took it, the gifted and versatile Elliott Erwitt. Yet the impact of its very considerable artistry pales before that of Zapruder’s amateurishness.
Perhaps the change came later. South Central Los Angeles rioted 20 years ago this month. Those riots never would have happened if a bystander with a video camera hadn’t recorded Rodney King’s beating by LA police officers 13 months before. Do you know the videographer’s name? It’s George Holliday (I had to look it up).
Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Both goodness and closeness take on very different meanings in a world where smartphone cameras and surveillance cameras and webcams are ubiquitous. Part of the fascination of “101 Photos” is getting to see a visual history of the last 75 years: from Spain to Normandy to India to Suez to Cuba to Berlin to Vietnam to Berlin again to the Balkans to lower Manhattan to Iraq to Afghanistan. A different kind of fascination, and a melancholy one, has to do with these superb photographs now being history, too.