Romantic poetry has few lines more famous than the conclusion to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn’’: “ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ - that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’’ Keats wrote his poem in 1819, 20 years before the invention of photography. Would that invention have made him wonder if truth and beauty were opposed?
It’s not the intent of “Global Health in Focus,’’ which runs at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University through March 24, to call into question Keats’s assumption. The show’s stated goal is quite otherwise. “Global Health in Focus,’’ a wall label says, “aims to educate the New England community about . . . critical global health issues, utilizing photography to offer direct insight into the individuals and communities involved.’’
But does the very considerable beauty of these pictures - Kristen Ashburn’s 13 black-and-white images of HIV/AIDS sufferers in southern Africa; Dominic Chavez’s color photographs relating to issues of water potability in Haiti and Africa; and David Rochkind’s 17 color photographs concerning tuberculosis in India, South Africa, and Moldova - work against communicating the no less considerable urgency and pathos of their subject matter? The beauty of these images arrests the eye, but that same beauty can perhaps lessen the impact of the truths shown about suffering and illness.
As their artist statements make plain, the last thing Ashburn, Chavez (a former Boston Globe staff photographer), and Rochkind want to do is aestheticize the people and problems they photograph. These are photojournalists committed to using their talents to better the world.
Yet the extraordinarily rich detail Chavez manages to convey of a dump in Sierra Leone makes the image no less transfixing for all the ghastliness of the setting. Rochkind uses color with such vividness and balance in a picture of a group of South African gold miners praying for safety that the eye can’t help but reduce them to secondary visual elements within the frame. The elegance and grave handsomeness of Ashburn’s pictures in no way mask the humanitarian and policy truths she wants to show. Inevitably, though, those truths seem less immediate. Part of the allure of beauty is in how it distances.
The fact that we see multiple examples of these photographers’ works increases the distancing effect. Where a single image seen on a computer screen or page of newsprint emphasizes the information that image contains, the balance shifts when the number of images grows and they are set apart on gallery walls. In that context, it’s impossible not to see these pictures as aesthetic artifacts first. It’s an instinctive, even reflexive, response. The “direct insight’’ that wall label refers to, while no less on display, becomes subsidiary. So much beauty works to subvert so much truth.
Where “Global Health in Focus’’ really does come into focus is in juxtaposition with the other show at the PRC. “Recovery,’’ which also runs through March 24, consists of a dozen black-and-white photographs by Willard Traub charting the course of his treatment for cancer and subsequent recuperation. Several of them appeared in a version of “Recovery’’ that ran at the Danforth Museum in Framingham last fall.
Traub’s images have a poetic quality. They are more about evocation than insight. Fittingly, the show includes six poems by him. The connection to his medical situation can be as direct as showing an IV bag, an empty bedpan, and a meal left unfinished - and as oblique as a view of his dog being taken for a walk. Movement and companionship are as much a part of healing as anything a doctor might prescribe. That said, the most moving item in the show is a list of nine medications Traub had to take. In the context of “Recovery,’’ the list has a powerful emotional effect.
It’s even more powerful when contrasted with the images in “Global Health in Focus.’’ Clearly, Traub received excellent and extensive medical care, as one would hope. The contrast with what is available to the people photographed by Ashburn, Chavez, and Rochkind is shaming. One thinks in particular of Ashburn’s portrait of a woman named Maria Vindi, a South African nurse. Both the woman and her portrait are hauntingly beautiful, but nowhere near as haunting as that she cannot afford the AIDS drugs she needs to stay alive.