When I hear professional critics, or my students, bemoan the commodification of art, a wave of irritation engulfs me. Yes, yes, I think, we live in a capitalist society where art, like other things, is bought and sold. This is especially true of documentary photographs, which, almost from their inception, offered information to the masses and were never intended as pure art. Reproduced in newspapers and popular magazines, photographs thrive not just in the marketplace of ideas but also in the real, grubby one.
My intuitions on this matter were shaken, however, by a winter show of work, held in New York at Hasted Hunt, by the photo collective VII. This group represents photojournalists producing some of the most gutsy, powerful, disturbing work being seen today. Yet it was not the power of the photographs that struck me, but their presentation. Walking into the gallery, I was met—assaulted, really—by huge color blowups of two iconic photos. One is James Nachtwey’s portrait of a Rwandan man, in profile, whose face and skull were intricately, horribly carved up with machetes during the 1994 genocide; his eyes are wide with alarm and horror. The other is Ron Haviv’s image, taken during the Bosnian War, of a young Serb soldier kicking a middle-aged Muslim woman who has just been shot; the soldier gracefully holds a cigarette in his left hand. Each photograph measured more than three feet across and was for sale at the comparatively modest sum of several thousand dollars. Both had been sold.
What about all this was so strange and uncomfortable? First, the color saturation of the photos (Haviv’s original image was shot in color, but Nachtwey’s has usually been printed in black and white), combined with their size, made them look garish, almost boastful—akin, I thought, to billboards. Of course, one could argue that such photos should be glaring and massive, as are the outrages they depict: Why not confront the viewer aggressively rather than tiptoe around her sensitivities? Who can afford good taste when it comes to barbarism? Yet the ambitious scale of these photos, along with their vibrant colors, made me suspect they were trying to flee from their essence as presumably expendable news images and become closer to art photographs or paintings: attempting, that is, to be “real” art rather than “mere” documents.
It would be misplaced moralism to object to the sale of such images; why shouldn’t photographers, especially those as highly skilled and committed as Haviv and Nachtwey, make a living, and a good one? No, it was not the makers of these photos but their potential buyers whom I couldn’t help wondering about. I felt the same curiosity a month later, at a show of vintage Magnum photographs at Chelsea’s Steven Kasher Gallery. These images, all black and white, were presented in a more restrained, indeed classical, way: approximately the size of a piece of copy paper, they were matted in creamy...
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