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March 28, 2007

Beauty Is Truth--Terrible, Cruel, Exquisite Truth

[litbrit looks on]

James Nachtwey
The truth is rarely pure and never simple. --Oscar Wilde

Photographer James Nachtwey finds beauty--and even grace--in scenes some would consider too heartbreaking, too graphically affecting, to look at for more than a moment before turning away with eyes full of tears.  To those I would ask, is that not the very noblest purpose of art itself?  To provoke, to enlighten, to inform, and to inspire?  Because Mr. Nachtwey's work, currently on display at the United Nations as well as 401 Projects in New York's West Village, most certainly elicits all of these responses and more.  In this morning's New York Times, Michael Kimmelman notes:

Beauty is a vexed matter in scenes of suffering, cruelty and death. The difference between exploitation and public service comes down to whether the subject of the image aids the ego of the photographer more than the other way around. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Along with bravery and perseverance, Mr. Nachtwey’s pictorial virtue makes him a model war photographer. He doesn’t mix up his priorities. His goal is to bear witness, because somebody must, and his pictures, devised to infuriate and move people to action, are finally about us, and our concern or lack of it, at least as much they are about him and his obvious talents.

Mr. Nachtwey, who in 1999 published Inferno, a book of photographs he took in Kosovo, Rwanda and other devastated war zones, has been documenting the resurgence of tuberculosis cases related to the AIDS epidemic, in Southeast Asia and Africa.  And he worked extensively in Iraq, photographing wounded soldiers and insurgents alike, even sustaining injuries of his own during a grenade explosion.

Even the handful of photographs that accompany the NYT article are exceedingly difficult to look at--agonizing is not too strong a word--and they are nonetheless exquisite not only in their masterful composition, but also in their urgency and truth.  And it is perhaps the truth of the collection entitled "The Sacrifice"--photographs of the wounded in Iraq, as well as the medical staff who care for them--that will provoke, enlighten, inform, and inspire Americans most at this point in time.  Such honesty about the Iraq war has for the most part been in short supply, particularly as applies to information and straightforward facts from the White House.  Mr. Kimmelman notes (emphasis mine):

Is this how these men would wish to be remembered? Are the pictures an invasion of privacy?

That was the Bush administration’s excuse for prohibiting photographs of returning coffins. But then there’s the argument made at the opening of the show at 401 by a ex-marine who lost his right arm in Iraq. (He was among a number of veterans who stopped by the gallery, a nonprofit space devoted to this sort of exceptional photographic projects, to pay tribute to Mr. Nachtwey.) The marine said he thought these pictures should be on billboards in Times Square so that everybody would know what’s really happening over there, and nobody could miss seeing them.

Wouldn’t that be something? Public art of real consequence and quality for a change, bringing home a war that the whole country is conducting but that only the small percentage of families in the volunteer military experience firsthand. There would be no chance to turn the page or flip the channel or skip the exhibition.

Public art of real consequence.  Thank you, James Nachtwey, for your beautiful truths; may they enlighten many more, in New York and beyond, this spring.

(H/T Lisa in Baltimore)

March 28, 2007 | Permalink


Nachtwey, Burrows, Fusco, Capa and many others tell us the truths we don't want to hear or see about our young men and women killing other young men and women and getting killed as we sit comfortably in front of our teevees and computers.

Posted by: Gray Lensman | Mar 28, 2007 12:06:16 PM

I don't think we need to paint the lily by invoking "the noblest purpose of art", etc. Gray rightly invokes Robert Capa, but I'd point to W. Eugene Smith as a worthy forebear. High technical polish, as with Nachtwey, not detracting from the journalistic message.

Posted by: Vance Maverick | Mar 28, 2007 12:26:03 PM

Vance, I think you meant gild the lily, no? Which I not only didn't mean to do, but would indeed be incapable of doing, as the photographs' power speaks for itself. I was just expressing my thoughts about the medium in a forum I know for a fact is not comprised solely of professional lensmen and art critics. As one such neophyte myself, I do thank you and Grey Lensman for the mention of additional artists/photojournalists--so we may see and learn more--as well as the W. Eugene Smith link.

Posted by: litbrit | Mar 28, 2007 1:12:47 PM

Thanks for posting the photo and the comments that put it into context very well, litbrit. It is beautifully composed, like a dance, and grips us and pulls us into the central point.

I'd like to say something unpleasant about the "public art of real consequence" idea, about the real consequences of such art.

Photos like this can motivate us in efforts to avoid and end wars, and to appreciate the acts of those who go to war for us. We can hope that will be true in this case.

Many viewing such a photo might join Senator Harry Reid in the simple obsevation that this war isn't worth a single additional American death.

As Wilde points out, though, the truth isn't simple. The horror of war cannot be stopped in Iraq by any simple means.

Unfortunately, focussing on American deaths as Reid does leaves aside the many, many similar events, which would likely not be captured in photos like this, that would result from our leaving Iraqis with a small fraction of the security they currently have. Those events wouldn't involve Americans, it's true, but people of similar flesh and blood, whose lives are as graceful and horrible as ours. We must be realistic about the consequences of our efforts to avoid war.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 28, 2007 2:15:46 PM

Unfortunately, focussing on American deaths as Reid does leaves aside the many, many similar events, which would likely not be captured in photos like this, that would result from our leaving Iraqis with a small fraction of the security they currently have. Those events wouldn't involve Americans, it's true, but people of similar flesh and blood, whose lives are as graceful and horrible as ours. We must be realistic about the consequences of our efforts to avoid war.

All too terribly true. I would suggest that such realism would demand that our policy makers defer to the judgement of those whose lives are as "graceful and horrible" as ours.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Mar 28, 2007 2:24:11 PM

WBR, it's a good point, but since I don't want to completely derail what I suppose litbrit hopes will mostly be a thread about other things, and there happens to be another thread about Iraqi policy, I've responded to you here.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 28, 2007 3:26:44 PM

Sanpete and WBR, please continue, because it is my hope that images like these will encourage dialogue. That said, you both do realize that the larger intended impact of public art--of many variants of art really, since I believe all of it to be political in at least some respects--is to provoke and enlighten people who might not otherwise give much, if any, consideration to a subject, and that readers here tend to be more sensitive and well-informed than the lion's share of the populace (okay, so I refer mostly to the ignorance and apathy so rampant in the Floridian populace with which I am familiar).

Call me naïve (you wouldn't be the first), but I hope at least a few people who view images like those in "The Sacrifice" come away from the experience with the seeds of compassion and, yes, outrage, planted somewhere within.

Posted by: litbrit | Mar 28, 2007 3:57:02 PM

Litbrit, here's a citation for gilding / painting the lily (for what it's worth).

I don't think we have a serious disagreement, but I do think that invoking high art in this context diminishes what's distinctive about art without clarifying what's valuable about good photojournalism.

Posted by: Vance Maverick | Mar 28, 2007 4:11:10 PM

Dang, got the link wrong. Here.

Posted by: Vance Maverick | Mar 28, 2007 4:12:28 PM

Thanks, litbrit. I'm sure we won't stop, but it might still be better to keep the non-photo-specific Iraq argument in one thread, even if the photo has provided some of the impetus, for which it is very effective. It's confusing (for me at least) to carry out one argument in two threads at once.

Interesting about "painting the lily," Vance. I'd be interested in more on how treating the photo as high art diminishes what's distinctive about art. I've often heard such things, but different people seem to have different ideas in mind, and I've never been entirely convinced about the need for the distinction.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 28, 2007 4:35:12 PM

Vance my own curiousity matches Sanpete's. Please elaborate.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Mar 28, 2007 4:37:52 PM

Vance, so you're saying that I am more contemporary than you, my Liege?

In all seriousness, I do acknowledge that there are fundamental distinctions between photography and photojournalism. Though I still maintain that in their greatest hours, both will provoke and enlighten; if those do not represent the noblest purpose--for either--well, what would, then? I should clarify that my interest in photography and photojournalism has been largely shaped by a dear family friend, Steven Katzman, who is a Florida-based artist. I believe Steven's done some shows in NY and L.A. as recently as this year. Anyway, (since one good link deserves another) his work is beautiful, and in my opinion defies the either/or categorization (as art or journalism). From his bio:

Steven Katzman is a self-taught photographer who has combined, over the years his long-time interest in political science with his photographic journey. Although he does not work from anyone's theories on the appropriate direction for contemporary art, most of his photographs exemplify the post modernist notion that to be relevant to the final quarter of the 20th century, art needs to be political in nature. Katzman is, however, an artist, not a propagandist. Consequently, his images are not overtly political: the viewer must take time to think about each photograph to arrive at its ultimate message.

Like his forerunners, Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and Dorthea Lange, Katzman presents beautifully crafted, matter-of-fact images of his subjects, but his work goes beyond the parameters of photo-journalism. The boxers, prisoners and cremation images deal in subtleties that are ultimately political. In later series he manipulated his subject matter to create metaphors. These photographs can be particularly disturbing, sometimes shocking. But Katzman's goal is never to merely shock, rather, he wants the viewer to think about the image and answer these specific questions in his or her mind: Who is the person in the photograph? What is (or was, in the case of the death images) their life like? How do you feel about the issues being raised?

Katzman has already asked these questions of himself. He arrived at his answers through the direct experience of being up close and personal with his subject no matter how emotionally difficult it was for him. Through photography, Katzman attempts to share his experiences with the viewer.

Posted by: litbrit | Mar 28, 2007 4:57:19 PM

this photograph should be prominently displayed wherever bush and cheney might see it the most.
last thing to see before they went to bed, and the first thing to see when they wake up in the morning.
...how can they stand having so much blood on their hands, knowing all that they are accountable for?
how can they sleep at night?

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 28, 2007 5:02:04 PM

I should admit that I come to Art from an angle that doesn't privilege representation -- my formative examples are music (and instrumental music at that). So I don't really buy "beauty is truth, truth beauty" except in the broadest metaphorical sense. And of course it's not easy to carry such an aesthetic over into photography, where representation is essentially unavoidable and the distinction between photojournalism and photo art is porous at best.

Given that (and under the influence of John Szarkowski, etc.), in photography the work I most admire doesn't find its value so much in the things it makes you see as in the way it makes you see. Moriyama's stray dog, for example, isn't famous for exposing the deficiencies of animal rescue in Japan, or Modotti's staircase for inspiring a building safety campaign.

Having said that, I find great value in strong photojournalism like Nachtwey's, just not the same value as the one I find in Art. I'm old-fashioned enough to think art's uselessness is essential....

Posted by: Vance Maverick | Mar 28, 2007 6:25:17 PM

diane arbus was an amazing photographer/genius whose pioneering works would be very relevant to this conversation.
...in the light of this conversation, i would urge anyone with sufficient interest to try and look at some of her works.
......she created riveting and indescribable portrait studies.
.....norman mailer said that giving her a camera was like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.
....photographing cruel beauty and truth were her lasting legacy.
her brother, incidentally, was the poet, howard nemerov.
diane arbus committed suicide...it is no wonder...there was so much truth and pain enunciated in her photographic works.
this is just a little tribute to diane arbus for being a lens to human suffering with such unsentimental and unflinching courage.

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 28, 2007 8:22:26 PM

I'm old-fashioned enough to think art's uselessness is essential....

Then it isn't useless, is it?!

I know, I know, you meant art's inherent lack of utilitarian purposes, but if it attracted your eye and made you think--made you see something differently--I'd say it served a useful purpose.

Ah semantics--the last refuge of a tired writer/mother scoundrel.

Posted by: litbrit | Mar 28, 2007 8:26:20 PM

No, "essential" doesn't mean "useful" (unless you mean that if uselessness defines art, then uselessness is thereby useful). But we're pretty close to agreement here. I'm certainly not knocking Nachtwey, just trying to carve out another space for the term "art".

Arbus is remarkable, indeed. For a case that pushes the tangle or conflict of art vs. journalism to an even weirder pitch, try Weegee.

Posted by: Vance Maverick | Mar 28, 2007 8:40:00 PM

art takes the imaginal and creates a vision that can be shared.
when we hold onto it for ourselves, it can be visionary, cathartic,healing....when it becomes a shared vision and it becomes part of the world, it becomes communal...a part of our living knowledge. an emotional expression of energy from one soul that influences, touches, heals, exalts, provokes, elicits.. in some ways, art becomes like a touchstone.
.....the phrase "count it for joy" refers to all things.and that seems true for art as well.
if it touches our spirit, examines a paradox, makes us more aware of our humanity,causes us to ponder or grow even in discomfort, euphoria or sadness, or as is often the case, a mirror to see our most private feelings in as well....all of that is beautiful in and of itself.
...just imagine all of the souls that have lived before us who continue to touch our lives everyday through the amazing perpetuity of their own artistic/visionary experiences that they were willing to share with the world.

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 28, 2007 8:45:34 PM

vance maverick...

thank you for that link to the weegee photographs and the suite of others as well.
when i look at those black and white studies, i feel like i step into the photograph, hungering for all of the details...in a way that doesnt ever happen for me with a painting.
....being with a painting always feels fluid, magical...but moving into a photograph has an immediacy and a sense of alivity and detail that makes me feel like i have entered briefly into that space in a very real way. like i want to absorb the details with a magnifying glass!

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 28, 2007 8:58:15 PM

vance maverick...

glad you know of the works of diane arbus.
she truly lived her art.

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 28, 2007 8:59:31 PM

jacqueline, I adore Diane's work. My coauthor for the vintage clothing book, Linda, is a photographer and art professor; Diane Arbus is her ultimate heroine. A strange thing happened when we began writing the book: Linda came across a beautiful black velvet Christian Dior evening coat from the late 1940's, offered for sale at Amazon.com's auction site by a seller who described it as having been owned by the wife of a department store magnate. I can't recall if the Nemerov name was in the copy or not, but other clues were, and during the exchange of emails, Linda confirmed that the coat's seller was Diane's sister, and it had belonged to their mother, who loved it and wore it to many an elegant evening out, even to Diane's shows. Linda writes about the story of the coat, and even wears it in her author photo in the book. Strange things happen when creative people get together. Strange and wonderful things.

Posted by: litbrit | Mar 28, 2007 10:25:09 PM


what an interesting story!!
thank goodness for serendipitously wonderful things.

(i think you would enjoy the poetry
of billy collins)

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 29, 2007 12:37:02 AM

Well it seems we four can commune in our mutual admiration of Diane Arbus. Words can't do justice to her work. All one can say is, Go and See.

Not to be drily pedantic but I would observe that, as near as can be determined, from its early origins art has been inextricably bound up with utilitarian values of one sort or another. The ancients from Egypt and Sumer through Greece and Rome all produce their art the service of agendas of one sort or another. The tomb paintings of the Pharoah's were both incantation and instructions. In Athens and Rome the Arts served both the polis and the prestige of its leading citizens. Art was a bulwark of the church during the Middle Ages. The Medicis and others used art likewise in the Renaisance. The notion of Ars Gratia Artis is a very recent conception.

Jacqueline, several years ago I had a poem published by the Exquisite Corpse. I wonder if I could impose upon you to solicit your opinion of it?

Posted by: WB Reeves | Mar 29, 2007 2:45:49 AM

an artist can always find a reason for his art to exist.
so an attic vase,the top of a sarcophogus,a perfume amphora...every space becomes a canvass...
..kind of like leafing through an artistic person's chemistry notes...lots of scientific illustrations...there are flowers, hearts and vines framing the periodic table of the elements!
....my daughter's school notes by the end of the year, look like an illumninated manuscript!
and wb reeves, i would be honored to read your poetry.
thank you.

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 29, 2007 10:07:22 AM

Jacqueline, maybe WBR won't mind if I post the link for his peom, since you might not see it otherwise.

I've never developed an ear for poetry, but I thought I heard the train. And I thought of the prodigal son while I read it.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 29, 2007 6:13:14 PM

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