The power of still photography to inspire deep emotional response was well-demonstrated two weeks ago in Oklahoma City. Adrift in a sea of video, it was the perfectly framed image of a heroic firefighter cradling the body of a dying child that hit the nation in the heart. Photographers interested in creating fine art can't even hope to affect us the way this kind of documentary work does.
A pair of remarkable exhibits now in town features two distinct kinds of documentary photography: the press photo and the snapshot. At Circle Gallery in Cherry Creek, it's an overview of more than half a century of work by the great photojournalist Carl Mydans, here represented by newly printed works beautifully processed at the state-of-the-art Time Warner labs, where the 88-year-old former Life magazine photographer still works in the photo division. At the Mizel Museum of Judaica, it's photo enlargements from the collection of Israel's Yad Vashem Archives, all taken on one horrible day in the Warsaw ghetto by a gifted amateur photographer and Nazi soldier named Heinz Jost. Unlike Mydans's technically exquisite pictures, Jost's photos are scratched and overexposed, though they, too, benefit from a set of new prints, which have been organized into a traveling educational display by the Smithsonian.
The title of the Mydans exhibit, Visions of Life, is a double entendre: Not only do the photos depict some of humanity's defining moments, they're also taken from the collection of Life magazine.
It was in the 1930s that the field of photojournalism became a self-conscious one. Many of the craft's early proponents came to photography not through the fine arts but from the storytelling tradition of the press. Mydans was no exception, having studied journalism at Boston University and later holding a job as a reporter for a New York business daily.
The event Mydans points to as pivotal in his subsequent triumphs occurred when he gave up his Brownie Box and his big Graflex in favor of the new "miniature" camera--what we know today as the 35 millimeter. Recently imported from Germany, the new, lightweight camera gave photographers greater freedom, allowing them, among other things, to shoot more pictures per roll.
Not many American photographers knew about or had much interest in the "miniature" import. But one individual who shared Mydans's curiosity for the new technology was Robert Thorpe, who in 1935 was charged with gathering together a handful of photographers to document rural poverty for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Farm Security Administration. As a matter of luck--and because of his interest in the 35 millimeter--Mydans was chosen to take part in a project that would result in a watershed moment for American photography: the development of the FSA style best recalled through the work of Ben Shahn, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, as well as Mydans.
FSA photographs have a characteristic intimacy, portraying human dignity in the midst of suffering. The photos were intended by FDR to arouse public passion, thus allowing him to get his radical-for-the-day economic ideas through Congress. And of course, it worked. (We may see a similar, if more spontaneous, political impact should the searing images from Oklahoma City help push Clinton's anti-terrorism legislation through Congress.)
Unfortunately, since everything in the current exhibit is culled from Life (Mydans joined at the periodical's launch in 1936), it doesn't include any of his FSA photos, which would have made a wonderful companion show. However, some of the earliest images included here still have an FSA feel. "Migrant Woman by the Side of the Road, Texas, 1937" is an exquisite character study of survival, as is "Oil Field Worker, Freer, Texas, 1937."
By 1940 Mydans was covering Fascist Italy, and it was there that he produced his first work in the hard-hitting Life style. Unlike the small scope of the FSA-influenced pieces, these photos have a monumentality appropriate to their subjects. Some will be familiar to viewers, like "Mussolini Among His Sycophants in Parliament, Rome, 1940," which shows the arrogant Il Duce, chin up, arms crossed over his chest, standing just below the main podium in the government hall. Many will also recognize "Ministers' Meeting, Fascist Rome, Italy, 1940," a shot from above of limousines scattered like straws across the Michelangelo-designed Piazza of the Campidoglio.
Mydans's career as a war correspondent was interrupted by a stint in a Japanese prison camp. He and his wife, Shelley, his constant companion and photo assistant, were captured during the invasion of the Philippines in 1941, finally being released in a 1943 prisoner exchange. By 1944 Mydans was back on the war beat, covering the allied invasion of Italy and France. In "The Abbey of Monte Cassino, Italy, 1944," he captured a famous scene: a virtual moonscape in which lay the bombed ruins of the greatest architectural loss of the entire war. The often-published "A French Woman Accused of Sleeping With the Germans During Occupation Is Shaved Near Marseilles, 1944" captures the drama of a woman, kneeling and in despair, surrounded by a crescent of partisans. The evil, leering expression on the face of a man with a rifle is bone-chilling.
In 1945 Mydans was back in the Pacific theater, returning to the Philippines to record the Allied triumph there. His sense for frame composition in "General MacArthur Landing at Luzon, 1945" is astounding. The piece looks staged, but that was hardly possible, since MacArthur and his aides were caught literally on the march. An event that was staged, though not for Mydans's lens, is the ceremonial scene revealed in "Japanese Surrender on Board the U.S.S. Missouri in Toyko Bay, September 2, 1945."
After the war, Mydans covered the U.S. occupation of Japan, the Korean conflict, the Fukui earthquake and politics back home. Anticipating the images that would later be associated with the short-lived Camelot years of the early 1960s is "Senator John F. Kennedy Campaigning With His Wife in Boston, 1958." But the scene of a smiling, gesturing Jack alongside an attentive Jackie in an open car also seems to eerily anticipate the assassination of the president five years later.
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Mydans's work was widely seen when it was immediately relevant. Not so the work of Heinz Jost in the Mizel Museum's A Birthday Trip in Hell: A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto. Jost took these photos on September 19, 1941, his birthday, and then hid them until the late 1980s, shortly before he died. The gripping scenes of hardship and death that Jost skillfully captured make one wonder what it must have been like for this apparently sensitive observer to have had all those bodies in his basement for all those years.
It might be beside the point (one feels irrelevant when confronted with these haunting scenes), but the photos are beautifully composed. And Jost, a Nazi soldier who defied the law in order to take them, brought with him a point of view that was undeniably sensitive to the Jews. Unlike the FSA photos of Mydans and others, these scenes, hidden as they were, did not help to change things. Imagine if Life magazine had gotten ahold of them in 1941. Could the Holocaust have been thwarted? Could the ghetto have been spared its ultimate fate--its destruction in 1943? We'll never know.
Twenty years ago, distinctions among photographers were clearly drawn. Not even a photojournalist at the top of his craft like Mydans, let alone an amateur one like Jost, were considered artists the way that contemporaries such as Edward Weston or Ansel Adams were. But our collective vision has been appropriately revised, and these distinctions seem increasingly meaningless. Mydans and Jost, just like Weston and Adams, knew what it was all about: the creation of unforgettable pictures.