Carole Naggar is a poet, photography historian, curator, and painter. Her most recent publications are Magnum Photobook: The Catalogue Raisonné and Saul Leiter: In My Room. She is a regular contributor to Aperture and Time Lightbox, and since 2014 she has been Series Editor for the Magnum Photos Legacy Biography series. (April 2018)
An exhibition now at the New York Historical Society features six women photographers who contributed to America’s first successful image-based magazine, and how these women’s work “contributed to LIFE’s pursuit of American identity through photojournalism.” One of the most interesting features of the show is its inclusion of materials that illuminate the behind-the-scenes processes at LIFE, like contact sheets and editorial correspondence. For instance, in Hansel Mieth’s reportage on garment union workers, we see that images of the workers’ strike did not make the cut for publication. Neither did several images of women at work, many of them black. The published photographs—of women riding a bike and lighthearted images of the union’s summer resort, with couples boating on the lake or lounging on the ground—have an overall optimistic tone, emphasizing the American Dream and the good life, and distorting Mieth’s intent.
While in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the image was more about the photographer’s control of the frame, in Guy Tillim’s photographs of African cities it seems as if the subjects have been given a freer rein. Tillim has never believed that one frame can capture the essence of a situation. For him, all moments could be decisive. In these photographs, exhibited in “Museum of the Revolution,” at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, time neither seems to be racing forward, as in a film, nor does it feel suspended as in a single photograph. Tillim’s photo-sequences are closer to reproducing memory with its rifts, loops, gaps, hiccups and jolts. The images carry a sense of dynamism, yet uncertainty, an ambiguous feeling that maybe reflects a larger question about a continent’s future.
For their attention to everyday life and their tender spirit, Antanas Sutkus’s photographs in Planet Lithuania often evoke the spirit of Robert Doisneau, André Kertész, or Paul Strand—but Sutkus only discovered their work and that of other photographers of the humanist school much later in life, when he first traveled outside his country in 1992. Cultural isolation meant there was no access to photography books in Lithuania. Sutkus’s vast collection of images of everyday life in Lithuania under Communism from 1956 to 1991 is one of the largest existing archives of life under Soviet rule, a record of simple, quiet resistance.
Two retrospectives at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art demonstrate the relationship between two different but equally diligent photographers of the streets. Louis Stettner showed a compassionate tenderness toward his subjects, while Brassaï sought to create characters or archetypes out of the people he photographed. Like Brassaï, Stettner was a multi-talented artist, and during his very long career he practiced painting, sculpture, and collage as well as photography until late in life. Both outsiders, they succeeded in discovering the secrets of their chosen city, Paris. And for both photographers, the street was their teacher.
Although he did cover the front lines, Chim was not a typical war correspondent: he was mostly interested in reporting on the life and fate of ordinary citizens during the first war in modern history in which civilians were systematically targeted by aerial bombing, culminating in the annihilation of Guernica. Amsterdam’s Jewish Museum, whose modern galleries have been built on the remains of a seventeenth-century Ashkenazi synagogue, is a perfect home for the photographer: the multilayered architecture mirrors Chim’s complex itineraries across time and space.
Sally Mann’s images counter a saccharine, naive notion of childhood and show how children’s lives can be fraught with violence, shame, confusion, and fear, as well as joy and grace. But as Mann’s children grew older, they seemed to become smaller, receding into the distance of her photographs as the landscape grew around them. The misty, romantic tableaux of the Southern landscape that we might expect—lush forests and rivers, the ruins of grand colonial houses, their columns covered in wild ivy—was only one perspective. Mann seems to indict such images as merely conventional with her photograph of the boat lock and Tallahatchie River, in the Mississippi Delta, where the body of Emmett Till was thrown in 1955. The river view would seem banal were it not for the branch that reaches over the water like a twisted hand, and the single shaft of light plunging from the lock like a blade.
In Place Vendôme, a woman’s legs, blurred by movement, scissor across a puddle, with the obelisk reflected upside down in the water. In another image, a little boy in shorts with a radiant smile runs home, a baguette under his arm. In a photo from the late 1970s, people are lost in conversation on public phones in the then-new Châtelet-Les Halles metro station, their faces hidden by the curvy cabins—a wry comment, even more so today, on the isolation and anonymity of contemporary life. “I had the vague sensation that I was witnessing the savage meal of a group of carnivorous plants disguised as phones to better deceive human beings,” Ronis commented.
The Black Trilogy, a recent reissue of Ralph Gibson’s early self-published books, brings together three of his books into one volume. Gibson is credited with reimagining the modern photo book, transforming it from its more illustrative, thematic approach to a deeply personal, artistic form where the sequence is based on free association rather than chronology or narrative. By making available books that had, over the years, become hard to find, the trilogy offers an occasion to reexamine Gibson’s singular itinerary.