An interview with the curator of the Getty’s “Engaged Observers” exhibition

A major exhibition featuring work by some of America’s most important photojournalists is opening on June 29 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties” explores projects “that delve deeply into humanistic topics and present distinct personal visions of the world,” according to the press release, and centers on six photographers: Leonard Freed, Philip Jones Griffiths, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey, Sebastião Salgado, W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith, Larry Towell, and our own Lauren Greenfield. (For a PDF describing each of the photo projects on display, click here: Engaged Observers photo essays.)

I interviewed Brett Abbott, associate curator in the Department of Photographs at the Getty, about the exhibition, which comes at a time of great change for photojournalists.

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"New Orleans, Louisiana," 1965, by Leonard Freed. © Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos, Inc. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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Stockland Martel Blog: What was the impetus for this exhibition?

Brett Abbott: The Getty Museum has long made a special commitment to the documentary tradition in photography.  In 1984, the Museum amassed the most important and comprehensive holdings of Walker Evans’ photographs in the United States.  That collection has since been complemented by strong groups of work by other significant social documentarians from the first half of the twentieth century, including Horace Bristol, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, and August Sander, as well as mid-century press and wirephoto prints by photojournalists like Larry Burrows and Robert Capa.  Their nineteenth-century predecessors such as John Thomson and Felice Beato, and early war photographers Roger Fenton and Alexander Gardner, are similarly held in depth.

The Getty’s manner of collecting photographs, which has traditionally focused on acquiring groups of prints by significant photographers in order to represent the breadth of their particular approaches to the world, is well suited to the serial nature and essay format of documentary studies.  In recent years, the Museum has made a concerted effort to acquire prints by documentary photographers working since the 1960s, including photographs by Leonard Freed (from the Black in White America project), Lauren Greenfield (Girl Culture project), Philip Jones Griffiths (Vietnam Inc project), Mary Ellen Mark (Streetwise project) Susan Meiselas (Nicaragua project), Sebastiao Salgado (Migrations project), and Larry Towell (The Mennonites project).  Thus the collection, and its recent growth, provided the impetus for the show.

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"La Batea Colony, Zacatecas, Mexico," negative 1994; print 1999, by Larry Towell. © Larry Towell / Magnum Photos. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

"Shinobu at the entrance of her house," 1972, by W. Eugene Smith. Minamata photographs by W. Eugene Smith & Aileen M. Smith / © Aileen Smith. Courtesy W. Eugene Smith Archive / Purchase. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, 82.136.115.

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SMB: Tell me about the thought process behind the selection of photographers. Was your starting point the projects you wanted to feature, or was it the person behind the camera?

BA: For this exhibition, we wanted to represent the tradition of socially engaged reportage as it has been practiced since the 1960s.  We began with a broad view of the field’s most accomplished practitioners, and then chiseled down to a group of specific projects by a selection of those photographers that we thought could represent the tradition at large.  While certainly not comprehensive, the final group of nine essays is meant to be diverse (in subject matter, approach, medium, and date) so as to map the boundaries, developments, and goals of the tradition over the course of about 50 years.

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"Lillie with Her Rag Doll, Seattle," 1983, by Mary Ellen Mark. © Mary Ellen Mark. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Photo and caption by Lauren Greenfield: Erin, 24, is blind-weighed at an eating-disorder clinic, Coconut Creek, Florida. She has asked to mount the scale backward so as not to see her weight gain. Negative 2001; print 2002. © Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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SMB: How did your premise for the show evolve as you researched and assembled it?

BA: We initially considered presenting a broader spectrum of reportage in the twentieth century, but quickly realized that work made since the 1960s provided an extremely rich period to focus on.

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SMB: What are some of your personal favorites of the photos on view in the show?

BA: Leonard Freed’s picture of two men passing one another on the street in Washington D.C.:  Freed’s protagonists face off, their noses nearly touching on the two dimensional surface of the print.  The older white gentleman occupies a commanding presence in the center of the photograph, but it is the African American on the right who is in focus.  Within the context of Freed’s larger project on racial tension in America in the 1960s, they can be seen as representing basic and opposing forces of the civil rights movement: white and black, the old generation and the new, center stage and marginalized, present and future.  Indeed, the two play out this dialectic beneath a balcony clearly marked as belonging to the house where Lincoln died.

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"Church Gate Station, Western Railroad Line, Bombay, India," negative 1995; print 2009, by Sebastião Salgado. © Sebastião Salgado. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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SMB: There are far fewer print outlets for photojournalists these days. Media outlets happily use images made by amateurs. And the public doesn’t seem to have the patience anymore for long-form, deep-dive explorations of a subject. Where does that leave photojournalism? Is there still a place for “engaged observers”?

BA: Transitions in the news industry have certainly had an impact on the practice of this kind of photographic work, but the strength of this tradition has always been its independent spirit and I don’t expect long form journalism or documentary photography to disappear.  I don’t think the question is whether there is a place for Engaged Observers in the future, but rather how their work will be supported and disseminated going forward. In addition to partnerships with the media, gallery sales and grants are now important sources of support for many of photographers.  While there are serious challenges to overcome, I think interest in this kind of work remains high.

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“Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties” will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum June 29 through November 14, getty.edu.

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Related: “When it paid to photograph hard truth,” Los Angeles Times

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