The Uneasy Documentary Vision of Susan Meiselas

The Uneasy Documentary Vision of Susan Meiselas

The Uneasy Documentary Vision of Susan Meiselas

A new exhibit explores the remarkably sophisticated wellspring of social, political and ethical deliberation of Susan Meiselas’ photography.


Every picture tells a story and has another story behind it: Who’s photographed? Who made it? Who found it? How did it survive? I wonder what we can know of any particular encounter by looking at such a picture today. We have the object, but it exists separated from the narrative of its making.
Susan Meiselas, 1997

Documentary photographer Susan Meiselas has worked from a remarkably sophisticated wellspring of social, political and ethical deliberation through four decades, considering (and re-considering) her own actions as an image-maker, cultural archivist and historian. Her fascinating exhibition “Susan Meiselas: In History,” on view at New York’s International Center of Photography through January 4, brings focus to three key projects from her protean career, presenting them as exemplars of her unique methodology. Mid-career museum survey exhibitions typically feature career highlights, ratifying an artist’s achievements. To the contrary, this show seems to parallel Meiselas’s propensity for challenging her own widely acknowledged gifts, the apparent ease with which she has made defining images of war, poverty and the lives of people rarely accorded mainstream media recognition.

“In History” is a remarkably complex installation, a kind of spatial assemblage of materials, including far more than just the still photographs for which she is best known. The show’s multiplicity of objects and approaches makes clear that Meiselas seems to have developed ever more “difficult” approaches to historical documentation as her career has progressed, in evident frustration with the apparent oversimplification (and under-amplification) of traditional documentary photographic practice. One gets the sense that she wants to sidestep and supersede the forces (“the powers that be,” in her choice of phrase) that typically control and mediate public experience of faraway lives through journalism. Increasingly, Meiselas has rejected even the positivist notion of “witnessing” that defines much “concerned photography.” Her work, more than any of her peers, has come to occupy a radical (as opposed to a traditionally humanist or reformist) position in the creation of storylines about peoples and historical events.

Meiselas’s early project Carnival Strippers is the most traditionally conceived and presented in the show, establishing her roots in the classic documentary tradition of Magnum Photos. (In fact, she was invited to join the elite photography agency as a result of this project.) Over three summers from 1972 to 1975, Meiselas made black-and-white photographs and revealing audio recordings at carnival circuit girlie shows, depicting the women, their performances, their audiences and backstage life in a series of unsparing vignettes. Presented at ICP in a darkened alcove space, “hidden” away and accompanied by recorded sounds of the midway and the women talking in their makeshift dressing rooms, Meiselas’s vintage photographic prints retain a powerful impact, rendering a forbidden subject with brooding intensity.

Visually, they are reminiscent of the work of Danny Lyon, whose images of motorcycle outlaws in The Bikeriders are an obvious antecedent; the artist has also admitted her debt to the visual narrative of Larry Clark’s Tulsa and the intimacy of Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street portraits. While they sit comfortably within humanist documentary traditions, however, the Carnival Stripper pictures are unusual in their frank evocation of the predatory voyeurism at the heart of strip shows. The photographs seem to implicate the viewer, extending the grim spectacle of the shows right into the still image–particularly via a disturbing fragmentation and cropping of the stripper’s nude bodies. Equally unusual is the artist’s offhand depiction of the midway as a site of labor, and of the strippers as people hard at work.

Meiselas’s color photographs of the Sandinista revolution in late-1970s Nicaragua stand at the center of the exhibition. Her 1981 book Nicaragua made her reputation and remains a remarkable volume, vividly depicting repression and poverty under Somoza, an organic uprising among the working class, a violent struggle and finally victory for the ragtag rebels. It is rare that such a complete story can be told in images, testifying both to the rapidity of the upheaval and to Meiselas’s access and perseverance. Openly sympathetic to the cause of the revolutionaries, the narrative seems structured to recall David vs. Goliath, or history recalled through a folk song. Though the book was well-received by many, it engendered opposition from some American academics and artists, who saw Meiselas’s photographic epic as a form of outmoded parlor humanism–not a radical publication at all, not the intense realism viewers imagined, but rather a fiction, a myth to support the preconceptions of distant observers. The best known of these critiques, by writer/artist Martha Rosler, placed Nicaragua (with disdain) in the tradition of concerned photography: “The liberal documentary, in which members of the ascendant classes are implored to have pity on and to rescue members of the oppressed, now belongs to the past.”

As the exhibition vividly demonstrates, Meiselas was herself conflicted about how her photographs were used to tell the story of the revolution: in her own book, in the original magazine and newspaper reproductions that brought them to wide audiences and as appropriated by the ascendant Sandinistas, who made icons of many of the images after the revolution. In the early 1980s she revisited the work in her exhibition Mediations, installing her original photographs alongside the various publications that reproduced them, so that viewers could consider the different contexts of their reception. In 1991 she tracked down many of her subjects for a documentary, Pictures from a Revolution, recording the people’s perspectives as though interrogating the truth of her images. Finally, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the revolution in 2004 Meiselas returned her photographs to Nicaragua as large digital blowups, installing them in public at the sites where they were originally made. “In History” includes elements of each of these reinvestigations, demonstrating the artist’s extraordinary engagement with the questions raised by her work.

The artist’s sprawling Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, with a recent coda of images made in 2007-08, concludes the show. Meiselas’ most difficult and innovative undertaking, it includes few of her own photographs. In essence it is a kind of archival investigation of a diaspora, a reclaiming of history through image and document: a chronicle of a lost country, on behalf of a scattered people. It is a remarkable project, but both in its book form and in the ICP exhibition, it is difficult to absorb without specialized knowledge or intense interest in the subject. Forbiddingly dense, it is unanchored by any easily readable narrative, and we have no photographer-surrogate to guide us through the forest of images and stories. Here Meiselas has literally redefined the notion of a “witness” away from the traditional photojournalistic paradigm: she has become viewer, collector, curious observer and finally participant in the making of an endlessly unfolding history.

In respecting the essential nature of Meiselas’s work, ICP curator Kristen Lubben takes viewers on a difficult journey, crafting an installation that respects the many layers of meaning that accrue to photography, suggesting the multiple realities that go into the making of all images: the world of the subject, what is seen in the frame; the context just outside the frame–the events and personalities and historical conditions that have led to that moment; the thinking of the person behind the lens, watching; and the minds of the viewers who see and interpret the image in print or on display.

“In History” is–more than one can reasonably expect–true at heart to the nature of work that fits only uneasily between museum walls. By turns straightforward and oblique, understated and dramatic, the installation encompasses a variety of presentation strategies. But it is, for its visual miasma, remarkably engaging and accessible. The accompanying catalogue, which explores Meiselas’s career in greater breadth and depth, is equally vital and perhaps more successful–in the sense that a book provides a more forgiving substrate for consideration of such complex questions as Meiselas’s work raises. It includes a lengthy and revealing interview by Lubben and excellent essays by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, David Levi-Strauss, Lucy Lippard and Allan Sekula, among others.

It is no great criticism to say “In History” exposes the conundrum at the heart of Meiselas’s reflexive approach to her own image-making. Wandering through the exhibition, one can easily get lost in the consideration and re-consideration of the images, as though the politics of looking has replaced “looking” itself. What is left of the photograph when everything–subject, photographer and viewer–have all been called to question? Like the antihero photographer of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, Meiselas has chosen to reject the surface meanings of camera images in a restless search for deeper, hidden, more mysterious and ineffable truths that lie at their heart, at their edges and, finally, outside the frame itself. Of course, such an inquiry leads not to answers, not to knowing; but rather to a richer set of questions.

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