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.