“News is the first rough draft of history” ~Alan Barth (1906-1979)
By Suzanne Révy
Photography is a powerful but flawed witness. News pictures lack the context of what happened outside the frame or events leading up to and following the moment the shutter was released. How a photograph is published can add or diminish its power as a document and can raise questions about biases, representation and truth. And yet, taken in the aggregate over decades, newspaper archives are a wealth of historic information. Truthiness and the News, one of three photography exhibits called “PhotoSynthesis on view at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum through March 29, 2020, examines how photojournalism and documentary photography can inform our views and political persuasions.
Organized by Koch Curatorial Fellow Sam Adams, the exhibit opens with an ode to that venerable institution of the late 19th and 20th century: the printed newspaper. It was delivered to your door or picked up at another relic, the local newsstand; it is an odd coincidence that the sixty year-old “Out of Town News” on Harvard Square permanently closed last month. The manner in which news is disseminated has fundamentally shifted and fractured. Images such as Lisette Model’s “Man Sleeping near the Seine, Paris” with his newspaper draped over his head is unlikely to be seen today; the ubiquitous newspaper has been replaced by digital devices.
Despite fewer hard copy opportunities, documentary photography remains a robust medium for story telling as evidenced by the work of artists such as Rania Matar, Barbara Norfleet and and Kevin Bubriski. Bearing witness and relaying narratives of violence or redemption from around the world do not necessarily lose their power through online presentation, but the impact of a print… its presence on a museum wall creates a distinct intimacy between the viewer, subject and photographer. For example, Bubriski’s portrait of a woman with her eyes closed, her face turned upward in a moment of repose on a busy New York street opened a flood of emotion for this viewer… I can feel the tension in her crossed arms. We learn the picture is part of a series made near the World Trade Center in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, her gesture reveals a reverence for the sunlight on her face tinged with sadness and resolve.
This exhibit asks visitors to consider the impressions they might form when viewing news or documentary photographs through different mediums, whether in a newspaper, online or on the gallery wall. Alongside prints, the exhibit presents duplicates of the front-pages of of vintage newspapers and magazines. A section of the exhibit is devoted to the work of Charles “Teenie” Harris who worked as a photojournalist for the Pittsburgh Courier from 1938 to 1983. By the mid-twentieth century, it was the largest African American newspaper with fourteen regional editions. It covered issues around institutional racism and violence alongside the everyday human interest stories in the black community. Broadly interested in the full spectrum of life, Harris created a significant archive; seeing his images presented in the paper from that time and as museum prints now, allow for viewers to consider the role that time plays in shaping our understanding of a particular photograph. What happened to the boys who encountered Richard Nixon? Or the Sheard family who prayed for their father after he had been beaten by a white mob? The biggest, question, of course… how and why have so many news outlets given up on community coverage in favor of partisan bickering and outright falsehoods?
Consumers of newspapers and magazines have dwindled since the late nineties, owing in part to shorter attention spans, but also by a growing suspicion of the bias inherent in any reporter or photographer’s work. Artists such as Sarah Charlesworth and Lorraine O’Grady examined how newspapers used words in pictures in interpretive art and collage. For example, Charlesworth rephotographed a month of Herald Tribune front pages from 1977 masking out the words, but leaving the mast head and pictures. Her critique is valid… it is striking how many images feature weapons and portraits of men. She asks, how does the visual presentation of photography shape the opinions of their readers? In the forty years since, newspapers have become quaint antiques, and contemporary news outlets compete loudly for our attention; in today’s media environment we have to ask, how can we engage the news to find the humanity and common purposes that Charles “Teenie” Harris so artfully recorded?
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