Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2000/08/31

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Subject: [Leica] les fleurs du mal: was OT: Nachtwey (was Personal portfolios of misery)
From: John Brownlow <>
Date: Thu, 31 Aug 2000 10:32:03 -0400


'Interesting' article. The quotes below reveal the tenor of the criticism.
They also reveal something else, which really underlies the whole article
and also some of the brickbats that were hurled at Kyle a couple of days
ago. This is the notion that to make something beautiful implies you condone
or enjoy it. This has simply never been true in art, and it is a catgegory
mistake of the first order.

The counterexamples are so blindingly obvious that it takes your breath
away: the countless representations of the crucifixion, the agony of Christ,
the Pieta... rendered with harrowing beauty by artist after artist down the

The Victorians had a go at this high moral tone thing, too, for a while. But
for every Tennyson and Arnold there's a Beaudelaire and a Swinburne and a
Wilde. I don't know about you but I get more out of Les Fleurs du Mal than
The Charge of the Light Brigade.

For me, the power in Nachtwey's vision is simply that it makes you look
deeply at things no rational person would normally linger on, and by doing
so makes you ask really fundamental questions about yourself and humanity.
Sure, you gotta wonder about what kind of a person would want to do this: I
can't think of any war correspondent I have ever met (I've been interviewing
one in particular for a script) who would claim to be 'normal'. Some of
them are adrenaline junkies, some of them are incapable of living in the
mundane world, some are in search of fame and fortune... I even met one who
travelled to Rwanda and Kosovo in search of his own death, but got too good
at dodging bullets, and turned into a survivor who was terrified to go to
war zones but had no other means of making a living.

The problem with the Village Voice piece is that it's shrill, it's nakedly
ad hominem, and it's tendentious. It imputes motives to Natchwey, Salgado
and Avedon that the writer can have no knowledge of. Whoever Woodward is,
his air of moral superiority over this particular crowd needs to be earned
not assumed. He seems to be saying, at bottom, that pictures of war can only
be good if they look like shit. Well, frankly, that's easy (given that
you're there with a camera in the first place). We can all of us take shit
pictures (except possibly Ted and Tina).

The difficult thing is to make beautiful pictures of terrible things:
difficult in every sense. Technically, sure, but that's the least of it. The
really difficult thing is that it is possible to find physical beauty in
morally repugnant subjects: personally I think that begins to go to the
heart of why these things happen again and again in the first place.

them quotes:

> the most pretentious group of news documents ever
> assembled.

> Nachtwey is about as anti-war as Herb Ritts is anti-fashion.

> When the starving woman in a wheelbarrow reaches her hand toward us, or the
> child on his knees near death looks up at the camera, we know where Nachtwey
> was standing when he chose to click the shutter.
> The incense of sanctimonious words around these pictures can't disguise the
> odor of superiority that lingers as you turn the pages. The power that
> Nachtwey exercises over these helpless people in foreign lands is mirrored by
> his ruthless attitude toward the viewer.

> The prying eye of the camera is justified by
> luxurious printing that turns dead or mutilated flesh into something for our
> delectation. 
> Nachtwey doesn't have causes... He seems to care
> little how people live, only how they die.
> Like Sebastiao Salgado, he wants to carry the
> world's agony on his shoulders and have us applaud his global compassion.
> They 
> want to be artists who suffer for our sins, even if their photographs reveal
> their own tainted desires and the luckless beings trapped in their sights have
> done most of the suffering.

- -- 
Johnny Deadman