© The Philip Jones Griffiths Foundation/ Magnum Photos

Vietnam, 1967. Limits of friendship. A Marine introduces a peasant girl to king-sized filter-tips. Of all the US forces in Vietnam, it was the Marines that approached “Civic Action” with gusto. From their barrage of handouts, one discovers that, in the month of January 1967 alone, they gave away to the Vietnamese 101,535 pounds of food, 4,810 pounds of soap, 14,662 books and magazines, 106 pounds of candy, 1,215 toys, and 1 midwifery kit. In the same month they gave the Vietnamese 530 free haircuts.  © The Philip Jones Griffiths Foundation/ Magnum Photos

The history of documentary photography and photojournalism cannot be written without addressing the complicated relationships that documentary photographers have with galleries and museums. Arguably these institutions and settings have provided a means for at least some photographers to extend their reach, to achieve certain kinds of professional distinction that allow them to continue to work, and to provide longevity to their projects. At the same time, gallery contexts place an emphasis on an art valuation that feels at odds with the photographer’s documentary purpose, creating distance between the audience and the photographer’s reasons, placing emphasis on the creative, personally expressive aspects of the work.

Brett Abbott, associate curator of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, grapples with these tensions in “Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties”, an exhibition shown at the museum last fall. The catalogue for the show is well-designed and very well-printed, and thick with information. An introductory essay provides a thoughtful condensed history of documentary photography (although it is limited by a focus on the US, LIFE magazine, the FSA and Magnum; as with the photographers selected for the show, Abbott uses familiar examples as his nodes). Despite its subtitle “Documentary Photography Since the 1960s,” Engaged Observers is not a survey of documentary work, broadly defined, since the 1960s; rather, it presents nine longterm projects produced over 50 years as examples of documentary practice characterised by commitment to the subjects and and an authorial, personal, often lyrical eye.

© Larry Towell/ Magnum Photos
Ojo de la Yegua Colony (Cuauhtémoc Colonies) Chihuahua, Mexico, 1992. © Larry Towell/ Magnum Photos

The photographers here are as well known as any photojournalist is ever likely to be. Each of the nine photographers is represented by one of their projects: Leonard Freed’s Black in White America, Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc., W. Eugene Smith’s Minimata, Susan Meiselas’ Nicaragua, Mary Ellen Mark’s Streetwise, Lauren Greenfield’s Girl Culture (and Fast Forward), Larry Towell’s The Mennonites, Sebastião Salgado’s Migrations, and James Nachtwey’s The Sacrifice, all classic works of photojournalism, or in the case of the most recent entries, on their way to becoming recognised as classics. There is enough representative work shown that the emotional tenor of each project, and not just of individual images, can be clearly felt. Every project is powerful – Salgado’s epic mythologising of globalisation; Towell’s intimate exploration of a diasporic community; Meiselas’ account of the beginning of a revolution – each in its own way. No two of these photographers could be described as overly similar.

© James Nachtwey
The Sacrifice (detail) © James Nachtwey 2007

With the exception of The Sacrifice, each project is well known as a book; each photographer’s section is introduced with a background essay, and the images are accompanied by their original captions. Abbott draws out rich detail about how each sought to make a case about their subject that was not mediated by magazines or gallery spaces, taking the photo book as the fullest realisation of the photographer’s documentary intention, as well as presenting information that would not be available in the original photo book itself. He recounts the way that Griffiths’ constructed a layered argument that the US government had poorly misunderstood Vietnamese culture, even as he recognised the diginity in individual American soldiers; he describes Nachtwey’s thinking behind creating a 33-foot long print for The Sacrifice; he details Mark’s engagements with her young subjects before and after her project and evokes the outrage that she felt that children could go homeless in the world’s wealthiest country; and he discusses Aileen Smith’s decision to support the decision of the parents of Tomoko, subject of the iconic image from Minimata, to cease offering permissions to use the photograph. Engaged Observers offers valuable insight into how the photographers came to produce the work that they did. And by drawing attention to these processes, it allows the work to come to life fully, certainly more so than in many other books that present the same work with less context.

© Lauren Greenfield/ INSTITUTE
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. © Lauren Greenfield/ INSTITUTE 2001

Abbott implicitly asserts Engaged Observers as an intervention in resolving the tension between gallery and documentary value. The Getty Museum has been collecting photojournalism and documentary photography over the last five years and Engaged Observers appears to be a kind of statement of purpose for this collection. While Smith’s and Nachtwey’s prints, and several of Griffiths’ were borrowed for the show, Getty has acquired many images by the other six photographers, mostly since 2009, so the scope of the show is informed by the museum holdings.

© Mary Ellen Mark

“Rat” and Mike with a Gun, Seattle, 1983. © Mary Ellen Mark

By foregrounding each project’s documentary character in format and text, Abbott is able to recontextualise these photographs in terms of their documentary significance, and resist an art historical reading, allowing the work to remain important, even urgent; Griffiths’ work certainly feels as relevant as Nachtwey’s here, and Freed’s is still as thought-provoking as Salgado’s. Abbott’s method is to create a documentary frame within a museum frame. The richness of the photography comes through despite all of these projects having been shown countless times before. By embracing, rather than suppressing the documentary context, the subjects feel as important as the art, and the art no less powerful.

Leo Hsu

Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties

Brett Abbott

2010 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles