New York

Photo Politic

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

“Photo Politic” is a show that brings together almost 400 images. These range through history from the Civil War to the present and over the globe from Italy and Poland to Central and North America. Every conceivable kind of photo image is included: salt paper prints done in the 1850s, and color Xeroxes done this year; photographs shot from TV screens or published by news agencies, and master prints by Edward Steichen or Gustave Le Gray. The show contains posters and books and newsprint and color prints. Scores and scores of photographers are represented in it. It fills eight separate galleries and was organized by ten different people. It is an enormous, ambitious, rambling, unmanageable show. I hated it.

In a way, I’m reluctant to say anything further because I don’t want to give the impression that this show is worth talking about, let alone worth seeing. Let it suffice to say that despite its hundreds and hundreds of photographs the show has only two ideas, neither of which is original. Both of them, in fact, are so cliched and hackneyed that they are beyond rehabilitation. The first idea is that juxtapositions of photographs make political statements. If Richard Kalvar and Gilles Peress go to the Democratic and Republican Conventions in 1976 and 1980, for instance, and if the curator Alanna Heiss then puts up on the wall their pictures of the delegates gaping, or sticking fingers in their mouths or generally looking goofy, along with their pictures of Miss Lillian and Nelson Rockefeller and Tip O’Neill looking like themselves, we will realize that O’Neill, Rockefeller, and Miss Lillian are a bunch of goofs, too. For this kind of insight I need to travel to Queens?

Kalvar and Peress are in Gallery Two. Passing on quickly to Gallery Three. we discover that nobody has had a new idea yet. Here waiting to greet us just inside the door is a Lewis Hine photograph of child labor in a coal mine. hung next to a poster and an ad showing the two child stars of the soft-core film The Blue Lagoon. The curator in this gallery is Sam Wagstaff. a very intelligent man who knows a lot about photography, but seems to have no specific ideas about politics. What I can’t figure out is why someone such as Wagstaff would lend himself to a travesty like this show. It’s no wonder that his contributions to it are. as in that opening gambit, banal and crude. Obviously there’s an assumption here that if you put the Hine photograph and the movie poster together, it will mean something. But if you put anything together with anything, it will mean something. This idea has been around at least since the early days of the Russian cinema. when Lev Kuleshov performed the famous experiments with montage that inspired Eisenstein. To try to use this idea at this late date in the simplistic, slapdash way we see here is. at the very least. historically regressive.

The Russians put the idea to better use by making it the basis of the editing in their movies. I think Heiss’ and Wagstaff’s galleries might both have benefited from a little editing as well. Of the 45 pictures in her gallery. I would have used one; and of the 66 in his, also one. The picture from hers that I would have kept is the last one, a Gilles Peress photograph of a woman behind a jungle of potted palms in a hotel lobby. She parts the fronds to lean out and speak with another woman passing by. The hint of both conspiracy and lunacy in this image is wonderful. The photograph from Wagstaff’s gallery I would have chosen is one by Jerome Liebling of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson walking slack-mouthed and exhausted toward a podium behind which his own face is beaming optimistically on a poster. The Peress and Liebling photographs together would have made a nice, tight little show.

The second unoriginal idea this exhibition has is more apparent in the overseas galleries—the Franco-Italian gallery organized by Seth Tillet, or the Nicaraguan-El Salvadorean gallery of John Stringer. This idea is that if you use rough. nasty, unreadable images, somehow you’re being honest, telling the truth. This politico-esthetic is epitomized by a Nicaraguan picture which is a view of the lake outside the capital of Managua. as seen from a hill in the rain forest It’s a beautiful scene in whose foreground is a man in jeans and bare feet whom we might take to be a sunbather. except that from the waist up he has no body to sunbathe with. All this assassination victim has left. protruding from the blue jeans. is the bloody stump of his backbone.

Like all the other images in the gallery. this one is a color Xerox. The assumption here seems to be that only a brutal image can convey a brutal fact. The same assumption is apparent in the Franco-Italian exhibition of video images, wire-service pictures, publicity shots and enlargements of halftone reproductions. In a way this presentation makes perfect sense, for aside from some minor episodes in the Aldo Moro kidnapping, most of us would have no idea who the people are in these pictures. what the news stories they represent are about. etc. Each picture is an indecipherable image of an incomprehensible event. Nothing could be truer than that to the spirit of this whole show.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.