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I recently visited the International Center for Photography (ICP). I was encouraged to see a photo from Abu Ghraib alongside one of Robert Capa’s Normandy landing photos and Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs from a liberated Nazi concentration camp. All were featured in the enjoyable and current A Short History of Photography exhibition, showcasing works acquired during the tenure of outgoing Director Willis “Buzz” Hartshorn.

Just as Capa and Bourke-White’s photographs are iconic of the WWII conflict, the Abu Ghraib digital photos are iconic and the images of America’s War On Iraq.

Both Capa and Bourke-White, in these instances, were photographers in the thick of it, in the moment, to deliver important news of the day to corners of the globe. Of course, the rise of citizen journalism has put pay to the idea that roving career photographers are now the first to a scene of international significance.

Without doubt the Abu Ghraib images – given their historical and cultural significance and dissemination – are rightfully in the ICP collection. That is not the issue; my questions were about the label:

Unidentified Photographer: [Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh, nicknamed Gilligan by U.S. soldiers, made to stand on a box for about an hour and told that he would be electrocuted if he fell, Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq], November 4, 2003. INKJET PRINT. Museum Purchase, 2003 (113.2005)

Museum purchase? Who would be a recipient of payment for the image? I suspected it might be a case of language and not action. Ever interested by provenance and the accession of items into museum collections, I emailed ICP the following questions:

– Is “Museum Purchase” just a standard note you attach to works or did ICP actually hand over money to someone or some body for the image?
– Did ICP print it off the internet?
– When deciding to acquire it into the collection, what decisions were made about the file, the printing, the paper, the ink?

Kindly, Brian Wallis, the Deputy Director/Chief Curator at ICP responded:

The Abu Ghraib photograph now included in the “A Short History of Photography” was originally printed for the ICP exhibition “Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib” (Sept. 17-Nov. 28, 2004).

At the time, only about twenty JPEGs were available, either on the Internet or from files supplied by the New Yorker.* We printed all images then available for the exhibition. They were printed on a standard Epson office printer, on standard 8½” x 11″. office paper, and pinned directly to the wall in the exhibition, in part to emphasize the ephemerality and informational nature of the pictures.

They were printed directly from the web with the understanding that these photographs, taken by U.S. government personnel, were in the public domain. We did not pay for them. The credit line in the current exhibition describes them as “museum purchase” in part because there is no other official museum description for how we obtained them; one could say we purchased the supplies used to print them.

So, no money exchanged hands. A relief of sorts. What one would expect.

I suppose ultimately, I have to give ICP some recognition for its 2004 reflex response to the pressing visual culture issue of the day; for presenting a set of images that for all intents and purposes falls outside of the normal acquisition avenues of major institutions.

ICP’s home-brew solution to show the Abu Ghraib, non-rarefied, non-editioned and thoroughly contemporary set of images is against the grain of many other museums chasing gate receipts through edutainment.

Left: Photo of allied forces landing on Normandy beaches, by Robert Capa; right: Photo of torture at Abu Ghraib, by unknown photographer.

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*Seymour Hirsch, who wrote Torture at Abu Ghraib (May, 2004) for the New Yorker, also provide the text for ICP’s Inconvenient Evidence exhibition – the catalogue for which you can download as a PDF

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All images: Pete Brook and taken without permission.

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Past and present ruminations about what is and isn’t a photograph have been a source of frustration for me. For one, people can draw whatever lines they wish to determine the point at which manipulation tricks out a photograph and thus qualifies it as photo-illustration. And for another, as Errol Morris keeps banging on about, ALL photography is lies (and manipulation).

These debates are not about truth. Interventions – power relations, habit, photographic custom, complicity among subjects, props, political agendas (and framing), cropping, tweaking of exposure levels before and after development, digital alterations – mean that photography can never be, will never be truthful.

People forget that often it is the ingenious tricks that have spurred the largest wonder among viewing public – think Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life, Spirit Photography and – in a different sense – Ansel Adams’ Zone System.

It is therefore, with some relief that an artist like Azzarella comes along using photo-manipulation as the tactic and purpose for his work.

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Last week, I questioned Anton Kratochvil’s Homage to Abu Ghraib, mainly because I think it makes little contribution to the discourse on the political aesthetics of Abu Ghraib. The blurry references to torture in Kratochvil’s images are in response only to a personal, conscious and willing point of view. I understand that Kratochvil’s work was an exercise in self-therapy but that shouldn’t stop me comparing it to Azzarella’s broader concerns about more general and unconscious reactions to well-circulated images.

If I w re to wr t th s sent nce wi h lette s m ss ng, you can still read it. The human brain is a wonderful instrument drawing on past experience to quickly filter out the non-possibilities. Just as the brain instantaneously deciphers gaps in text so it does with gaps in images.

With every passing hour the Spectacle suffuses itself further. It isn’t so much us reading images but images reading us. Our involuntary responses to images are predictable, predicted, precoded. The redacted action of violence in Azzarella’s pictures plays second fiddle to the original image, for it is the original image we drooled over and devoured.

The hooded detainee, dead student, wailing child or falling soldier needn’t even be present; our internal, emotional feedback spun by these images will forever be the same. We fill in the gaps and short circuit to prescribed disgust, sadness and politics, thus confirming our prevailing bias.

Azzarella’s works expose the fraud in us all … and our cheapened, robotic response to image.

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ALL IMAGES © JOSH AZZARELLA. FROM TOP TO BOTTOM: UNTITLED #13 (AHSF); UNTITLED (SSG FREDERICK); UNTITLED #24 (GREEN GLOVES); UNTITLED #35 (CAFETERIA); UNTITLED #39 (265); UNTITLED #20 TRANG BANG; UNTITLED #43 (PAR115311).

Book Cover

Cornell Capa, to some extent, lived in the shadow of his older brother Robert. I guess, it is easy for complacent men to adore the still and fallen martyr than to keep apace with a passionate and piqued practitioner. Cornell’s and Robert’s legends are one; Cornell ceaselessly fought his brother’s corner authenticity debate surrounding The Falling Soldier.

Cornell’s indebtedness to his brother was fateful and self-imposed:

“From that day,” Mr. Capa said about his brother’s death, “I was haunted by the question of what happens to the work a photographer leaves behind, by how to make the work stay alive.”

Disappointingly, it is only in extended surveys of Cornell Capa’s career that mention of his fifties photojournalism in Central and Southern America arises. Otherwise, Cornell is celebrated for his political journalism and particularly his campaign coverage of Adlai E. Stevenson, Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Cornell’s photographs from Latin America are often neglected, even demoted.

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The Kennedys were the foci of American progressive attitudes, and so, in the sixties, Cornell documented the concerned politician. Cornell was (not in a negative way) passive and the sixties were not formative. It was in the fifties that he actively worked to define the persona, the ideal: ‘The Concerned Photographer’.

Family Planning Honduras

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Cornell’s work in Latin America:

Beginning in 1953, Capa traveled regularly to Central and South America. He focused extensively on the explosive politics of the region, particularly issues such as elections, free speech, foreign investments, and workers’ rights. His first trip was to Guatemala for Life. Capa photographed banana workers and peasants, and the complicated relationship and struggle for power between the local leftist leaders, President Jacobo Arbenz and the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company. In his most dynamic news story, he covered the collapse and fiery aftermath of the regime of dictator Juan Peron in Argentina in 1955. A year later he photographed in Nicaragua following the assassination of dictator Anastasio Somoza.

In 1956, he was sent to Ecuador by Life to cover the brutal murder of five Christian missionaries. This was to be a life changing experience. Typical of the way Capa was to engage with his subjects over many years, rather than taking the photographs and leaving the scene, he continued to photograph the story over time. In particular, he focused on one of the widows, Betty Elliot, and her extraordinary, understanding relationship with the Indians with whom she and her young daughter lived for several years, as she pursued her missionary work and research into the native language and customs.

In 1956, Cornell was in Nicaragua reporting on the assassination of President Anastasio Somoza García. Somoza was shot by a young Nicaraguan poet; the murder only disrupting slightly the Somoza dynasty that lasted until the revolution of 1979 (that’s where Susan Meiselas picks up).

In the aftermath of the assassination over 1,000 “dissidents” were rounded up. The murder was used as an excuse and means to suppress many, despite the act being that of one man.

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Nicaragua Prison

I have no knowledge of what happened to these men after Cornell photographed them and I am sure you haven’t the patience for speculative-art-historio-speak.

I do wonder … if having witnessed revolution, early democracies, military juntas, coups, communism, social movements, grand narratives and oppression in various forms, if Cornell picked his subjects with discernment back in the United States.

As early as 1954 Cornell was working on a story for Life about the education of developmentally disabled children and young adults. Up and to that point in time, the subject had been regarded by most American magazines as taboo. The feature was a breakthrough.

In 1966, in memorial to his brother, Robert, and out of his “professed growing anxiety about the diminishing relevance of photojournalism in light of the increasing presence of film footage on television news” Cornell founded the Fund for Concerned Photography. In 1974, this ideal found a bricks and mortar home on 5th Ave & 94th Street in New York: The International Center for Photography.

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This institutional limbo that eventually gave rise to one of the world’s most important photography organisations was not a quiet period for Cornell. In 1972, he was commissioned to Attica, NY, to document visually the conditions of the prison. Capa presented his evidence to the McKay report (PDF, Part 1, pages 8-14) the body investigating the cause of the unrest. Cornell narrates his personal observations while showing his photographs to the commission.

Moving Prisoners, Attica

Yard, Attica

At a time when, the photojournalist community seems to have crises of confidence and purpose at an alarming rate, it would be wise to embrace his spirit in full recognition his slow accumulation of remarkable accomplishments.

Rest In Peace, Cornell.

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PHOTO CREDITS.
Robert F. Kennedy campaigning in Elmira, New York, September 1964. Accession#: CI.9685
New York City. 1960. Senator John F. KENNEDY and his wife, Jackie, campaigning for the presidency. NYC19480 (CAC1960014 W00020/XX). Copyright Cornell Capa C/Magnum Photos
Three men pushing John Deere machine, Honduras, 1970-73. Accession#: CI.3746
Watching family planning instructional film at Las Crucitas clinic, Tegucigalpa, Honduras], 1970-73. Accession#: CI.8544
Political dissidents arrested after the assassination of Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, Managua, Nicaragua, September 1956. The LIFE Magazine Collection. Accession#: 2009.20.13
NICARAGUA. Managua. 1956. Some of the one thousand political dissidents who were arrested after the assassination of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. NYC19539 (CAC1956012 W00004/09). Copyright Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos
Prisoners escorted from one area to another, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972 (printed 2008). Accession#: CI.9693
Two men walking around prison courtyard, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972. Accession#: CI.9689
Inmates playing chess from prison cells, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972. Accession#: CI.9688
Man on scooter carrying coffin, northeastern Brazil, 1962. Accession#: CI.8921

All photos courtesy of The Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive, Promised Gift of Cornell Capa, International Center of Photography. (Except for ‘The Concerned Photographer’ book cover; the Jack Kennedy photograph; & the second Nicaragua prison photograph.)


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