This morning, while weeding through a pile of papers on the kitchen table (they seem to breed like mushrooms after rain), I noticed a ticket stub from an exhibition I’d gone to see in Tokyo on the 15th. The Tokyo Municipal Museum of Photography, near Ebisu station, is said to have a great collection of early photos of Japan, but most of it is never on show, and I missed the latest stingy glimpse of it by about two weeks. It does host some major travelling exhibitions, though,and I went to this one: Things As They Are – Photojournalism in Context since 1955. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of World Press Photo, and although you can see some iconic images from famous photographers (Cartier-Bresson and Avedon among them), it left me feeling fairly depressed. It was divided roughly into decades, with the best photo of each year blown up as a guidepost to each section (“best photos” – chosen by…? dunno. Other photographers, presumably. There was very little English except in the photos themselves, many culled from Life, Paris-Match, Bild, and other magazines of photojournalism’s golden age). With the exception of the first photo, from 1955, of a man falling off a motorcycle (and I’m assuming he wasn’t shot off), they are pictures of death and dying, intolerance, and agitprop from all sides. Algeria, the Congo, Vietnam, Laos, Nigeria, Cambodia, Afghanistan, are not countries here, but catastrophes. Into the 80s and 90s, the Soviet Bloc collapses and the newly-independant fragments find new ways to make each other utterly miserable. Natural disasters (Ethiopian drought, the Hanshin Earthquake), AIDS, drug addiction, the homeless and the refugee, leading right up to the present-day pointless quagmires in the Middle-East: all passively and coolly recorded with increasingly sophisticated lenses and film stock. You’ll easily recognize at least 20 images at first glance, none of which will cheer you up much. No doubt many of these pictures were taken by photographers who wanted to alert the public to the injustices of the world, but this half-century of information overload has probably done nothing more than help deaden our ability to feel anything at all. You can only be shocked so much before you become indifferent or at least learn to tune the bad news out (a television in the gallery, which always drew a crowd – showed a continuous, slow-motion loop of the iconic Zapruder film – Kennedy getting shot in Dallas. Such a part of our popular culture is this little stretch of highway, that what we are actually watching without flinching – a man sitting next to his wife having the top of his head blown off – doesn’t quite seem to register with anyone) . The final photos, from the first five years of this decade don’t really seem all that different from one another – large groups of people on a stark, bombed-out landscape, suffering. Unable to tell one slaughter from the other, we opt to focus on the aesthetics of the picture – a cold reaction, perhaps, but maybe it’s part of our survival instinct – the same one used by victims, who, witnessing all this misery first-hand, must find the will to step back from the abyss and move on.
One of the best sections of the show is a portfolio, taken by Richard Avedon during the American Bicentennial in 1976, of the then movers and shakers of Washington, D.C. Posing them in his usual deadpan style,unsmiling, full-length, on a white background, they look –appropriately – more like mugshots than the usual studio portraits of the day. He took them all, from the seedy-looking Vice-President (whose family owned Chase-Manhattan Bank) on down (there is no photo of President Ford, which is sort of a comment in itself). The surprising thing is that the further down he goes in the Government pecking order, the more recognizable and creepy they become to us in 2006: then-Governor Reagan, Bush,Sr., James Baker, Cheney. Even Donald Rumsfeld. Hiding in plain sight for 30 years. That was probably the most depressing fact of all.
The show is on until September the 10th, if you’re in the neighbourhood.