Magnum @ 60: Paolo Pellegrin at CVZ

Posted on June 23, 2007. Filed under: Art, News, Night Life, Photography, Politics |

Paolo Pellegrin’s photographs of last summer’s war in Lebanon went on display last night at the CVZ Contemporary in New York City. Pellegrin is a member of the elite photography collective Magnum, which is sponsoring a month-long series of exhibitions celebrating its sixtieth anniversary.

Seeing the work in person is an experience (and I’d recommend taking the elevator over tramping up the five steep flights of stairs). It’s harder to dismiss. On the web, we can give photos a second or two of attention and then click–it’s gone forever. In person, a lasting impression remains in one’s memory. My impression was that I was looking at the work of a great photographer with a lot of guts. I tried to to put myself in his shoes, although I don’t think that’s what photojournalists intend their work to do. If it’s fair to generalize, then presumably they want their subjects to be the focus of attention, not themselves. But I can’t help it. I’m compelled to do both. If I am to look at photographs, then I will do so with the awareness that I’m viewing the world through the eyes of another person.

Photographs like Pellegrin’s can lead writers and viewers into areas where language ceases to make sense. For example, Pellegrin’s work is not merely a set of documents–they are works of art. But in what sense can they be said to be beautiful? Body parts? Grief-stricken people? Powerless victims caught in global war between politicians?

This could meander off into a rant about the cruelty of using air power in areas heavily populated with civilians. Large numbers of civilians are always killed in these campaigns. In WWII, my understanding is that very often large numbers of civilian deaths were part of the strategy. Punish the nation. Break their will to fight. Destroy their ability to make munitions. In the case of Lebanon, it seems that Hezbollah made its home among civilians perhaps in order to use them as human shields. I don’t know. It didn’t work.

My wife asked me if I thought that the exhibition would create anti Israel feelings, and I said that it was unlikely to change anyone’s views. People who are anti Israel have whole host of reasons for it already. Anyone who has looked into the matter has seen the photos of body parts and corpses left over when a bus explodes carrying unarmed Israelis. Not so curiously, the burnt body parts of both groups look the same. But there was one photo that may have showed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, smiling amid the ruins of southern Lebanon–and his gaze seemed demonic. If it was him, what on earth was he smiling about?


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