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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  • Quotes of the Day

    "Writing editorials is like wetting your pants in a blue serge suit. It feels good, but nobody really notices."

    --Jack Germond

    "Famous men and women, by the act of putting themselves on display, whether as politicians, actors, writers, painters, musicians, restaurateurs, or whatever, invite public appraisal. They are all, impressively or pathetically, acting on the presumption that their ideas, their fantasies, their music, their bodies are more original than those of, say, a plumber or a certified public accountant. They are all exercising the impulse, as Mencken put it, ‘to flap their wings in public.’ This is so obvious to the critic–and, I believe, to the ordinary reader or spectator–that it seems hardly worth saying. But resentment of the practice of criticism itself is strong among professional artists (and all Presidents of the United States). There is a psychological type among them that hates critics on principle as parasites or failed performers. This is very natural but surely very childish and, in any country claiming to be civilized, actually anti-social. The existence of critics, good, bad, or indifferent, is a firm clause in the social contract between the governors and the governed in any nation that is not a dictatorship. Public figures should accept with good grace the public response to their invitations to be admired and resist the temptation to retort, except in the face of flagrant malice."

    --Alistair Cooke

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