Stunning new exhibit at the Hunter celebrates editorial photography
The new exhibit “New York Times Magazine Photographs,” which opened at the Hunter Museum Nov. 28 and runs through Mar. 22, engages the viewer with images of startling power and originality. Curated by New York Times Magazine photo editor Kathy Ryan and organized by Aperture Foundation’s Lesley A. Martin, this exhibition explores work published by the magazine during the last 15 years.
Over 100 photos, taken by 35 photographers, are organized into 13 sections that reveal the surprising range of creative expression possible with the camera. The finest photographers from around the world explore subjects as diverse as the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, the world of high fashion, the Olympics, the war in Iraq, and celebrity portraiture. Their photo essays invariably display the New York Times Magazine’s willingness to push beyond convention and seek a fresh viewpoint.
“To me, the process where a photographer visualizes a subject and the creative way a painter reimagines a subject just aren’t all that different. I don’t see them as two separate things.”
– Hunter Museum Chief Curator Nandini Makrandi
Thanks to the creativity of the photographers, the camera’s expressive potential is readily apparent. However, if the photography of these modern masters is individual in its vision, photojournalism itself is a corporate process. A unique feature of this exhibition is the way it documents how the photo essays seen in the magazine come into being, how photographers are chosen for assignments, and how, through careful selection and thoughtful presentation, a visual story is honed by the magazine editors.
We see not only published photos, but also the many that did not make the editorial cut. Tearsheets show how the photos that ran in the magazine actually looked in print. As Nandini Makrandi points out, “Normally those editorial decisions are hidden, but in this exhibit they are brought out for the viewer’s consideration.”
An examination of just a few of the photographs in the exhibition will serve to illustrate how the willingness of the magazine’s editors to take chances often results in images that are unforgettable.
For over 40 years, the legendary Brazilian photographer and environmentalist Sebastiao Salgado has documented the lives of people all over the world with powerful black-and-white images. In 1991, with the U.S. and its allies about to invade Kuwait, he anticipated events, calling Kathy Ryan the day the war began to ask if he could document the environmental devastation he was sure would occur. Hurrying to the Mideast, he waited on the Kuwaiti border as the New York Times frantically pressed authorities to allow him access to the oil fields. Days later he witnessed an inferno—over 100 oil wells in flames and workers struggling heroically to stem the disaster. Salgado’s black-and-white photos are elemental in their grim power, perfectly expressing the desperate struggle of exhausted men taming the damaged wells.
In 1997, for a very different project, “Assignment: Times Square,” the magazine assembled a roster of 16 photographers, each of whom could bring a very different eye and sensibility to the story. At that time, the Times Square neighborhood was on the edge of a complete transformation from its seedy past, and the editors wanted to capture a sense of the storied place. The resulting photo shoot produced an astonishing variety of images: city streets, buildings, portraits, and genre scenes. Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjork’s photo of the buildings at the corner of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street is timeless. “Forty-Second Street at the time was a strange place,” writes Tunbjork, “with all the abandoned cinemas and porno palaces—like a big empty theater set. I took this picture on a sunny Sunday. I love sunny Sundays in New York; the air is clean, and the light is so crisp and hard. I thought of the paintings of Piet Mondrian when I saw these buildings and the strong colors.”
In addition to giving considerable creative control to its photographers, the New York Times Magazine also likes to do “cross-over” assignments, asking photographers known for their deft handling of one subject to photograph something different. An example is shown in the assignment given to Roger Ballen. Known for his dramatic and disturbing surreal images, Kathy Ryan chose him as a photographer for a fashion shoot. Ballen worked with actress Selma Blair to produce “The Selma Blair Witch Project: Fall’s Dark Silhouette has a Way of Creeping Up on You.” The photograph “Resemblance,” at once creepy and funny, has Blair, dressed in designer clothing, inhabiting an image both enigmatic and psychologically charged. Not surprisingly, Ballen has noted, “I won an award for that fashion shoot but no one has asked me to do another one.”
In yet another example of the magazine’s creative thinking, assignments sometimes go to artists who are not photographers. Artist Chuck Close’s photos appear in “Assignment: Times Square” and Jeff Koons, a sculptor, worked with actress Gretchen Mol to recreate Bettie Page images from the 1940s and ’50s, in which sexual fetish imagery is presented in vivid color and filtered through Koons’s tongue-in-cheek humor. “When you’re looking at a Jeff Koons photograph,” says Makrandi, “you’re not necessarily looking for him to be a technically excellent photographer. The interest is in how he translates the vision he is known for into the medium of photography. Is his puckish sensibility and his sense of humor present in his images?”
Paolo Pelegrin’s work would hardly be called puckish. The exhibition contains three of the photo essays Pelegrin has done for the magazine over the last 15 years. We see his photography move from film to digital, but always his work has what Kathy Ryan has called “a poetic sensibility.” In his 2002 essay, “An Impossible Occupation,” he tells the story of a platoon of Israeli soldiers on duty in Palestinian territory. His 2004 photos in “How Did Darfur Happen?” explored a humanitarian crisis. “The Exodus” from 2009, documents the flight of Libyans across the border into Tunisia and displays his ability to deal with large events in terms that are both immediate and empathetic.
“One of the fun examples of cross-assigning can be found in the Olympic portfolios Ryan McGinley has done.” — New York Times Magazine Photo Editor Kathy Ryan
The brilliant young photographer Ryan McGinley had previously worked with subjects such as skateboarders, musicians and graffiti artists. His assignment to photograph Olympians was a challenge to transcend the banal. His talent, combined with the resources provided by Kathy Ryan, created images of lasting beauty. The magazine contracted with the design team of Rodarte to provide special outfits for the athletes. McGinley came up with unique camera angles and compositions. Thousands of photographs were taken, and a visual story evolved that goes far beyond appearances to reveal the very essence of what these uniquely trained people are. In his incredible photo of free-style skier Emily Cook, McGinley captures a moment in the performance of a sport that routinely sends skiers soaring into the sky, and Cook is shot against the sky, soaring into the sky, becoming the sky. She defies physical laws, hovering as an ethereal being above the common world below. It is a visual manifestation of how she feels at that very moment.
This exhibition is a powerful viewing experience, rewarding the visitor with world-class photographs, many in large format, but also with a rare glimpse into the process of photojournalism. It is not to be missed.