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JAMES NACHTWEY

September 8 - October 15, 2005, at Fahey/Klein Gallery, West Hollywood

by Mario Cutajar


All images © James Nachtwey,
courtesy Fahey/Klein Gallery.




"Vietnam 2004", 2004, archival
ink jet print, 30 x 40".









"Iraq 2003", 2003, archival
ink jet print, 30 x 40".








"Iraq 2003", 2003, archival
ink jet print, 30 x 40".








"Sudan, 2004", 2004, archival
ink jet print, 30 x 40".








"Pakistan 2001", 2001, archival
ink jet print, 30 x 40".

James Nachtwey is perhaps the hottest war photographer on the contemporary scene. His images of war, famine, and disease have appeared in Time and the New York Times and have been collected in coffee-table books ("Inferno," Phaidon Press, 1999 and War: USA.Afghanistan.Iraq, de.MO, 2005). He has been the subject of a documentary ("War Photographer," 2001, directed by Christian Frei), and he wins prestigious awards, such as the Robert Capa Gold Medal, with the same regularity that other people get haircuts. He is also something of a liberal darling because unlike other war photographers who are either inarticulate or openly addicted to adrenaline and voyeurism, Nachtwey positions himself as a humanist whose images bring home the horrors of war in order to argue for its abolition: "If war is an attempt to negate humanity," he writes, "then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war . . . ."

I have no way of knowing how sincerely he believes this, but it is a patently untenable position. Ever since photography and the means to disseminate photographs widely became commonplace, the world hasbeen saturated with images of cruelty and violence without this appreciably retarding the ability of warmongers to whip up enthusiasm for the next "humanitarian intervention" or the next preemptive strike against the latest cartoon incarnation of evil. Whatever their intentions, war photographers have contributed to the aestheticization of war. Wars are now events whose primary tangible products are not bodies but pictures of bodies. The fault can’t entirely be laid at the door of Nachtwey and his predecessors. As Jacques Lacan famously enunciated, the signifier kills. Images, by their very nature, alienate us from what they image. Rather than confronting us with unpalatable realities, they help insulate us against atrocities by framing them, thus giving us the illusory sense of having mastered events that would otherwise be unspeakably obscene.

Giving up the naïve idea of the photographer as "witness" means that the significant question, when looking at the work of someone like Nachtwey, is to assess what, if any, attempts the photographer makes to subvert the structural limitations of his medium. Such maneuvers can be subtle or ham-fisted. They can even degenerate, as postmodernism did, into new clichés. But without at least recognition that the medium itself is not neutral, that it encodes a certain way of looking and, beyond that, that it encodes a whole discourse associated with that way of looking and framing, the best an artist can achieve is virtuosity. And this is ultimately what Nachtwey settles for.

In this exhibition Nachtwey is represented by approximately 40 images in both black and white and color. The subjects range from Pakistani heroin addicts to Iraqi Shi’a. In these, as in so many of the images that span his 30-year career, Nachtwey’s mastery of composition, lighting, color, and texture is fully in evidence. His photographs are unfailingly dramatic, indeed, theatrical. An image of heroin addicts entombed in a dark "rehabilitation" center makes full use of the spotlight effect of slanting light coming into a vast dark room through barred windows to create a Dante-esque (which is to say, Moreau-esque) vision of hell. An image from Darfur of a woman with a sick or dead relative (we don’t know which because Nachtwey only titles his photographs with country and date--this one is dubbed "Sudan, 2004") makes more than passing allusion to the Pieta.

Shi’a women encased in head-to-foot black chadors ("Iraq, 2003") are welded together to suggest a mountain range, with only a bare outstretched hand isolated against the black to suggest that the mass is animate. Nachtwey’s eye for the "iconic" is as single-minded and dogged as the homing head of a heat-seeking missile. The problem, as this particular photo illustrates, is that in so mightily striving to communicate something grandly symbolic about the Human Condition, Nachtwey’s photographs frequently descend to the level of style-obsessed fashion photography. The intent behind this photo and the related one showing a phalanx of marching Shi’a men in blood-stained white garments shouting and brandishing swords during (I presume) the festival of Ashura, may well be entirely benign, but these images are text-book examples of a Westerner latching onto a spectacle that validates his own fantasies of exotic Otherness. The "witness" here is revealed to be a fabulist.

Nachtwey does better when he attends to specifics without trying too hard to fit them into some preconceived art-historical template. In an image from Vietnam, the right third is occupied a boy napping with his head on a woman’s lap as they both sit on a bed. The left two-thirds of the picture is filled with what seems like a pile of fine gravel or sawdust that has seeped into the room from outside, and on which are stuck two chairs bearing an old television set and an electronic box. It is a picture in which the photographer seems to have some inkling of his own intrusiveness, and it stands out because the arrange-ment it frames is simultaneously strange and, relatively, matter-of-fact.

In the end, it’s worth keeping in mind that photojournalism does not exist to change the world but to sell newspapers and magazines by satisfying an insatiable demand for sensation and spectacle. What it delivers in the way of peripheral glimpses of other people’s suffering is it does so at the price of wrenching them from a context that resists being reduced to a simple image, and which is therefore rendered invisible. It is within these limitations that Nachtwey has chosen to operate. His achievement is that, perhaps more than any other photographer of recent times, he has made hell photogenic.