The Book Club

Troublesome Beauty

Dear Jim,

This question of beauty is a knotty one. When I call Nachtwey’s photographs beautiful, I am well aware that they may not strike many people that way. They show horrific things, and they don’t apply an aesthetic wash to them. They are beautiful because of Nachtwey’s preternatural sense of composition—deep-rooted and apparently instinctual—and because the people in his pictures are so fully present that you can’t help but see their beauty despite their plight. Salgado is a completely different case. You can tell that he wants his pictures to be beautiful. When he bathes his gold-miners in golden light, he is deliberately evoking old-master paintings. When he shows you open mines with what look like 10,000 people working and dozens and dozens climbing rickety wooden ladders up the sheer face of the pit at the far end, he is deliberately eliciting the adjective “epic.” When Sontag applies the deadliest of all photo-world epithets—”Family of Man”—to Salgado’s lame-brained texts, she is suggesting something even worse: The Edward Steichen-curated show and book by that name (MoMA, 1955) was a project of monumental fatuity, however well-intentioned, devoted to showing that all over the world, children dance in the morning sun. Salgado, who as she points out fails to name his subjects, goes for a similar vacuous universality, only his is a universality of misery. If generalized misery is everywhere—not to mention highly aesthetic—then it is nobody’s fault. It is weather. We can emote about it, and then maybe we can send a thank-you note to the miners and to the parasites who own them for enhancing our ability to feel. For a photographer to perpetrate that kind of murderous indolence is unforgivable.

When you write that you don’t think a photo of an atrocity should be “a good picture, a beautiful picture, a well-composed picture,” though, I think you’re wading into the eternal debate over authenticity. If the Rodney King video had been properly framed and lit, it might have appeared fake. We want our documents to look like documents: hasty, ragged, produced under duress, so emotionally overwhelming the photographer could not concentrate on his craft. In reality, though, professional photographers and video operators with combat experience know how to frame, adjust for lighting, and find the best available vantage virtually without thinking about it. A picture taken by a pro that looks inept, unless it was made in extreme circumstances, is likely to be an intentional fraud. It is to be expected that all the pictures you see in the New York Times will be more than competent. They are chosen for their graphic impact as much as for their content, and professional photographers—who are, after all, as serious about the quality of their work as we are about our prose—will frame and light accordingly, regardless of the heat of the moment. But there is a difference between the rebarbative sort of beauty that Nachtwey or Gilles Peress or a number of others can produce and the beautification practiced by Salgado.

Note that the most horrifying pictures are very seldom taken—who would print them? Possibly the worst thing I’ve ever seen was a book that came into the second-hand bookstore where I worked after college. As I recall, it was a document produced in support of the Front Algérien de Libération Nationale during the Algerian War of the early 1960s, showing atrocities perpetrated by the French. Page after page showed horrifically mutilated bodies, with emphasis on severed genitals stuffed into mouths. I looked at the thing for 10 seconds and got rid of it. But those pictures had a specific use. The book was a work of propaganda (I don’t mean that it was untrue) intended to arouse rage and disgust. It had the effect of making me think about how much that happens in the world never makes it into the newspapers and how intertwined political reasons and reasons of taste can be. In general the press determines what is off-limits to photographers, and these days you don’t often see the dead. You almost never see American dead, part of the reason surely being a fear of lawsuits. But worse than pictures of death, I think, is the kind of humiliation regularly visited upon the underclass by tabloid television. The subjects on Cops and suchlike presumably sign releases, which the producers of those shows can brandish as moral sanction. Their ancestor was the archetypal tabloid photographer Weegee, whose pictures of the bereaved are always more brutal than his pictures of corpses.

I say that the press determines the limits of photography, but on the other hand, we are maybe a week or two away from war, and then it will be the government that will preclude anyone’s having a sense of what is actually happening. To judge from recent sorties, we can expect another video-game war, with imagery supplied by central command in Tampa and no indication that people on the ground are having their lives destroyed. Which is the greater obscenity, do you think: photographs of people with their faces blown away, or colorful patterns of blips with no evident consequence?

As ever,