Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Beauty Is Truth--Terrible, Cruel, Exquisite Truth

James Nachtwey
The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
--Oscar Wilde

Photographer James Nachtwey finds beauty--and even grace--in scenes some would consider too heartbreaking, too graphically affecting, to look at for more than a moment before turning away with eyes full of tears. To those I would ask, is that not the very noblest purpose of art itself? To provoke, to enlighten, to inform, and to inspire? Because Mr. Nachtwey's work, currently on display at the United Nations as well as 401 Projects in New York's West Village, most certainly elicits all of these responses and more. In this morning's New York Times, Michael Kimmelman notes:

Beauty is a vexed matter in scenes of suffering, cruelty and death. The difference between exploitation and public service comes down to whether the subject of the image aids the ego of the photographer more than the other way around. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Along with bravery and perseverance, Mr. Nachtwey’s pictorial virtue makes him a model war photographer. He doesn’t mix up his priorities. His goal is to bear witness, because somebody must, and his pictures, devised to infuriate and move people to action, are finally about us, and our concern or lack of it, at least as much they are about him and his obvious talents.

Mr. Natchwey, who in 1999 published Inferno, a book of photographs he took in Kosovo, Rwanda and other devastated war zones, has been documenting the resurgence of tuberculosis cases related to the AIDS epidemic, in Southeast Asia and Africa. And he worked extensively in Iraq, photographing wounded soldiers and insurgents alike, even sustaining injuries of his own during a grenade explosion.

Even the handful of photographs that accompany the NYT article are exceedingly difficult to look at--agonizing is not too strong a word--and they are nonetheless exquisite not only in their masterful composition, but also in their urgency and truth. And it is perhaps the truth of the collection entitled "The Sacrifice"--photographs of the wounded in Iraq, as well as the medical staff who care for them--that will provoke, enlighten, inform, and inspire Americans most at this point in time. Such honesty about the Iraq war has for the most part been in short supply, particularly as applies to information and straightforward facts from the White House. Mr. Kimmelman notes (emphasis mine):

Is this how these men would wish to be remembered? Are the pictures an invasion of privacy?

That was the Bush administration’s excuse for prohibiting photographs of returning coffins. But then there’s the argument made at the opening of the show at 401 by a ex-marine who lost his right arm in Iraq. (He was among a number of veterans who stopped by the gallery, a nonprofit space devoted to this sort of exceptional photographic projects, to pay tribute to Mr. Nachtwey.) The marine said he thought these pictures should be on billboards in Times Square so that everybody would know what’s really happening over there, and nobody could miss seeing them.

Wouldn’t that be something? Public art of real consequence and quality for a change, bringing home a war that the whole country is conducting but that only the small percentage of families in the volunteer military experience firsthand. There would be no chance to turn the page or flip the channel or skip the exhibition.

Public art of real consequence. Thank you, James Nachtwey, for your beautiful truths; may they enlighten many more, in New York and beyond, this spring.

(H/T Lisa in Baltimore)

Also at Ezra's place.

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