By Mark Feeney
WINCHESTER - It's hard for a title to set the bar higher than "Humankind."
Modeled on the landmark 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibition "The Family of Man," it shares its predecessor's forthright support of the party of humanity and commitment to social uplift. But "Humankind," which runs at the Griffin Museum of Photography through Jan. 11, labors under three severe disadvantages.
"Family" consisted of 500 photographs, "Humankind" has 31. Several hundred photographers contributed to "Family," 11 are in "Humankind." They all belong to the photo collaborative VII, which includes some of today's ablest photojournalists (the best known is James Nachtwey). Even so, with 6.7 billion people making up humankind, that's spreading ability awfully thin.
Most important, the MoMA show took place in a vastly different visual environment. The image glut we now drown in was then only a flood. The photographs in "Family" could introduce as well as redirect and reinforce. Inevitably, the eyes of contemporary viewers are inundated - and jaded - to a degree unthinkable half a century ago.
Perhaps that's why "Humankind" grabs viewers' lapels so tightly. "Rwanda Refugees," "Congo, AIDS Clinic," "Malaria, Peru," "The River Ganges, Pollution" are less descriptive than prosecutorial. With such titles you don't really need to see the pictures. The occasional photograph like "Krumping," "Cheerleaders," or "Ballerina Wendy Whelan" is the frameful of sugar to help the righteousness go down.
The conceptual thrust of "Humankind" matters less, of course, than the actual images making up the show. Many are spectacular, and some are spectacularly good. Christopher Morris's "North Korea" shows enrobed women arrayed en masse, a totalitarian tableau not quite vivant. Ron Haviv's "Blood and Honey" presents a man and woman in uniform kissing in front of war wreckage from the dissolution of Yugloslavia. A terrific image, it maintains an unnerving balance between affirming life and documenting its destruction.
Unfortunately, that conceptual thrust does its best (or worst) to interpose itself between viewers and image. Before we can be moved, we're preached at. Morris's "Hurricane Katrina" shows a globe, battered yet still brightly colored, against a dark background of bottles, books, and other debris. It's an arresting, startling image. Yet the title turns something the eye can barely comprehend into a neat little package the conscience can cluck over and instantly file away.
Or consider Haviv's "Darfur (Boys and Tree)" (see above). How differently would a viewer see the image if its title were just the parenthetical? Three young African males, shot from in front and below, are outlined against a tree. Its wretchedly bare branches seem to beseech a sky filled with storm clouds. It's a powerful, memorable composition. But the title pigeonholes it. The title tells us how to react.
"Katrina" and "Darfur" have entered that class of terms, like "Holocaust" or "apartheid" or "Ground Zero," that decent people (you know, like you and me) can be assumed to have a reflexive reaction to - as we should. But imagine Mr. Kurtz's dying words in "Heart of Darkness" as "The Congo! The Congo!" instead of "The horror! The horror!" There is a world of difference between the two, morally no less than aesthetically. It's the difference between journalism and art, fact and truth. "Congo" offers a kind of absolution - it's the Belgians' fault. "Horror" lies within us all.
John Wesley Mannion's "State School" juxtaposes decay and renovation. It consists of 10 color photographs, 2 feet by 3 feet, that Mannion took at the now-derelict Pennhurst State School and Hospital, in Pennsylvania.
Mannion would clean and paint portions of small spaces there. The contrast between the rubbish and peeling paint with the restored bits is disconcerting. It's nowhere near as disconcerting, though, as the contrast between the handsomeness of these pictures, with their rich and subdued colors, and the rotting scenes they document.
The most memorable thing about Jan Cadman Powell's "codedknits," a small set of photographic lithographs, is what inspired them. Fishermen in the Aran Islands, off the coast of Ireland, wear sweaters knit with highly specific patterns so as to make it easier to identify their bodies should they drown.
Powell has created a variety of knitting samples. Some have wondrous names: "Herringbone Blues," "Sirocco Skein," "Wager Welt." Seen on the page, they are dense, gnarly abstractions: reminders of the solidity of earth and warnings against the unforgivingness of water.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Humankind: Images by VII
State School: Images by John Wesley Mannion
Codedknits: Images by Jan Cadman Powell
Through Jan. 11
Griffin Museum of Photography
67 Shore Road, Winchester
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