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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Searching for truth amid the suffering

WILLIAMSTOWN -- At what point does bearing witness become exploitation? It's a simple question with no answer, simple or otherwise. ''Beauty is truth, truth beauty," Keats wrote. He never said anything about what happens when truth -- grievous, atrocity-bearing truth -- takes beauty to places beyond imagining.

For posing the question with such seriousness and good intentions, ''Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain" deserves credit. It also deserves credit for bringing together work by some of today's foremost photojournalists and art photographers. They include Sebastiao Salgado, James Nachtwey, Joel Meyerowitz, Nan Goldin, Susan Meiselas, and Nicholas Nixon.

This is a show that wants to make museumgoers think, and think hard. But thinking hard doesn't come easy when confronted with a conceptual muddle, which is what ''Beautiful Suffering" is.

The exhibition, which runs through April 30, consists of some 50 items: not just photographs, but also print layouts, posters, advertisements, magazine covers, video sleeves. Many of the photographs and all of the other items are products of the mass media. They all, in one fashion or another, touch upon the visual presentation of human affliction.

The muddle begins with the title. It's not an oxymoron. Christian tradition has a long and enduring commitment to the idea of redemption through pain and sacrifice. Seen in such a light, suffering can indeed be beautiful -- as spiritual or moral beauty, rather than aesthetic. Christ on the cross is the defining example. Countless others exist, from the early martyrs to Simone Weil wasting away during World War II.

Yet the show presents only one overt reference to this religious tradition, and it's a peculiar choice: a photograph of Andres Serrano's cause celebre, ''Piss Christ," which consists of a cheap crucifix submerged in urine. Is the association meant to be with the suffering Christ, or the very real suffering that seeing the image might cause observant Christians? Either way, the connection to other images of suffering included here, such as a photograph from Abu Ghraib or the pictures of homeless people taken by Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Boris Mikhailov, seems tenuous at best.

Tenuousness is a frequent problem. Paul Seawright's ''Valley" shows spent shell cases littering an Afghan road. It's an arresting image even if you don't recognize it as an elegant homage to Roger Fenton's epochal Crimean War photograph ''The Valley of the Shadow of Death." The train of inference is obvious -- shell cases, artillery, war, destruction, death -- but after enough degrees of separation, suffering becomes abstract.

It takes a careful eye to note the artifacts of war in ''Valley." No one can miss the corpse Sally Mann photographed for her book ''What Remains"; it takes up most of a 30-by-40-inch picture. Surely, though, death -- not the condition or illness that brought it about but the simple fact of it -- is not a form of suffering.

Sam Taylor-Wood's ''Jude Law" comes from her book ''Crying Men," which consists of photographs of famous actors emoting. Tip O'Neill famously said that power is the illusion of power. Presumably, not even the most crazed epistemological ontologist would say that pain is the illusion of pain.

There are numerous images in which the issue of suffering is in no doubt whatsoever: pictures of AIDS victims, war refugees, exploited workers. And there the issue becomes one of beauty in its more commonly used sense. The overlap between morality and aesthetics -- between grim content and artful form -- has never been great, and that's especially so where life and death are concerned.

When photographers take into account framing, lighting, and other artistic considerations to show the diseased and dying, do they trivialize the plight of their subjects? Do those subjects become mere props for the career advancement of the photographer -- and moral self-congratulation of the audience?

These are questions no serious person can ignore. Yet they seem self-answering when one sees, for example, Mary Ellen Mark's picture of a nurse cradling the head of a leprosy patient. Yes, it's an image that's impressively composed. The nurse is black and fleshy, the patient bone-white and emaciated. Their heads are symmetrically placed in the frame, joined by the fat curve of the nurse's arms. Yet such thoughts only come afterward. More important -- more immediately taken in -- is the pairing of helper with afflicted, and how it indicates a very literal connection between the world of extreme suffering and the more fortunate rest of us.

The question of the relationship between beauty and suffering is, in a way, most straightforward -- and troubling -- when an artist creates or appropriates an image of duress. Can unreal suffering be beautiful (if truth is beauty. . .)? In ''It's the Real Thing -- Self Portrait at Buchenwald," Alan Schechner digitally inserts himself (bearing a can of Diet Coke, no less) into one of Margaret Bourke-White's images of concentration camp survivors. Schechner, who lost relatives in the Holocaust, has described this as an attempt to connect with his Jewish heritage.

The correct art-school response would be to say that Schechner is helping us see with fresh eyes the horror of the Nazi extermination of the Jews -- and it's a two-fer, since he gets a dig in at consumer culture, too. But a simpler response would be that he objectifies the men in the photograph no less than he does the Coke can, implying (however inadvertently) that both are equally disposable. Sometimes we shrink from the images in ''Beautiful Suffering" because we can imagine what the subject felt. Sometimes it's because we can't imagine the artist feeling.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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