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Fellows Find: Scholar studies the Sandinista revolution and the Contra War through the lenses of photojournalists

By Ileana Selejan

Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Front and back of press print “Nicaragua: 1978” from Magnum Photos collection.
Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Front and back of press print “Nicaragua: 1978” from Magnum Photos collection.

Ileana Selejan, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, recently spent time in the Magnum Photos collection with a dissertation fellowship from the Ransom Center. Selejan’s work focuses on aesthetics in war photography and protest art at the turn of the 1980s, specifically on the Sandinista revolution, the counter revolutionary war in Nicaragua.

 

The primary resource I consulted while in residency at the Harry Ransom Center between October and November 2011 was the Magnum Photos collection. I was interested in photographs taken in Nicaragua during the 1978–1979 Sandinista revolution and the subsequent Contra War until circa 1989, and I mainly looked at work by Susan Meiselas, Larry Towell, Abbas, and Chris Steele-Perkins. Some key questions guided my research: What constituted the “subject” for each of these photographers? How are the Sandinistas portrayed? How well documented was the counter-revolutionary side? Is there documentation of combat? How comprehensive is it? What are the main differences between work done before, during, and after the revolution? How are the victims of the war portrayed? Broader questions having to do with authorship, subjectivity, and the role of the photographer, as both outside observer and “concerned” witness, were at the core of heated debates that divided the photographic community in the 1980s. Politics and ethics, as the long war in Nicaragua proved, were hard to separate from the photographic records. The complexity of the images produced in this period is furthered with the introduction of a discussion of aesthetics.

For instance, the use of color in Susan Meiselas’s photographs from the revolution (published first in the press and later in 1981 as a group of 72 images in her seminal book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979) was one of the most innovative aspects of the period. Yet throughout the eighties, other Magnum photographers working in Nicaragua—Abbas, Larry Towell, and Chris Steele-Perkins—chose to stay with the rather traditional war photography aesthetic, established by earlier generations of war photographers, from Robert Capa to Henri Cartier Bresson. This style was certainly not exclusively a Magnum feature, since the majority of the photographers working in Nicaragua, local and international correspondents alike, chose black and white over color.

For at least a few years, Nicaragua became a powerful, highly controversial subject in U.S. politics and media. It cast a looming shadow over the Reagan administration throughout most of its years in power. Especially as the war in El Salvador escalated in parallel to the war in Nicaragua, many human rights workers, volunteers, journalists, and writers became involved in one way or another with the repercussions of the wars in the whole region. The violence was documented in detail, both in images and in writing. Even so, a large part of these conflicts remained unseen, forgotten, or remembered by only few of the survivors. At the same time, the contributions of numerous photographers expanded beyond the mere photographic documentation of the war. For instance, in 1990, Larry Towell published Somozas’ Last Stand, Testimonies from Nicaragua—an undersized book that consists primarily of testimonies of the victims of the war, placed along a minimal selection of his own photographs.

In 1983 Susan Meiselas co-curated the exhibition Inside El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, which consisted of work by the majority of the photographers active during the war in El Salvador, including her own. It was intended as a protest show, and as it traveled in the U.S. and abroad, it attempted to raise awareness yet again to the brutal consequences of the involvement of the American government in the war. The original exhibition records, prints, and text panels are stored in the archives of the Ransom Center.

The wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador remain two of the most documented conflicts of the 1980s. Both were brutal in the extreme, and the abuses of both sides, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, remain largely perplexing. Perhaps the hardest challenge has been to look at images of atrocities in such great numbers. Even as a twice-removed witness, it has been a difficult task to create distance and assume the position of the historian.

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Learn more about the Ransom Center’s 2008 exhibition Inside El Slavador.

Book chronicles “Postcards From America” road trip with Magnum photographers

By Elana Estrin

In May 2011, five Magnum photographers and one writer hopped on an R.V. at the Harry Ransom Center and launched a two-week road trip from Texas to California.

1,750 miles and thousands of photographs later, the result of the “Postcards from America” road trip is a limited-edition book that was released this week. The book is actually a collection of 18 items enclosed in a box signed by the itinerant photographers—Paolo Pellegrin, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky—and writer Ginger Strand: a book, five bumper stickers, a newspaper, two fold-outs, three cards, a poster, and five zines. According to the “Postcards From America” Tumblr, these items “combine to represent the idiosyncratically American character that defines this project.”

More information and pictures from the book are available on the “Postcards From America” website.

A selection of prints from the road trip will be added to the Magnum Photos collection, housed at the Center. The Ransom Center is pleased to participate in this documentary event, an outgrowth of the Center’s relationship with the Magnum Photos collective. In 2010 the Ransom Center joined in partnership with Magnum Photos and MSD Capital, LP to house 200,000 original press prints from Magnum’s New York bureau. The Ransom Center has since created a preliminary inventory and opened the collection for research to students, faculty, and the general public. The Ransom Center continues to work with Magnum, including the Magnum Foundation, to add further research value to the collection.

“The Ransom Center was the perfect place for us to start this trip,” photographer Susan Meiselas, President of the Magnum Cultural Foundation, told Cultural Compass. “Our picture distribution system, represented by the New York press print library that’s now housed at the Center, was part of the glue that historically held us together as a collective. In a post-analog age, we’re exploring new ways of being together collectively, and this trip was one of those experiments. We really saw how the Ransom Center could be a bridge between the old and the new. I hope we’ll keep doing more new projects together because I really believe in the importance of linking the archival materials to a living body of new production carried out with the same relentlessly curious spirit.”

Watch photographer Alec Soth lead a video introduction to the box set.

In the coming weeks, stay tuned for a follow-up blog post featuring a selection of prints from the road trip that will be added to the Magnum Photos collection at the Ransom Center.

Choose your favorite Elliott Erwitt photograph for the chance to win a copy of "Sequentially Yours"

By Jennifer Tisdale

While visiting the Harry Ransom Center in September 2011, Elliott Erwitt noted that “a good photograph is pretty obvious. It tells you a story very quickly. When it works, that is a good photograph.”

The more than 280 photos of 90 sequences in Erwitt’s new book Sequentially Yours (teNeues, 2011) certainly meet that qualification.

Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to pick your favorite Elliott Erwitt photo for the chance to win a copy of Sequentially Yours.

Publisher teNeues describes Sequentially Yours as Erwitt presenting “a sense of vignettes, each showing a sequence of photographs shot just moments apart. Gifted storyteller that he is, Erwitt gives you a sense of what happens next, the end point being sometimes comic, sometimes poignant, and often with a wink.”

In his more than 60 years as a working photographer, Erwitt has shot iconic images of historical figures and celebrities as well as photographs of ordinary people and everyday occurrences. Sequences in the book reveal a couple’s unsuccessful efforts to close their beach umbrella in windy weather, the interactions of the cast on the film set of The Misfits (1961), and other actions and events.

“In Sequentially Yours, Elliott has created a new form, somewhere between single exposures and film,” writes Marshall Brickman in the foreword. He describes Erwitt as having “… an affection for empty spaces, places where his subjects have been or will be in a moment, or for things or people who just disappear.”

Erwitt has remarked that taking good pictures requires visual sense, including a sense of composition and design. Erwitt’s other essential is curiosity, which is evident in these sequences.

Erwitt is the author of more than 20 photography books, including Photographs and Anti-photographs (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1972), Personal Exposures (WW Norton & Company, 1989), Personal Best (teNeues, 2006), and Elliott Erwitt’s Paris (teNeues, 2010).

The archive of photographer Elliott Erwitt, which includes more than 50,000 signed photographic prints, is housed at the Ransom Center. The Erwitt materials are currently being prepared for public access.

Fellows Find: Implicating History: Susan Meiselas and the Trafficking of Photographs about Nicaragua

By Erina Duganne

 

‘Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979′ by Susan Meiselas.
‘Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979′ by Susan Meiselas.

Erina Duganne, Assistant Professor of Art History at Texas State University, visited the Ransom Center on a Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship for a month during the summer of 2011 to review photographs by Susan Meiselas in the Magnum Photos collection. This research relates to her forthcoming book that examines the act of bearing witness in photography from the 1970s through the 1990s. She is also presenting her findings on Meiselas at the annual conference of the Association of American Studies. The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for 2012-2013 fellowships. Duganne discusses her research here.

For this fellowship, I closely examined press photographs in the Magnum Photos collection that Susan Meiselas took of the insurrection that occurred in Nicaragua in the late 1970s. My interest in these images was twofold. I sought to determine how these photographs were trafficked in print media, as well as how Meiselas responded to these uses through her 1981 book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979 and her 1982 exhibition Mediations.

To facilitate this research, I first organized Meiselas’s Nicaragua photographs according to the story index number that was, in most cases, found on the recto of the images. Next I located the actual newspapers and magazines that published these photographs so that I could compare which images from a particular story were in fact published and how they were captioned. I then compared how Meiselas used photographs from the same stories in her book Nicaragua and in her exhibition Mediations. Through these comparisons, I sought to determine the historically specific ways in which Meiselas’s Nicaragua photographs were distributed by Magnum Photos, used by the print media, and then recontextualized by Meiselas herself. In so doing, my aim is to suggest not only how Meiselas responded to this trafficking of her photographs, but more importantly, how she attempted to use these two projects to make viewers as well as herself implicit in the histories to which these photographs and their circulation bear witness.

Photographer Elliott Erwitt’s archive to be housed at the Ransom Center

By Jennifer Tisdale

The archive of photographer Elliott Erwitt (b. 1928), which includes more than 50,000 signed photographic prints, will be housed at the Ransom Center. Spanning more than six decades of Erwitt’s career, the archive covers not only his work for magazine, industrial, and advertising clients but also photographs that have emerged from personal interests.

Collectors and philanthropists Caryl and Israel Englander have placed the archive at the Ransom Center for five years, making it accessible to researchers, scholars, and students.

Born in Paris to Russian émigré parents, Erwitt spent his formative years in Milan and then immigrated to the United States, living in Los Angeles and ultimately New York. In 1948, Erwitt actively began his career and met photographers Robert Capa, Edward Steichen, and Roy Stryker, all who would become mentors.

In 1953, Erwitt was invited to join Magnum Photos by Capa, one of the founders of the photographic co-operative. Ten years later, Erwitt became president of the agency for three terms. A member of the Magnum organization for more than 50 years, Erwitt’s archive will be held alongside the Magnum Photos collection at the Ransom Center.

In addition to providing access to the archive, the Ransom Center will promote interest in the collection through lectures, fellowships, and exhibitions. The Erwitt materials are currently being prepared for public access.

Please click on thumbnails for larger images.

Image: USA. Arlington, Virginia. November 25, 1963. Jacqueline KENNEDY at John F. KENNEDY’s funeral.

We got our postcards today…

By David Coleman

Last month, the Ransom Center participated in and helped to sponsor an experimental documentary project from Magnum Photos called “Postcards From America.” The trip has now finished, topped off by a pop-up exhibition and reception at the Starline Social Club in Oakland. The show was terrific, and images from the trip, printed in a range of sizes, were taped up in groupings around the room. None of the images had credits, which forced everyone to really look at them. There were also two very long tables onto which were piled huge assortments of 4×6-inch prints from the trip, also presented anonymously. The prints had been made at a local drugstore, reminding us all that photographs are first and foremost acts of communication, meant for the widest possible audience. People spontaneously started grouping these images together into small sets, curating on the fly. Often, these images were combined with narrative texts from Ginger Strand, the writer traveling with the Magnum photographers.

This message was reinforced, just yesterday, when we received in the mail a set of signed postcards the photographers produced while on the road, one from each photographer. A thoughtful post on the “Postcards From America” blog by Strand sums it all up:

For the last several days, postcards have been rolling off Uncle Jackson’s two printers. There’s a lot of perfectionism around the postcards—choosing the right images, getting the colors correct—but in the end, it’s a naturally imperfect form. Whoever drops the postcards into the mail slot—whoever delivers them into the chutes and sorting machines and conveyor belts and plastic tubs and mail sacks and entirely human fingers of the United States Postal Service—that person is going to have to take a deep breath.

 

But that’s what a road trip is all about: the creative tension between the perfect, polished, product and the nature of the road: the fleeting glimpse, the passing landscape, the too-short message on a too-small card: look, this is what I saw.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

View photos from “Postcards From America” event

By David Coleman

On Friday, May 13, the Ransom Center helped to launch Magnum Photos’s road trip Postcards from America project.  The events began with an open bus where photography fans could meet and talk with Magnum photographers Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Paolo Pellegrin, Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky, and writer Ginger Strand at their R.V., which the Postcards group parked right on the plaza.  (As you can see in the slideshow, getting it there was a bit dicey!)

After that was the main event: a public talk by the photographers and writer discussing the origins and plans for the project.  Although their journey had only just begun the day before in San Antonio, each photographer presented some amazing images from just one day’s work.  You can see many of these images on the Postcards From America blog.

The Ransom Center was excited to participate in this new project, an outgrowth of our parnership with Magnum Photos and MSD Capital, LP to house 200,000 press prints from Magnum Photos’s New York bureau.

I encourage you to follow the photographers on their blog and through the Blurb Mobile app.  Do it soon because they are more than halfway through their trip, which ends in Oakland with an exhibition from their journey at the Starline Social Club on May 26.

 

Please click the thumbnail to view full-size images.