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In the Galleries: Susan Meiselas

By Jessica McDonald

Susan Meiselas. “Nicaragua. Matagalpa. Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard.” 1978 © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
Susan Meiselas. “Nicaragua. Matagalpa. Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard.” 1978 © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.

 

In a stunning break with the black-and-white tradition of war photography, Susan Meiselas’s pulsating color images documenting the resistance against—and ultimate insurrection of—the brutal Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua were published in magazines and newspapers around the world. The revolutionaries quickly appropriated her photographs, adapting them for billboards, postage stamps, posters, and other imagery in support of their cause. In 1981 Meiselas (b. 1948) published her landmark book Nicaragua, June 1978July 1979, combining photographs, historical documentation, and the personal testimony of Nicaraguans in an attempt to “overcome the sensational quality of fragmentary news reports by placing these events in the context of an evolving political process.” Retracing her steps, she returned to Nicaragua in 1991 for the film Pictures from a Revolution, and again in 2004 for the project Reframing History, an installation of 19 mural-size enlargements of her original photographs at the sites where they were first made, reigniting discussions about the past and reconsiderations of dreams once held of a better future.

 

For some Magnum photographers, picture stories published in magazines and newspapers represent just the first stage in the development of a much larger project. Some consider the book the ideal platform for extended visual narratives. Conceived independently and conducted outside the traditional framework of photojournalism, books have become a mainstay of documentary practice and an integral part of Magnum’s creative repertoire. Since the agency’s founding, Magnum Photos has published dozens of group projects, and its members have collectively produced over 1,000 volumes that together form both a history of Magnum and a history of the modern world.

 

Photographs from Meiselas’s project in Nicaragua are on view through January 5 in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age. Meiselas will speak this weekend at the symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.”

Teaching Magnum: What we can learn from Magnum Photos

By Abigail Cain

“Nicaragua. Matagalpa. Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard.” 1978 © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos
“Nicaragua. Matagalpa. Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard.” 1978 © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos

Photojournalist Susan Meiselas broke tradition when she photographed the “people’s revolt” in Nicaragua in color. In 1981, black and white was still the accepted medium in which to depict conflict. Yet, she described the choice as best capturing “the vibrancy and optimism of the resistance.”

Learn more about Meiselas’s photograph and how it influenced Donna DeCesare, award-winning documentary photographer and University of Texas at Austin Associate Professor of Journalism. DeCesare writes about this and other images from the current exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, noting their impact on her photography and teaching.

Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, on display at the Ransom Center from September 10 through January 5, explores the evolution of Magnum Photos from print journalism to the digital age, revealing a global cooperative in continual flux, persistently exploring new relationships between photographers, their subjects, and their viewers.

On this Thursday, September 26 at 7 p.m., DeCesare speaks about her new book Unsettled/Desasosiego, which explores the effects of decades of war and gang violence on the lives of youths in Central America and the United States. A book signing follows.

DeCesare was recently honored with a Maria Moors Cabot Prize from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean.

Related content:

“Photojournalism in War Zones”: An audio interview with Donna DeCesare

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.