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.
Magnum Photos photographers have produced some of the most memorable images of the last century, shaping history and revolutionizing photography’s influence on modern culture. Founded in 1947, it was the first cooperative agency to be established and operated by photographers, thus ensuring unprecedented creative, editorial, and economic independence.
Its founders, including renowned photographers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour, and George Rodger, united in their pursuit of creative freedom and their commitment to sharing their images with the world. Membership in this collective empowered photographers to document conflict and liberation, revolution and reform, while preserving their own powerfully distinct points of view.
Established during the post-war golden age of the picture magazine, Magnum has flourished despite the impact of radical technological, economic, and cultural transformations on publishing and media. When television began to take over as the dominant form of mass communication in the 1950s, Magnum photographers explored motion picture and book formats. As the editorial market continued to shrink, photographers found new audiences in museums and galleries. Over the last decade, new technologies have dramatically changed the way photographic imagery is captured, distributed, and consumed. In this new environment, Magnum photographers have kept pace, experimenting with a variety of multimedia platforms to publish their work.
Organized by Jessica S. McDonald and Roy L. Flukinger, this exhibition of approximately 300 works investigates the evolution of Magnum Photos from print photojournalism to the digital age, revealing a global cooperative in continual flux, persistently exploring new relationships between photographers, their subjects, and their viewers.
The Ransom Center presents the symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age” on October 25–27. This symposium brings together photographers, curators, and historians to discuss the ways in which Magnum Photos has continually reinvented itself from the moment of its founding. Twelve Magnum photographers, as well as Magnum CEO Giorgio Psacharopulo, are scheduled to appear on panels with a focus on the cooperative’s evolution and future.
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.
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.
Katherine Slusher, an art curator and writer based in Barcelona was a David Douglas Duncan Fellow at the Ransom Center in 2009. She writes about her research in the Duncan collection, which documents his travels all over the world as a photojournalist.
Slusher’s article highlights Duncan’s extensive travels to the Florida Everglades, the Caribbean, South America, Central America, Afghanistan, Egypt, Persia, and Turkey as he captured iconic images for such publications as LIFE Magazine.
The Ransom Center annually awards more than 50 fellowships to support scholarly research projects that require on-site use of its collections. The Center is receiving applications for its 2011-2012 fellowships in the humanities.
The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, film, photography, art and performing arts materials.
The scholars, almost half of whom will be coming from abroad, will use Ransom Center materials to support projects with such titles as “William Faulkner’s Early Career: A Chronology,” “Cogs in the Dream Machine: Jack Harris and the Role of ‘Still Men’ in Promoting Hollywood Cinema,” “Jimmy Hare and the Beginnings of Photojournalism” and “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles.”
The fellowships range from one to three months in duration, offering funds of $3,000 per month. Travel stipends and dissertation fellowships are also awarded. All fellows, with the exception of those selected for dissertation fellowships, are post-doctorates or independent scholars with a substantial record of scholarly achievement.