November 9: The term ‘Concerned Photographer’ has fallen by the wayside of mainstream criticism. Did it mean anything?
Among the photographers who contributed to the 1955 The Family of Man are several who might own that title, but one in particular stood for the protection of the human rights of others. I’ve just started a Wikipedia entry on Mildred Grossman (1916-1988) who was a New York City public school teacher, civil rights activist, unionist, and an award-winning photographer associated with the Photo League.
Her struggle came at a time in the history of the United States more difficult even than the present, for those who believe in civil liberty. The ‘Red Scare’ was coming into full flight and was to lead to the McCarthy-era threats to free thought and academic freedom. Among the first to suffer was Grossman, twelve years into her teaching career. In 1953 she was subject to an interrogation of her beliefs, with no legal representation, under the newly implemented New York State 1949 ‘Feinberg Law’ (named after its sponsor, state senator Benjamin Feinberg) requiring school districts to report on the loyalty of every teacher, annually.
The process had nothing to do with teaching quality or even what teachers did in the classroom. It targeted their thinking, and particularly left-wing leaders of the city’s Teachers Union of which Grossman was a member, and for which she was a photographer. She had also attended a Communist Party summer school in 1939. In The Price of Dissent: Testimonies to Political Repression in America edited by Bud and Ruth Schultz, she recounts her experience;
The interviews were conducted in an old warehouse where Moskoff had his office. It was dirty. You felt surrounded by dirt while you were in there. That added insult to injury. I remember how intimidating their big tape recorders were. To make matters worse, you weren’t permitted counsel, which I felt was unlawful. The longer I was there, the more angry I got.
Moskoff started out with his standard question. I answered it, ” No, I am not a member of the Communist Party.” But he wasn’t satisfied. “When did you leave?” I said , “When did you stop beating your wife?” I didn’t believe he had any right to ask me about the organizations I belonged to. But by that time, the Supreme Court had ruled that the Feinberg Law was contitutional. So I would do what the Court required, but do no more. I told Moskoff I’d answer questions only back to the date the Feinberg Law was enacted, but no earlier. One discussed one’s civil liberties, but that didn’t mean anything to him. This was 1952.
Then they suspended me. It was on the front page of the Journal American, which, incidentally, got the information before I did. They not only printed my name, but they printed my address. Then the hate mail came. A lot of it was anti-Semitic: “You dirty red Jew.”
The term ‘Concerned Photographer’ is generally accepted as having been coined by Cornell Capa (1918–2008) a Magnum Photo member like his brother Robert (1913–1954). Cornell had created the International Fund for Concerned Photography in 1966 and mounted an exhibition using the term as a title, of pictures by his brother, Werner Bischof, André Kertész, Leonard Freed, David Seymour (“Chim”), and Dan Weiner, which opened at the Riverside Museum on the west side of Manhattan on October 1, 1967 and ran through January 7, 1968 as a tribute to “those contemporary practitioners who use their cameras as a tool of social conscience”
The International Fund for Concerned Photography became the International Center of Photography in New York in 1974, and embarrassment about this genre of concerned photography, or over the perceived sentimentality of the term, has continued.
This sense of unease about the ‘Concerned Photograph’ is evident in an essay by South African conceptual photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, judges of the 2007 World Press Photo (WPP), in which they criticise the jury process and a number of winning images in an essay contrarily titled Unconcerned but not Indifferent.
Tim Hetherington‘s picture of an exhausted marine (above) is one target;
…this is a predictable World Press winner; an amalgam of all the images of war and death that we have embedded in our memory. It recalls the terror of Don McCullin’s marine during the Battle of Hue in 1968, the resignation of the wounded marine in Larry Burrows’ image taken in South Vietnam in 1966, the urgency of Capa’s Republican soldier dying in 1936. The images [sic] referents go further back; the shape and stance of the soldier clearly reminds us of Goya’s Disaster’s of War etchings of 1863. It seems we are casting the world in the same mould over and over again.
Oliver Chanarin’s and Adam Broomberg’s own approach to imaging war, in their now notorious series The Day that Nobody Died (2008) was to adopt the conceptual, pragmatic strategy of exposing a roll of photographic paper directly to ‘front line’ Afghanistani light and filming British troops, with whom they were embedded, carrying the heavy cardboard box containing it. The wittingly ludicrous video documentation of the journey of the box and the content-free, but suggestive, photogram (below) brings to the fore the legitimacy of art as a representation of the theatre of war. You can read their reasoning behind the work here.
Since then we have seen the World Press Photo further questioned on a number of grounds; recently when Turkish photographer Burhan Ozbilici won with his image of off-duty police officer Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş the moment after he had assassinated Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey at a gallery in the Turkish capital of Ankara, Jury member Stuart Franklin condemned it in The Guardian as promoting success in terrorism; a premeditated murder, staged at a press conference to maximise publicity.
This year prominent Sicilian freelance Alessio Mamo caused uproar after he was awarded the WPP second prize with his series Dreaming Food in which villagers in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, areas in which many are undernourished, are shown with their hands covering their faces in front of plates of fake food. Mamo protested that his “concept was to problematise food waste in front of the hunger in this area of the world,” but commentators condemned him for insensitivity.
Before that, Paul Hansen’s photo Gaza Burial which won in 2013, was criticised for its HDR post-processing, the very ‘artiness’ to which Broomberg and Chanarin had objected 5 years previous. TIME Magazine of Feb 12, 2015 revealed that “World Press Photo Disqualifies 20% of Its Contest Finalists” because of digital manipulation, crude or subtle. This same intrusion of ‘art’ into press photography came up again when Giovanni Troilo was accused of staging his confronting pictures in a series La Ville Noir—The Dark Heart of Europe. In response WPP has created a new contest for “creative documentary photography”, announced in 2016.
These various dramatic or conceptual devices are demonstrations of the struggle photography now has to make us look at ‘the pain of others’ (Susan Sontag) or ‘The Pain of Images’ (Mieke Bal).
In Grossman’s work, there is little theatre. The two which were exhibited in The Family of Man are tightly cropped and straightforward, but evince a sympathy for the subjects; an elderly couple so long married that their gestures have become identical, the unique delight that a grandmother and grandchild share in one another. Her pictures are really not ‘arty’.
But does that mean she was a bad photographer? She was certainly ‘concerned’ about a range of issues, and they were those in which she herself was enmeshed. As a student, she fought her business College to readmit women, rallied for the formation of a student union and for a living allowance for poor students. In employment, she cut her teeth as a photographer on the publicity shots she made for the Teachers Union. Her sacking after twelve years of teaching meant that she had to change careers, but she stuck by her commitment to unionism, working for the New York Hotel Trades Council, and for the Hotel Workers union. In dingy union offices and at the workplace she documented workers joining the union, receiving their union buttons and voting in elections for reps, as well as union parades and family picnics, and union reps meeting workers in their homes.
Jewish, she married Mark Berkowitz, a Polish survivor of the Holocaust, so she knew suffering and prejudice intimately, and when she met Dr Martin Luther King in the union offices in 1957 she took up the cause of black civil rights. The Little Rock Nine were the first African-American students to attend an integrated school, Little Rock Central High, in Arkansas in September, 1957, as part of the initiative to desegregate Southern schools. To do so, they had to bravely turn the other cheek to harassment from their white classmates, often violent.
For the New York Hotel Workers’ Union, who flew the Little Rock Nine students to New York and presented them with the Better Race Relations Award, Grossman documented their trip and their visits to the United Nations Headquarters, City Hall, and the union’s Local 6 Civil Rights Award Ceremony where they honoured by union leaders, diplomats, and elected officials.
She also recorded their sightseeing in New York to the Statue of Liberty and the Coney Island theme parks. As an ex- teacher, she was understanding in her approach in photographing to the group, one of whom, Carlotta Walls LaNier recalls that;
We were even accompanied by the union’s photographer, Mildred Grossman, a tiny lady who didn’t seem at all weighed down by the ton of photo equipment she lugged around. She seemed different from the other professional photographers we had encountered. She tried not to be intrusive, though she snapped photos at every turn. In later years, when l learned her history, I would understand why she seemed so empathetic toward us. She knew what it was like to be singled out unjustly.
Yes, her photographs are competent straightforward publicity shots. There is no drama, and some found themselves next to others quite like them in newspapers and magazines. It is in retrospect, for their matter-of-fact recount of events and attitudes of an era that they will become ever more valuable.
I put these to you as examples of very real ‘concern’ in photography, that which derives from an empathy gained from shared experience and a commitment in common with her subjects.