Truth

Before I left San Diego I ventured over to the Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park, to view the prints from Eddie Adam's exhibition and book Let Truth Speak to Power.

It's hard not to bring some presumptions to a show with such a title, if only because of its similarity to Gene Smith's dictum Let Truth Be the Prejudice. Is Adams, like Smith, convinced that he has the inside track on "truth?"

The show is a collection of portraits, large prints, the faces of people who have in some way fought against the predjudices, inequalities, and brutalities in their home countries. These huamn rights activists (err, in the language of the show, "Defenders" — always with a capital "D") are scattered around the globe — some of them exiled from their original homes and now living in places like the U.S. or Switzerland, others hiding out in the jungle, some resting peacefully at home because their primary goals have begun to be addressed.

In many, but not all, or these portraits, light plays the illustrative role of truth — we see light skewing in from unseen windows, lighting only the subject of the portrait, or in a few cases the light seeming to almost emanate from the subject themselves. Only on some portraits — Adams is wise to vary his approach and not try to shoehorn his diverse subjects into any single smug metaphor.

The issues addressed by these people are usually dire — genocide, child slavery, starvation, mutilation. Mysteriously there are a couple of portraits of activists who seem more shrewd businessmen than visionaries of peace and freedom.

The prints are gorgeously-made by Charles Griffin, most of them 30x40. The show's curator said that at one point they intended that each portrait would have its own podium. And this confuses me.

At my first glance, I thought that these large-head portraits were meant to place these activists on the same iconographic ground as those they inevitably oppose — the installed, ruthless, and safely powerful. Yet in walking through the show, the power of the large prints was not exercised in this way — they were simply big prints, and exercising the same feeling of authority that any big print carries. I recalled Guy Debord's comment: "Spectacle is the self-portrait of power..."

Except for the shot of an Anonymous activist in the Algerian desert, whose face is covered by a black bag (the photo eventually came to be the book's cover), a element lacking in this exhibition is any sunse of urgent danger. There is no real sense of conflict, save through the texts. A side alcove plays a tape with Hollywood actors reading statements by these leaders, and some of the tales and opinions are strong, but when read by Alec Baldwin or Kevin Kline the effect is so... packaged. It acheives the desired polite western-society hand-wringing, but does it do anything more than enhance the viewer's "awareness?" Does that awareness lead to anything beyond the viewer's self-satisfaction in knowing that by watching a TV play they are... concerned?

These are real people with real issues. The purpose of the undertaking is a noble one. Adams said that he wanted to portray these people in a very human, real way. To let the viewer feel that these activists are someone who could live in their own town. Unfortunately, by adopting the iconographic trappings of power, the size and polished beauty of the prints becomes a wall between the viewer and the viewed. In too many cases, they have the feeling, not of an immediate snapshot, but of the state portrait, of the celebrity machine, of the herioic Defender. Instead of people, too often we get icons.

August 22, 2003

 

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