The images in She Who Tells a Story not only are made by women with roots in Iran and the Arab world, but are about the people, landscapes, and cultures of the region. Many of the photographers here explore questions of identity through an evolving and shifting set of narratives that must be understood as a response to Orientalism. Historically, “Orientalism” has referred to artistic or literary depictions by European or American artists and writers of the East, including Middle Eastern, North African, and Eastern cultures. In his pioneering study Orientalism (1978), the Palestinian-born scholar Edward Said argued that Orientalism aligns Western romanticized visions of the region with the goals of European and American colonialism and imperialism; it is a discourse of power, presenting the “Orient” as culturally inferior. Since the appearance of Said’s provocative study, questions surrounding imagery of Middle Eastern, North African, and Asian cultures have been vigorously reconsidered and debated. Regardless of the opinions expressed in these sometimes contentious conversations, Orientalism, and, more specifically, Orientalist painting, is indisputably fundamental to the region’s historical visual representation.
Eugene Smith arrived in Pittsburgh in March 1955, a man hellbent on salvation. He had recently resigned as a staff photographer at Life, protesting what he considered the magazine’s botched layout of his photo essay documenting Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer. Smith was 36 years old and one of America’s preeminent photojournalists. His work in the Pacific theater during World War II—along with subsequent essays chronicling a village in Franco’s Spain, a country doctor in Colorado, and an African American nurse-midwife in rural South Carolina—were landmarks in contemporary photography. His integrity and immaculate craftsmanship had earned respect tinged with wariness. Editors knew he could be as edgy as a junkyard dog.
Now he was adrift. In debt, drinking steadily, battered by a diet of Benzedrine and downers, Smith hit Pittsburgh desperate to salvage whatever remained of his career. His wife, Carmen, was back home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, caring for their four children and supporting (often supported by) the family’s live-in housekeeper. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Smith’s mistress, Margery Lewis, had recently given unwelcome and illicit birth to the couple’s son. It was the proverbial dark time made darker by the death of Smith’s mother, Nettie, in February. A whirlwind of grief, vengeance, despair, and a kind of ravening idealism drove him into the City of Steel.
On Christmas Day in 2006, Time magazine published its annual “Person of the Year” issue, with a strange twist: they didn’t actually select a person. Instead, the cover featured a photo of a computer, on top of which lay a small, reflective paper rectangle—a makeshift mirror floating above a single, captivating word: You.
Nodding to the then newly minted capacity to customize one’s online presence, this comparatively brazen editorial conceit perfectly captured a sense of where things appeared to be heading. American culture stood at that moment on the precipice of a new, self-obsessed democracy: for the people and by the people—and photographed by the people, too. With that seminal issue, we were told to get ready for our close-up, and get ready we did. Continue reading
Last Wednesday Duane Michals was on stage in the South Court Auditorium at the New York Public Library to discuss his two new books: ABCDuane and Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals. As part of An Art Book, the library’s ongoing series that celebrates the essential importance and beauty of art books, moderator Christopher Lyon offered the audience a brief introduction to Michals’s work and career.
“His activities touch on so many bases,” Lyon said about Michals. “Pioneering art photography. Unmatched portraitist. He’s a masterful editorial photographer, painter, art collector—storyteller above all—and an aesthetic gadfly who entertainingly undermines the claims of photography to represent reality. But I want to suggest that the apparent multi-sidedness of Duane is, itself, an illusion. As Duane made clear in [the text to his book Real Dreams], the key word, he wrote, is ‘expression’ not photography, not writing, not painting. So tonight I’m hoping that this really extraordinary gathering of critics, scholars, and curators will engage in a conversation illuminating Duane’s work and life.”
With a deep-seated reverence for his Pittsburgh roots and a dogged determination to express himself through art, Duane Michals tells his stories his way. At long last, Pittsburgh will celebrate these stories, and the man behind them, through a definitive retrospective at Carnegie Museum of Art.
Duane Michals is an 82-year-old world-famous photographer, but as he talks he suddenly transforms into a 7-year-old boy in McKeesport. He recalls one day vividly. He and his mother have ventured inside Cox’s dress shop. His mother finds a chair, plants him there and says, “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes later, she loads a few shopping bags onto her little boy’s lap before disappearing into the dress racks again. He sits patiently for five minutes or so. Then panic grips him. Why hasn’t she come back? Has she left me?
She returns. But seven decades later, Michals can still feel that childhood fear of abandonment and death—emotions he has channeled into his photographic works. His images about childhood are among his most poignant and, until now, among his most overlooked. They will be exhibited as part of a major retrospective of his work that opens November 1 at Carnegie Museum of Art.