When a photograph is taken, its influence is lasting, regardless of its era. During the rise of photography in the 19th century, art critic John Ruskin explained, “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.”
Photography illustrates this craft. The snap of a single button has enabled us to thread a loose string through political and social history. Omitting words from a story in order to visually construct a tale is more engaging for viewers, and provides one of the clearest windows into history. Visual storytelling gives us one of the strongest depictions of important occurrences within the past 200 years, following the success of the first partially developed photograph.
This timeless truth of storytelling could not be any better exemplified than by the exhibits chosen for the International Center of Photography’s seasonal opening on Thursday tonight.
In the past, the ICP has crafted provocative experiences for audiences by selecting artists and curators who deliver strong messages. Last year, portraits of Marc Jacobs hung on the wall, alongside photographs of Karl Lagerfeld and Lady Gaga. With Coach as its co-sponsor, ICP also featured “Harper’s Bazaar: A Decade of Style,” which brought some of the most powerful figures in today’s fashion industry together in one room via portraiture.
On Thursday night, the ICP welcomed four new photography exhibits that sew squares into the unfolding blanket of social history in the world of photographs itself.
The exhibit, “JFK November 22, 1963: A Bystander’s View of History,” is particularly striking.
In 1963, the assassination of John F. Kennedy left the crowd of attending Dallas citizens stunned, injecting them with an amalgamation of fear, shock, and curiosity. At the time, media had already begun to take an active role within society. Instant photography created an immediate method of documenting events in real time. Simultaneously, the opportunity for close interactions between celebrities and audiences fostered a sense of intimacy with public figures. Naturally, the combination of these interests and capabilities led to widespread amateur documentation of the president’s death.
The byproducts of this reaction were far more numerous than one would expect. Original stills from eyewitness Abraham Zapruder are paired with the infamous backyard photograph of sniper Lee Harvey Oswald. Next to these pieces is Mary Moorman’s Polaroid of the presidential limousine, captured a fraction of a second before Kennedy was shot. Additional photographs, personal snapshots, and souvenirs from the days surrounding the assassination complete the exhibit.
Rather than limiting the show to the work of professional photojournalists—few of whom were present at the time of Kennedy’s assassination—chief curator Brian Wallis wanted to focus on citizen journalists.
“Really just bystanders with cameras stepped to the forefront to document this unforgettable moment and its historical significance,” Wallis said in a press release.
Moorman’s and other bystanders’ photographs marked a dramatic change in the relationship between citizens and events—a new ability to make the news, rather than simply consume it. Today, the trend continues: The onlooker who Instagrams a photo of the Boston Marathon bombings acts as a citizen journalist.
Susan McGregor, an assistant professor at Columbia’s Journalism School, acknowledged the level of interaction citizens have in the modern world of journalism.
“The capacity of smartphones have had a revolutionizing effect on journalism,” McGregor said, invoking the power that easy-to-use, instantaneous cameras (namely, the Polaroid) must have had during their first availability in the 20th century.
Today, those amateur cameras are part of our cell phones.
Twitter and Instagram have become major attractions for news and information sharing. In recent years, media outlets such as NPR, CNN, and The New Yorker have made user submissions a primary news source. And while breaking news alerts, tweets, retweets, and trends offer a variety and sense of immediacy to journalism, there are severe trade-offs—one of which is poorly curated galleries.
While the pieces selected for the JFK exhibit possess historical significance, there is a rudimentary tone that hovers over the entire exhibit.
The quality of Moorman’s Polaroid (seemingly underdeveloped, I might add) is far from what one might traditionally expect as an exhibit piece. For instance, the gliding limousine moves through the left of the image, blurry from Moorman’s reaction to the sound of a shot bullet. Unable to follow the president with her camera for just two seconds before the shot, the figures are almost undetectable.
But not all technique is lost. Moorman observes the rule of thirds to construct the image, organizing the limousine to fill the first two columns, and a figure in the last. But even with this minimal skill, the Polaroid in and of itself does not tell a story as Ruskin might have envisioned.
Other pieces of the exhibit share a similar preference for context over technical finesse. While the photographs lack the expected graces of a typical exhibit, their historic values enable their selection for the ICP production, illustrating that a good tale is not always told through art.
Of course, this is where a curator comes in. Wallis, who organized the exhibit, gathered the pieces on the principle of bystanders recording the experience, hoping to showcase the perspective of everyday citizens who happened to be in the right place at the right time, with or without the right journalistic or photographic skills.
“JFK November 22, 1963: A Bystander’s View of History” is on display at the International Center of Photography, through Jan. 19. Admission is free with a CUID.