FROM THE LA TIMES REVIEW 9/27/05 OF "Pictures for the Press"
@The JP Getty Museum


Emotional contrasts in stark black and white

Two photography shows at The Getty juxtapose serious news with tabloid sensationalism.
By David Pagel
Special to The LA Times

 September 27, 2005

’"Scene of the Crime: Photo by Weegee" is all about spectacle with a good dose of titillation, salaciousness and disdain thrown in to spice up grim, often gory stories of plain folks running amok or running into bad luck.

 "Pictures for the Press," a second photography exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, focuses on even more horrible events — nuclear explosions, napalmed villages, point-blank assassinations. Despite depicting some of the worst episodes of 20th century history, the unadorned news photographs are not as depressing as Weegee's dramatically composed and garishly lighted shots of drunks, criminals and car wrecks.

 The two shows emphasize the difference between tabloid sensationalism and serious news stories, rubbernecking versus soul-searching. Today, when it is increasingly difficult to disentangle news and entertainment, the paired exhibitions offer a thumbnail history of the popular media's growing sensationalism.

 The masterpieces of photojournalism trust viewers to make up their own minds about the information presented. They are based in the faith that no matter how bad things get, getting the story to the public matters: It may change the course of history or at least record the truth so that future generations might know it.

 Weegee's works never trust anyone. Nor do they hold out much hope for the future. The predominant  thought they elicit is: "Thank God that's not me. Now let's get out of here."

By contrast, the 36 photographs from 1944 to 1975 in "Pictures for the Press" combine the blunt effect of gut-wrenching imagery with the lasting demand that viewers understand something of the big picture. Where Weegee zeroes in on personal tragedy and random accidents, the photojournalists depict the consequences of political decisions, mostly made by the powerful and mostly suffered by ordinary folks.

The people in Barbara Gluck's 1972 "Siege of An Loc, South Vietnam" — wounded, battle-weary refugees — have a lot in common with the victims in Weegee's pictures. But their treatment could not be more different. Pain, grief, fear, exhaustion and incomprehension are palpable on their faces, but not a trace of sensationalism twists their responses. There is no one-note crescendo. Compassion, which is nowhere in Weegee's work, draws viewers into the picture, demanding thoughtful engagement and raising tough questions about social justice and government culpability.

 Similar stories unfold throughout the exhibition's efficient survey of iconic images. These include harrowing shots of World War II and its aftermath by Robert Capa, Lee Miller and W. Eugene Smith, as well as heart-wrenching pictures of unspeakable cruelty and uncelebrated heroism in Vietnam by Eddie Adams, Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut, Malcolm Browne, Larry Burrows, John Olson and Hubert Van Es.

 On the domestic front, images of the civil rights movement and of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy record the ups and downs of a tumultuous era no less volatile than our own.