In the decades following World War II, an independently minded, critically engaged form of photography began to flourish. Situated between journalism and art, its practitioners created extended photographic essays that delve deeply into subjects and present distinct personal visions of the world. Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties looks in depth at projects by a selection of the most vital figures who have contributed to this documentary approach. Passionately committed to their subjects, these photographers captured both meditative and searing images, from the Deep South in the civil rights era, to the war in Iraq, to the contemporary scene of American popular culture. Disseminated beyond traditional media outlets, their evocative bodies of pictures transcend the realm of traditional photojournalism.
Engaged Observers begins with an essay that follows the development of socially aware photography, setting work since the 1960s within a rich tradition that extends back to the nineteenth century. Surveyed in depth in subsequent pages are Leonard Freed's Black in White America project (released around 1968), Philip Jones Griffiths's Vietnam Inc. (1971), W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith's Minamata (1975), Susan Meiselas's Nicaragua, June 1978-July 1979 (1981), Mary Ellen Mark's Streetwise (1988), Lauren Greenfield's Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood (1997) and Girl Culture (2002), Larry Towell's The Mennonites (2000), Sebastião Salgado's Migrations: Humanity in Transition (2000), and James Nachtwey's The Sacrifice (2007). These powerful visual reports, often published as books, explore aspects of life that are sometimes difficult and troubling but are worthy of attention. Each section opens with a focused essay that grounds the project within its evolving historical context and the photographer's larger body of work.
The book is published on the occasion of an exhibition of the same name, on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum from June 29 through November 14, 2010.
Brett Abbott is associate curator in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. He is the editor of Edward Weston's Book of Nudes and the author of In Focus: Edward Weston.
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