A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Other America, an exhibition at L’Elysee, a photography museum in Lausanne. Today is the last day of the exhibition, and I managed to take a few hours out of my schedule yesterday to go see it. If you’re near Lausanne today, you can still visit until 6pm. It would be a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
The exhibition presented three original views of America. I especially wanted to see Frank Schramm’s Stand-ups — Reporting Live From Ground Zero, which depicts journalists in the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. However, immediately after passing the ticket counter I found myself standing before the entrance to American Power, and the glimpses of photographs in the next room caught my eye, so I decided to start there.
American Power is a collection by Mitch Epstein that depicts the production of energy and its impact on communities and the land. Epstein had been commissioned by the New York Times Sunday Magazine to photograph the destruction of a small town in Ohio by the American Electric Power Company, that paid off residents so they would leave and then destroyed their houses to avoid liability for pollution. Following that assignment, Epstein became interested in the issue of energy and its effect on human lives. He subsequently traveled widely in the US photographing a variety of energy-related sites.
The title of the exhibition is well-chosen. In the literal sense, the collection focuses on power plants, but on a deeper level the photographs speak of the often unrecognized power these facilities and their owners have over people’s lives. Many of the photographs were deliberate juxtapositions of the uncaring machines of the industrial complex with natural settings and people going about their lives or having fun seemingly oblivious to the dangers so striking in the photos.
Initially not motivated by an agenda, Epstein and his wife later decided to create a website to “heighten the awareness of the toll that energy production and consumption take on our economy, security, health and natural resources.” The site presents all 63 photographs in the collection and provides their backstories, which are also represented on a map of the United States. In my opinion, this extra information was lacking in the exhibition, however it could be argued that the extra descriptions might have detracted from the power of the photographs to convey the emotions of the hidden stories.
Early Color, the exhibition of Saul Leiter’s work with color street photography in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s was a striking contrast to the crisp prints and expansive landscapes of Epstein’s power plants. I did not know of Leiter before the exhibition and wasn’t sure I would be interested in his photographs, but the museum was crowded and I chose to follow the stairs toward the direction were there were fewer voices.
The exhibition occupied the top floor of the museum, which was dark except for spots directed toward the explanatory panel at the entrance and at each of the works on display. The photographs were like a small windows providing glimpses into the past. I didn’t know that Saul Leiter was one of the early photographers to experiment with the use of color. His use of transparency and reflections to tell partial stories was intriguing, and I found his sense of color, depth and composition striking yet authentic, as if the photograph were more a memory of something seen than an optical record of a visual scene. Many of the photographs were framed by windows or other small openings through which the subjects could be perceived, reinforcing the separation between the viewer and the scene and giving an impression almost like voyeurism, of witnessing something that was not intended to be seen or photographed.
The exhibition opened with a quote from Leiter that I didn’t write down and unfortunately can’t find now. It was something about being attracted to photographs that make you wonder what it was the photographer saw and why he captured that particular scene, and how in looking at it you begin to see. I thought this was a beautiful way of describing the communication between a photographer and someone looking at photographs who perceives a part of a story. Maybe I should go back to the museum today and ask if I could just write that thought down. I read that Leiter was self-taught. I think his simple yet refreshing approach authentically captures the experience of wandering along the streets.
I ended my visit with Frank Schramms’ Stand-ups, ironically the collection of photographs that I had most wanted to see at first. In the days following 9/11 access to Ground Zero was restricted, preventing journalists from documenting the event itself. This partly explains why Schramm ended up photographing the live reporters, known as stand-ups. To consider the larger impact of the issues raised in the photographs, the museum had initiated the participation of researchers from the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences , whose mission is the “interdisciplinary study of emotions and their effects on human behavior and society.” At the entrance, I received a small booklet in which the researchers commented on different aspects of the photographs. Inside was the transcript of an interview of Frank Schramm by Pauline Martine, who is in charge of special projects. In response to the question of why he chose to photograph the journalists, Schramm responded,
Of course the journalists wanted to get as close as possible to Ground Zero. But there was limit [sic], they could only go no further [sic] than Canal Street–about 5-10 blocks or so from Ground Zero. That’s as far as they could go. There were probably between 35 to 50 trucks, from Canada, all over the US, and they had their set-ups. I was so intrigued by this, because my background is from fashion originally, and I worked a lot on locations and studio. So I was intrigued by the reporters because of the fact that they were in a very staged environment, controlled lighting I also wanted to photograph this side of 9/11 meaning, not those people that perished, but the people who are now carrying on living, who have to tell the story, who are modern messengers who basically tell the world, the nation, of what they are experiencing from Ground Zero.
I found that just so unusual that they all chose to be in one spot. I mean you could go to other parts of the city and get reactions to how people felt. But this spot was the closest they could get to the actual physical location of Ground Zero. That was the dead end [sic] and they could go no further, so that’s where they were.
The collection sparked some interesting observations about the role of the journalists in the attack, their unwitting collaboration with the terrorists, as they played the role the terrorists would have them play of spreading the news, and the fear it generated, as far and wide as possible. The emotional impact on them, and their continued presence for so long after the event and after any real news continued to come from Ground Zero demonstrates their importance as witnesses to testify to the truth of the event that for so many was so unthinkable.
In all, it was a very enjoyable and enlightening afternoon. Perhaps because the subject is so much happier than the others, my favorite exhibition of the three was Early Colors. I intend to look for more information about Saul Leiter and his work.