Photo Ops

'Talking Pictures,' Now Showing At The UA Center For CreativePhotography, Reveals A Multitude Of Visual Truths.
By Margaret Regan

EVERY YEAR IN his criminology classes at the City University of New York, Peter R. De Forest pulls out a 1949 "mystery picture" that was once a prize in a cereal box and asks his students to identify its image.

The photo is a grainy collage of blacks and whites, with dots and lines scratched across the murky background. This being a class on crime detection, the students most often decide the picture's a closeup of footprints or fingerprints. Or maybe it's a wall splattered with blood. They're wrong though, because what the mystery picture shows is a cow's head, gazing out over a fence. Once De Forest points out the spotted cow, it's hard to understand how you missed it in the first place, blurry though it is. But that's photography: It's rarely as obvious or as "real" as people want to believe it is.

This otherwise throwaway item is part of Talking Pictures, an unusual exhibition of 54 widely disparate photos picked out by 54 different people, now on view at the Center for Creative Photography. The pictures range from famous works of photojournalism, such as Joe Rosenthal's Iwo Jima shot, to family snapshots, fashion photos and gruesome Nazi portraits of concentration camp inmates. There's not much in the way of arty photography by the famous, with some notable exceptions in the form of August Sander's powerful 1928 "Hod Carrier," Margaret Bourke-White's Depression-era shot of a Louisville food line, and W. Eugene Smith's picture of his young children walking into the light.

The reason for this odd mixture is that curators Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman set out to create a show that proves the continuing power of photography in daily life, even in an age when the world is saturated with visual media. They asked scores of people to select "the one picture that matters most."

It could be any picture at all, important to the world in general or only to themselves.

What people chose demonstrates different ideas about what photography ought to do: provoke us to political action, summon up family memories, arouse our skepticism. Sometimes the choices seem foreordained, because they reflect so accurately the choosers' own preoccupations. For example, De Forest's deceptive picture sums up for him a criminologist's duty: look carefully at the chaos of evidence and detect the truth of it. Jesse Jackson supplied a picture that helped give the civil rights movement moral weight. It's an affecting photo of young black protesters in Birmingham being knocked around by powerful firehoses. The late progressive lawyer William Kunstler selected Bourke-White's ironic picture of impoverished blacks lined up underneath a goofy billboard extolling the American way of life.

But there are surprising choices too. Theatre producer Harold Prince picked out the Holocaust portraits; celebrity hound Larry King put forth the photo of a dead friend; Dennis Hopper settled on a 1930s French picnic scene by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The show, originally organized for the International Center for Photography in New York, is interesting but flawed. The intention was to showcase the meaning of photography in "ordinary" lives, but the people who agreed to participate include a strange potpourri of media-savvy celebrities, including John Updike and Martha Stewart, Ginger Rogers and Tony Bennett, Isabel Allende and Diane Keaton. Only a handful, such as an ex-seminarian in Philadelphia, a jailed woman in New York, represent the masses. And interestingly, the pictures these two picked are close to home. The man chose a picture of himself, taken the day the pope gave him his hat (it's a long story), and the woman chose a snapshot of her dead sister.

And the "talking" of the title can be a little irritating. Visitors to the show can listen to lengthy interviews of the contributors via some portable telephone-type gadgets that can be turned on and off at will. It's a little gimmicky, and you quickly tire of the voices telling you what to think of the pictures. Worse, some of the interviewees are entrepreneurs who took advantage of the occasion to promote their businesses, such as Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop (she did choose a stunning picture though, a Minimata image by Eugene Smith) and Martha Stewart, country chic publishing magnate. Stewart picked out a rather skillful picture taken by her father of their Polish peasant forebears on their farm in 1934. Stewart enthuses, swear to God, about the "fabulous rope" one burdened-down farmwoman has wrapped around a sheaf of wheat.

Nevertheless, at the risk of falling into the old joke about everyone being a critic, it's nothing short of astonishing how much all these people had to say about a single photograph. Fashion photographer Oliviero Toscani not only gives an unexpectedly trenchant lecture on the Sander photo of the hod carrier, but also speaks perceptively on the nature of photography itself. Allende, the Latin American novelist, talks eloquently about one of the few color pictures in the show, a magazine shot of a little girl named Oamayra Sanchez who perished in a mud slide in Venezuela in 1985.

Omayra was to die four days after her picture was taken, but in the picture she stares stoically into the camera, clutching the branch that kept her alive for days in the water. She seems to be staring down death. It's one of those odd things about the modern world, criminal really, that technology was able to capture her image for all time and transmit it around the globe, but was utterly unable to save her life. Still, as Allende notes, photography does have great power. It's endowed the child with an immortality that's meaningful to the rest of us who have yet to face death. We can learn something from her courage. As Allende puts it, because of photography "we're talking about her years later...She never dies, this girl. She never dies. She's born every instant."

Talking Pictures continues through February 16 at the Center for Creative Photography on the University of Arizona Campus. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. A free forum called Tucson Talking Pictures will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Friday, January 24, at the center. It will feature a panel of some 16 Tucsonans, including authors Leslie Marmon Silko and Ron Querry, city councilwoman Molly McKasson, and photographers John P. Scahefer and Todd Walker, presenting photographs important to them. For more information call 621-7968. TW

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