Capturing the ambiguity of the world’s landscape

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Capturing the ambiguity of the world’s landscape

Photographers from Magnum changed the concept of “landscape.” They embraced the idea of addressing the world from the human viewpoint. Instead of contemplating the sublime beauty of nature, they focus their cameras on the reality of modernity.
In “Magnum Landscape,” an exhibition that opens today at the Gallery Sun, Magnum photographers present wars, riots, famine and the individual experiences of life, a landscape of often a disturbing beauty.
Magnum is a photographers collective founded in 1947, two years after World War II, which took the lives of 55 million people. The group began with some progressive ideals of documentary photography that defines the role of photographers as “authors.” For nearly 60 years Magnum has caught moments in history, searing into our minds the conditions of our world. The photos have appeared in publications, like Life Magazine and National Geographic.
Perhaps Magnum photographs are so provocative because of their poetry. Some of the founding members of Magnum are surrealists. They search for scenes of a deeper context and meaning, like the murky cityscape of Sarajevo seen through the bullet-holed window of a pressroom. Taken during the war in Bosnia, the photograph calls on us to imagine the horror.
Surrealism, a key aspect of Magnum photographs, permeates the Seoul exhibit. Jean Gaumy's “Wreck of the Apollonian Wave,” a ship sinking near a French beach, is an example. Bruce Davidson's “Statue of Liberty” as seen from a distant burned-out building is eerie in its suggestion of democracy’s future.
Pacifism runs thick in the scenes of war. Yet, despite the absurd brutalities, the aesthetic pleasure in each image is almost embarrassingly overwhelming. The artful composition of the urban disasters that shape our landscape are so beautiful that you begin to question the morality of recognizing the aesthetics in such disturbing subjects. A fragment of a man's decaying torso by Susan Meiselas is contrasted with the exotic mountains of Nicaragua. This photograph taken during the regime of the dictator Anastasios Samoza in 1979 is an example of Magnum photographers’ ability to capture the artful the grotesquely ugly. This has certainly been an issue the group has confronted as independent photographers who walk the fine line between artists and news reporters.
George Rodger, one of the group's founding members, said in past interviews that he had to part with the camera for for a while after finding himself making artistic compositions over piles of dead bodies at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II.
Refined vision, though, was exactly what Magnum photographers were after when they proclaimed the group’s autonomy as independent photographers. Cartier-Bresson, also one of the group's founding members, repeatedly criticized linear presentations of news footage in newspapers, advocating free narratives produced without referring to the constraint of fitting into certain contexts.
“Life isn't made of stories that you cut into slices like an apple pie,” he says. “There's no standard way of approaching a story. We have to evoke a situation, a truth. This is the poetry of life's reality.”
Surely the poetry of reality exists. It is found in wars, violence and colonial oppression. Yet it becomes unclear through Magnum’s photographs whether they are meant for aesthetic presention as a way of demanding public attentions and suggests urgency about the state of the world or they are simply exploring photographic possibilities to market its product.
Either way the exhibit raises questions about cultural appropriation and the danger of manipulating contexts to focus more on the photographer’s viewpoint than on the subject.
The eyes of a “colonizer” and “voyeur” are evident in depicting the realities of developing countries in many of Magnum's photographs of Israel, China and Africa. The photographers seems to overlook culturally specific connotations as part of the exotic scenes of landscape, the same way traditional landscape photographs present natural spectacles through the eyes of a conqueror.
Yet, also true, is the fact that Magnum's cameras seems a lot less intrusive than some images published in ethnographic magazines. And although the works of Magnum lead to various debates about post-colonial confrontations, they deserve critical attention in that the photographs’ political positions seem a lot more democratic and honest than news photographs in major contemporary media.

by Park Soo-mee

“Magnum Landscape” runs through Feb. 29 at the Gallery Sun in Insa-dong. For more information call 02-734-0458.
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