L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Clicking through TIME Magazine’s “Most Unforgettable Images” of 2010 feels a bit like watching a missionary slideshow at an Evangelical tent meeting. There are helpless bodies, flames, sweeping gestures and unsettling blue skies, all tied together in concentric compositions. What’s more, each image seems certain its viewers will intuitively understand why and how it matters; they will first feel bowled over by stark reality, then invigorated by that implicit hope for redemption that any good missionary hopes to pass on. The fact that these 48 images have made TIME’s cut means they’ve evangelized effectively.
A weird religious fervor has characterized photojournalism almost since its beginning, certainly since the Second World War. The “god’s-eye-view” (a term used by scholar Erika Doss, among others) so many photographs take suggests sweeping access to the world’s events and terrains—it’s like writing in the third person omniscient.
One omniscient image in TIME’s “Best of” list is by Peter Van Agtmael, a Yale graduate who worked as a photojournalist in China and Johannesburg before embedding in Iraq and later Afghanistan (“I knew these specific wars were intertwined with me, or at least I wanted them to be,” he told the New York Times in 2009). The images he’s made are quietly searing and rarely of action as it takes place; more often, they described moments before, after or in-between. The photograph featured in TIME depicts long rows of cement barriers flanking a street at Camp Liberty in Baghdad. It feels cool and utilitarian, but its dogged repetition lends to a sort of romantically melancholic, admirably well-composed vastness.
Another image by Van Agtmael, one I find even more compelling, has similar vastness. Called 2008, Above Afghanistan, it features on the cover of the book 2nd tour, Hope I don’t die, and depicts a magnificent spread of desert terrain over which one lone white cloud casts a soft shadow. Even though it’s relatively small, the cloud recalls something atomic—like the billowing mushrooms of smoke that, post-Hiroshima, have come to stand-in for everything nuclear. The image also has a washed-out, blue-over-orange coloring that recalls the nostalgic aesthetic of William Eggleston.
I can’t look at Van Agtmael’s Above Afghanistan without thinking of Eggleston’s Los Alamos series, much of which is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through January 16th. Completed in 1974, Los Alamos features a whole host of clouds and was loosely informed by the photographer’s visit to the atomic bomb’s birthplace (very loosely informed, actually, as Eggleston had almost finished the series when he first laid eyes on Los Alamos). Then-Corcoran curator Walter Hopps explained, “This title cloaks with some irony Eggleston’s ostensible subjects, found in a vast American terrain, yet acknowledges his belief in the aesthetic consequences of his private quest.”
Each time I visit the Eggleston retrospective, I leave in awe of one particular image from the series: a photograph of a cocktail on a plane. My awe makes me slightly self-conscious, as the image’s shimmery reflections have a sexiness reminiscent of a vintage cigarette ad. Or maybe, more aptly, they have both the brazen glamor of a James Bond flick and a veranda-worthy Southern gentility. Such lushness can’t exist anymore; it’s specific to a time when airplanes had leg room and air travel felt like freedom. Yet, despite the scene’s datedness, I can imagine the person stirring that cocktail leaning over and looking down onto a desert landscape like the one Van Agtmael portrays.
Van Agtmael’s images, like those of many photojournalists, adapt large public issues and render them for stirring private effect. While this public-made-private approach does not leave much room for moments like those Eggleston depicts, Eggleston’s images are gripping precisely because they leave room for a bigger world beyond their borders. They just doesn’t presume to take a god’s eye view of it.