By Stephanie Rieke Miller
The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) presents Face of Our Time: Jim Goldberg, Daniel Schwartz, Zanele Muholi, Jacob Aue Sobol, Richard Misrach, an exhibition through Feb. 5 featuring work of five distinctive photographers who share an interest in making pictures that capture what the world looks like now. Collectively, the work reflects poetic truths and complex, open-ended social realities within the context of current political events.
The title of the exhibition refers to the book Face of Our Time, published in 1929 by August Sander, a major German photographer of the 1920s. His project was to convey his historical moment through the faces and comportments of his contemporaries in order to reveal the character and culture of Germany before the Second World War. Similarly, the photographers in this exhibition are aligned by their committed interest in making pictures about our world; each artist presents a personal understanding through his or her private visual responses.
Goldberg gives voice to the experiences of refugees in socially and economically devastated African countries. Schwartz studies the cultural, economic, and political effects of globalization across central Asia’s ancient Silk Road in majestic pictures of everyday life there. Muholi provides a visual identity for the queer black population so often marginalized in her native South Africa. Aue Sobol combines observations of the rural hunting culture in a remote Arctic village with intimate portraits of his girlfriend Sabine. Misrach photographs the graffiti left behind in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Danish artist Jacob Aue Sobol is a member of the Magnum Photographic Agency. Like other young Magnum photographers, his work examines cultures beyond his own, often with a deeply personal inflection. In 1999, Aue Sobol went to live in the tiny fishing village of Tiniteqilaaq in east Greenland, aiming to immerse himself in the life of the Inuit and observe the rural hunting culture unique to the area. Entitled Sabine, the series is a personal visual diary of his relationship with his Greenlandic girlfriend, her family of fishermen, and the harsh climate and difficult work of staying alive. His photographs, intimate and lyric, also reveal perceptive changes in the local way of life and the divide between two different cultures.
Jim Goldberg, a San Francisco-based artist, is committed to examining and extending traditional documentary photography. His photographs in Face of Our Time are from his recent series Open See, which addresses the issue of migration and the desire for escape on a global scale. Initially commissioned by the cooperative photography agency Magnum, Open See investigates the new European immigrants, who often enter the continent illegally from the socially and economically devestated territories of the former Soviet Union, India, Bangladesh, and North Africa—places from which people are desperate to escape.
Goldbergʼs work in Face of Our Time focuses on the African countries from which these refugees come: Liberia, Senegal, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Composed of both large-scale work and small Polaroids on which the refugees often voice their experiences through writing, Goldberg’s pictures are grand in their scope and intimate in their attention to poignant details. In April 2011, Goldberg was awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for his Open See exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, in 2009 and 2010.
South African photographer Zanele Muholi identifies herself as a Zulu African artist and lesbian activist who uses her powerful pictures to project a queer black African identity. For her series Faces and Phases, she made straight-on, black-and-white portraits of lesbians and transgenders—people who too often remain invisible, especially in black South Africa. In this way, she proposes to enumerate their presence and form a visual community. The women photographed are friends and acquaintances who all play different roles within black queer communities.
Together they complicate and challenge traditional assumptions about the visual expression of sexuality and gender. Many of those depicted here have suffered violence and hate crimes, including “correctional rape,” which often goes unpunished since there are no laws against hate crimes in South Africa. Begun in 2006, the project was published in 2010 on the 20th anniversary of the Gay Pride celebration in South Africa.
Over the last decade, Daniel Schwartz has traced the Silk Road in an effort to understand and reveal the multilayered histories of a region that is often misunderstood in the West. Travelling Through the Eye of History comprises his study of central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Kashmir, western China, and Mongolia between 1995 and 2007. Originally inspired after working in the region surrounding the Great Wall of China, Schwartz developed an interest in globalization and the ways in which histories from the time of antiquity and the contemporary world overlap.
For this series, he followed maps, memoirs, and narratives along the route by which lapis lazuli, silks, and spices came to the West, and he discovered contemporary oil pipelines, fiber-optic systems, refugee camps, and drought. He refers to this region as the “global heartland” and to his pictures as “scattered stories which, pieced together gradually, came to form a distinct portrait.” He works in a photographic form that is neither traditional photojournalism nor documentary, but a personal and complex extension of both. Schwartz’s extensive studies of the region and the many trips he has made result in a personal form of photography: partly meditative, partly poetic, reinforced by a sense of the complexity of place and how the relentless pursuit of resources and military ambitions has marked both the past and the present.
A native of Los Angeles, Richard Misrach has lived in northern California for many years and has devoted most of his career to photography of the American West. Whereas much of his work is large scale and generally in color, the prints featured in Face of Our Time include 69 photographs of smaller size and more austere tones. For Destroy This Memory, Misrach used a point-and-shoot camera to photograph the graffiti scrawled on destroyed homes in New Orleans in the months following Hurricane Katrina. The small-scale pictures contain messages that vary from desperate to ironic; meant to be read as much as seen, they are humble pictures, records of chaos, almost without inflection. The real subject is the resilience of New Orleans’s citizens in the face of the raw destructive power of nature and the imperfections of some of their fellow human beings.