Making History

Two Photographers Shoot, Score

The two photographers have nothing in common except current New York shows that have generated more than the usual amount of interest and discussion. One, Luc Delahaye, is a 40-year-old Paris-based photojournalist with the Magnum agency who has worked in Bosnia, Israel, Rwanda, Chechnya, Lebanon, and Afghanistan since the early '80s. The other, Ryan McGinley, 25, a Jersey kid now based on the Lower East Side, has been taking pictures of his friends on the New York skateboard and graffiti scene for the past five years. Delahaye is a dogged witness to the world's relentless unraveling; McGinley, a cheerful participant in a boy-centric clique where fuck-it-all hedonism rules. Though quite literally worlds apart, both photographers play subversive and progressive roles within their own field, and more to the point here, both have made pictures that I can't stop thinking about.

In Delahaye's case, that picture is the panorama of a dead Taliban soldier that's reproduced below. Taken in the fall of 2001, it was never published in any of Delahaye's regular news outlets (in the U.S., he's on contract with Newsweek), where it would have had a brief, sensational currency. Instead, the photographer reserved this image and a dozen others for a limited-edition artist's book (100 copies at $1000 apiece from British publisher Chris Boot) and a gallery show (at Ricco/Maresca, 529 West 20th Street, through March 22) in which the photo has been blown up to a monumental 8 x 4 feet. Delahaye has published four previous books, only one of which—Winterreise (2000), a dense, despairing essay on the former Soviet Union in terminal disarray—could be considered traditional photojournalism. Like Gilles Peress, Sebastião Salgado, Susan Meiselas, and an increasing number of others, he straddles art and journalism and, in his best work, gives them solid common ground.

But Delahaye's previous forays into the art world haven't been as ambitious or audacious as "History," his title for both the show and the accompanying book. And it's that ambition, combined with the work's massive scale, that invites comparison with Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. All these artists engage history to one degree or another, but none as directly as Delahaye, so the beauty and restraint of his photos are all the more startling. Though it's seriously diminished in reproduction, on the gallery wall Taliban has the gravity, clarity, and resonance of a great history painting. Sprawled in a ditch among dead leaves and scorched grasses, the soldier regards us through half-opened eyes. His mouth hangs open, as if for some final words, but there's a deep, red gash in his jaw and a splatter of dried blood on his dusty clothes. Someone has taken his shoes and rifled through his wallet, which was left nearby; there are footprints all over the sand, but he's alone now—or would be, were the photographer not hovering above him and all of us looking over his shoulder.

It's a terrible thing to peer at death like this, to look it in the eye, but Delahaye's picture never feels voyeuristic or propagandistic. Rather, like Mathew Brady's photos of the Civil War dead or Larry Burrows's pictures from Vietnam, it allows us to glimpse the very mundane, very human toll of war. Paintings of gory battle scenes are often described as beautiful, "in the sublime or awesome or tragic register of the beautiful," Susan Sontag writes in her New Yorker essay "Looking at War" (a compressed version of her new book Regarding the Pain of Others), but "to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless." Though, Sontag continues, "transforming is what art does," war photos that are perceived as overly aestheticized tend to confuse and anger viewers by sending off "mixed signals." By turning his picture of the dead Taliban into a gorgeous, glossy spectacle, Delahaye risks just this sort of confusion. Witnessing wars and mayhem, Delahaye has said, encourages "a sort of cool indifference to myself, which lets me have a cold sensibility to the world." In the other photos here—of fire in the streets of Genoa, bomb smoke rising from a green field in Afghanistan, the rubble of the Jenin refugee camp—that detachment is evident. Like the 19th-century war photographers he emulates, Delahaye stands way back and surveys the entire landscape. But in Taliban the landscape collapses into a shallow grave that encloses not just the corpse but the photographer and the viewer. Delahaye isn't indulging in anything as simple as sympathy; he's inviting us to identify with a dead man and telling us that, in the end, we really have no choice.

Although Ryan McGinley may not be quite as heedless as his photos suggest, his youth and bravado are enough to push death out of the picture. His big color photos are brash, sexy, tossed off, and tender—sometimes all at once—and though they never seem particularly momentous, they usually have a terrific pop punch. His appearances in Index, Butt, Dazed & Confused, and Vice (where he's also the photo editor at large); solo shows in Paris, Milan, and Toronto; star turns in group shows (notably John Connelly's "Bystander" at Andrea Rosen and Scott Hug's definitive "Teenage Rebel: The Bedroom Show" in Connelly's own space); and the kind of underground buzz any artist would kill for have culminated at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, through May 18), which has mounted McGinley's first American solo show as part of its "First Exposure" series.

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