By Laurie Rosenthal
All images courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust
For over a century, photographs have been used to convey news images around the world. Since that time, photography has been a trusted news source. Viewers have long believed that if an image was on the nightly news or in a reputable newspaper or magazine, then it was real. Photoshop, which has been at the forefront of altering images, is less than 30 years old.
In “Breaking News: Turning the Lens on Mass Media,” at the Getty Center through April 30, 17 artists (duos included) explore the idea of looking at photographs out of context, or in a different context than what was originally intended. Participating artists manipulate images, which can give photographs entirely new meanings. Several video creations are included in the exhibit.
The oldest works date back to the 1960s, with the most recent ones coming from this decade, and they encompass a multitude of topics starting with the Vietnam War and ending with the War on Terror.
“Breaking News” begs the question, “When is an image not what it seems?”
Assistant Curator Arpad Kovacs spent 21⁄2 years assembling the exhibit, which is relatively fast for something of this magnitude.
“It was an idea I was thinking about for a long time,” Kovacs told the Palisades News. “I had a strong sense of who I wanted, or what works I wanted, in the show.
“The show really looks at the role that lens-based media plays in all this,” Kovacs said.
The artists represented in “Breaking News” look to the media for inspiration. Sarah Charlesworth was inspired by the late 1970s kidnapping—and subsequent murder— of Italian politician Aldo Moro, and works with an image that was seen in papers across the globe. Out of context, viewers are left to interpret the image on their own.
“You infer, you make up a story,” Kovacs said about repurposed images.
In talking about the what motivates the artists included in the exhibition, he noted, “They’re interested in mass media, and how the pictures that everyone experiences can have this alternate life, or alternate meaning.”
The artists used photos that are widely available. By simply placing an image on a different part of the front page, or a different page altogether, or incorporating it into another photo, or not having a caption, they found ways to change what is conveyed to the viewer in terms of importance, urgency, meaning and so on.
“The driving force behind the show is that images are not that definitive in the meaning that they purport to present, or the meanings we expect them to have,” Kovacs said.
There are many political images in “Breaking News”— American presidents, world leaders and war—as well as Terry Schiavo, Gold Star families and television anchors. Martha Rosler first made collages during the Vietnam War, inspired by the absurdity that one could look through an issue of Life magazine and find pictures and stories on interior decorating on one page, and brutal images of the war on another.
In one particularly striking example, First Lady Pat Nixon is elegantly dressed, standing in an elegantly appointed room in the White House. Warm yellow and golden tones dominate. In an ornate frame on the wall, the viewer would expect to see a historical portrait of some kind. Instead, the viewer is met with a black-and-white image of a Vietnamese woman who has been shot many times.
Using such disparate images in the same piece, Rosler commands the observer to “look at these two versions of America,” Kovacs said. Other images in the series contrast the latest in home decor with more Vietnam War images.
Los Angeles-based artist Donald Blumberg began his activist art while a college photography teacher in Buffalo, New York, by taking pictures of news images on his television, something Catherine Opie would do decades later. Whereas presidents Nixon and Johnson feature prominently in Blumberg’s work, Opie has Bush 43.
Blumberg is “interested in how these politicians are presenting themselves. Not distorting their self- presentations, but he’s creating these composites that present multiple views of the same subject,” Kovacs said.
Local legend John Baldessari began working with video over 40 years ago, long before it was popular or common. “He brought [a video camera] into his class at CalArts
and made a series of videos,” Kovacs said. He questioned his students about the meanings of images taken out of the paper without descriptions, and recorded their answers.
“It perfectly encapsulates the idea I’m trying to get out in this show that images need context. Images are not self-explanatory, they don’t have definitive meaning,” Kovacs said.
Robert Heinecken’s A Case Study in Finding an Appropriate TV Newswoman merges reality and imagination in the search for the perfect television anchor. Panels of images display popular news anchors of the day (1984), with some images becoming a strange mash-up of two people—for example, former Today show hosts Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel.
“Breaking News” consists of works from the Getty’s permanent collection (Blumberg, Charlesworth, Heinecken), as well as loans.
As Kovacs stands in the exhibit gallery, many school- children come through, scurrying from one room to the next, all seemingly interested in what they are observing.
“I remember as a kid going to museums, not knowing what I was looking at, because it wasn’t pretty. But I still think about it. It still resonates. This might not mean anything to them now, but hopefully they’ll think about it in 10-15-20 years,” Kovacs said.
Upcoming events related to the exhibit include talks with “Breaking News” artists Martha Rosler and Donald Blumberg, and a tour led by Kovacs. Visit getty.edu for more information.