Susan Meiselas, Revisiting Nicaragua 1978-1979 @Higher Pictures

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are c-prints, generally made in 1978 or 1979, with three others somewhat later (1986, 1991, and 2018), and printed in 2015 or 2019. All of the prints are sized 16×24 inches (or the reverse) and are available in editions of 12. (Installation shots below.)

Several of the images can be activated using the Look & Listen app; hovering over the image with your smartphone camera opens up a short video clip associated with the image, drawn from Pictures from a Revolution (1991) and Reframing History (2004).

A monograph of this body of work Nicaragua, June 1978-July 1979 was originally published by Aperture in 1981 and reissued in 2016 (here).

Comments/Context: When an established photographer takes on a new gallery representation arrangement, the usual pattern is for the gallery to first host a broad survey show, introducing the artist’s historical greatest hits to the gallery’s collector base and skimming off a few straightforward sales, and then to quickly move on to the most recent work, whatever that might be. In a sense, such an approach deliberately mixes opportunism with forward thinking.

But when Susan Meiselas joined Higher Pictures a few years back, the Magnum photographer didn’t really need a tips of the waves survey. Instead, what she needed was a systematic and thoughtful effort to solidify her artistic base – Meiselas had long ago proved herself to be a justifiably acclaimed photojournalist, but what was missing (at least in the context of the art world) was the communication of a deeper through line across her career. She needed someone to look back before looking forward, so that the power of all of her discrete projects could resonate more clearly.

And so, in the past few years, focused shows of her Prince Street Girls (reviewed here) and Carnival Strippers (at Danziger Gallery, reviewed here) projects from the 1970s have begun that consolidation (or re-consolidation) process. This show of Meiselas’s much celebrated work from Nicaragua continues this methodical step-wise progression, revisiting her images from the late 1970s.

The last time we saw the Nicaragua work in an institutional setting (in New York) was in Meiselas’s 2008 survey at the ICP (reviewed here, sadly without installation shots.) In that exhibition, the Nicaragua prints were shown extra large, in a dense installation, with a few hanging from the ceiling – the result was to highlight their action, their violence, and their extreme pops of color. At Higher Pictures, the install is essentially the opposite. It doesn’t try to immerse us in visual stimulation or dazzle us with surfaces; instead it offers a series of more intimate prints that force us to get closer and look harder at what Meiselas was trying to communicate. This understatement reaches for more substantial engagement, where Meiselas’s richness of empathy and compositional mastery are made central.

As more than forty years have passed since Meiselas originally made these photographs, our experience of them has undeniably changed – the immediacy of the particular historical moment has receded, evolving toward an expression of more elemental human realities. And like the best work of Capa, Bourke-White, Cartier-Bresson, and many other notable photojournalists, Meiselas’s images have left specific newsworthiness behind and settled into a realm we more often define as art. The truths the pictures show us now feel more universal, and the care with which the frames were organized and the stories were told is more evident.

Meiselas addresses this passage of time, and the way that her own famous images have since recirculated through Nicaraguan society, right up front, with clusters of images in the entry gallery. Her now-iconic “Molotov Man” (a rifle-toting Sandinista rebel about to toss a flaming molotov cocktail) and her picture of a funeral procession for assassinated student leaders celebrating a Sandinista guerrilla fighter are first shown as she originally photographed them, then as they were reimaginged in aspirational street murals, and finally as those same murals were defaced or blacked out, bringing the cycle of political action full circle. In the span of roughly a year (in 1978-1979), she photographed the Somoza dictatorship, the protests, the rebellions, and ultimately the Sandinista revolution; today, civilian resistance movements are pushing back on the Ortega government, the two sides of the ideological power struggle becoming reversed.

Most of the standout images from this body of work isolate the actions of a single figure, often amid the chaos of street fighting or the horrors of war. Women are at the focal point of many – one sifts through the rubble of her home, another pushes the dead body of her husband on a cart, a third frantically runs away from bombing carrying a naked infant, and a fourth walks through the cloud of black smoke coming from a burning car. Her images of men use similar stylistic devices, albeit often with the addition of more men (soldiers) in the frame. Some silhouette a single fighter (on one side or the other) against a backdrop of patrols, house searches, burning tires, or charred city streets, with others capturing the interactions of threesomes, from masked boys learning to throw bombs and bandanna-wearing fighters behind sand bags to one soldier playing the clarinet for his comrades during a break in the shooting. Color often enlivens these compositions, the pop of a red dress, a red kerchief, a yellow doorway, or an orange flame rebalancing the taut energy of the moment.

At first glance, the most quietly harrowing image in the show looks like a lush green landscape, looking down at the hills and waterways in the distance. But then we notice the corpse in the foreground, its body just a pair of legs and a disturbing stub of brown spine, with a gathering of other random bones in the grass nearby. Apparently this idyllic vista spot was a frequent location for assassinations and executions, and Meiselas infuses its beauty with a stark grimness that recalls the pile of skulls in Roger Fenton’s “Valley of the Shadow of Death”.

The element of passing time comes back into focus via the innovative use of augmented reality (AR), which turns video clips (seen on the viewer’s smartphone) into active image captions. In several, Meiselas returns to Nicaragua to find the actual person in her original photograph, the boy eyeing plastic toy soldiers now grown up and the woman pushing the cart with her dead husband still wearing the same exact earrings. In these interviews and reminiscences, Meiselas recounts what was going through her head as she made the pictures or the subject poignantly provides some backstory to what was happening at that particular moment. This creates a sense of living history, as opposed to static frozen time, Meiselas’s consistent commitment and human empathy coming through strongly.

So in the end, the answer to the why now question surrounding the re-presentation of these Nicaragua photographs is two fold. Even today, the seemingly endless cycle of dictatorship and revolution continues in places all over the globe, so Meiselas’s images offer a bluntly poetic reminder of what that process really looks like. And at the same time, the distancing of passing decades is transforming these images, leaching away their immediacy as photojournalism and making their durability as artworks more obvious.

What’s even more intriguing is that it’s now becoming more possible to see the underlying connections between Meiselas’s successive projects, the framing and groupings of the Prince Street Girls finding a surprising refrain in the arrangements of her Sandinista rebels, and her open, committed connections with her subjects remarkably the same in both situations. As these exhibits click by, we’re seeing the nuances of this fundamental artistic vantage point getting refined with each successive show, and our understanding of where and how Meiselas has been a photographic innovator is getting clearer.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $6500 each. Meiselas’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the last decade, with recent single image prices ranging between roughly $1000 and $9000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Editorial RM (here). Swissbound cloth hardcover with tipped in photograph, 21×30 cm, 528 pages, with numerous photographic reproductions. Includes an author interview ... Read on.

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