Water: Our Thirsty World


of an Exhibition

by Maraya Cornell

Published on June 22, 2010

  • Description:

    The salient impression I had when I visited the Annenberg Space for Photography for the first time was that it doesn’t provide a lot of space for photography. By photography, I mean still images captured on film and rendered on some static medium, such as paper, which one can stand in front of and absorb for as long as one wishes — an outdated view, apparently.

    The building and its brochure both suggest that digital displays are the future of how we will experience photography. The brochure calls print photographs “traditional,” while most of the ultra-modern building is taken up by a workshop area and an expansive circular theater called the “Digital Gallery.” Big and slick as an ice-skating rink and furnished with luxurious leather-upholstered ottomans, the Digital Gallery is where the main attraction lives — two large digital screens that play multimedia presentations.

    The sense of spaciousness in the Digital Gallery does not, alas, extend to the cramped hallways encircling it, where the actual photographs (my definition) are packed closely together, parted only by thick chunks of text. The whole ensemble seems unintentionally, and uncomfortably, to raise the question of whether a photograph can continue, in our complicated age, to speak to us with its own voice.

    The exhibition I saw, “Water: Our Thirsty World,” in partnership with National Geographic Magazine and its March 2010 issue on water, appears to answer that question with a resounding “No.” Too many photographs, hung too closely together in the galleries, tell too many stories. The hanging text panels are lecturey and disassociated from the photographs, and don’t do much to shape a story.

    I’m not saying that photographs should always be able stand on their own. The award-winning photographs in National Geographic Magazine are supported by a scaffolding of titles, captions, and long-form journalism. But if you’re going to hang photographs in a gallery called the “Space for Photography,” and then sideline any context, you’re setting up an expectation that the photographs will indeed tell us the story on their own. And if they don’t, it’s going to be a disappointment.

    The exhibition’s main theme, that fresh water is getting scarce in our world, is familiar, which was helpful in getting orientated. But even so, I was launched into perplexity in the first gallery when I was confronted with images of gushing waterfalls and people floating in great pools of crystal blue. Huh? What happened to the thirsty world? After that, the visual narrative, such as it is, generally applies to the main theme. But there are six different stories, by six different photographers, presented here. And the nuances of each artist’s particular take on the familiar warning cry of environmental doom are lost in the general visual din.

    Where the exhibition most succeeds is in its multimedia presentations, especially the second and third presentations, which are narrated. In one, works by all six photographers play one after the other, accompanied by a voice-over that weaves the images together into a story of the state of fresh water on earth. Not a new story, but at least coherent.

    The last presentation, I thought, is where the images really come to life. As the photographs rolls through, each photographer discusses his or her purpose and mission and personal investment in the work. Here is where, finally, we saw nuances on the old environmental bell-toll: Joel Sartore’s dogged ambition to get people to care about endangered but weird-looking river creatures by catching them looking cute on film; Lynn Johnson’s unexpected assertion that her images of extreme human suffering are actually uplifting stories of perseverance; and Edward Burtynsky’s attempts to give Southern California a good look at the legacy of its greed for water. If a few lines from these photographers’ words had been used to narrate the print photographs, rather than those lecturey blocks of text, the print part of this exhibition would have been more meaningful.

    I was mesmerized by this last multimedia presentation. But I kept coming back to the fact that this place was a Space for Photography.

    What else would have made for a better experience in the “traditional” galleries? Fewer photographs, for one thing. A still image needs space surrounding it — otherwise, one’s attention is co-opted and frayed. In an exhibition trying to tell multiple stories, big, obvious titles would have helped, and some visual way of separating one story from the next. Captions for individual photographs should be displayed next to them, not listed on a panel to the side.

    In fact, there is one part of the “traditional” exhibition that does deliver a message about water scarcity in a visceral way. But it isn’t a photograph. It’s a big plastic jug of water. When you lift it, which, unless you’re a body-builder, you do only briefly, you have a small but powerful notion of what it must be like to carry that jug on your back for several miles, as must the African women walking across the sand dunes in one of Lynn Johnson’s photographs.

    As my companion and I left the exhibition, we involuntarily headed toward the white ultra-modern sofa and chairs arranged on the ultra-modern roofed porch outside. The living room setting does much to warm up the chilly feel of the architecture. The act of sitting on a sofa makes you feel that you’re in a human space, even when the candles on the table in front of you are wedged into glass vessels filled with polished white rock.

    My companion was far less critical of the exhibition that I was, but those images of women carrying water for long distances elicited some skepticism. We’ve all heard that story before, he said, and years ago. If women in the deserts of Africa have always been carrying water for long distances, how does a photograph of a woman with a 5-gallon bucket on her head prove that the earth is running out of fresh water?

    Neither of us doubted the urgency of the water crisis. But don’t faithful environmentalists still deserve a convincing story? The text offered lots of numbers: x million people, y billion drops, but nowhere were we given tangible evidence of how things are getting worse, except at one point in the multimedia presentation where we saw an example of what is still the most convincing proof of melting glaciers: those well-known then-and-now images that show the ice’s retreat. If the purpose of the exhibition was to convey a sense of urgency about the water crisis, galleries full of comparisons — new photographs juxtaposed against old ones of the same place — surely could have rendered a powerful vision of a changing world.

    I think the real lesson here is that if you want to deliver a clear message, you’ve got to start with that message, and not with the media. If you take photographs that were meant to accompany long-form journalism, hang them on the wall, and expect them to tell the story of your exhibition’s title, that story is going to be muddy.

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