New Hood exhibit pays homage to career of Susan Meiselas
By Caitlin Kennedy, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, April 12, 2010
Curators at the Hood Museum of Art chose to display “Susan Meiselas: In History” not just because the artist’s work is visually striking, but because it is socially, politically and personally engaged. According to the Hood Quarterly, Meiselas’ work “exemplifies the expectations for Dartmouth students that Jim Yong Kim articulated upon becoming president of the College: that they lead with ‘vision, passion, humility and determination.’”
The exhibition, which opened on Saturday, surveys three key subjects of Meiselas’ career — the lives of carnival strippers, the revolution in Nicaragua and the displacement of the Kurdish people in Iraq — in order to give viewers a thorough look at Meiselas’ career while exploring issues that are highly relevant to the Dartmouth community, according to Hood assistant director Juliette Bianco.
“We had been looking [for an exhibition] inspired by President Kim’s arrival and his invitation for students to become actively engaged in world events,” Bianco said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
Like any photographer, Meiselas frames her shots with precision and care, but her unique compassion for her subjects and dedication to their stories adds depth to her photographs. Rather than engaging in the debate of content versus form, Meiselas “[thinks] the two need to be stitched together to have the greatest impact,” she said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
“[My photographs] are strongly concerned with the aesthetic, but they shift into wanting to create meaningful constructs,” Meiselas said.
She achieves this goal by listening to and recording the stories of the people she photographs and developing lasting relationships with them, she said.
Meiselas’ personal engagement with her work serves as a common thread between the three sections of “In History,” which might otherwise seem disparate due to the wide range of ideas they explore and the various media they use, including photographs, audio clips, video footage and archival objects.
The section titled “Carnival Strippers,” for example, consists of Meiselas’ photographs of carnival strippers from “girl shows” in New England, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
From 1972 to 1976, Meiselas, just out of graduate school, spent three summers gaining acceptance into these traveling carnival communities. Women not involved in the production were generally not admitted to the girl show tents, Meiselas explained, and it was only in her second summer that “the invitation to enter the dressing room came through one of the girls.”
Once she was accepted by the carnival communities, Meiselas was able to record the lives of the strippers — both on and off-stage — through photographs and interviews. Her freeform project ultimately culminated with the 1976 book “Carnival Strippers.”
Bianco emphasized how close to home “Carnival Strippers” strikes to the Dartmouth community, 1972 being the year the College became coeducational.
“These carnivals were happening right around here at a time when women’s issues were in the forefront right here at Dartmouth,” Bianco said.
According to Meiselas, the world of photography was also undergoing change during this period, as people were beginning to feel the increasing presence of cameras in their lives. Thus, rather than following a set course, Meiselas said she has forged her own artistic path and practice — the evolution of which can be traced through the three sections of “In History.”
The two remaining sections of the exhibit — depicting conflicts in Nicaragua and Kurdistan — build on Meiselas’ early dedication to personal engagement with the subjects of her photographs and the exploration of different storytelling media.
Meiselas’ travels in Nicaragua demonstrate her commitment to a sustained personal relationship with the people she photographs. After her initial trips to Nicaragua in the late 1970s, Meiselas returned in the late 1980s and early 1990s to track down the men and women from her old photographs. To locate these people, Meiselas explained, she would simply stop passers-by and ask them to look through her 1981 book “Nicaragua.” These strangers would identify anyone in the photographs that they recognized and give her information to locate the familiar faces.
“In History” juxtaposes five photographs from “Nicargua” with video clips from Meiselas’ 1991 documentary “Pictures from a Revolution” of interviews with the subjects 10 years after the initial photos were taken. The video footage, Meiselas said, does not serve the purpose of before-and-after snapshots, but provides a deeper examination of the evolving stories of the men and women in her photographs.
“It’s not just another set of photographs of them 10 years later or 10 years older, but to really understand what’s happened to them … and the impact of changes in them,” Meiselas said.
Meiselas believes that the changes in the life of Marta — whose photograph and interviews are featured in the exhibit — have direct relevancy to the issues faced by U.S. citizens today, she said. As a young girl during the revolution, Marta aspired to be a tank operator, but when Meiselas met her ten years later, Marta was living with a man who — as a former Contra — had been her political enemy.
“It’s kind of like how many friends of yours are a Democrat or Republican and can you get past the politics, the differences, to have deep friendships?” Meiselas explained. “Can we bridge across those kinds of political differences?”
In the current political climate of stark polarization, “Obamanation” and the Tea Party Movement, the idea of standing with the president and believing he can represent a deeply divided people is “really a profound thing to be faced with,” Meiselas said. “where you stand with the President and if you believe he still can represent the people, a divided people, that’s a really profound thing to be faced with,” Meiselas said.
“Susan Meiselas: In History” opened April 10 at the Hood Museum and will remain open through June 20. Meiselas will deliver an opening lecture April 16 at 4:30 p.m. in Loew Auditorium, and she will engage directly with Dartmouth students by visiting a variety of classes in different departments — from studio art to English — on April 15 and 16. In May, several professors from various departments will give gallery talks about the exhibition.