More on Ernest C. Withers

Posted by David Ozanich — 27 Sep 2010


I spoke here earlier this month about the strange case of Ernest C. Withers, the noted civil rights photographer who was revealed to have been a paid FBI informant reporting on the very people he was documenting. It raised all sorts of complicated issues which were addressed in a very interesting New York Times article over the weekend:

But beyond issues of personal betrayal, the news raised much more difficult and fundamental questions — ones central to photography and documentary work but to the history of art and popular culture as well — about artistic intent, about the assumptions and expectations of the viewing public and about the relationship between artists and their work

The article also discusses the cases of the painter Larry Rivers and actor Joaquin Phoenix. Withers, though, proves the most explosive case:

Brett Abbott, the curator of an exhibition now on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, “Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties,” said the revelations might prompt some scholars to sift back through the entire body of Withers’s work to re-evaluate it in light of his work as an informer.

But he cautioned that even when dealing with art whose intentions appear to be relatively straightforward — as some documentary photography and film can, seeking to right a wrong, further a cause, stop a war — it is always “treading on dangerous ground” to try to locate the value of the work in the life of the artist or in his sense of morality.

“The ‘I Am a Man’ image is one of the enduring images of the civil rights movement,” he said. “And when you’re dealing with icons, it may not matter all that much what the biographical context of the person making that image was. Pictures like that take on a life of their own.”

Find the whole article here. As for me, I’m waiting to see what exactly it was he informed on before making a final judgement on the man himself. His photography should stand alone - for now.

For those in or near Los Angeles, information about that nifty sounding Getty show is here.

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