'Wide Angle View' Shows the Personal Is Political

* This article was altered on March 3, 2011.

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see,” Edgar Degas said, and ain't that the truth? An individual may not read a newspaper article but can be stopped in his tracks by a picture, and at its core, photojournalism is sometimes the only news and information people get in this scurrying, too-busy-for-anything-but-a-sound-bite culture.

You can see the form in all its gripping glory at Orange County Center for Contemporary Art's (OCCCA) “Wide Angle View” exhibition, which combines some of photojournalism's finest contemporary practitioners with some of their personal work. It's co-produced by OCCCA members Rik Lawrence and Gina Genis, an effervescent personality and talented photographer in her own right (see my review of Laguna Beach Art Museum's OsCene, “Half-Empty or Half-Full?” March 19, 2010). Genis has laid out the work in a loving, thoughtful way (geographically, beginning with photographers close to California and progressively moving to those in other countries), and one can't help but be wowed by how precisely the pictures are chosen and grouped (by photographer, with assignment shots on the left and personal work to the right of their bios), as well as the tenacity and devotion necessary for Genis to get so much award-winning Los Angeles Times, Reuters and Corbis talent into a small Santa Ana space.

Oversized prints of some of the more iconic images hang in the lobby, and they're only a taste of things to come. Pulitzer-winning Times photographer Carolyn Cole's Final Salute is a colossal statue of Saddam Hussein: arm outstretched, red flames and black smoke caressing the burning National Olympic Committee building behind him. It's situated opposite her picture of a pelican melting into the sludge of BP's oil muck. Benjamin Lowy's elegant portrait of a black man in a fluffy hotel robe, legs crossed confidently as he smokes and sits in a New Jersey homeless encampment, effortlessly captures the man's situation and his dreams; so does Deanne Fitzmaurice's clever shot of a man sleeping in front of a fountain in France, the water spout hidden behind him looking like he's pissing into the air.

Examining the shots, one is tempted to believe that most of the photographers never stop working. Sandy Huffaker's insightful personal project of random people absorbed in their digital accouterments is just as important and newsworthy as his shadowy noir photos of drug tunnels near the United States-Mexico border. Heidi Laughton's photos of Chinese peasants have a faded photogravure feel to them, while the personal shots of herself losing her hair while undergoing chemotherapy are as clinical and compelling as a documentary. Rick Loomis' Afghan War vets and civilians minus limbs make their point in his personal project featuring the stilt-walking bacchanalians of Burning Man.

Even when shooting personal pictures of their giggling, playing children, it's often in comparison or in contrast with more sober images. Tim Wimborne's son taking a drink is in black and white, but it's in sharp contrast to his lovely color portrait of Pakistani boys lined up to get a handout of rice for dinner following the country's devastating floods. Dressed in pale earth tones and surrounded by the steam of the cooking rice, the boys look like they're fading in front of us. The scared look of a child cradled by his mother as a cyclone is about to hit them in one of Abir Abdullah's photos is always in the corner of your eye, even while gazing at pictures of his son wielding a cricket bat.

My lone criticism of the exhibition regards the screening room, with its bank of television monitors and projected clips, at the back of the gallery. The headphones attached to the monitors need extension cables so there's some distance between you and the TVs; chairs at each monitor would be more comfortable than standing hunched over on concrete, and the volume needs to be seriously reduced on the projections in order to hear through the headphones. It's a minor caveat, and at the risk of being unintentionally ironic considering Genis' conversation with me about the disappearance of print media when I saw this exhibition and the fact that “Wide Angle View”'s practitioners make their living from the dead-tree industry . . . most of the video work is online.

This review appeared in print as “The Personal Is Political: The photojournalists of OCCCA’s ‘Wide Angle View’ never stop working.”

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