"Greg Davis: India's Kumbh Mela" at Butridge Gallery

These images offer impressive layers of visual intricacy but also raise the problematic questions of photojournalism

Greg Davis: India's Kumbh Mela at Butridge Gallery

The June 1985 cover of National Geographic featured a now iconic photograph of a young woman with striking green eyes. She is intense, with dark skin and hair. Her head and shoulders are covered with a deep orange fabric. Her eyes are an emerald green with nebulas of gold around her pupils. I have seen the image in magazines, on the covers of books, on TV, and, of course, online, but it wasn't until a few minutes ago that I learned the woman is an Afghan and that her name is Sharbat Gula. On the one hand, the image creates awareness, a primal recognition of human qualities – in this case, ferocious perseverance, vigilance, and some fear. On the other hand, the image is problematic for the awareness it fails to promote. Whatever impact the image may have had throughout my life, I have never felt the need to pursue the details of its creation. Even now, I know nothing about this woman or the culture she represents.

This is a particular problem of photojournalism. Most visual artwork ideally stands on its own. Even the most conceptual, minimalist, "my kid could do that" type of stuff should provide enough information so the viewer can achieve a complete experience without much explanation. Photojournalism, such as the work on display in "India's Kumbh Mela," a collection of work by local artist and National Geographic photographer Greg Davis, has a different job. Photojournalism tends to prioritize drama. This is an issue for all the conundrums it sets up: How do you make drama in an image without narrative? How do you make narrative without bias? How do you promote a bias without compromising journalistic integrity? To some degree, as long as newspapers are trying to sell subscriptions, the dramatic aims will survive. Davis himself knows drama when he finds it. Mohan's Offering depicts an older man, presumably Mohan, standing in a river, arms outstretched, hands cupping water that drips from his palms. His skin is bronzed as rust, white hair and beard flowing in soiled strands. His eyes, somewhat obscured by wrinkles and shadow, are either shut in meditation, or opened to the sky. The background is filled by the placid gray surface of the river. Mohan's experience is ecstatic. Nectar of Immortality is similarly stirring. Another elderly man with billowing streams of white hair and beard stares into the camera, a handful of water held to his mouth. A smudge of yellow pigment decorates his forehead. The image is textured with a thousand sumptuous details to get lost in, from the water dribbling through the man's fingers, to the streaks of gray hairs populating his otherwise black eyebrows. Like Mohan, this man seems immersed in a spiritual haze.

Davis' images provide impressive layers of visual intricacy, but I can't help having the same somewhat hopeless, somewhat guilty feeling that I have on recalling the 1985 Nat Geo photograph. It's the same feeling I get when I see news images of atrocities in Syria or elsewhere. Something is being evoked, but to what end? The exhibition offers some history on the ancient Indian gathering known as Kumbh Mela, and will also be accompanied by a short film. But what degree of background knowledge would I need to genuinely appreciate the sincerity – the depth – of Mohan's religion? There's a reason images in newspapers come with stories. Davis' pictures are lovely. They do everything photojournalism is expected to do. Maybe that's the problem.


“Greg Davis: India’s Kumbh Mela”

Julia C. Butridge Gallery, 1110 Barton Springs Rd., 512/974-4000
www.austintexas.gov/jcbgallery

Through Aug. 12
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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Julia C. Butridge Gallery, Greg Davis, National Geographic, photojournalism

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