February 27, 2014

Towell from Kiev (and Canada): the Cream Rises to the Top – Updated

I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter about the world being too full of photos these days and how the glut threatens the cream from rising to the top. Well, looking at these photos from Kiev by Magnum’s Larry Towell, I don’t think there’s much risk of that. (Standing out, too, is how the home team CBC makes a big point of the fact he’s Canadian. Well, maybe that’s why the photos are so distinct.…)

What’s wonderful about the photo above, in comparison to much of the newswire fare, are all the contrasts. Whereas most wire photos captured Independence Square and those distinct metal shields as if the photos were taken in the Feudal Age, this photo is jarring for the  woman in the fashionable jacket putting her hand to the shield — as if pushing (or pushing back) with the strength of modernity. If the news photos were all about tension, this is also an impressive rebuttal to the sensationalism. Remarkable for its placidness, the only thing the cops are killing is time. And contrary to the unitary scenes of bloodbath and smoldering destruction, Towell sets this photo at the foot of an elegant concert hall (the International Center of Culture and Arts of the Trade Unions of Ukraine, formerly the October Palace).  It brings civil life into the story like none of the other photos I’ve seen, one that so wryly floats the cultural and historical stakes. The battle is not just for the square but for the city and it’s heritage, here expressed through its architecture and the arts.

With the quality of the mechanical, but particularly, the primary epoch of the head gear, if this doesn’t say WWI, I don’t know what does. Is Towell intending to frame Kiev, however, alongside the more epic battles seen on the continent? And, is he being unusually definitive (and prognostic, perhaps?) in situating the protest movement in the visual terms of a (great) war?

This striking photo from the CBC edit is also distinct from the newswire images. (You can click for larger size/s.)  I wish I knew who this figure was. I also have to fight the temptation to read-in religious crosses. Beyond the bleakness of the embankment and the low wall-turned-protest slogan, what most stands out is how fortified this pole is now. Given the sense of the figure as tied up and blindfolded, it almost appears like a public torture apparatus.  Towell might be pulling in that primitivism prevalent in the newswire shots, but the more certain theme here — without a soul in sight — involves the intent to punish. Without more context, but based on the idea both sides have contributed to the assemblage, it seems like the “lashing out” instinct is going both ways.

If you have thoughts on these shots, or any other from the edit that speak to you, please be my guest.

(photos: Larry Towell/Magnum. caption: Photojournalist Larry Towell has spent decades taking powerful images of war zones. He’s just back from Kyiv with photos and some powerful stories of Ukraine in crisis.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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