The definitions I use to differentiate between photojournalism and art photography are that in photojournalism the picture is meant to illustrate a story, and that in art photography the picture is the story. For instance, Henri Cartier-Bresson's "Rue Mouffetard, Paris" (1954), his image of a young boy carrying two magnums of wine that was discussed in this space last week, is complete in itself. The title tells us it was shot in a certain colorful neighborhood in Paris's fifth arrondissement, and the date tells us when, but the information is not necessary to our appreciation of the picture. Nor would it add much to know the boy's name, or who sent him to fetch the wine, or for what, if any, special occasion. But to appreciate "Modest: Women in the Middle East," the work by the late photojournalist Alexandra Boulat currently on exhibition at VII, the more you know, the better.
There are 18 large-format color pictures up at VII, drawn from a selection of 10 times that number included in the project online. The picture taken in Herat, Afghanistan, October 11, 2004 (none of the pictures is individually titled), is dramatic, but indeterminate. It is a close-up of the face of a young woman covered with a cloth of white gauze. The woman is apparently lying down in a bed, and as best we can see through the gauze that covers her, she is beautiful: dark hair, gracefully curved eyebrows, attractive features. Is that bandaging that swaddles her face? Her eyes are closed and her mouth is open. Is she alive or dead? The image, which emphasizes the modeling of the wrinkled white gauze and the delicacy of the skin tone seen through it, is certainly arresting, but without more information we are not sure how to respond to it.
There are, however, 241 words available to tell us what we are looking at. "Shashima, 25, set herself on fire twenty days ago." "She is ... suffering of deep burns and a beginning of septicemia. Her face is covered with a veil to protect her from flying insects." "She is a mother of two ... " "'I was unhappy with my husband's family.'" As we learn more, our relationship with the image changes: It is still visually stunning, but it is tragic, and we are appalled. It is one part of Boulat's exploration of the lives of women in the context of Islam, fundamentalism, domestic violence, and war; graphic brilliance is her way of making us pay attention to a story that was important to her.
Alexandra Boulat was born in Paris in 1962, and abandoned an early career as a painter to become a photojournalist. In this she followed her father, Pierre Boulat, who was a photographer for Life magazine. Her prize-winning work on conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere appeared in Time, Newsweek, Paris Match, and National Geographic, and in 2001 she was one of the seven distinguished photojournalists who founded VII, a collectively owned agency. Boulat covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and photographed in Iran and Gaza, pursuing her interest in the women of the region. In 2007, she suffered a brain aneurysm while in Israel and died after several weeks in a coma. "Modest: Women in the Middle East" is her legacy.
Boulat created some striking compositions. There is an image from Tehran, November 2004, of eight women dressed in full-length black robes all in a line, each holding a target pistol in her raised right hand. The floor, walls, and ceiling of the brightly lit room are white, so the eight black figures diminishing in size as they recede are very stylized. The picture might be a surreal construction, but the text tells us it is shooting training at the women's police academy. I did not know there was a women's police academy in Tehran. We can grasp the meaning of the picture only by assimilating a more complex understanding of the role of women in Iran.
A picture from a shopping mall north of Tehran taken in October 2004 would not be an exceptional image if the two young women in it were not Muslims and wearing head scarves. They are both attractive, with nice figures set off by their form-fitting black sweaters and trousers. They wear stylish decorative belts, and one has a young son in tow: He wears a Batman jacket. Without the head scarves, the picture might be from any American suburban mall. Boulat here adequately tells her story — there are chic, well-heeled, modern women even in Iran — but not with the virtuosic imagery she manages elsewhere.
The picture of Idi Amma, taken in Quetta, Pakistan, in September 2001, is one of Boulat's strong images. The elderly Afghan woman sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan, and is living there in a small mud house with 34 other refugees. Her wrinkled face fills the center of the picture, framed by her gray hair and the hood of her dark blue robe. Her chin is down, her lower eyelids are a purple red, and her eyes look sideways sharply to the right. This is intrinsically a fine picture, but knowing the circumstances of its origin helps us read the emotions playing across Amma's aged face.
Photojournalism and art photography, despite their different objectives, feed on each other. Weegee's naked-city news photos inspired the stark photography of Daido Moriyama and several others while, conversely, photojournalists consciously absorb stylistic techniques from art photographers to help make their reportage memorable. There were many such wonderful French photographers around for Alexandra Boulat to learn from as she mastered her craft.
Until July 18 (28 Jay St., between Plymouth and John streets, 212-337-3130).