Gilles Peress: Circumstantial Evidence
By Peter Yenne
Telex Iran/In The Name of Revolution. By Gilles Peress. Published by Aperture. Millerton, N Y. $20 paperback.
"The country that emerges from these photographs is bleak and mysterious, an agitated, contradictory place, filled with high emotions and sadness, where few things are what they seem."
Depressing as the world situation is today, it still inspires wonderful photography. The last few years have brought us Susan Meiselas' powerful book on Nicaragua. followed by an even better group effort on E1 Salvador (recently shown at the Rice Media Center), In a parallel development, three current films feature photographers as central characters — Under Fire, Circle of Deceit, and The Year of Living Dangerously. The committed photographer, something of an endangered species during the 1970s, is obviously making a comeback. Gilles Peress, a French photographer working for Magnum, may not look like Nick Nolte or Mel Gibson, but he is clearly a successor to the likes of Robert Capa and Don McCullin. Like them, Peress shoots in black and white, but the world he lives in, as Nolte and Gibson quickly discovered, is getting grayer and grayer.
Telex Iran/ln the Name of Revolution is the amazing record of five weeks Peress spent in Iran m 1979/80 during the seizure of the American Embassy in Teheran. It is a big book, filled with images as intricate as the rugs that were Iran's second most famous export. Fittingly, for a Magnum member. Peress' style is indebted to Cartier-Bresson and Josef Koudelka, with more than a casual nod to William Klein and the late Garry Winogrand. This is a wide-angle view of Iran, tilted, fragmented by the piercing rays of the low winter sun, energized by a people in revolt. Peress is an artist as well as a journalist, and the book shows it. He is interested in pictures for their own sakes, and the photographs are full of visual puns, bursting with information, and strong in contrasts of lighting and scale. The impressive range of visual strategies in Telex/ Iran reveals a quick, resourceful and inventive eye. Peress likes to break up the picture frame, reducing mass movements to individuals. Often, people are seen through screens and windows, or from passing cars and trams, reinforcing the feeling that Iran is still 'out there’, impenetrably foreign and remote. Yet Peress manages to break through his alienation and get close to his subjects with stunning results.
The country that emerges from these photographs is bleak and mysterious, an agitated, contradictory place, filled with high emotions and sadness, where few things are what they seem. Turning to the essay at the end of the book, for example, we learn that the women wailing in the cemeteries may well have been paid professional mourners, and that the "revolutionary martyrs" they grieve for could just as easily have died in a car wreck. Ayatollahs are everywhere; on mirrors, posters, cassettes, television, even at the bottom of soup bowls, reminding us that this holy war was also a war of images, a modern struggle of Good and F vil for prime time. It is not a clear, simple, or uplifting story. Brief captions. in small print, are placed at the end of the book, leaving the photographs to stand on their own, reflecting the tumult and ambiguity of the situation that produced them.
Peress has come a long way from the classic photojournalism of Eugene Smith. He belongs to a more complex and self conscious time in when the media are SO powerful and all encompassing that they create events as much as they cover them. The hostage crisis is a perfect example of this trend, and the example of this trend, and the Iranians made maximum use of the intense media coverage it generated. Seeing is no longer believing, which puts the photojournalist in a rather difficult position.
Telex/Iran addresses this problem in an interesting way. Sprinkled throughout the book are the terse, puzzling telexes that were Peress' primary link to the outside world. They give us an unusual glimpse into the everyday life of a "troubleshooter." Like his glamorous cinematic counterparts, Peress is a kind of spy, and thus the telexes are probably deliberately cryptic. They tell of contacts and couriers, missed deadlines and opportunities. They talk of money (he is in it, after all. for something) and send their love. The telexes are candid, too (one of them describes his latest take as "not very smashing"), contributing to the sense of a real, yet curiously pared-down and "existential" personality behind the camera. Peress comes across as a politically committed journalist who tries to remain objective, concerned that his pictures be correctly captioned and not misused by the by the right-wing press. Inevitably, captions are confused, meanings are lost and blurred.
Peress is at the mercy of events and the fickle interests of the reading public. From the telexes we learn that he would like to go home, but can't — there is a rumor that the hostages will be released. When he finally has a hot story, no one is interested — all eyes are on Afghanistan, could he please go there instead? A lingering sense of futility hangs over these marvelous pictures. Ironically, we learn more about the actual political situation in Iran from Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi's two-page essay than we ever could from the photographs, and Peress knows that even if he should capture a crucial image it will probably be used to sell apple pie or compact cars. Still, what else can he do? Peress is driven to make sense of a situation, to interrogate the visual world. Like Winogrand, he knows his pictures are only circumstantial evidence, but they are the only evidence he has.
Perhaps the filmmakers were right after all — in a twisted and very contemporary way, Peress is a kind of romantic hero. From his pictures we cannot tell exactly what happened in Iran, but we can say, with conviction. "This is what history looked like."