Luc Delahaye made a name for himself in the 1980s and 1990s as a photojournalist. Parachuting into hotspots ranging from Chechnya and Bosnia to Afghanistan and Rwanda, he tirelessly catalogued the horrors of armed conflict. The treacherousness of working in such war zones conditioned his approach to his medium, as he recounted in a 2003 interview with Artnet.com: “I felt clearly and entirely present in the world for almost the first time; you have this very clear and simple understanding of things.” Unsatisfied with the sensationalistic storytelling endemic to most photojournalism and determined to keep himself anchored in the here and now, Delahaye began a decade ago to wield his camera to artistic ends, while continuing to chronicle pockets of social unrest across the globe. Despite his shift in purpose, the results remain predominantly documentary.
In this exhibition, “2006-2010,” Delahaye presented his radically abridged output from the last four years. (An inexorable perfectionist, he culls very few usable images from his perilous expeditions abroad.) The 10 imposing color C-prints (ranging from about 59 to 118 inches on a side) and the one modest black-and-white inkjet photo (12 by 9 inches) on view narrated both collective suffering and resistance.
Other than their descriptive titles, almost nothing in Delahaye’s striking tableaux reveals where they were taken. Man Sleeping, Dubai (2008) shows a weathered male migrant worker slumbering in the sands of the emirate with towering electrical pylons and industrial smokestacks looming in the background. Does the nameless Endymion-like figure bespeak the underbelly of such bling-bling Middle Eastern oases, where foreign laborers are ruthlessly exploited? The Glue Sniffer, The Looters, The Thief and Camp Texaco, Port-au-Prince all were taken in Haiti in January 2010, days after a catastrophic earthquake devastated the already stricken country. True to his journalistic roots, Delahaye captured the depths to which most locals stooped to cope—substance abuse, burglary, larceny, insalubrious encampments—suggesting that such responses to extreme conditions are part and parcel of human nature.
Showcasing a similar tragedy, Karni Crossing Demo (2008) depicts a raucous throng of Palestinian men and boys protesting the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Those in the distance brandish Palestinian flags like battle standards, as they advance along the fenced-off border. In the foreground, others usher a child to safety, scrutinize the enemy from atop mounds of dirt and prepare for confrontation under the sweltering sun.
Shot from far-off, occasionally elevated vantage points but replete with saturated colors, Delahaye’s outsized photographs engulf the viewer, inviting close scrutiny of myriad details. Their clarity and detached non-voyeuristic tenor can be compared to the panoramic creations of Andreas Gursky. While the latter concentrates on architecture and landscape to interrogate contemporary capitalism and globalization, both photographers shun gratuitous sentimentality or political grandstanding. Delahaye’s faithful recordings of human drama thrive at the crossroads of historical reality and esthetic engagement.