Social issues come to life at photo exhibit

Prepare to be rocked. That was what I was told when approaching James Nachtwey's photo collage "The Sacrifice," which is part of a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum called "Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties."

It is 60 operating-room photos, a stack of three prints (measuring about 31/2 feet high) and print after print running a bit more than 32 feet long. They were taken while the photographer was traveling with an emergency military medical unit in Iraq in 2006 and show doctors and nurses working to save the lives of wounded servicemen and civilians.

Most of the individual black-and-white images would be too graphic to print in a newspaper or even most magazines. By themselves, each would be a telling work; taken together, they are a profound comment on the human price of war.

Nachtwey is one of the nine photographers whose work is being highlighted in the exhibition. What ties the artists together, says Brett Abbott, a curator at the Getty, is that all of them are concerned with something that is going on in the world and that they studied, wrote about and photographed their subjects, sometimes for years.

"These projects were not done in a week," Abbott says. "They were done over years - in Larry Towell's case, 10 years."

In 1989, Towell began photographing a Mennonite community who had migrated to Canada from Mexico in search of seasonal work. The images document a group whose religious beliefs have left them on the margins of the modern world, many without a home or in poor conditions as evidenced in the starkness of a photo called "El Cuevo."

Contrast that with the colorful yet often sad photos of Lauren Greenfield, whose "Girl Culture" section looks at young women's relationships with their bodies and popular culture.

Another project that dealt with teens was Mary Ellen Mark's "Streetwise." It began in 1983 in Seattle as part of a story about runaways who lived on the streets.

"One of the major challenges photographers face today is how to deal with the Internet and how to deal with contraction of print media because it's been such an important partner in their work," Abbott says. "At the same time, one of the important spirits of this kind of work has been its independence."

Abbott says he wonders how such works "will be disseminated to the public in an age that is so dependent on the Internet."

Two sections of the exhibition are touchstones of the 1960s: the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

And a 10th section of the exhibit is devoted to the history of documentary photography before the 1960s, which Abbott says "gives a context of where the tradition comes from."