In the photography exhibition at the Proud Gallery, London, entitled "Underexposed: an alternative view of the past 100 years", there is an exceptionally strong pair of news pictures. One of them, taken in 1937, shows the Duke of Windsor, surrounded by Nazi officers, gazing at a model of Dresden; he is being told about the architectural improvements that Hitler is planning.
The second shows ordinary Germans, eight years later, trying to remove the rubble from the same city, laid waste by British raids. This snapshot of devastated Dresden is one of those miracles of news photography that both vividly convey information and provide aesthetic satisfaction. A hurried click of the camera, but the result is a masterpiece in composition. Moreover the two pictures reverberate uneasily in the mind. The Duke was our former head of state. The carpet bombing of Dresden had little strategic merit. Here is an example of the emotional power of news pictures. As a consequence they may be suppressed, doctored or even subjected to the self-censorship of editors. The theme of the exhibition is based on a recent publication by Index on Censorship.
The Dresden pictures scarcely need captions, though I would have liked to have known the identities of the officers surrounding the Duke. Is it a mark of the best news photographs that no words are needed, except, say, "Dresden, 1945"? In the case of another picture from Germany there is certainly nothing to add. It comprises a man and woman, well dressed, who look to be in their thirties, surrounded by Nazi policemen. Hung from the neck of the woman is a placard that reads: "I am the greatest swine and only get myself mixed up with Jews"; and the placard on the man declares: "I am a Jew. I only take German girls to my room."
Equally eloquent is a picture of soldiers taken in 1918. At first glance, the men appear to be arranged as in any other regimental picture, sitting solemnly on neat rows of chairs, staring straight ahead - except that they are in wheelchairs and their legs have been amputated. When you see this photograph, you know that there is nothing else to say. There are many others, but I will mention one more. It was taken in Chile in 1991. It shows the army parading with an image of "Our Lady of Peace" carried high on the men's shoulders. Above is the Virgin and child, with halo, the tableau adorned with elaborate vestments. Below marches a file of soldiers with rifles on their shoulders. It's embarrassing, is it not? The picture was banned from an exhibition of the photographer's work held the following year.
Yet sometimes a picture needs an explanation if its full power is to be released. You look at a group of 40 men standing together in bright sunlight. They are dressed in light jackets and trousers, and most of them have gauzes over their mouths and noses. They seem quite relaxed. They appear to be expecting something. Actually, the men are clean-up workers outside the stricken Chernobyl power station one week after the explosion. They do not realise that they are absorbing deadly radiation as they wait for buses to take them home. Many of them died from radiation sickness within a few months. Without a 100-word caption, the picture means very little; with the context described, it becomes heart-rending.
The strangest picture in the show was taken in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow in 1922. Stamped at the time with "Not to be reproduced", it shows, the caption informs us, the first communist head of the secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, looking more oriental than his native Polish, sitting in a high-backed chair at a table, around which stand or perch a number of his colleagues. One of them reads from a document while their chief listens, pen in hand, about to write down what he hears. The others look on intently.
As I examined it, I began to think that the picture had been composed for the camera. It didn't feel as if it had been taken while the group got on with its business, paying no attention to the photographer. Nothing is caught on the wing. In fact, it looks to me as if the participants had been placed in order to resemble the Last Supper. There are 12 figures with Dzerzhinsky. The difference with the original, however, is rather crucial. They are all Judases. Not only did they depend on betrayal for their success, but all except two, Dzerzhinsky and his successor, who is also in the picture, would themselves be accused of treason. And one by one they were liquidated. The photograph shows us their charade; but we feel no sympathy.
"Underexposed" is at the Proud Gallery, 5 Buckingham Street, London WC2. Mon-Fri 9.30am to 6.30pm; Sat and Sun 11am to 4.30pm. Until 26 February
"Underexposed" is published by Index on Censorship, £8.99 (to order, telephone 020-7278 2313)