In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) Martha Rosler

I have re-posted below, notes I made on this essay in 2013 when it was discussed at the Thames Valley Group meeting on 19th October. I tried to re-read the essay but rapidly lost interest and decided to continue my research with a review of the work of Walker Evans.

I concluded that this must have been written in the late seventies or early eighties. I found the language very difficult and the ideas in this essay almost impossible to follow. (I think perhaps instead of trotting out this essay, the course author should have found something more relevant to contemporary photography, written in an understandable style) the References within it were varied, to photographers I had heard of but was not yet sufficiently familiar with their work. I ran out of time before the meeting so I couldn’t do any research. Hopefully in the coming months, I can at least look up these photographers (Rijs, Hine, Evans et al) and find out why they are mentioned. Also, the copy of the essay available from the internet has no clear pictures.
Rather than attempt to re-read the essay and again fail to follow its thread, I will use what I remember of the group discussion to put down my thoughts on what I think of as documentary photography and photographs as documents.
When I think ‘documentary’, films come to mind first. i.e. non fictional accounts of things that are happening or have happened in the past. So, a documentary film maker would be recording an actual event, e.g. how something is made, the community of those involved in its manufacture and /or the possible social benefits or problems associated with that process. A documentary photographer would do the same thing using still images and possibly team up with a writer (or add text themselves) This becomes photojournalism – is this something else, another genre? Does this make all documentary photographers photojournalists and all photojournalists documentary photographers? Perhaps photojournalism is just a job title.
Where and when does the photograph as a document become art? (and what is art anyway?) Rosler was writing about Migrant Mother the FSA photograph by Dorothea Lange taken in the 1930’s. I suspect this photograph (despite the controversy surrounding Florence Thompson and Lange’s apparent misunderstanding over the purpose of the photograph) has become famous because it is a good example of its type – reproduced in photographic textbooks. Whether the image became famous in its own right or because it was taken my Lange is a chicken and egg question.

The wider question of labelling genres will never go away. I’ve read Geoff Dyer’s “The Ongoing Moment”, The point is illustrated on page one showing the futility of trying to catalogue something so diverse, with the example of a Chinese encyclopaedia’s attempt at classifying the animal kingdom.


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