Contemplating documentary

Exercise: Reading the article ‘The judgement seat of photography’

In summary, Christopher Phillips (I tried to identify him but his name is too common among authors and lecturers for me to be sure exactly who he is – I make the assumption that he is American) tracked the way Art Photography has been viewed during the history of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and its various directors of photography.  I read the article with some difficulty.  Like many specialist writers, brevity and concision elude him and from the list of over eighty references I was unable to see any key research materials that would be useful beyond what I have read elsewhere. His viewpoint does seem to be “metro centric” concentrating on New York and the USA and his article was published in 1992. Much has happened in photography in the intervening 23 years which has had a great deal of influence an the way we perceive documentary photography. However this was a useful illustration on how museums and their directors can influence the direction of photography.

Post documentary art

Open See. Jim Goldberg’s exhibition video gave a clear indication that he was actively engaging his audience with innovative folding books to tell a story. The Open See exhibition website showed a slowly scrolling matrix of  exhibition images from which it was clear to see the extent of his work but not necessarily the detail. I found the presentation of his images with texts written by his subject engaging and powerful. As a documentary project in the gallery it seemed to have worked although there is of course no substitute for seeing the exhibition itself to make an informed judgement.

Post Documentary Photography, Art and Ethics by Ine Gevers

Summary of key points:

  • The boundaries between documentary and art photography have become indistinct and a new term  for the ‘documentary as art’, may have to be found.
  • There is a perceived conflict between the ethics of the objectivity of documentary photography and the aesthetics of art photography. Can a documentary image be beautiful and can a beautiful image be a document?
  • Historically, the objectivity of documentary photography has always been questioned, especially in the west when looking at the way governments have used photography to reinforce dominant ideologies. Photography has been seen as a servant of repression and as propaganda and indoctrination. Any medium which can be used for goodwill always be used oppressively by those with extreme ideas to communicate. The writer is talking about  representation being in crisis but hasn’t this always been the case at one time or another throughout modern history?
  • The writer cites examples of use and misuse of the photographic image giving the the examples of Rosler and Sekula. In attempts to explain how documentary can be of value especially if  the people themselves are involved in the expression of their problems – to report, rather than be the object of the report by a third party.
  • On ethics and aesthetics, the writer quoted philosophers and ideas with which I was not familiar and found too complex to understand (within the time constraints of this course anyway) but the final paragraph was understandable. It was about autonomy and as such, the right of the photographer to express himself and to allow the viewer to interpret that expression in their own way.



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