Category Archives: 3 A post-modern documentary

Jon Levy on “Intent”

Exercise: Jon Levy was talking about the photojournalistic magazine Foto8 (an online magazine) and the type of work that is submitted. I gather (from recent discussions) that documentary photographers/photojournalists are now seeking an outlet for their work in galleries and while Levy didn’t mention that specifically, the importance that he placed on the photographer’s intentions being clear from the start of the project was clear. I got the impression that some authors assemble a body of work and then look for an intent to pad out the artist’s statement.

I took a look at the magazine on line and there does seem to be a lot of photojournalistic topics – “big” stories but from what he said, I gathered that the smaller “vernacular” pieces also had a place although in the brief time I looked, I didn’t identify any.

A decisive moment?

Exercise: The work of Robbie Cooper

From the Hereford Festival article, I chose to look at the work of Robbie Cooper. Immersion attracted me because of his use of video to record the facial expressions of teenagers immersed in virtual reality games on screen. The work is presented in a single frame from which you can select still images or a video compilation and in most cases the name of the individual and the game they are playing. I played the slideshow of still images first and while the expressions in these stills showed a range of emotions, concentration, surprise, elation, concern, laughter, the video sequence was for more revealing. Some of the players were almost expressionless and hardly moved while other were really animated, talking to the characters on screen. One child remained almost motionless as a tear rolled down their cheek and another unselfconsciously performed a little victory dance when he won the battle.

I found this work strangely compelling and somewhat disturbing. It introduced me to something of which I was aware but have not experienced. It raised many questions about the possible effects on the development of the social skills and attitudes of young adults. In particular to conflict and reality. I also looked at this series, Alter Ego in which he displays photographs of game players and their avatars and interviews them about their on-line personas.

The myth of objectivity

Exercise: Write a 250 word reflective summary of these two quotes by Andre Bazin and Alan Sekula. Compare their respective positions and record your own view on the issue of photographic objectivity.

“For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only  the instrumentality of a non living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man…in spite of any  objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually, re-presented…”   (Andre Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in What is Cinema? 1945, p7)

“If we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning  to the photographic image.”  Alan Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’, 1997, p.454.

I’ve read Bazin’s piece a couple of times and he seems to be asserting that because photography is a mechanical process, the result is objective. He does concede that the photographer plays his part in the selection of the object and the purpose for which the  object is photographed may “reflect something of his personality but his does not play the same role as is played by the painter.” A lot of his piece discusses how photography has freed painters from the drive towards realism.

I read Sekula’s piece three times. I understood it no more on the third reading than I did on the first but I’m going to take a stab at suggesting that what he means is photographic objectivity is elusive at best and absent when the photographer, publisher and viewer conspire to ascribe their own meaning to an image which suits their particular purpose, all or none of which coincide.

I don’t see photographic objectivity in these terms, although I can understand the importance of reading an image, in particular as a document where you may be wishing to  inform or persuade by the power of your images. I’m not sure exactly where Bazin was coming from. To describe an image as being formed “automatically, without the creative intervention of man” is not a view that I take. The apparatus, media and processing are all man made and like the brushes and canvas of the painter are merely tools that the artist has available as a means of expression. Neither do I accept that we are “forced to accept as real the object reproduced….. set before us”,  when what we see is a two dimensional representation of an interpretation of an instant in time.

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.