Read the introduction and first section (pp.105–10) of the article ‘Discussing Documentary’ by Maartje van den Heuvel (Documentary Now! 2005).
Write a short summary in your learning log.
(At the risk of sounding gigantically pedantic, I believe the actual title of this essay is Mirror of Visual Culture, and Discussing Documentary is its subtitle.)
Maartje van den Heuvel opens with a variation on the age-old question: is documentary photography art? She widens the context to point out that documentary isn’t the only visual medium to have been incorporated into art, and it’s all part of an increase in ‘visual literacy’ that began in the second half of the 20th century.
Van den Heuvel posits that one’s direct experiences of life are now augmented (and dwarfed) by one’s second-hand experiences via consumption of media; this is even more true now than it was in 2005. Visual language isn’t just photography but newspapers, magazines, film, television, gaming, advertising and so on.
Visual literacy is being learned purely by consumption rather than by education as is the case for more traditional verbal literacy. Visual artists are consciously incorporating elements of visual language into their works, and this often means referencing ‘out’ to other genres and media – and documentary photography moving into the art gallery is just one example of this phenomenon.
The essay includes a definition and short history of ‘documentary photography’ as a point of comparison for the rest of the thesis. The nutshell version is that ‘classic’ documentary photography is based on the concept of the “militant eye-witness” (van den Heuvel 2005: 107) – intertwining the slight variations in different parts of the world, principally the western ‘top down’/ human interest documentary photography (Riis, Hine, FSA et al) and the east European ‘bottom up’ / activist movement embracing documentary photography in opposition to traditionalist art (via communist Constructivism etc). Differing ideologies maybe, but fundamentally united on the objective of social reform.
By the 1960s the ‘militant eye witness’ genre of social documentary photography had hardened into cliché: contrasty B&W, handheld 35mm, grainy – diametrically opposed to mass media advertising imagery (authenticity vs artifice).
What had begun to change by the 1970s brings us back to van den Heuvel’s visual literacy point. A television in every home had by now eroded documentary photography’s claim to be the definitive “window on the world“. Additional developments, particularly the rise of the internet, opened more such windows, further diluting any one medium’s claim to a particular specialism, and intermingling media channels and content more than ever.
Van den Heuvel argues (and I tend to agree) that this potential crisis in documentary photography in fact turned out to an opportunity in disguise. Freed from the restricted role of militant eye witness, documentary photography could stretch its subjective muscles more. Personal projects, experimental approaches, merging of genres – all of these became possible once documentary photography loosened its hold on being the source of objective truth. There’s a sort of parallel here with how painting became more experimental once freed from the burden of representation by photography; documentary became more experimental once it wasn’t the only kid on the block with the responsibility (or ability) to communicate about social issues.
The twin phenomena of the blurring of visual media boundaries and the acceleration of visual literacy help to explain how documentary photography started to be accepted in art.
What van den Heuvel’s essay articulates well is the wider context in which this happened.