Exercise: Information and expression

Brief

Read Mraz’s essay ‘Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America’ (2002) in full. 

Research the work by Salgado to which Mraz refers and evidence your research in your learning log.

Response

I found the essay, though long and somewhat repetitive, very interesting. Mraz’s theory of “the continuum between the poles of information and expression” in photojournalism, when he finally gets to it, is easy to understand as a close cousin of the signifier and the signified, and of denotation and connotation, or as Mraz himself puts it “the document and the symbol” (Mraz 2002: 22)

To hugely summarise, Mraz’s essay discusses Salgado’s Other Americas (1986) as a noble failure on two main fronts, only one of which really concerns us here. First: it fell prey to the negative cliches of representation of Latin America that the rest of the world expects (as a side note: the overall air of alienation and mystery, plus the title, draws fair comparisons with Robert Frank’s The Americans). Second – and this is the crux of this essay – it leaned too far towards pure expression without containing enough information. In Mraz’s view, these failings were addressed in Terra (1997).

Mraz’s posits that there are three elements in providing ‘meaning’ in photographic projects, and Other Americas fulfils only one of three:

However, photographs are by nature ambiguous and polysemic texts; their narrative capacity is weak and their meaning is often determined by the immediate context created for their publication: the synthesis of text, titles and […] the accumulated significance of the images themselves” (ibid: 27)

Other_Americas_2_55780c1502364
Guatemala 1978, from Other Americas – Sebastião Salgado

Other Americas had minimal photo titles and no accompanying text, leaving the images to do all the heavy lifting. The later Terra corrected this by reproducing some of Other Americas‘ images with explanatory text that removed the mystery and anchored the image in specificity. This fits Mraz’s hypothesis that the best photojournalism blends the document (specific subject matter) with the symbol (universal metaphor).

‘Fine art journalism’, as Mraz puts it, is a genre that could have been invented for Salgado, although he rejects the tag himself. Mraz repeats a variant on a theory that I’ve seen elsewhere (notably Ohrn1 and Sekula2, quoted in Wells 2009):

In general, fine art journalists make photos that tell us more about the photographers than the photographed, while the images of traditional photojournalists tell us more about what they are photographing than about those who have taken them” (ibid: 22)

Sources

1 “Primarily, documentary was thought of as having a goal beyond the production of a fine print. The photographer’s goal was to bring the attention of an audience to the subject of his or her work and, in many cases, to pave the way for social change” (Ohrn 1980, quoted in Wells 2009)

2 “Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” (Seluka 1978, quoted in Wells 2009)

Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/mrazsalgado (accessed 21/04/2016)

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

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