Exercise: Jim Goldberg’s Open See


Listen to Jim Goldberg talking about Open See and his exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery.

Visit Goldberg’s website and reflect on how or if it works as a documentary project within the gallery space.


This subject continues the debate that I touched on at the end of my last blog post, namely whether it is appropriate to consider documentary photography as art.

To repeat my primary stance on this: it’s about the intent of the presentation:

  • If the intent of displaying documentary photographs on a wall is in line with the original intent of the work (i.e. to inform the viewer of some reality) then it is as valid as any other distribution method, such as newspapers, magazines or books
  • If the intent of displaying documentary photographs on a wall is to sell them as pieces of art to decorate the homes or business of buyers, or as investments – I personally find this problematic

The simplistic distinction I proffered in my previous post was that between a museum curator and an art dealer. At a basic level the word ‘art’ itself can have two overlapping but different meanings in everyday discourse: it can describe a creative output communicated from an artist to an audience, and/or it can describe a commodity being traded. It’s useful to separate these two definitions in one’s mind when discussing documentary photography as art.

I am minded to note the two positive aspects of documentary-as-art in the course notes, as they are points that I had not previously considered that help me understand the place of documentary photography in the art world:

  • The distribution and exposure of art has been democratised and made more accessible
  • The very commodification of the documentary photograph as an art object has generated a new source of income and funding which feeds back into the production of more documentary work

The former point aligns with the informative intent – the gallery wall is a valid communication channel for the work. The latter point assuages ethical concerns about the commodity status of art, to a degree anyway.

Open See

I like Jim Goldberg’s work; I have a signed print of his on my study wall as I type this. His Open See project is one I hadn’t looked at in detail before but subject-wise it very much fits in with the Magnum Photos ethos of photojournalism. In terms of content it is somewhat prescient, prefiguring the focus on Greece’s immigrant population some years before it made major headlines.

Ukraine, 2006 by Jim Goldberg

The communication intent is evident, and there is a creative, expressive overlay to this work that makes it easier to accept as a crossover into ‘fine art’.

If the work is sufficiently visually interesting it can draw the viewer into the message; if it is too abstract it can fail to land its punch. The Ignatieff quote in the course notes articulates the necessary balancing act well:

“Photography which loses sight of documentation risks becoming mannerism, while photography which loses the ambition of art loses the possibility of becoming unforgettable.” (2003)

There is a category of  work that I call ‘expressive documentary’, where the underlying reality of the subject matter is approached in a creative way (echoing John Grierson’s concise 1933 definition of documentary as “a creative treatment of actuality”). A lot of Goldberg’s earlier work was what I would call more ‘straight’ documentary but Open See saw him experimenting a little more. I have no problem understanding how this work is simultaneously documentary and art.

A more problematic example

A trickier case to examine would be when the work has little or no creative artifice, only a serious communication intent, and yet ends up as a commodity to be bought and sold in ‘the art world’. Simon Norfolk’s Staircase at Auschwitz (1998) was by far the most affecting image I saw in person in the last year.

Staircase at Auschwitz, 1998 by Simon Norfolk
Staircase at Auschwitz, 1998 by Simon Norfolk

I saw it at an exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London. An art dealer’s gallery, not a museum; it had a price tag in the accompanying catalogue. The idea that this image was on display at least partly to attract a buyer made me a little queasy.


Open See at TPG http://vimeo.com/22120588 (accessed 07/03/2017)

Open See http://www.opensee.org (accessed 07/03/2017)


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