Exercise: Post-documentary photography

Brief

Read the article ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ by Ine Gevers (Documentary Now! 2005).

Summarise in your learning log the key points made by the author.

Response

I didn’t get on with this essay particularly well; first of all I found it quite hard going due to its overly complex language, and it took me a few sittings to get through it and digest the line of argument. Once I felt I’d understood its main points I decided that I disagreed with a number of them.

My main issue with the essay, or more specifically the way it is written, is that it generalises to a distracting degree: opinions are attributed to whole groups of people and universal claims are made that are too easily questioned, and I found this tendency to exaggeration diluted the core arguments put forward in the the essay.

As the brief is to summarise the key points I will do so here but can’t resist adding my own commentary alongside, whether I found it insightful or infuriating.

Preamble

  • Defines post-1970s blurring of disciplines (art/documentary) as ‘post-documentary
  • Focus is “the ethical positions of artists, many of whom make use of documentary photography” (Gevers 2005: 1) [my emphasis]
  • Interested in “stretch[ing] the boundaries of perception in such a way that space is offered to that which exists beyond the stereotype or the already known” (ibid: 1)

Introduction

  • Starts by framing debate in terms of aesthetics and ethics
  • “In antiquity, aesthetics stood for the capacity to remove yourself from your own framework so you could learn to see the unprecedented from that new viewpoint” (ibid: 1-2)
    • Did it? This is a peculiar definition of aesthetics (“relating to perception by the senses”, OED) that sounds moulded to fit the line of argument
  • “Thoughts about beauty and truth seem to have ended in stalemate” (ibid: 2)
    • I’d be very surprised if thoughts about beauty and truth ever ended
  • Gevers posits that the “function [of aesthetics] of promoting perception oriented towards knowledge and insight is proving to be its opposite; it gets in the way of our view” (ibid: 2)
    • My big beef with the language here, repeated throughout the essay, is that it contradicts another key aspect of the text I agree with…
    • Gevers supports the Barthesian position of the viewer as collaborator (which in turn implies a multiplicity of meaning) yet simultaneously attributes homogenous opinions and behaviours to groups of people en masse – she writes as though she speaks for everyone
    • She uses ‘definitive’ language about matters that are infinitely more nuanced and complex than implied here
  • She closes the introduction with mention of post-documentary photographers that are attempting to foreground ethics over aesthetics in their engagement with their subject matter

Photography: objective, aesthetic, colonial

  • Here she expands on the ‘space beyond stereotypes’ concept mentioned in the preamble, to make the point that too much photography does the opposite: it objectifies
  • Documentary photography got off to a bad start by presenting itself as true and authentic, a reputation that has unravelled over the decades
  • “Although nobody believes any more in the ‘reality effects’ of documentary film or photography, everyone is still expected to behave as though they do.” (ibid: 3)
    • Really? This is another sweeping generalisation that weakens Gevers’ argument; the idea that ‘everyone’ has come to a conclusion about documentary is incredibly simplistic
  • “Representation in its totality is in a crisis” (ibid: 4)
    • I respectfully suggest that this is hyperbole; there are undeniably elements of representation that are questionable, problematic, shifting – but a crisis?

Examples

  • Gevers makes a distinction between a documentary photographer and a photographer who uses documentary photography
    • This is the insight that I found the most useful in the whole essay
  • Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula are presented as practitioners who incorporate documentary photography into their work but in a way that holds it up for examination
  • Rosler “manages to subvert such generally accepted qualities as factuality, veracity and objectivity in relation to both the photographic image and the word” (ibid: 5)
    • A fascinating aspect of Rosler’s “The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems” (1974/5) – quite apart from the fact that it self-announces as inadequate – is the exclusion of people (it shows empty street juxtaposed with words for drunkenness)
    • In an odd way excluding the people who are nominally the subject of the work is a way of letting them retain their individuality; it’s the ‘space beyond stereotypes’ that Gevers refers to
    • I want to come back to this idea of deliberate exclusion of the subject in relation to my current assignment – a later blog post I think
  • When discussing Sekula, Gevers uses an interesting phrase: “The photographic work never stands by itself.” (ibid: 5)
    • I get this; there’s an extra layer of context that gives the work the deeper meaning that lifts this kind of work above generic documentary photography
    • I am fascinated by this area of photographic study: how and why documentary photography ‘works’ (or doesn’t), and how this has been / is being examined by photographers / photographic artists

Representation – interpretation – counter-presentation

  • Gevers discusses how documents of inhumanity can be ‘distorted’ by presentation to an audience, using the example of the S-21 archive of photographs covering Cambodian genocide
  • She asserts that the presentation of the photographs as first of all an exhibition and subsequently a book (The Killing Fields, Niven & Riley 1995) irreparably changed the archive: “Suddenly, instead of something that concerned everyone, it now seemed to manifest a clear class difference between the prisoners sentenced to death as representatives of naked life and those observing from a safe distance.” (ibid: 6)
    • I confess that I either fail to understand the point being made, or if I do understand it correctly, I disagree with it – Gevers seems to suggest that the very act of sharing such images is divisive and perpetuates difference
    • Gevers doubles down on this aversion to public presentation of documentary material by accusing MoMA of being “oblivious to [the S-21 archive’s] problematic role in the politics of representation” (ibid: 6) which strikes me as a subjective opinion rather than an evidenced fact
    • “The public, however, regarded the photographs as art, an aesthetic appreciation that was nurtured with no shame whatsoever. Visitor numbers did not lie, after all” (ibid: 6) – this was the extract that I found most problematic in the whole essay; again, false universality in projecting a reaction onto an entire viewing pubic, compounded here by the non sequitur of visitor numbers that implies that its very popularity is proof that it was misunderstood

Alienation as strategy

  • Gevers uses the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers as an example of how, in an age where we are numbed by visual imagery (she mentions Debord’s Spectacle but I was also put in mind of Baudrillard’s hyper-reality), a presentational strategy of not depicting things visually can be more effective than image overload
  • She uses Michael Moore’s use of black screen in his Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary film and Alfredo Jaar’s 2002 installation on Rwandan genocide Lament of the Images (where only one photo was visible and the rest were sealed in black boxes) as examples of such ‘negative presentation’
    • This passage put me in mind of an exhibition I saw in Arles last year by the name of Nothing but Blue Skies (2016) which collated artists’ responses to 9/11 – one whole room was newspaper front pages and another was floor-to-ceiling looped TV views footage, so I really got the sensation of image overload that Gevers refers to. The most interesting exhibit was a video by Michal Kosakowski called Just Like the Movies, a skilfully edited compilation of clips from Hollywood blockbusters that recreate the narrative of the New York attacks, so it ‘shows’ you what happened but doesn’t show you the real thing, only the movie scenes that it reminded you of
  • Gevers takes this complaint of over-stimulation of the senses to an extreme in saying that “the whole idea of ‘contemplation’ has become implausible” (ibid: 8)
    •  I find this hyperbolic in the same way I find much of Debord and Baudrillard – they are either catastrophists or deliberately exaggerate for effect

‘The artist’ in aesthetic terms

  • Gevers quotes Alain Badiou on the question of ethics and ‘truth’, concluding that “Truth is therefore not something that can be communicated, it is not just a matter of opinion. Truth is something you encounter (in the form of an event)” (ibid: 9)
    • Without disappearing down a philosophical rabbit hole, is Gevers differentiating between the truth of an event and the “truth” of the representation of that event”?

Personal is political

  • Gevers returns to Rosler to pick up on her stance that documentary photography has moved beyond ‘Grand Narratives’ and onto smaller and more personal subjects
    • Generalisation: both ends of the continuum and a variety of intermediate hybrids continue to exist
  • She moves this line of argument round to an appreciation of Barthes’ concept of punctum: “It is up to the viewer as co-author to give weight to the image” (ibid: 10)
    • I certainly go along with this line of thinking – Gevers gives one of the best articulations of the experience of punctum that I have read:
    • “That is the moment when we no longer just appear to be collecting information in an appropriately distanced manner – aesthetically in the narrow sense of the word – but when, in a moment of being affected, we add something to it” (ibid: 10)
  • This is where the “consummation” of the essay title becomes clearer: the viewer consummates rather than simply consumes the image
    • However, my view on the punctum is that it can’t be deliberately inserted into an image as it is inherently the role of the viewer to bring it to the image
  • What I think she is saying here is that this is the kind of image where aesthetics and ethics are reconciled
    • But to my previous point, this reconciliation is an individual, uncontrolled response and not a universal, controlled one
    • I don’t read this essay as instruction on how to achieve such reconciliation, more a recognition that it can occur

That was heavy going. It provoked a lot of thought. I found some key insights to agree with and want to explore more – and I found a maddening degree of over-simplification that eroded the credibility of the overall line of argument.

Sources

Gevers, I. (2005) ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ in Documentary Now!

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