Assignment 5: research/inspiration: Rosler’s The Bowery…

This assignment has been going glacially slowly recently but this week I had a huge lightbulb moment.

I’ve discovered that it’s possible to be inspired by something without consciously realising it at the time. A seed of an idea planted long ago in my mind seems to be belatedly bearing fruit, and it’s helping me to refine my Assignment 5 approach and to place it in the context of the documentary photography canon.

Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

The trigger was reading Ine Gevers’ essay on post-documentary photography, a text that I found equal parts enlightening and infuriating. The essay used Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) as an example of using documentary photography in one’s work rather than being a documentary photographer. This distinction, and some of Gevers’ analysis of Rosler’s work from her post-documentary angle, struck me as worthy of further examination.

bowery_NCRstewed.jpg
from The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75 by Martha Rosler

I had first come across the Bowery work a couple of years ago on an earlier OCA course, in the context of Rosler’s 1981 essay In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) where she refers to her own project. The concept of using documentary photography to critique itself wasn’t immediately obvious to me at the time but has become more apparent as my subsequent studies have deepened my knowledge.

I’ve been struggling to articulate what I’m trying to achieve with my Assignment 5, which has morphed from being a ‘straight’ documentary photography project on social inequality into a critique of the tendency to over-simplification that is prevalent across politics, media and photography.

Much has been written about Rosler’s Bowery project, including a whole book by Steve Edwards (2012) and reading the critical appraisals of the work has been hugely enlightening for me – I found myself thinking, ‘Yes! that’s what I’m trying to do!’

By way of example, the Whitney Museum of American Art described the work using the following phrases (my emphasis):

“In her work, Martha Rosler has often employed—and deconstructed—photographic conventions in ways that examine the authenticity associated with documentary photography and the unbalanced relationship between disenfranchised communities and their visual representations.

The resulting disjunction—between words that refer to an all-too-human state and images devoid of people—suggests the inherent limitations of both photography and language as “descriptive systems” to address a complex social problem.” (Whitney Museum)

The Gevers essay had the following extracts that caught my attention:

“Her projects are aimed at calling into question numerous media-related presuppositions within film, video, documentary photography, text, exhibition. She manages to subvert such generally accepted qualities as factuality, veracity and objectivity in relation to both the photographic image and the word.” (Gevers 2005)

All of this is helping me to place my own objectives in a wider context of art and documentary photography. It’s reassured me that I’m not entirely making stuff up here! I am, I belatedly realise, trying to work within a post-documentary tradition talked about Gevers and practiced by Rosler.

Similarities and differences

The more closely I examine the Rosler work, and (hopefully) better understand the communication intent, the more I can see some similarities with what I am aiming to achieve.

  • Using documentary photography to make a comment on documentary photography as a representative medium
    • The limitations of using simple images to depict complex situations
    • Rosler herself opened the second paragraph of In, around and afterthoughts with this: “How can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photo- graphic practice? What remains of it?” (Rosler 1981)
  • Avoiding depicting individuals
  • Juxtaposing imagery and text
  • Using colloquial or pejorative labels
Burnley test round
test image for Assignment 5

There are however a couple of key differences:

  • Rosler’s work was more concerned with the political context of how traditional documentary photography encourages a social inequality between viewer and subject
    • My target is less overtly political/class-based and more aimed at critiquing the human tendency to over-simplify – not just in political discourse but in mass media and more personalised, social media platforms
  • Rosler’s work was targeted at the representational inadequacy of photographs and words
    • My angle is more on the representational inadequacy of photographs and data

Rather than being disheartened that my idea isn’t quite as original as I first thought, I am actually really enthused that I have found a ‘touchstone’ for this assignment. I feel like I’m on slightly more solid ground now that I am more consciously working ‘in the tradition of…’ someone or something. Such a reference point gives me somewhere to come back to if I am unsure, to consider my work in the context of (but not measure or judge myself against) known work.

Sources

Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

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

http://collection.whitney.org/object/8304 (accessed 13/04/2017)

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