Exercise: Kingsmead Eyes

Brief

Visit the web pages of the Kingsmead Eyes project. Investigate the original 2009 project and the latest Kingsmead Eyes Speak project.

Write notes in your learning log about how the work is presented on the website, in particular the use of mixed media – stills, video and audio.

Response

On the face of it this seemed similar to the PhotoVoice projects I just looked at – a collaborative work where non-photographers (in this case schoolchildren) are given cameras to document their own lives. However, I found it to have more depth and hold my interest much more than the PhotoVoice projects (possibly due to the lack of full projects online for that particular initiative?).

Kingsmead.jpg

The depth comes from the approach. The project leaders, photographers Gideon Mendel and Crispin Hughes, first spent a week introducing the project and explaining the concepts of photography (both technical and creative, including the role of documentary photography) before letting the children do their own independent shooting.

The aspect of the project workflow that interested me most (being as I am currently fascinated with notions of authorship in documentary photography) was that the children were guided through the editing process for their own images, rating them from 1* to 5*, and encouraged to critique their own work. This led to a much more personally distinctive set of images, without the invisible hand of a curatorial adult/expert.

Presentation

The mixed media format of the project is a big part of why it is successful. The structure is that each child has their own page, accessed from an index grid, and the page has a combination of photographs (both of and by the child), audio, handwritten poetry (related to one of their own images) and video. One gets a real sense of individual stories being told, however minimally, and the characters of the children shone through. Small things like actually hearing their own voices over clips of their photos makes it much more immersive and engaging than photos alone. I’m not usually a huge fan of video works over still photography, but I think here it really suits the content, and works here extremely well.

Karolina.jpg

Some of the work is surprisingly strong; some of the kids have a natural eye for an interesting shot. I presume they all got the same upfront photography lessons and prompts, but some of them produced genuinely visually interesting images.

The poetry angle was also fascinating; the idea of writing a poem to accompany a photograph would most likely fill the average adult with dread, but 10 year olds are less constrained by convention and have little comprehension of the embarrassment of appearing pretentious that us adults do!

In all, I found this to be an enlightening project that broke free from the norms of documentary photography to produce something that is both distinctive at the level of the whole project, and allows for the individual’s voices to come through. I wonder how many of the participants subsequently become photographers…?

Sources

Kingsmead Eyes 2009 http://www.kingsmeadeyesspeak.org/kingsmeadeyes/ (accessed 23/06/2017)

Kingsmead Eyes Speak http://www.kingsmeadeyesspeak.org (accessed 23/06/2017)

Research point: PhotoVoice

PhotoVoice is a charity with the following mission statement:

“PhotoVoice’s vision is for a world in which everybody has the opportunity to represent themselves and tell their own story.

Our mission is promote the ethical use of photography for positive social change, through delivering innovative participatory photography projects. By working in partnership with organisations, communities, and individuals worldwide, we will build the skills and capacity of underrepresented or at risk communities, creating new tools of self-advocacy and communication.” (Photovoice 2017)

In practical terms: it gives cameras, training and mentoring to specific communities for them to document their own circumstances.

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from LookOut UK, 2012-13

The site itself is surprisingly (suspiciously?) short on actual photography; each project has a few example shots and lots of explanatory text. Each project has specific objectives, some internal to the project participants (developing self-confidence / self-advocacy, creative and communication skills etc) and some externally-focused (raising awareness etc). The balance is what I found interesting – some of the projects came across as much more about helping the individuals (in a traditional ‘charity’ sense) with the resultant images as by-products.

The course notes ask us to look at “the documentary value and visual qualities” of the images.

Documentary value

In terms of documentary value, the key aspect of PhotoVoice projects is the adherence to the insider viewpoint – there’s an inherent layer of authenticity. The flip side, as discussed in Solomon-Goudeau’s essay Inside/Out (2005) is that the insider can be too close to be objective, and miss observations that an outsider would pick up on.

Visual qualities

In terms of visual qualities (to the extent that this can be ascertained from the limited examples on the site) there is perhaps inevitably an emphasis on ‘straight’, no-frills documentary photography as these photographers were very much amateurs given some guidance by mentors, rather than experienced or gifted photographers.

Multiple photographers leads to a lack of a distinctive visual style, which from a  viewing perspective makes a lot of these projects of limited visual interest, if not already engaged in the subject matter. However, as touched upon earlier, the aim of these projects is not simply to produce documentary photography but more significantly to provide skills, support and agency to the individuals involved. So perhaps they don’t need to be visually distinctive to be ‘successful’ in this context.

Authorship

To return to one of my pet obsessions: authorship… these are unusual projects in as much as they have multiple, untrained practitioners producing the work. The key ‘author’ in this circumstance is really the editor(s) – selecting images that meet the communication objective, constructing a narrative out of the multiple viewpoints and moments captured. It wasn’t clear to me whether the participants were themselves involved in the editing process or whether PhotoVoice had the final say on image selection (or indeed whether this varies per project). The extent to which any editorial authorship is intentional or reflexive is, of course, a perennial question for any and all documentary photography.

Sources

PhotoVoice https://photovoice.org (accessed 23/06/2017)

Solomon-Godeau, A. “Inside/Out” in La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

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!

Exercise: Jim Goldberg’s Open See

Brief

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.

Response

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.

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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.

Sources

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

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

Exercise: The Judgment Seat of Photography

Brief

Read the article ‘The Judgment Seat of Photography’ (Christopher Phillips 1982)

Add to your learning log the key research materials referenced in the text.

Response

This is an enlightening essay on photography as art, built around the historical work of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It is not, however, specifically about documentary photography as art. Certain aspects of the essay did strike me as relevant and thought-provoking and I will extract these below.

The instruction in the exercise brief to add the referenced research materials to my learning log is somewhat odd: the text has no less than 81 footnotes and only a handful of these came across as being strongly relevant to my current studies.

My preference for how to respond to this essay is to:

  • Discuss the different approaches by MoMA’s first three Directors of Photography and how these relate to the debate of photography as art
  • Discuss the recontextualisation of photography in the gallery/museum, specifically the role of the curator vs the role of the photographer
  • Add my own thoughts on documentary photography being treated as art

MoMAs place in photographic history

Without crediting MoMA with single-handedly elevating photography to the status of art in the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine exactly how the history of photography as an art form would have unfolded had the museum never existed.

MoMA’s first Director of Photography was Beaumont Newhall (1908–93) and my simple take on his tenure (1940–47) is that he was, in a sense, ahead of his time. He saw the potential of photography as art but struggled to articulate this to both the museum’s management and its visitors.

Phillips’ argument is that Newall deferred to the ‘cult value’ of photography over its ‘exhibition value’ (the two kinds of value described by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1969). He treated photographs as pieces of art and emulated painting’s modes of presentation; he emphasised the ‘art credentials’ of the photograph by bringing attention to the unique qualities of the materials used and the variability of the printing process. His first MoMA exhibition with Ansel Adams was accompanied by text that introduce “notions of rarity, authenticity and personal expression – already the vocabulary of print connoisseurship is being brought into play” (Phillips 1982: 36).

Newhall’s prolific curatorial output (almost 30 exhibitions in seven years) seems with hindsight to have been a breakneck attempt to educate the US public on the artistic potential of the photograph as quickly as possible. He curated shows covering the history of the medium, the “canonisation of masters” (ibid: 38) and emerging talents such as Levitt and Cartier-Bresson. But it was possibly all a little too much too soon, and he tried too hard to borrow characteristics from other art forms.

Edward Steichen (1897–1973) was already a renowned photographer when he took over the MoMA role (1947–62), with a very different approach. He had a highly democratic, populist vision for photography and did not care for the notion of photography as an autonomous fine art.

His tenure was marked with an emphasis on Benjamin’s derided ‘exhibition value’ of photography; Steichen cared little for uniqueness and ‘aura’ and instead positively embraced the reproducibility of the photograph as a means of illustration – the photograph as mass media object.

Steichen’s exhibitions (including, most famously, Family of Man in 1955) were thematic collections that elevated the role of the curator above that of the photographer (a move that triggers interesting discussions on the notion of authorship and context – of which more below). He held no reverence for the sanctity of the original print or the personal expression that this had implied: “The photographers complied, for the most part, signing over to the museum the right to crop, print, and edit their images.” (Phillips 1982: 48). His installations drew comparisons with magazine layouts more than art galleries, and were considered more accessible to the general public as a result.

Although hired directly by Steichen, MoMA’s third Director of Photography (1962–91), John Szarkowski (1925–2007), again took a different approach to his predecessor. He returned, to an extent, to the ‘cult value’ of photography – white walls, uniform print sizes and wooden frames made a comeback. He built on Steichen’s intervening populism to reintroduce some of Newall’s underlying principles of photography as art, but with an increasingly contemporary twist.

Where Newall had emphasised the uniqueness of individual prints as art objects by comparing them to other art forms, Szarkowski was more interested in the uniqueness of the medium itself. His seminal work The Photographer’s Eye (1964) deconstructed the photograph into five formal elements intrinsic to photography (the detail, the thing itself, time, the frame and the vantage point). His work with photographers was more respectful of individual practitioners with their own ‘voices’ than Steichen’s subjugating curatorial approach.

The photographers championed by Szarkowski, such as Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander and Eggleston, all worked in what one might term self-expressive documentary rather than traditional social documentary photography. They were all investigating the real world but from a viewpoint inside their own heads.

For me, Szarkowski stood on the shoulders of Newall and Steichen to complete the circuitous journey to accepting photography as a branch of fine art; maybe we had to go through the earlier two phases first and Szarkowski was the right person to bring it to fruition at that point in time.

Curation: recontextualisation and reinterpretation

Stepping back from the detail of these three phases, there is a connecting thread here of recontextualisation: in all three tenures MoMA was at the forefront of attempts not necessarily to promote photography as art but certainly to take photographs out of their original context and present them in a new way. Newall and Szarkowski favoured presentation akin to paintings while Steichen preferred more modern, magazine-like installations. In all cases, photographs were being recontextualised by a curator, and the key difference is the extent of curatorial involvement (interference?).

All photography is inherently taking things out of context. In the words of Garry Winogrand: “When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.” (date unknown). Szarkowski himself has this to say on the subject: “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft.” (1964: 70).

The interesting and potentially problematic aspect of this context question is the additional layer of a curator – if the original photographer is already making authorial decisions on inclusion/exclusion at the level of the individual frame and the project body of work, these are potentially subsequently diluted by the selection decisions of the curator, working to their own authorial intentions. Or maybe the original authorial decisions are amplified rather than diluted – who knows?

There is a kind of parallel with the role of the picture editor in journalism – the editorial selection decision ultimately trumps the picture-taking one, in terms of what is presented to the audience. One key difference between a picture editor and a curator is the objective of the curation exercise: the former is trying to best illustrate a news story, the latter is trying to articulate some coherent larger communication message through ‘art’. But in both cases, the press picture editor and museum curator become what Phillips calls an “orchestrator of meaning” (Phillips 1982: 38).

At MoMA Steichen was the most extreme example of this, collating photographs as illustrations of predefined messages:

“To prise photographs from their original contexts, to discard or alter their captions, to recrop their borders in the enforcement of a unitary meaning, to reprint them for dramatic impact, to redistribute them in new narrative chains consistent with a predetermined thesis – thus one might roughly summarize Steichen’s operating procedure.” (ibid: 46)

Szarkowski may have paid more attention to the self-expression of the original photographer but ultimately is still sculpting his own ‘version’ (of Arbus, of Friedlander, etc) from the available work.

Documentary photography as fine art

The essay doesn’t cover this subject specifically or thoroughly but the preceding course notes do raise some points that I’d like to address.

The art curation process described above can, and often is, applied to documentary photographs. This brings ethical questions into play: is it acceptable that images of death, destruction, squalor, sickness and depravity are converted into art objects?

It’s possible and hopefully useful here to make a distinction between the objectives of the museum and the gallery:

  • An artwork in a museum is a public presentation, to be experienced (enjoyed / educated by)
  • An artwork in a gallery is a commodity, to be bought and sold

My personal view is that documentary photography in the informative environment of a museum is a valid and ethical communication form (whether it is ‘art’ is another question). Documentary photography in a gallery, with a price tag attached and wealthy art enthusiasts sipping champagne before it, pondering an investment – that is unethical.

To an extent I believe that some photographers allow or even encourage their documentary photography work to become treated as fine art. If the intent of the image is to communicate a ‘truth’ then why not produce limitless low-cost reproductions? By restricting the reproduction and display of their own work, photographers are effectively participating in the art market with their documentary images.

Luc Delahaye, for example, is one photographer who straddles the worlds of documentary and fine art – he shoots on a large format camera and exhibits wall-sized prints that sell for thousands of dollars, yet the subject matter is the kind of thing seen daily in newspapers, magazines and on news TV – bomb sites, angry mobs, bodies. I find this somewhat distasteful, I must admit.

To close with my take on Benjamin’s theory of two types of art value:

  • Documentary photography should have exhibition value
  • But I’m not convinced it should have cult value

Sources

Phillips, C. (1982) ‘The Judgement Seat of Photography’ in October, Vol 22 (Autumn 1982) pp 27–63

Benjamin, W. (1969) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ trans. Harry Zohn,in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books.

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye. 2nd edn. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Exercise: Cruel + Tender

Brief

The 2003 exhibition Cruel + Tender was the first major exhibition at the Tate dedicated exclusively to photography. Rather than adopting a chronological approach, the Tate opted to arrange the work of living and dead documentary photographers in a more fluid sequence. The aim was to encourage the audience to make connections between historical and contemporary documentary photography.

Look at the Cruel + Tender brochure. Listen to interviews with two of the featured photographers, Rineke Dijkstra and Fazal Sheikh. Add relevant notes to your learning log.

Response

Exhibition in general

It’s an interesting place in the course notes to cover this exhibition, as in a sense it goes back to documentary photography basics – one could almost imagine it being in the early part of the first section as a context-setting exercise. Having said that, it also makes sense at this juncture, as it specifically talks about how documentary photography has been reinvigorated through the exhibition format in the last 15-20 years. As a bonus, it’s good to be reminded of some of the key aspects of documentary photography that we have covered during the rest of this course, collated here in a digestible format.

The teaching kit brochure (and by extension the exhibition itself) covers such topics as:

  • Portraiture and how to represent a person through photography
  • The problematic nature of documentary in relation to ideas about truth
  • The role of the viewer and how we are implicated in the images we look at
  • The use of series of photographs to build the way we ‘read’ works

The brochure quotes Charles Caffin from 1901:

“There are two distinct roads in photography – the utilitarian and the aesthetic: the goal of the one being a record of facts, and the other an expression of beauty.”

It also adds a third road: conceptual photography. I believe it’s become apparent in the 100+ years since Caffin made his statement that the distinction between these ‘roads’ is increasingly blurred; many works manage to be both aesthetically pleasing and informative, others manage to be disruptive / conceptual whilst still being ‘expressions of beauty’. No doubt if I thought about it for long enough I could find a photographer that manages to fuse all three categories of photography in their work.

Although I didn’t see the exhibition at the time, it seems that its main success was in revitalising documentary photography by presenting it as a genre that transcended the specific issues and had matured into a valuable form of visual communication.

Rineke Dijkstra

I’ve been familiar with both these series (Mothers and Bullfighters) before now but this is the first time I’ve discovered that they have been exhibited together. I’d say that Dijkstra falls partly into the third category mentioned above, as in there’s a conceptual foundation underpinning the documentary work.

There were two interesting things I took away from Dijkstra’s decision to juxtapose these two sets of images, and in some ways they both raise wider points about good documentary photography:

  • Their similarities:
    • Not just aesthetically…
    • … but also thematically (people in the aftermath of scary, life-changing, maybe even life-threatening situations)
    • From this I took the value in having a distinctive personal voice
  • How they subvert clichés:
    • The ‘man = fighter’ and ‘woman = nurturer’ clichés are recognised by Dijkstra but she points out that in both cases she is showing another side to the stereotype
    • The men are not macho but looking slightly shaken, ill-at-ease
    • The women don’t look like natural born mothers but look similarly unsettled and in some cases quite petrified
    • From this I took the importance of presenting the less obvious, less normally-seen side of situations

Fazal Sheikh

Sheikh is perhaps more of a traditional documentarian in that he eschews the kind of conceptual artifice that makes Dijkstra’s work so striking (but also a little un-documentary, if that makes sense). Sheikh’s work is based on being embedded in situations and returning to his subjects over time. He does this to achieve more natural and ‘real’ images once any feelings of mistrust have dissolved. He’s also surprisingly democratic in how much he lets the subjects drive how they are represented.

Abdia Abdi Khalil and her son Hameed, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya, 1992.jpg
Abdia Abdi Khalil and her son Hameed, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya, 1992 by Fazal Sheikh

His approach underlines the complexities of real-life situations and the necessary simplification that documentary photography generally imposes. It comes across that seeing his work in an exhibition (or maybe a book) format would provide the depth and context necessary to see his subjects as individuals rather than just representatives / metonyms.

Sources

Cruel + Tender https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/CruelTender.pdf (accessed 21/11/2016)

Rineke Dijkstra http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/rineke-dijkstra-cruel-and-tender (accessed 21/11/2016)

Fazal Sheikh http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/fazal-sheikh-cruel-and-tender (accessed 21/11/2016)