Assignment 5: Two Kinds of People?

This is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback and reflection. The revisions are a minor title change, re-sequencing and image tweaks.

The culmination of my Documentary course journey is my most ambitious and conceptual work to date, and the step change in approach from Assignment 3 is the outcome of lots of reflection on the nature of photography and authorship, researching and writing the critical review essay and completing the Gesture & Meaning course before tackling this assignment. It’s the work I am most proud of.

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback


 About the work

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

(is Middlesbrough 34.5% middle class / 65.5% working class?)

On 24th June 2016 the UK woke up to find itself newly sorted by the EU Referendum into binary, oppositional tribes.

(is Burnley 33.4% striver / 66.6% skiver?)

A referendum that was itself fought on an extreme oversimplification of a complex situation was followed by a doubling-down of this regrettable tendency for the politics of division, as new “us vs them” labels emerged overnight.

(is Barnsley 31.7% liberal elite / 68.3% left behind?)

Data is a potent simplifier; percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity onto a situation. Narratives emerged to explain the result, falling into the generalisation trap and painting whole groups of people as not only homogenous but diametrically opposed to those who had put their cross in the other box.

(is Dewsbury 45.3% foreigner / 54.7% racist?)

I looked at the last five towns I’ve lived in according to their split in the EU Referendum result. I want to encourage some reflection about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’ – how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values; how simplification, though tempting, can be harmful.

(is Pickering 44.7% globalist / 55.3% nationalist?)

The series also acts as a critique of social documentary, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are real, even if none are wholly ‘true’. With apologies to Martha Rosler, this is Northern England in two inadequate descriptive systems.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.


Submission

Contact sheet and full-size images (97MB)

Prints have been sent to OCA as part of the submission pack.

Click the first image below to start a full-screen slideshow.

 

Two Kinds of People?

 


Additional notes

Whilst I wouldn’t normally explain the context in so much detail I am conscious that not everyone has knowledge of these places, so have added a few comments per town that might help the pairings and their connotations make a little more sense. Just FYI, the sequence reflects the order in which I have lived in these towns over the last 20-odd years.

Middlesbrough is a former heavy industry town (steel, chemicals) and the intention here is to juxtapose the industrial decline (‘Leave’) with attempts at regeneration (‘Remain’).

The complementary colour palette of the first image draws the viewer in to see the stark difference in the shiny office block (connoting middle class jobs) and the boarded-up working mens’ institute.

The second image highlights the financial assistance from the EU paired with the banana, both metaphor (slipping) and metonym (the apocryphal association of EU and ‘bendy bananas’).

The third pairing is intended to juxtapose the post-industrial, almost de-urbanised landscape with an optimistic civic image.

Burnley is an old cotton mill town and its decline started decades earlier than Middlesbrough’s, and so the class/income inequality is the starkest contrast.

Its high street is already full of discount and charity shops but I was particularly drawn to this shop which buys clothes off people – it signified a reversal of progress, and is jarring when paired with an art shop.

The middle image juxtaposes a hopeful, future-facing poster outside the council office with open wasteland just around the corner.

The last image takes the complementary colour palette and pattern of two adjacent buildings and uses metaphor in both parts: dynamic angle and blue sky in the positive segment, and static, closed-off stairs in the negative segment, signifying an inability to go up in the world.

Barnsley had the largest Leave vote and some of the most discordant juxtapositions.

Public art in the first image is paired with a house so long derelict that a tree grows from it – using the tree as a connecting motif.

As the OCA is based in Barnsley I felt it would be interesting to include a reference to education; the Barnsley College facade reflects the town hall to connote the place of education in the local community, while in the larger segment both the message and the medium speak to the nihilism of spurning education.

The third pairing juxtaposes a flat, static, closed image carrying associations of ‘coming up against a brick wall’ with a more dynamic, positive and hopeful one.

In Dewsbury the prevailing Remain/Leave oversimplification is less about class, wealth or age and more about diversity, as it has a significant ethnic minority population.

The first image is provocative in pairing colourful and diverse examples of Asian dress with the monochromatic starkness of the graffiti on the rough surface.

The second is more tongue-in-cheek and uses food as metaphor, comparing bland, safe, conservative Britain with more interesting and diverse ‘foreign’ countries.

The final image overlays the more general message about regional decline by showing the bleak, closed-down town centre shopping arcade alongside a colourful market stall. As in the first one, I used colour to connote diversity.

Pickering, where I live now, adds additional binary stereotypes: rural vs urban, old vs young, right-wing vs left-wing.

The circular matching of a hay bale with a cappuccino (very metropolitan liberal elite) covers the rural/urban split.

The town has lots of nice places to eat yet still has its share of people living in poverty, and I felt that pairing a continental deli platter with a food bank sign got this message across. It’s a small detail but in the food bank image I wanted the sliver of green trees visible next to the brick wall to communicate that rural market towns need food banks too – its not just an inner-city problem.

Finally, and coming back more overtly to Brexit, I used flag imagery to connote exaggerated attitudes to nationalism: there is metaphor at work in the Leave segment, with a thin, constrained UK flag (not coincidentally swinging out to the right…) while the more globalist outlook of Remain voters is exemplified by this fragment of a sign at the local college (not that this is discernible from the crop, of course).


 Self evaluation

A few general comments on my experience on this assignment before addressing the particular criteria:

This has been the most involving, frustrating, enlightening, circuitous, thought-provoking but ultimately rewarding photography work that I have yet undertaken. It’s taken longer than any other assignment, involved long stretches of inactivity and over the period of the assignment has significantly changed shape in various ways (including literally).

The original intention was to deliver a more traditional social documentary photography project on social inequality, using the EU Referendum result as the starting point for a series of juxtapositions. However, over time I became aware that I was seeking out stereotyped imagery to spell out my preconceived binary messaging, and began reflecting on this. I became more interested in the tendency to oversimplification that I was not only seeing in my own work but was reflected in both the Referendum campaign itself and the aftermath in the media and popular discourse. The parallels between the subject matter and the medium of photography also became more apparent to me as the assignment evolved.

This move away from ‘straight’ documentary photography towards something more like a postmodern meta-critique of documentary photography is a direction very much outside my usual comfort zone and feels somewhat risky and ambitious – which I am ultimately OK with as I appreciate the need to push boundaries as I move from Level 2 towards Level 3 of my studies.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

In terms of techniques and design skills, the most obvious aspect of this work is the pie chart format. Deciding on this presentation format was the key turning point in this assignment, as I felt it both suited the ‘data as representational system’ concept and provided a visually distinctive format that would attract the viewer’s attention. As a bonus, it also helped to expand my digital processing (i.e. Photoshop) skills.

The underlying concept tested my observational skills and visual awareness as I needed to locate images in the chosen locations to depict the extremes of stereotypes that I sought. I gave myself an additional challenge in terms of compositional skills with the pie chart format as I needed to find scenes that could work within the unusual shapes.

Quality of outcome

I’m happy with the quality of the content and presentation as these matched the conceptualisation of my visualisation reasonably well. I got comments from other students which reassured me that the communication of ideas was working:

  • “Great messages within. […] The circle and segments is a great format.”
  • “Although I don’t have the cultural and political background, I caught the idea and think it’s a very interesting and imaginative approach.”
  • “I find this is a very strong and engaging concept, the pie charts are inspired and the images are strong and offer insight on the motivations, perceptions and myths for voting patterns.”

The biggest risk I am taking in terms of communication is that I am, in effect, asking the viewer to disagree with what I am presenting – which must be fairly unusual as an approach. The ‘?’ at the end of each caption is intended to provoke thought in the viewer, and at the suggestion of my tutor I also rephrased the series title into a question rather than a statement.

In terms of applying knowledge by far the most useful strand of my recent studies has been the notion of authorship in documentary photography – something that I have intentionally brought to the fore in this work. I incorporated techniques of metaphor and metonymy to help project my intended messages.

Demonstration of creativity

This is an area where I have often judged myself as lacking, but I am much more satisfied with this assignment than the previous ones on this course. I feel that the concept and execution show a greater degree of imagination and experimentation than my earlier work, as I have taken risks in both the presentation format and the communication intent.

In terms of my developing personal voice, I had a realisation over the last year that my own work is tending towards what one might call ‘expressive documentary’, or in John Grierson’s words, “the creative treatment of actuality”. By this I mean that I’m attracted to subject matter that’s rooted in reality, and often has a social documentary aspect to it, but at the same time I feel somewhat limited by the norms of ‘straight’ documentary photography and want to ‘play’ with the format a little. This assignment definitely feels like a key part of what I believe is my developing photographic journey.

Context

This assignment required a significant amount of reflection on what kind of photographer I want to be, and I’m glad I took the time to work through the various stages and rejected ideas to end up where I did with this. This assignment gave me further insight into the application of photography as a visual language, how one can encode intended messages in a visual format for the viewer to decode.

One particular work emerged as an inspiration to the assignment, although it took me a while to recognise its influence: Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75). In terms of critical thinking, Steve Edwards’ book-length analysis of the work, Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (2012) gave me a deeper appreciation of the multiple theories underpinning the work, some exemplified by Rosler’s work and some deliberately rejected by it.

Other important elements of research that supported this assignment came from the work I did on metaphor and metonymy for the critical review assignment, as I found myself attempting to apply some of the ideas I’d written about in that essay.

Finally, I captured much more of my work-in-progress for this assignment than any other – from initial desk research to related photographer work to rejected experiments. I have found this recording of the process to be very useful and intend to do more of it at Level 3.


Sources

Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Classics.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

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

Darwell, J. (2015) The Dark River: Kearsley–Clifton. Southport: Café Royal Books.

Darwell, J. (2015) The Dark River: Clifton–Death Valley–Agecroft. Southport: Café Royal Books.

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. 2nd edn. London: Laurence King.

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding, Decoding’ https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/SH-Encoding-Decoding.pdf(accessed 20/10/2016)

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2006) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. New York: Aperture.

Pardo, A. and Parr, M (eds.) (2016) Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. London: Prestel.

Porter, T. (2016) Liverpool South Docks 1975. Southport: Café Royal Books.

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

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


 

 

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Assignment 5: Two Kinds of People [original]

NOTE: this is the original version of the assignment as submitted to my tutor. The reworked final version for assessment is here.


About the work

Two Kinds of People

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

(is Middlesbrough 34.5% middle class and 65.5% working class?)

On 24th June 2016 the UK woke up to find itself newly sorted by the EU Referendum into binary, oppositional tribes.

(is Pickering 44.7% globalist and 55.3% nationalist?)

A referendum that was itself fought on an extreme oversimplification of a complex situation was followed by a doubling-down of this regrettable tendency for the politics of division, as new “us vs them” labels emerged overnight.

(is Barnsley 31.7% liberal elite and 68.3% left behind?)

Data is a potent simplifier; percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity onto a situation. Narratives emerged to explain the result, falling into the generalisation trap and painting whole groups of people as not only homogenous but diametrically opposed to those who had put their cross in the other box.

(is Burnley 33.4% striver and 66.6% skiver?)

I looked at the last five towns I’ve lived in according to their split in the EU Referendum result. I want to encourage some reflection about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’ – how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values; how simplification, though tempting, can be harmful.

(is Dewsbury 45.3% foreigner and 54.7% racist?)

The series also acts as a critique of social documentary, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are real, even if none are wholly ‘true’. With apologies to Martha Rosler, this is Northern England in two inadequate descriptive systems.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Submission

Click the first image for a full-screen slideshow.


Self evaluation

A few general notes on my experience on this assignment before addressing the particular criteria:

This has been the most involving, frustrating, enlightening, circuitous, thought-provoking but ultimately rewarding photography work that I have yet undertaken. It’s taken longer than any other assignment, involved long stretches of inactivity and over the period of the assignment has significantly changed shape in various ways (including literally).

The original intention was to deliver a more traditional social documentary photography project on social inequality, using the EU Referendum result as the starting point for a series of juxtapositions. However, over time I became aware that I was seeking out stereotyped imagery to spell out my preconceived binary messaging, and began reflecting on this. I became more interested in the tendency to oversimplification that I was not only seeing in my own work but was reflected in both the Referendum campaign itself and the aftermath in the media and popular discourse. The parallels between the subject matter and the medium of photography also became more apparent to me as the assignment evolved.

This move away from ‘straight’ documentary photography towards something more like a postmodern meta-critique of documentary photography is a direction very much outside my usual comfort zone and feels somewhat risky and ambitious – which I am ultimately OK with as I appreciate the need to push boundaries as I move from Level 2 towards Level 3 of my studies.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

In terms of techniques and design skills, the most obvious aspect of this work is the pie chart format. Deciding on this presentation format was the key turning point in this assignment, as I felt it both suited the ‘data as representational system’ concept and provided a visually distinctive format that would attract the viewer’s attention. As a bonus, it also helped to expand my digital processing (i.e. Photoshop) skills.

The underlying concept tested my observational skills and visual awareness as I needed to locate images in the chosen locations to depict the extremes of stereotypes that I sought. I gave myself an additional challenge in terms of compositional skills with the pie chart format as I needed to find scenes that could fit into the unusual shapes.

Quality of outcome

I’m happy with the quality of the content and presentation as these matched the conceptualisation of my visualisation reasonably well. I got comments from other students which reassured me that the communication of ideas was working:

  • “Great messages within. […] The circle and segments is a great format.”
  • “Although I don’t have the cultural and political background, I caught the idea and think it’s a very interesting and imaginative approach.”
  • “I find this is a very strong and engaging concept, the pie charts are inspired and the images are strong and offer insight on the motivations, perceptions and myths for voting patterns.”

In terms of applying knowledge by far the most useful strand of my recent studies has been the notion of authorship in documentary photography – something that I have intentionally brought to the fore in this work. I incorporated techniques of metaphor and metonymy to help project my intended messages.

Demonstration of creativity

This is an area where I have often judged myself as lacking, but I am much more satisfied with this assignment than the previous ones on this course. I feel that the concept and execution show a greater degree of imagination and experimentation than my earlier work, as I have taken risks in both the presentation format and the communication intent. The biggest risk I am taking in terms of communication is that I am, in effect, asking the viewer to disagree with what I am presenting – which must be fairly unusual as an approach.

In terms of my developing personal voice, I had a realisation over the last year that my own work is tending towards what one might call ‘expressive documentary’, or in John Grierson’s words, “the creative treatment of actuality”. By this I mean that I’m attracted to subject matter that’s rooted in reality, and often has a social documentary aspect to it, but at the same time I feel somewhat limited by the norms of ‘straight’ documentary photography and want to ‘play’ with the format a little. This assignment definitely feels like a key part of what I believe is my developing photographic journey.

Context

This assignment required a significant amount of reflection on what kind of photographer I want to be, and I’m glad I took the time to work through the various stages and rejected ideas to end up where I did with this. This assignment gave me further insight into the application of photography as a visual language, how one can encode intended messages in a visual format for the viewer to decode.

One particular work emerged as an inspiration to the assignment, although it took me a while to recognise its influence: Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75). In terms of critical thinking, Steve Edwards book-length analysis of the work, Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (2012) gave me a deeper appreciation of the multiple theories underpinning the work, some exemplified by Rosler’s work and some deliberately rejected by it.

Other important elements of research that supported this assignment came from the work I did on metaphor and metonymy for the critical review assignment, as I found myself attempting to apply some of the ideas I’d written about in that essay.

Finally, I captured much more of my work-in-progress for this assignment than any other – from initial desk research to related photographer work to rejected experiments. I have found this recording of the process to be very useful and intend to do more of it at Level 3.


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

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)

Exercise: In, Around & Afterthoughts

Brief

Read the article ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ by Martha Rosler in Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (p.303). Make notes in your learning log or blog.

Response

All quotes are from the essay as included in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001 (Rosler 2004).

1

Rosler places documentary photography in a political context, as it “has come to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery.” (Rosler 2004: 176). She argues that it has a moralistic basis which she differentiates from a genuine “revolutionary politics” (ibid: 177)

She posits that charity is inherently exploitative and patronising to the subjects, and unhelpful in the long term as it reinforces the power gap: “Charity is an argument for the preservation of wealth” (ibid: 177)

If I can pick apart Rosler’s opening position:

“Why is the Bowery so magnetic to documentarians? It is no longer possible to evoke the camouflaging impulses to “help” drunks and down-and-outers or “expose” their dangerous existence.” (ibid: 175)

‘No longer’ implies that it once was; is Rosler’s problem only with documentary photography subjects that have already been covered? Is it the pointless repetition (that implies voyeurism) that she objects to? Or is she saying that it was never acceptable but people used to make these excuses? It also remains unclear whether she is criticising documentarians for knowingly or inadvertently reinforcing class inequality – is she accusing them of exploiting, or patronising?

2

Roster continues in political terms. To her, liberalism is already dead by 1981: “The War on Poverty has been called off. Utopia has been abandoned, and liberalism itself has been deserted.” (ibid: 178). What remains is its ghost in the form of documentary photography. So we no longer care for society’s problems, but we now pretend to through images. Documentary packages up lower class suffering for middle class consumption.

I found myself not wholly agreeing with her politically-charged take on the world, in part down to her USA-centric bias. She described liberalism as having been “routed” and refers to the “fading of liberal sentiments” (ibid: 179), and from a European perspective this doesn’t ring quite as true.

The clinging to the status quo is clearly a point of frustration to Rosler, as she returns to it with this: “Causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome.” (ibid: 179) – accusing documentary photography of fatalism and acceptance of inequality.

3

A further point of frustration for Rosler is the over-appreciation of the photographer: images of social inequality are primarily, to the middle class viewers, testament to the bravery of the photographer – it is they who the viewer identifies with, not the subject (the Other). I do see Rosler’s point here: one might not often see a book or exhibition about a particular conflict or humanitarian crisis, but one will often see such collections of the works of, say, Robert Capa or Don McCullin. Photographers > subjects.

This idea of a transition from ‘documentary’ (subject-based) to ‘art’ (artist-based) brings us to one of the often-quoted observations of the essay, the two “moments” of a documentary photo (ibid: 185-186):

  1. The “immediate, instrumental one, in which an image is … held up as testimony
  2. The “conventional aesthetic-historical” one, that is concerned with ‘rightness’ or ‘wellformedness’ of the visual image

Her view is that society’s political shift to the right has led to “the aestheticization of meaning and the denial of content, the denial of the existence of the political dimension” (ibid: 188). In other words, moment 1 fades and what remains (can be admired, exhibited, bought and sold) is moment 2.

She also asserts that the age of true social conscience-based photography has passed, and the photographer is more likely to be working from a standpoint of personal interest or pursuit of knowledge than an activist stance, that it’s more about ‘knowing’ than ‘bearing witness’ or ‘reforming’ – citing Szarkowski’s championing of Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand (ibid: 188-190). But again she is critical, questioning the right of photographers to judge the imperfections of the world. She is somewhat judgemental herself: “But rather than the sympathy and almost-affection that Szarkowski claimed to find in the work, I see impotent rage masquerading as varyingly invested snoop sociology” (ibid: 190).

4

This short segment sets up the Rosler project for which this essay was written to introduce: The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1981). It returns to the notion of documentary photography as voyeurism – “A safari of images.” (ibid: 191). Images of drunks are seen as examples of individual tragedies when they should instead be seen as a treatise on the political/social causes that led to these circumstances. One of her major themes returns: photography just shows inequality as a fact of life, and people should instead take up the challenge to change things.

5

Here Rosler discusses The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems itself. Its premise is that it features photographs of Bowery locations without people, juxtaposed with slang words used to mean drunk. This is, by not depicting the drunks themselves, “a work of refusal” (ibid: 191) – which is inherently a postmodern act. She is drawing attention to the stereotypes and limitations of the photographic medium by not shooting the actual subject – very self-conscious / self-referential. This work isn’t ‘about’ the Bowery, it’s ‘about’ documentary photography.

But how does Rosler’s approach differ greatly from that which she rejects, namely photographing the drunks? The title of the work admits that that her approach is “Inadequate“. It seems that one has to choose between ‘exploitative’ and ‘inadequate’. Her approach is less voyeuristic, yes, but goes does it go any further to drive political or social change the a ‘straight’ documentary photography project would? (In a very subtle way, maybe; the use of past participles – “plastered”, “boiled” etc – in her juxtaposed text does slightly allude to ‘this having been done to them’ by an outside agency rather than this being something they did to themselves – but that’s a linguistic aside that many may not have noticed.)

The ‘truth’ of the Bowery does not come through her images, as it is artificially deserted. So maybe being postmodern isn’t necessarily about depicting a truth so much as provoking thought.

6

After so many words railing against what is wrong with documentary photography, Rosler closes with a maddening slight conclusion of what it should be instead. She calls for a new kind of documentary: “a financially unloved but growing body of documentary works committed to the exposure of specific abuses” (ibid: 196).

How this fundamentally differs from the reformist documentary photography that she decries is pretty subjective, but in principle it means being less of a voyeur and more of an activist. And the question is, 35 years later, did this new kind of documentary arise? Sebastian Salgado and Manuel Rivera-Ortiz could argue that it did.

To bring this whole discussion back round to the subject of this section of the course, regarding postmodernism’s influence on documentary photography – a huge oversimplification might be:

  • Modernism = ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’
  • Postmodernism = ‘expression’ and ‘subjectivity’

Sources

Durden, M, (2013). Fifty Key Writers on Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

la Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington: Focal Press.

Rosler, M. (2004) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.