Sunday, November 20, 2011

Documentary Photography Reconsidered


In this week's readings, both of the pieces (Sekula and Rosler) examined the idea of the documentary photograph, calling into question its function within society and its social relevance and ability to affect change (or lack thereof).  This topic is particularly interesting to me, as documentary is a word I use to describe my work, despite its status as a four-letter word within the art world.  So is "beautiful," and I routinely aspire to both.  I noticed that at one point in the Rosler article she capitalized Beauty, which I found humorous and evidence to illustrate the contention of the word and subject within an art context.  


Early in the Sekula piece, I was interested in his assessment of the art world environment.   


Here, elite culture becomes a parasitical “mannerist” representation of mass culture, a private-party sideshow, with its own photojournalism, gossip column reviews, promoters, celebrity pantheon, and narcissistic stellar-bound performers.  The charisma of the art star is subject to an overdeveloped bureaucratism.  Careers are “managed,” innovation is regularized, adjusted to the demands of the market.


What, then, of the rest of the world?  Is art not relevant to a broader audience outside of the insular art world?  I was having a conversation with a friend last night about the merits of Sherrie Levine’s work, and though I appreciate her intent and her intelligence, my conversation centered around the fact that her work is essentially inaccessible and perhaps irrelevant if you are looking at it without a knowledge of the art world and art history.  That is not a good thing or a bad thing, just something that is.  It does, however, raise the question of who the audience is and what the work intends to do.  


This idea is similar to how Rosler describes irony:


Irony, however, is not universally accessible, for the audience must know enough to recognize what is at stake.


Sekula continues his investigation by tackling the idea of objectivity and truth in photography, two ideas that get especially slippery around the issue of documentary photography.


The only “objective” truth that photographs offer is the assertion that somebody or something- in this case, an automated camera- was somewhere and took a picture.  Everything else, everything beyond the imprinting of a trace, is up for grabs.  


This sentiment is very open-ended and leaves a lot of room for interpretation of imagery.  One issue raised specifically in the Rosler piece is the question of who benefits from documentary photography.  She uses the image Migrant Mother as an example, writing that the woman in the photograph never benefited directly from the success of the image, whereas it arguably benefited Dorothea Lange and her career.  However, Rosler points out that the image did have positive effects, both in the specific instance of causing local officials to fix up the migrant camps and perhaps in the larger instance of drawing attention to a larger social issue.  Reading this case study, I wondered whether a photograph needs to benefit the subject directly in order to have a positive impact and affect social change in the world.  I would argue that it does not, that the change affected may not fall directly on the subject, but on those who come after them.  Rosler pointed out that Migrant Mother may not have benefited the woman pictured, but it likely benefited those who came after her.




I wonder, is this the role of the documentary photographer?  Is it their responsibility to directly benefit their subjects, as their subjects are benefiting them?  Arguably, the success and mass reproduction of this image was out of Lange’s hands.  Especially since the image was taken for the Farm Security Administration and the image didn’t even belong to Lange herself in the way we think of art photographs now (anyone can get prints from FSA negatives through the government), the conversation about who benefits from the success of the image is even less concrete than it might be if Lange had sold the image in art galleries for thousands of dollars immediately after taking it.  


I personally believe that every image-maker has a responsibility for what they put out into the world, and if you are dealing with a potentially political subject, you should treat it with caution, or at least be prepared to stand behind your point of view.  I feel that it is irresponsible to put work into the world and take no responsibility for how it is received, but I also do not feel that the photographer can every really control the independent life of their work, no matter how conscious or aware they are.  
 

I was interested in this passage from the Rosler piece:


Documentary testifies, finally, to the bravery or (dare we name it?) the manipulativeness and savvy of the photographer, who entered a situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay, or combinations of these and saved us the trouble.  Or who, like the astronauts, entertained us by showing us the places we never hope to go.  War photography, slum photography, “subculture” or cult photography, photography of the foreign poor, photography of “deviance,” photography from the past- W. Eugene Smith, David Douglas Duncan, Larry Burrows, Diane Arbus, Larry Clark, Danny Lyon, Bruce Davidson, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, Robert Capa, Don Mcullin, Susan Meisalas… these are merely the most currently luminous of documentarian stars.


I understand this point more clearly when it is assumed that the photographer, starting from a place of privilege, is somehow gaining access to a less privileged group of people, photographing them, and then displaying their photographs for their own privileged art world group.  But what happens to this notion when a photographer is photographing within one of these categories, as a part of the community?  I would argue that the dynamic is quite different.  Or does the simple act of photographing elevate the photographer to a more elite status than their subjects?  I am primarily interested in the mention of subculture photography.  I think it is assumed that with photographs of the poor or photographs of those in war in third world countries, those being photographed are most definitely not in the same social class as those doing the photographing.  But what about other groups, where the photographer and their subjects are part of the same community and interested in engaging in a productive dialogue and not a relationship of manipulation that benefits the photographer and not the subject?  I think there is huge potential here for a different kind of discussion.  

The work of David Prifti is called to mind (especially his piercing and suspension series), specifically with the use of the word "subculture" photography.  Does it function as a vehicle to empathy and understanding, or is it like Rosler implies, a portal into a world that we want to observe from an elevated position, thankful that we can look at the "other" from within the white-walled comfort of a high art institution?







I instantly think of my own work within the transgender community, as I have been aware of these issues of representation and who benefits from that representation since the beginning of the project.  I fully believe in standing behind your work and the social statements you are making with it, especially if it is documentary in nature or showing an under-represented group of people to a larger public.  Photographic representation carries with it a deep power, and to ignore this power and make images thoughtlessly or without an understanding of the weight they will carry seems irresponsible to me. 






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