Thursday, 16 January 2014

Struggling for traction

I’m getting nowhere - slowly. I’m struggling find a point of contact between what I’m interested in and what the course appears to be about. It appears not to draw a distinction between documentary and social documentary and yet there are definitions and work that seem not to echo this obsession.

A new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal end. Their aim has not been to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy — almost an affection — for the imperfections and frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value — no less precious for being irrational . . . . What they hold in common is the belief that the commonplace is really worth looking at, and the courage to look at it with a minimum of theorizing.

- John Szarkowski, from the Introduction (wall label) to the New Documents exhibition, February 28 – May 7, 1967 at the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Rosler , in Context and Narrative takes a dim view of this – describing it as “a poor argument for disengagement from a ‘social cause’ and in favour of a connoisseurship of the tawdry.” Which is fine, but not everyone feels the urge to associate themselves to a social cause, while finding much to explore and understand in our society, its history and its impact on the world.. Seeking to understand does not need to be synonymous with seeking to change – it may simply be an end in itself in the manner of a scientific enquiry, producing records that others can interpret to suit their needs

Another difficulty I find is the inclusion of people every image – leaving me with a clear impression that all documentary photos should include people. This is clearly not the case as a simple viewing of Walker Evan’s American Photograph’s demonstrates. Dyer draws on some of these non-people images in The Ongoing Moment – but having the confidence to follow that route, rather than the examples in the course notes is proving a challenge at present.

If we resort to first principles  - Briet’s definition of a document as “…any concrete or symbolic indexical sign, preserved or recorded toward the ends of representing, of reconstituting, or of proving a physical or intellectual phenomenon.” then essentially all photography is documentary. A series of photos recording the geological progression in the rocks of west Cumbria would count as documentary. In the context of the course however – and this I don’t struggle with – they are documents, not documentary – so where is the middle ground? Is there a middle ground?

I believe there is – I think if we add “involving humanity.” to the end of Briet’s description we are there. To be “documentary” as opposed to simply a “document” there has to be a trace of humanity in the image. This has all sorts of side problems, e.g. why is nature photography not “documentary” – and if it isn’t why do we insist on calling nature programmes on TV “documentaries”? On the other hand – it does encompass social documentary while allowing the type of work Szarkowski was describing, it allows the types of images I was referring to in Walker Evans and e.g. Allan Sekula, it would encompass staged documentary and the work of Taryn Simon/ David Shepherd which I do find some common ground with. So having sorted that out I have a framework which allows me to proceed.

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