Well I guess the content of this exercise should have been more apparent to me from my frustration with the need to review lots of socially concerned, gritty black and white images (some of which I’ve enjoyed – and some less so). We are asked to review a section for an essay called Discussing Documentary – The Mirror of Visual Culture by Maartje van den Heuvel.
The section of the essay we are asked to consider covers the journey of documentary photography from the compassionate human interest approach of Hine and Riis to the art gallery, via the “documentary as militant eye-witness” school I saw in Survival Programmes. In a nutshell van den Heuvel argues for the fusing of two streams of photography that share common aims but show a differing political rhetoric. One stream comes from the west – with its attempt to prick the conscience of the better off through the photographs of Riis, Hine, the Farm Security Administration, and the tradition of picture news that developed from them. The other comes from the Socialist east, with its focus on bending photography to the needs of workers revolution. The two combine and settle on the “traditional” social documentary form of coarse grained, high contrast monochrome, with its claim to the truth.
Towards the tail-end of this development however, audiences became increasingly visually literate as a result of the exposure to vast numbers of images through advertising and TV. This changed the market for documentary photography as it lost its claim to be a window on the world to TV and the automatic assumption of transparency and truth was lost to the increasing visual literacy of the audience.
While some saw this as a crisis for documentary van den Heuvel argues that it could be considered an opportunity. The appreciation of its subjectivity meant it could find its way into the art market, into films and onto TV. New forms emerged such as docudrama, and new photographic approaches, such as those of the Dusseldorf School could appear.