An interesting article which made what felt like a number of valid points about the Avedon work “In the American West”. Sadly I felt they were damaged by the authors judgemental approach – as I so often feel in reading these critical pieces.
Exploitation of the subject – the argument that Avedon’s subjects did not understand what they were getting into and were consequently exploited is well rehearsed although in making the case Bolton appears almost as disdainful of the subjects as he implies Avedon to be.
Portrayal as “other” – while not explicit it seems to me that some of the concern expressed is about the use of the individual subjects as objects – some “other” that could be used to further the aims of the ruling elite and discarded or absorbed when they had fulfilled their purpose.
Blurring of Documentary and other forms – Bolton is clearly exercised about the use of “documentary” type images for advertising and other commercial activity arguing that it incorporates the subjects into the reality of the “dominant class” for use as entertainment and control. While this is potentially a valid point, and clearly an ethical issue that needs to be considered he persistently overstates his case: “The artist can either confront art’s inabilities to address the realities of power, or the artist can work to institutionalize solipsism.” So no third way is possible? No nuancing is permitted? No artist is allowed to be paid by the system, and use the money to make work critical of the system?
To me the whole piece felt like a complaint from a member of the arts controlling elite who didn’t like having the tiller wrenched from his grasp. This is regrettable - the aetheticisation (is there such a word?) of documentary inevitably has consequences for its standing and for its subjects which need to be carefully considered when presenting such work. Bolton’s sincerity is not in doubt but methinks he doth protest too much.
The exercise also encourages us to look at the work of Charlotte Oestervang in Appalachia. This, to me seems to typify the “other” argument, with the blurb describing the people she photographed as from an “unfamiliar culture”.
In the American East – taken from The Contest of Meaning; Ed. Bolton, 1992, pp.262–83