Saturday, 4 July 2015

Art and documentary photography – what’s the problem?

I’m tempted to ask this question by the following quote from the course notes:

“It seems that the pervasiveness of visual media and the fluidity of communications in modern society has blurred the boundaries of documentary as record and documentary as work of art.”

It seems to me to set up a false dichotomy between “records” and “art”. If we take this back to first principles, documentary could be considered as the creation of a document and going further back still we can take Briet’s definition of a document as “any concrete or symbolic indexical sign, preserved or recorded towards the end of representing, of reconstituting or of proving a physical or intellectual phenomenon.”

Of course, everyone has their own idea about what art is and what it is for – if anything – but it seems reasonable to assume that at least some art is about creating a concrete sign to represent an intellectual phenomenon – in other words to make something which explains an idea or a feeling. The boundaries have always been blurred. On this basis, surely the only surprise is that documentary photography has taken so long to find its way into the gallery.

The reasons for this delay are probably many and varied, but I can’t help feeling that some of it is down to the politics of the photographers and gallery owners/users, an insistence that documentary has some special hold on the truth and the easy availability (until recently) of alternative outlets for documentary work.

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