A postmodern documentary – A decisive moment? Part 2 Jon Levy

The aim of this exercise was to watch a video interview with Jon Levy, founder of Foto8, where he discusses the exhibiting of documentary and photo-journalistic photographs, within an art gallery setting, and my reactions to his comments. I guess me saying I think everything he said was spot on and I agree isn’t a sufficient enough response?

Serious head on ;o) We only see a very short snippet from what is obviously a longer interview where Levy is discussing the merits or reasons for displaying documentary based or photo-journalistic images within an art gallery. My initial reaction was that this is perfectly acceptable. As an interested party I enjoy seeing this kind of work displayed somewhere other than in a magazine, newspaper or on-line. I am a great believer in being able to appreciate the work more as a properly printed photograph rather than as a thumb nail, or poorly presented in a photo-book; across a double page spread where you miss half the detail as it vanishes into the spine, and to see it as part of a whole body of work.

As Levy states, both the galleries and the photographers themselves, have an important role to play in showing images from these genres, helping spread awareness of issues, be they current or historic, opening them up to a wider audience. To be honest even if it’s because we merely LIKE the images rather than wanting to buy into the message they are sending does that ultimately matter? If people enjoy it they will discuss it and the message will be disseminated anyway. Does it matter if they also label themselves as artists? I could spend a long time arguing that everyone is an artist and anything is art, a simple line on a page is art, art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, there is an art to making coffee…I’ll stop…

However, he does take umbrage if the sole intention of the photo-journalist is to pander to an elitist market as he feels this goes against the remit, and I also totally agree with this. A journalist’s job, be it as a writer or a photographer, is to provide information to as wide an audience as possible, to spread the story. Occasionally the story will be targeted at a specific audience perhaps, but even so, not to one so extremely narrow; by limiting the audience they are not fulfilling their role.

Many photographers are adept at using many different platforms, ‘mixing media’ as he puts it, and a prime example Levy gives is Simon Norfolk, whose work I actually do like and was lucky enough to see in conversation at the Barbican (and got my book signed). Levy does have issues with others, whose motives and reasons for exhibiting their work is ambiguous. He believes that you can never be sure of their message, of what their intentions are and this is unsettling. On this I also agree, you do view the same photograph under a different light once you are aware of the true intention behind it. As with the written word  the writer’s reason for producing a certain article or book may be manipulative-propaganda or advertising- or may be more straightforward, i.e so as to inform. In either case, understanding the writer’s underlying purpose will help you interpret the context of the writing and the same is true of photography. Perhaps he was also thinking of the recent controversy surrounding the digital manipulation used by Steve McCurry, who was purporting to be a photojournalist yet was digitally manipulating his images to make them more aesthetically pleasing for an ‘art’ market. Part of me doesn’t have an issue with this as a street scene in India with 5 guys in a cart is the same street, the same cart, the same day, the same circumstances with one removed. If the intention is merely to reveal India still uses carts, it rains (or whatever) and there are dirt track roads it is still a valid image…but the other part of me says but hmmmmmm its not being totally honest is it?

Back to the documentary image in an art gallery setting…I know that some argue against some historical images being seen for their aesthetic quality rather than the true original meaning, but I still think that the original purpose and story is being told when we view the photographs, which I found quite apt as today I got an email through from Beetles & Huxley advising that they have on display one of the original alternative frames of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. As mentioned in a previous post socially committed photographers have to accept that over time the context of their images will change and so will how they are perceived and used. Sontag (2008)

On the whole an interesting video, which made me realise how strongly I felt that there can be a crossover between Documentary/Photo-journalism and Art, especially if the payments received from exhibiting the work can ensure the photographer makes a living and can possibly fund more projects.


Photojournalism as art (2017) Available at: https://vimeo.com/album/1720878/video/18510352 (Accessed: 9 January 2017).

Sontag, S. (2008) On photography. London: Penguin Classics.


A postmodern documentary – A decisive moment?

‘Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif’ or ‘There is nothing in this world that doesn’t have a decisive moment.’ Considering all the hype, you may be forgiven for attributing these words to Henri Cartier-Bresson. It has been put into print so many times that he ‘coined this phrase,’ meaning people have forgotten, or have never known the full version: ‘There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment,’ or it’s original author, the 17th-century cleric and memoirist Cardinal de Retz.

I mean, in France Bresson’s book was originally entitled Images à  la Sauvette. Apparently, Tériade, a Greek-born French publisher who Cartier-Bresson admired, gave the book its French title, Images à la Sauvette, which can be translated as ‘images on the run’ or ‘stolen images‘ (Bresson considered the stolen images as stolen moments in time) and it is also reported that Dick Simon, of Simon & Schuster, came up with the English title The Decisive Moment…so it wasn’t even Bresson’s idea!  I have tried to find the definitive source for this information but all I can find are sites that all seem to quote each other… But I still have to ask ‘so how much did he actually coin this phrase?’

Stewing quietly over this point for a good few years, it is quite reassuring to discover during research that it has been mentioned in a few other places. May be it is more fitting to  say he made the phrase synonymous with a certain photographic style and technique?

For me what should be more relevant is what he actually had to say about capturing his images:

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.

Galvanized by a Martin Munkacsi photograph, taken in 1930, of three silhouetted boys running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika, which captured ‘the freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive,’ Bresson is claimed to have said ‘I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.’ And the rest was history.


Henri may have captured certain magical moments, where everything came together, but he did not take just one frame – another popular myth – as this blog posting   illustrating his contact sheets reveals. He would observe, capture the action in front of him, and if lucky there would arise that moment when the stars aligned and everything within the frame created a perfectly composed image that froze a significant juncture.There will be many ‘decisive moments’ leading up to the activation of the shutter, but it is the photographer who makes the decision over whether or not the scene itself is aesthetically pleasing enough to be printed and shown to the waiting world.

The next exercise is to read Simon Bainbridge’s article on the 2011 Hereford Photography Festival, select one of the bodies of work and write a 200 word reflective commentary. So for background information:

Simon Bainbridge is a London-based writer, editor and curator specialising in photography. For the past seven years he has served as editor-in-chief of the monthly British Journal of Photography, the world’s oldest photo magazine, established in 1854, along with its online and iPad editions.

In 2010 he co-curated Paper, Rock, Scissors: The Constructed Image in New British Photography at Toronto’s Flash Forward festival. And in 2011 he curated Time & Motion Studies: New Documentary Photography Beyond the Decisive Moment at Hereford Photography Festival.

The Time & Motions Studies exhibition presented the work of five photographers:Vanessa Winship: Georgia 2009-10, Donald Weber: Interrogations: Big Zone Little Zone, Manuel Vasquez: Traces, Robbie Cooper: Immersion and George Georgiou: The Shadow of the Bear, 2009-10, all featured in the British Journal of Photography.

In this article Bainbridge explains how each photographers’ work is a result of ‘deliberate and sustained observation,’ that they are trying to ‘communicate their ideas about the world and tackling subjects that aren’t always obviously photogenic.’ In the festival he hopes to show the works to a wider public audience than usual and reveal the ‘diversity of contemporary documentary practice’ whilst also revealing a little about the person behind the photographs. In a juxtaposition to Bazin’s ideas of the objectivity of the photograph Bainbridge hopes to ‘demonstrate that a photograph is not so much a result of what’s in front of the camera, rather than the motives, instincts and ideas of the person behind it.’ I wonder if Rosler would like them ;oO He mentions how each photographer embedded themselves into the situations which reminded me of Danny Lyon and Martin Parr.

Bainbridge states that the ‘decisive moment’ is an old fashioned idea, something echoed in an article written by Sean O’Hagan. Not sure I totally agree with that point of view, yes photography may not be so pedantic about shape, form and rules of composition but it still plays its part in many images on display today and Bainbridge does concede there is a sense of ‘the right moment’ that still pervades photography. I feel that contemporary street photographer Matt Stuart exemplifies this.


His visual wit and impeccable timing is reminiscent to that of Elliot Erwitt.

The article finishes on a note that recognizes the end of publishing images as we used to know it, with the onset of modern technologies and different platforms but is optimistic that if such different work can ‘sit side by side’ it is more of ‘a sign that photography is maturing rather than a medium in peril.’ Which is in such a much happier place than all the doom and gloom expressed by Martha Rosler all those decades ago. During my research I discovered that the OCA had in fact had a study day for this very exhibition and I shall at some point allow myself to be diverted long enough to follow fellow students links to their reviews of the day.

John wrote on Winship and Weber

These two photographers allow the viewer to grasp a sense of honesty, all be they framed in critically disparate circumstances, one confident that their past informs their present and their future in equal measure and from generation to generation, the other that the past has informed on them and that there may be no future as a result. Both sets edited to draw, at least from this viewer, an emotive response that I am sure will last long in the memory. The one printed to deliver a haunting beauty, the other with a concealed spectre of a wholly different kind.

It is good to get the perspective of others who have seen the work first hand.

So a quick overview of all the works before I choose one to look at in more depth:

Donald Weber: Interrogations

These are not staged images but real interrogations of suspected criminals in Ukraine. With no idea about the supposed crimes committed they appear brutal and extreme as Weber attempts to capture ‘the vestiges of a still-powerful, hidden system.’ The book is described as ‘the result of his personal quest to uncover the hidden meaning of private, unpleasant encounters with unrestricted Power.’ Weber had to work hard to gain access to these interrogations.

Robbie Cooper: Immersion

The Immersion project is a collection of videos and stills revealing either ‘the grotesque [or] dull expressions appearing on people’s faces as they play video games and watch YouTube.’ The audience does not see what the players/viewers are watching although we are  told what it is that is entertaining them. A fuller review of this work can be found here on my blog. Cooper worked in collaboration with psychologists to fund and complete this work and embraced new technologies to enable him to capture his images.

Manuel Vasquez: Traces

I didn’t think I had heard of this photographer until I looked at his work and realised I had seen this image, I am sure, within the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize several years ago.

In Traces he:

developed a deep interest in chiaroscuro, (This is an Italian term which literally means ‘light-dark’. In paintings the description refers to clear tonal contrasts which are often used to suggest the volume and modelling of the subjects depicted.) and the compositions that can be created through its manipulation. In Traces in particular he plays fast and loose with patterned pools of light, illuminating passers-by with theatrical effect. The results are otherworldly in atmosphere; the staring faces of strangers peering out of the darkness as though trapped underground for years, taking their first fleeting glances into the world above.

Vasquez uses technology, the surveillance culture and montages to piece his work together.

George Georgiou: The Shadow of The Bear, 2009-10

This project is a document looking at the aftermath of the peaceful ‘colour’ revolution that took place in Ukraine against the backdrop of Russia’s resurgence as a major international power and it’s continuous interfering in their sovereign and domestic affairs. It looks at signs in the domestic and public spheres, that when taken together build up a representation of how the people of Georgia and the Ukraine negotiate the space that they find themselves in, the individual aspects of the two very different countries, and aspects common to them through their shared history in the Soviet Union

Georgiou, like Vasquez, uses ‘sequential imagery.’ Focusing on the daily lives of everyday people, ‘capturing them in sequences shot from the same vantage point.’ His work reminded me in some ways of Paul Graham who shot sequentially people mowing lawns or smoking cigarettes.

Vanessa Winship: Georgia

Vanessa Winship is Georgiou’s partner and travelling companion so it is intriguing to see how differently they approach the same subjects; he tries to remain hidden and captured candid shots in wide open spaces, whilst she captured totally aware subjects with a direct gaze, taken in almost sterile surroundings, devoid of any outside information.

Having had a quick peek at the bodies of work mentioned within the article I chose to discuss the work of Manuel Vasquez. I admired the dogged determination and perseverance of Weber, the inventiveness of Cooper and the differing techniques of Winship and Georgiou but it was Traces that really drew me in. So much to say and only 200 words…

‘The intent of this project is to place the observer as a witness of “spectacle” where the mechanization of movement and transport are the protagonist of places where loneliness and similarity are accentuated.’ – Manuel Vazquez

Traces – Manuel Vazquez

A quote from Walter Benjamin used when describing this work is: ‘to dwell means to leave traces.’ Traces closely examines invisibility, anonymity and exposure by looking at the visual traces left behind in public places.

Vasquez composed montages where the ‘deep black canvas is an allegory to the city’ with people under a spotlight; the technique of chiaroscuro separating them from reality and the rest of the world. His subjects appear frozen with resulting images creating a tense and anxious atmosphere. Vasquez uses his camera like CCTV; fixing his lens and capturing subjects as they pass.

Everyday occurrences are filmed constantly by CCTV in ‘non-places…such as airports…and tube stations’ – this body of work was begun in the Atocha train station, Madrid, which ‘has a unique lighting situation…beams of light that people cross all the time…[it was] like an installation…some beams of light and cameras and a final image is created with the people that enter the space.’

I particularly like the way Vasquez embraces an old painting technique, combining it with computing technology and using the influence of even more modern technology, in the form of CCTV surveillance, to achieve his vision, opening up new avenues of exploration within the genre of Documentary. Whilst not using Bresson’s ideas of capturing background detail, or love of geometry he certainly uses shape and form and the decisive moment as people walked into the light.



Fynn, S. (2013) The decisive moment: Understanding Convergence. Available at: http://www.studiofynn.com/journal/decisive-moment-understanding-convergence (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Gallery, T.N. (no date) National gallery, London. Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/chiaroscuro (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Georgia (no date) Available at: http://www.vanessawinship.com/gallery.php?ProjectID=175 (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Halliday, A. (2006) Artist Robbie Cooper’s video project immersion stares back at Gamers and YouTubers. Available at: http://www.openculture.com/2013/03/artist_robbie_coopers_video_project_iimmersioni_stares_back_at_gamers_and_youtubers.html (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
IN THE SHADOW OF THE BEAR, UKRAINE (2009) Available at: http://www.prospektphoto.net/stories/george-georgiou-in-the-shadow-of-the-bear-ukraine/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Jose (2011) OCA students visit the Hereford photography festival. Available at: https://weareoca.com/photography/oca-students-visit-hereford-photography-festival/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Kim, E. (no date) Start here. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/05/23/debunking-the-myth-of-the-decisive-moment/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Liberation®, P. (2014) Manuel Vazquez traps his subjects in patterned pockets of light. Available at: http://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/manuel-vazquez (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
O’Hagan, S. (2014) Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back – but his decisive moment has passed. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/23/henri-cartier-bresson-the-decisive-moment-reissued-photography (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Pictet, P. (2016) Resources. Available at: http://jp.prixpictet.com/nominators/bainbridge-simon/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Project, T.E. (2007) Manuel Vazquez’s <em>Traces</em>. Available at: http://theexposureproject.blogspot.co.uk/2008/12/manuel-vazquezs-traces.html (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Times, T.N.Y. (2015) The week ahead: Jan. 14 – 20. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/14/arts/14weekahead.html (Accessed: 18 November 2016). Robin Pogrebin (January 14, 2007). “Art”. New York Times.
Vazquez, M. (2010) Traces of a lonely crowd, by Manuel Vazquez. Available at: http://www.co-mag.net/2010/manuel-vazquez/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Weber, D. and LensCulture (no date) Interrogations – photographs by Donald Weber. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/donald-weber-interrogations (Accessed: 18 November 2016).

Ribas, Xavier (2009) Catalogue Rastros. Exhibition Photocolectania. Barcelona. 2009. P, 130


A postmodern documentary – Martha Rosler take 2

Considering this is a ‘simply’ written article it still took me a few readings, and about a week of dipping into and out of, to get to grips with what Rosler was actually trying to say about ethics and the direction that Documentary Photography is headed. It answered a few questions for me, made me research some basic historical and theoretical points, ask more questions than I think I answered and in places annoyed me. I wrote my response before watching a video I found and was pleased to hear the speaker also say that Rosler’s essay annoyed her too. For me it comes across as very negative, but I am reading this essay 30 years after it was written and have no real idea of the state of documentary photography back then.

As a broad sweeping comment, my first impression is that her perspective is very Western in its approach, especially ‘Western American’ and in some respects very cynical. She discusses American Liberalism an awful lot throughout her essay and to understand the criticisms surrounding this you need to first understand what is meant by the philosophical beliefs of Liberalism in the USA. Here I relied on good old Wikipedia, not often a totally reliable source, but on this occasion suited my needs.

Modern liberalism in the United States includes issues such as same-sex marriage, voting rights for all adult citizens, civil rights, environmentalism, and government protection of freedom from want.National social services such as: equal education opportunities; access to health care; and transportation infrastructure are intended to meet the responsibility to “promote the general welfare” of all citizens. Some American liberals, who call themselves classical liberals, fiscal conservatives, or libertarians, support fundamental liberal ideals but disagree with modern liberal thought, holding that economic freedom is more important than equality, and that providing for the general welfare exceeds the legitimate role of government

Since the 1930’s, without a qualifier the term “liberalism” in the United States usually refers to “modern liberalism”, a political philosophy exemplified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and, later, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. It is a form of social liberalism, whose accomplishments include the Works Progress Administration and the Social Security Act in 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

According to Louis Hartz, liberalism in the United States differs from liberalism elsewhere in the world because America never had a resident hereditary aristocracy, and so avoided much of the “class warfare” that swept Europe.

Roosevelt’s New Deal came about due to The Depression and the obvious and dire needs of huge swathes of society, who had lost everything overnight and for whom the opportunity to rebuild and progress had vanished. The Federal Government intervened, setting up various agencies and passing laws to reform the Stock Exchange and banking. The jury is out as to whether it was working or not but the onset of WWII saw a much needed boost to the American economy and as they say ‘the rest is history.’ With my own small and potted history lesson over I can go back to the content of Rosler’s essay.

Which is quite apt place to begin. With history. Rosler states that to understand the current state, and future of Documentary as a genre, you need to look at where it has been and why it went there. But, unfortunately, Rosler mainly seems to discuss the genre beginning with The Depression, although she does give a nod towards John Grierson.

There have been many discussions amongst theorists and  photographers alike, not just documentary photographers, with regards to ‘bearing witness,’ do we no longer seek to ‘reform’ just ‘know’? Rosler at one point is quite scathing about John Szarkowski, ‘ a powerful man in a powerful position’ who ‘makes a poor argument for the value of disengagement from ‘social cause’ and in favour of a connoisseurship of the tawdry.’

Rosler’s essay tries to tackle this head on, making a huge deal about people in power, the balance or imbalance between the subject and the photographer. Her notes at the end of the essay gave an interesting back story to the relationship between Arthur J Munby and his ‘hidden’ wife Hannah Cullwick.

According to her opening few paragraphs, documentary photography was used to ‘represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility.’ It was part of the ideology of the New Deal, of do-gooders revealing the ‘tangible reality of generalized poverty’ but ultimately ended up achieving very little. Do we believe her cynical rhetoric that documentary images were merely taken to salve the guilty consciences of the rich, that they were produced in the spirit of ‘moralism,’ rather than to reform at best and to further careers at worst? Although I would like to rail at some of her notions I can also see some darker truths in what she writes. How many of us walk passed images from UNICEF or Save the Children, or the plight of Polar Bears, shake our head thinking ‘isn’t that terrible’ and walk on by? Occasionally we may donate some time or money, but truth be told, not many of us can afford to support every cause we see and there is a sense of ‘compassion fatigue’ – indifference to charitable appeals, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals- and a ‘there for the grace of god go I’ attitude.

Rosler picks up on this before the term ‘compassion fatigue’  entered into the OED, arguing that sometimes the images were more ‘unsettling than the arguments enveloping them’ and accuses Riis of wanting to create sensational journalism and careerism more than campaigning for actual change. And how much do the photographers contribute after? Should they do anything after? Is there a duty to further a campaign? Or should they be allowed to do their job and continue to pursue the next assignment in peace? Why is it that documentary photographers, more so than the writers, get vilified for making money from their work? How many journalists are held to account and asked ‘ well you wrote this article about X,Y and Z ten years ago. You are still making money from the book you wrote subsequently, did you give the people/cause that you wrote about some of your proceeds?’ I told you I ended up asking more questions of myself…

This essay  was written in its original form, before revisions, back in 1981 yet makes pertinent points that are levelled at contemporary photographers today. For example Steve McCurry has been very vocal in the arrest of Sharbat Gula, better known as Afghan Girl.  Her portrait was taken in 1984 yet, apparently she never saw a copy of the photograph until 2002.

I agree to a certain extent with her remarks about the’victims’ of documentary photography, and the possible exploitative nature of ‘liberal documentation’ where, according to Rosler, dedication to reform has been
replaced by ‘exoticism, tourism, voyeurism…and careerism,’ et al.

Careerism, and the desire for making money, for all concerned within the documentary process, has moved into the realm of the curator. Images are no longer solely intended for magazine articles and books, they transcend into galleries and museums. A few noted photographers who follow this line are Steve McCurry, Edward Burtynsky and Sebastiao Selgado.  The Photographers Gallery seem to underline Rosler’s point as they call Salgado ‘an exemplar of the tradition of ‘concerned photography’ [whose]  in-depth bodies of work document the lives of people the world over, finding beauty, strength and hope even in those in the bleakest of circumstances.’ He may not produce work to fulfil this criteria but this is how it is being marketed.The work of the above named may all eventually become ‘historic’ but their very contemporary work is exhibited alongside their ‘retrospective.’ More so in her notes, rather than the essay (which I also read and found insightful) Rosler is very caustic about the labels that Documentary Photography then splintered into, calling ‘concerned photography’ a ‘nonsensical designation…signifying the weakest possible idea of social engagement.’

Don’t get me wrong I am not saying that this route should not be taken. The world today is a much smaller space and multi-media and cross platforms for showing work must be employed for a photographer’s survival. At the end of the day it is their career and any person who is working or building a career wants to make sure it pays the bills, but photographers do need to consider carefully why they are taking certain images, what is the intended use and are they exploiting anyone else along the way.

Rosler chooses The Bowery, a ‘skid row,’ as her example. Why continue to photograph those already photographed? The audience learns nothing new, their intention is not to campaign for improvement but to gawp at the unfortunate mix of humanity in a way that Victorian Society did at Bedlam Hospital. Have we traded one form of unsavoury entertainment for another? Again I think Rosler uses emotive language, a list of diatribes and hyperbole to make her point but she does seem to hit some uncomfortable nails on uncomfortable heads.

Rosler mentions Dorothea Lange’s photograph of Florence Thompson, aka the ‘Migrant Mother’ and the fact Thompson bemoans the fact that her image hangs ‘all over the world’ yet she gained no benefit from it.

It would appear that not much has changed; in 2002 National Geographic started to pay Sharbat Gula ‘a stipend’, not sure how much, whilst Steve McCurry’s signed print of her image sold at auction in 2012 for a realised $178,900. Do I think that he should pass some of this on?..not sure if I snapped a random stranger whilst on an assignment and if all of a sudden everyone loved it, I would want to part with any of my earnings from it…tricky when you put yourself in the frame (no pun intended).

Edward S Curtis is another person singled out for accepting the rich man’s dollar and producing a form of ‘fakery’ when documenting North American peoples, as he would take with him a stock of clothing and props for his subjects, most of which were not necessarily authentic or appropriate! However, it is recognised that despite this failing he did show them in a positive light and not dispossessed and destitute…what Rosler does not mention in her essay, but again fills in details in her notes, is that he also recorded thousands of songs on wax rolls along with oral histories which were eventually transcribed so he wasn’t just snapping away and leaving in a perfunctory manner.

Next, Rosler makes a point about the life of a photograph; in the first instance it captures the ‘now’  ‘created out of the stream of the present…[as] testimony…evidence…’ and then secondly as a historical document to be used as a teaching aid, for whatever purpose, to look at that period in history, to hold it up as an example of photographic documentary? As students are we perpetuating a problem? Is it a real problem or one that Rosler is making? If we consider the subjects as ‘victims’ in the first instance, is Rosler correct in her assertions that those revisiting previous topics are perpetrating the same rather than highlighting an injustice?

In an interview with Richard Billingham he did not feel as if his photographs of his parents and family were exploitation, as they were not intended for the eventual outcome and they were taken with a warmth, yet he acknowledges that in the age of the internet they are being taken out of context, and in another interview reference in a previous blog post, he states that to return to the same subject after the success of his book would have been exploitation.

Towards the end of her essay Rosler includes a reference to her own work The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) which I think can be summed up in the blurb on the Whitney Museum of American Art web page:

In her work, Martha Rosler has often employed—and deconstructed—photographic conventions in ways that examine the authenticity associated with documentary photography and the unbalanced relationship between disenfranchised communities and their visual representations. Here, Rosler uses a combination of images and texts to respond to earlier documentary photographs of vagrants and alcoholics in Manhattan’s run-down Bowery neighborhood. Criticizing what she regards as documentary photography’s diminished power to motivate change, Rosler juxtaposed photographs of Bowery storefronts with shots of typewritten words associated with drunkenness. The resulting disjunction—between words that refer to an all-too-human state and images devoid of people—suggests the inherent limitations of both photography and language as “descriptive systems” to address a complex social problem. By arranging the work’s component parts in a grid, Rosler disrupts the traditional idea that a work of art, hanging by itself in a museum, is to be approached simply as an object of beauty.

I found an excellent review of an exhibition of her work here. And a great video here

Rosler ends by stating that there is a ‘germ of another documentary’ beginning to develop, one not controlled by money or social causes and hopes that this will develop into ‘real’ documentary.

In watching the included video and studying more contemporary photographers I don’t know if I am qualified to say we now have  reached the exalted state she required but I think that it is quite a healthy genre and is developing in new and exiting directions with the likes of Broomberg and Chanarin and the work by twins Hasan and Husain Essop.

As a photographer I can only hope that I avoid all the pitfalls of exploitation and not focus on the limitations of the genre, but think about how it can be explored as it embraces new technologies and ideas of Surrealism/manipulation to document events and ideals.


Adams, T. (2016) Richard Billingham: ‘I just hated growing up in that tower block’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/13/richard-billingham-tower-block-white-dee-rays-a-laugh-liz (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Boone, J. (2016) ‘Afghan girl’ rejects offer to suspend deportation from Pakistan. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/08/afghan-girl-sharbat-gula-rejects-offer-to-suspend-deportation-from-pakistan (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Eyes of the afghan girl: A critical take on the ’Steve McCurry scandal’ (2016) Available at: http://petapixel.com/2016/06/07/eyes-afghan-girl-critical-take-steve-mccurry-scandal/ (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Harris, G. (2016) Photographer Steve McCurry speaks out against arrest of Sharbat Gula, the ‘afghan girl with green eyes’. Available at: http://theartnewspaper.com/news/photographer-steve-mccurry-speaks-out-against-arrest-of-sharbat-gula-the-afghan-girl-with-green-eyes/ (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Liberalism in the United States (2016) in Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberalism_in_the_United_States (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Rights (2066) Whitney Museum of American art: Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. Available at: http://collection.whitney.org/object/8304 (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Rosler, M. ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’, in Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning. MA:MIT Press (p. 303).

A postmodern documentary -The myth of objectivity

There is quite a bit of research and academic reading to complete in the first section of this module…and more to come by the looks of things. It is safe to say that some is much easier to read and digest on the first look than others. I have been asked to read two separate quotes, one from Allan Sekula and the other from André  Bazin, then compare their points of view and write a 250 word response, recording my own view on the issue of photographic objectivity. The basis of this exercise is to think about ‘the myth of objectivity’ and this myth has implications for documentary photographic practice. Objectivity meaning impartiality, absence of bias/prejudice, detachment, dispassion, and neutrality.

I find it difficult to evaluate a point of view, or an opinion, if looking at a single quote when removed from the entire essay, and therefore, possibly, taken out of context. I decided to read the essays they were individually taken from to gain a better understanding. As ever this is a double-edged sword; I learnt new things, but it was time consuming and involved sitting at my PC to get to grips with new terminology and look up various people who are referenced in the text.

The Ontology of the Photographic Image –  André Bazin

Firstly – ‘Ontology’- a set of concepts in a subject area, or domain, that shows their properties and relations between them; the nature of being; a study or concern about what kind of things exist. In relation to this essay I feel the third definition is what I need to be focused on.

My second port of call was looking up ‘plastic arts,’ may sound strange that in all my years of study I have never come across this term, but there you have it. So, for those also uninitiated, it is a term that is broadly applied to all visual arts to differentiate them from written arts, such as music and poetry. That was the title and first sentence sorted! It then got a little easier  (oh, apart from I had to look up who Sainte-Beuve was – literary critic of French literature – in the introductory blurb).

Bazin begins with the idea that the origin of visual arts was possibly religious, people believing that the continuance of an actual body, or representation of ensured they would continue to exist; therefore a very early introduction to the art of reality. Like Bazin I am therefore blaming the Egyptians…they obviously started all this! He summed it up by saying it was ‘the preservation of life by a representation of life.’ Over time this subtly changed; people no longer believed that the ‘representation’ of the thing was the thing itself and that, in the main, portraits and statues were made to remember people by and for the vanity of those wishing to be remembered. Bazin stated that ‘painting the whole world over…struck a varied balance between the symbolic and realism.’

This then shifted again, in about the 15th century, from ‘spiritual realities’ to the desire to be ‘as close to an imitation as possible.’ Taking it a step further is the 16th century Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I – an allegorical panel painting which reveal the queen surrounded by symbols of imperial majesty against a backdrop representing the defeat of the Spanish Armada – she stands with her hand on the globe and an open window behind her showing the sinking of the Armada, it is full of other signs and symbols of power as images became more and more politically motivated.

Then along came the camera obscura, which created the illusion of 3D space and perspective and threw the art world into turmoil…I mean do we stick to the spiritual reality or go with this new-fangled, psychological desire to ‘duplicate the world’?I love the fact Bazin writes that ‘perspective was the original sin of Western painting’! As photography developed the plastic arts no longer had to work as hard, no longer getting their knickers in a twist over making things look real, that it [photography] had once and for all somehow satisfied ‘our obsession with realism.’ Bazin quite firmly believed that photography wasn’t a physical process like painting, but captured the images by ‘ a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part’ making people really happy over how clever they were at capturing reality. Oh, and then came Picasso who took the textbook about realism, ripped it all up, danced over its grave and started the crisis all over again; painters said, righto we don’t need to worry about reality, photography does that for us and ‘the masses’ quite readily identified ‘resemblance …with photography and…the kind of painting which is related to photography.’

Bazin also comments that photography has ‘essentially [an] objective character.’ Then eventually, for those of you still with me, we get to the quote:

For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.

followed by a truncated version of:

In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space.

There were about 2 more pages of the essay which were just as interesting to read but to enable me to not make this post longer than necessary I shall stop my ramblings about Bazin here and move onto Sekula…

On the Invention of Photographic Meaning 1975 – Allan Sekula

….Allan, shakes head, oh Allan…you write about some really insightful things but seriously, I’d read more if it wasn’t such hard work – frowny face. The introduction states his writing was influenced by Barthes. Influenced by? I think he stole, swallowed then regurgitated his thesaurus! I printed out the entire 22 page document…how glad was I that the quote came on the third page? The first thing I learnt from this essay was that as much as we learn to translate and read the meaning of images we also have to learn to translate and understand essays like this! I don’t know how many times I had to read it before I could read through it fluently without pondering what it was talking about. I mean I could decode the words but know what they were telling me? Spleen vented I’ll get on… (though I may still mutter in my head as I continue).

In this essay Sekula investigates the ‘nature of photographic context and meaning’ and in doing so also considers the political implications and possible political uses of photography…brings up the old argument is it ‘a fine art,’ and the idea that certain ideologies could possibly impose ‘hidden interpretations on photographers and their subjects.’ There is more but I only read to the quote…

He opens his argument with the premise that the meaning, therefore understanding, of a photograph is linked to ‘cultural definition’ – we can only grasp its meaning and ‘read’ it if we understand the cultural references. We then move on through several paragraphs about ‘photographic discourse’ as being an ‘information exchange’ – basically a visual conversation. Yet we must accept that these conversations will be limited as they can be ‘tendentious’…runs to definition jargon buster….. tendentious – expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view, especially a controversial one…now understanding what THAT meant allowed me to understand the bits that went before and after so much more clearly!

Accepting this about an image, we have to consider that in order to get the message you need to be interested in it, consider where it is coming from – do we accept the message as ‘right’ because it is coming from the anonymous ‘them’ – is it going to be considered as ‘art’ or information in the press? The press is naturally biased and plays to public perception and the political message of the day. Added to the ‘tendentiousness’ of images we also have to think about the rhetoric attached – the fact they produce an effect or make a statement rather than illicit information.  Sekula tells us the image itself will be ‘incomplete’ in its message as it depends on added external information to be fully ‘readable,’ that is you need to know the context and cultural background. However, photographic literacy can be learnt, even if we are told that images can be ‘beyond speech’ or have ‘universal significance’ that photography is ‘a universal and independent language or sign system’ which is what Bazin appears to be arguing. Then we get the quote:

But if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.

PHEW…..now I understand where they are coming from I can comment on their view points.

As a quick aside I recently found this older, but relevant OCA post which made some good points related to the subject of objectivity.

As a reminder Bazin wrote:

For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.

In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space.

Whilst Sekula believes:

But if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.

Exercise: The Myth of Objectivity

As mentioned in the course notes Bazin is a prime example of the critics and practitioners who historically believed in ‘the objective authority of the photographic image’ – asserting the camera mechanically produces images without the intervention of human creativity and put simply, the image is the true representation of the subject. I am glad I read the entire article, as other commentators were critical of Bazin’s stance, and taking these quotes out of context strips away some of the other ideas, making his statements less assertive and less clear cut; Bazin does acknowledge the impact of the photographers’ personality – through selection and purpose. Further on he also states ‘photography can even surpass art in creative power’ when discussing Surrealism. I think he realises that there are different forms of photography: one that creates art and another used to ‘embalm time.’

Sekula’s writing on photography has a more modern approach and he questions the purported realism, political impact and use of photographs. He also separates high art from press images and argues that for photographs to have meaning one has to first understand their context, cultural references, intended audience and purpose; here we can return to Berger’s theory of ‘ambiguity’ (Berger& Mohr, 1995 p.91).

So in conclusion, taken together these two quotes ascertain that a photograph can prove the ‘being’ of an object but not always its meaning. One could also argue that a photograph also cannot demonstrate any link between multiple objects captured within a single frame leading to ambiguity and there no longer being ‘an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image’ if there ever was one in the first place. The audience can make it’s own narrative.

A postmodern documentary- Martha Rosler

For a moment let’s put Rosler on the back burner and concentrate on some background research… (I’m also waiting for a book to arrive with the Martha Rosler essay in) Dr. Mary Klages is an Associate Professor, English Department, University of Colorado, Boulder and her areas of speciality are:

American Literature
Cultural Studies
Gender and Sexuality Studies
Literary Theory

She has written an article on Postmodernism

The Tate Gallery, as per usual, has some information in its glossary for when I need to research certain topics.

Mary Klages was, and I do believe still is, an Associate Professor within the English Dept. at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She has written several books including Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Within this she has written an essay exploring Postmodernism. The next exercise is to read an article by Martha Rosler and makes notes on it in my blog.

Before doing that, I felt I really needed to get to grips with what Mary Klages had to say about Postmodernism. I have to admit to not knowing much about literary or art theory, so this is quite a steep learning curve, and although it can be tedious looking up new terminology and theorists, I have found the information enlightening and relevant to the photographers work I have been researching, as well as linking to some of the exercises and assignments that are within the coursework.

It didn’t start well when Klages acknowledged that Postmodernism was a complicated term and hard to define due to it being a relatively new concept, only emerging as an area of academic study within the 1980’s. I wondered – if ‘experts’ couldn’t define it what chance would I have? That taken as read, we are asked to note that each new era only develops as a direct link, be it causal or reactionary, to what has come before. This I agree with as we consciously or unconsciously, mimic the world around us – a prime example would be our up-bringing; we either choose to emulate our parents ideals or declare there is no-way we will follow in their footsteps or behaviours. The same could be said of art/photography; we study other artists, which has either a negative or positive impact on the exploratory direct of our own work.

It is also hard to define as it is multi-disciplined crossing into other areas of study/disciplines – as did Surrealism before it. The first thing I could relate to was when Klages spoke about the traits which Postmodernism favours. Having just seen Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s 20 min film at the Tate I can state, quite categorically, that this falls 100% within the Postmodern genre…as she outlines that it follows certain ideas: “rejecting boundaries, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony and playfulness. “It also favours “reflexivity, fragmentation, discontinuity, ambiguity, simultaneity” and further on comments that Postmodernism doesn’t “lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality or incoherence but celebrates that…” It has the attitude that “the world is meaningless..” so “Let’s not pretend that art can make meaning and let’s just play with nonsense.”

In Hermistos Children: Pilot Episode, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd does all of the above and more….I loved 2 reviews that I found on the film when first released…”The filmed performance was summarised by Adrian Searle as, “The young woman who rode to her own death on the dildo see-saw at the Sugar-Tits Doom Club,” and described by Richard Dorment as, “Silly beyond words and teetered at times on the edge of porn – but once you start looking at it I defy you to tear yourself away.” I sat there thinking WHAT am I watching (polite version for blog)…sadly a lot of the art references were lost on me…or am I that sad? I think I would be scared if I had understood it! Drugs, that’s what I blame it on, drugs, lots of drugs. (we should be getting some more information with regards to the film from the study day tutor. Once received I may have a more enlightened view which will be reflected in the write up when completed.)

However,  from the Tate blurb a more favourable review…”The art critic Tom Morton has also picked up on the multiple sources and connotations of Chetwynd’s work, writing that ‘the artist and her mummers’ band tell tall tales in a manner that recalls at once the theatre of Alfred Jarry and Bertolt Brecht, a disco at a science-fiction convention, and a primary school nativity play’ ” If you want your mind blown go watch it…

Klages goes on to  describe to us how ‘Modernity’ enjoys order and the rational, and society relies heavily on the binary concept of “order” and  “disorder.” In order for there to be ‘order’ (no pun intended) there has to be the opposite; if missing, something trundles along to ‘create/construct’ this ‘disorder.’ In Western society we are advised, “Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc) becomes part of ‘disorder’ and has to be eliminated…”

Which all links quite nicely to the exhibition I saw at the weekend at The Photographers Gallery, The Feminist Avant-Garde, women were supposed to be quiet, remain hidden, go stand in the kitchen… they decided to rebel against that.

New name to play with – Francois Lyotard – argued that “Totality, and stability, and order” are maintained by a “grand narrative” in which cultures tell  themselves about their “practices and beliefs,” the example given is that the USA tells the story that democracy is the most enlightened (rational) form of government” (not if Trump gets in!) I guess in photography, we use the medium to reveal the narratives that we know, reinforcing these ideals, or alternatively reject them and parody them in the Post-modernistic fashion, which Klages assures us is the “critique of grand narratives” as it is aware “that such narratives serve to mask the contradictions and instabilities that are inherent in any social organisation or practice.”

Alec Soth, Danny Lyon, those working for the FSA, Diane Arbus…et al looked at social outsiders, those outside the norm, contradictions to these grand narratives; Postmodernism apparently rejects the grand narrative in favour of “mini-narrative” which are “situational, provisional, contingent” – if I am reading this right I guess these photographers also fall in the Postmodern genre. Especially as postmodernism’s “mini-narratives” are “stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts.” Cue assignment 1.

After a section relating to semiotics, ‘signifiers’ and the ‘signified’; a signifier being a sound/image and the signified the concept… I’ll look deeper into that one later…Mary Klage continues with the fact that Postmodernism is “concerned with questions  of the organisation of knowledge.” This knowledge is “equated to science”: Science:Good, Narrative:Bad (reminded me of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Four Legs: Good. Two Legs: Bad…unless you were a bird of course…) Bad being “primitive, irrational” and so linked to “women, children and lunatics”! – go the Feminists!

In our Postmodern society this acquisition of knowledge has become “functional”, learning things not just to know them but to employ that knowledge, that there is more “emphasis on skills and training” as opposed to learning for learning sake. This has become scarily relevant as more and more Arts Education courses are scrapped. The article comments on English graduates being asked “What will you DO with your degree?” which was echoed in a recent online blog post on PoisonandIce.com.

Working within the field of education it is very frustrating that there is STILL a huge problem of one size fits all, square peg round hole syndrome and not enough recognition of individual needs and differentiation…cue what I maybe looking into for my assignment 1…

After getting my head around all of that information, the next exercise is to read “In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)” by Martha Rosler in Bolton,R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press (p303). As mentioned above I have ordered a secondhand copy of the book and am waiting for it to arrive. Sometimes I try to source PDF files but I do prefer a printed page to highlight, they are also portable, but this essay comes from a book marked as essential reading, so thought it best to get hold of it.

Martha Rosler

Also I thought it a good idea to find out a little more about the person whose essay I was about to read. From her website.

Martha Rosler works in video, photography, text, installation, and performance. Her work focuses on the public sphere, exploring issues from everyday life and the media to architecture and the built environment, especially as they affect women.

Quite strange that having never heard of her before I saw her video, Semiotics of the Kitchen yesterday at The Photographers Gallery as part of the Feminist Avant-Garde exhibition study day which I will do a write up about, once I have caught up with a few more exercises and cracked on a bit more with taking some reference photos for my first assignment.

Will update this post once the book arrives…


As this post was fairly long I have created another to respond to the Rosler essay which can be found here


Martha rosler: About the artist (no date) Available at: http://www.martharosler.net/index.html (Accessed: 2 November 2016).

(No Date) Available at: http://www.poisonandice.com/tuesday-talks/lets-face-it-your-art-degree-is-going-to-get-you-nowhere (Accessed: 2 November 2016).

(No Date) Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/chetwynd-hermitos-children-the-pilot-episode-t13044/text-summary (Accessed: 2 November 2016).

Untitled document (no date) Available at: http://www.bdavetian.com/Postmodernism.html (Accessed: 2 November 2016).