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).


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