The main issue between documentary and art is how a gallery positions i.e. defines the work itself.
Ignatieff (2003) stated ‘ Photography which loses sight of documentation risks becoming mannerism, while photography which loses the ambition or art loses the possibility of becoming forgettable.’
What he was possibly trying to say was that certain bodies of work put forward in a way as to be considered an art practice ‘fuses expression and information’ and has a legitimate forum within a gallery as it disseminates and articulates. A prime example given is Jim Goldberg’s Open See project which I was lucky to see in 2011. I am sure I wrote a huge review about it at the time but currently can’t find it! I know I really enjoyed the use of ephemera, different ways to display the work and how he allowed and encouraged his subjects to personalise their images by writing over the Polaroid photographs.
The title, Open See, comes from one such quote ‘in the open see [sic] there is no border.’
Listen to Jim Goldberg talking about Open See and his exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery.
Visit Goldberg’s website and reflect on how or if it works as a documentary project within the gallery space.
Open See, which was a book and an accompanying exhibition, were both part of a project about what Goldberg calls the ‘new Europeans’ – illegal immigrants, refugees, displaced people and asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and eastern Europe.
Goldberg was commissioned by the Magnum photographic and began this body of work in 2003 in Greece, which at the time had an estimated two million immigrants, most of whom lived a ‘clandestine life, unable to work legally or avail themselves of even the most basic rights.’ This project won him the Henri Cartier-Bresson prize, which helped fund his subsequent travels to the various countries of origin of his subjects: Ukraine, Bangladesh, Liberia and many others.
Described as ‘documentary story telling’ he uses many formats – Polaroids, photographs, video stills, found images and hand-written texts – all which go towards creating ‘a fragmented narrative that fractures the received conventions of reportage or straight documentary.’
Since 1970, I’ve been using text and ephemera as well as photographs in order to tell stories of one kind or another,There’s a thread that runs through all the work that is to do with bearing witness. The photographs are about asking questions, though, not answering them. I’m not a politically radical person. In fact, I’m much more interested in being radical aesthetically.
So does this project work in a gallery setting? Is it documentary or is it art? Is it appropriate to consider documentary photography as art?
Open See does not come across as documentary in the traditional sense, although I strongly believe it is a documentary project; it highlights global issues that need to still be resolved and gave voice to usually invisible individuals. It could be considered to be overly artistic in the way it was created and presented, but the original intent was to inform and make people question rather than to be pieces of art to be hung on the wall, and be admired for aesthetic reasons alone.
Photography and photography as art has become more accessible. No matter how much we dislike the ‘commodification’ of documentary photography it does generate much needed funds for new projects and allows photographers to self- fund if necessary. This I feel does make the gallery a valid setting for documentary work and Open See, in my opinion, works brilliantly as both Documentary and Art.
Open See at TPG http://vimeo.com/22120588 [Accessed 29/09/2017]
Open See http://www.opensee.org [Accessed 29/09/2017]
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/01/jim-goldberg-open-see-review [Accessed 29/09/2017]