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.