Legacy documentary for social change -Maartje van den Heuvel

As far as I can see Maartje van den Heuvel is a curator at Leiden University. She wrote an article entitled Mirror of Visual Culture,  Discussing Documentary published in Documentary Now: Contemporary Strategies in Photography, Film and the Visual Arts which is provided, as a PDF via the OCA, as a study resource. We are asked to read the introduction and the first section of the article then write a short summary …so here goes…


Van den Heuvel has quite a large introduction to her article in which she discusses the new path that documentary seems to be taking, that is within the walls of the museum and in exhibitions citing domumentas X and 11 as indicators of this: Documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH is a non-profit organization supported and funded by the City of Kassel and the State of Hesse, as well as by the German Federal Cultural Foundation.

In 1955, Arnold Bode, a painter and professor founded the ‘Society of Western Art of the 20th Century’ in an attempt to show art that had ‘been deemed by the Nazis as degenerate as well as works from classical modernity that had never been seen in Germany.’

The first documenta was a retrospective of works from major movements (Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, the Blaue Reiter, Futurism) and brilliant individualists such as Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Hans Arp, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, and Henry Moore. In this journey through the art of the first fifty years of the century, German founders of modern art such as Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, or Max Beckmann were presented alongside classics of modernism. [The second was held in 1959]

In 1997, Catherine David became the first woman to direct documenta.
Each documenta takes its character from the ideas and concept of its Artistic Director, and is therefore not only a forum for current trends in contemporary art, but a place where innovative and standards-setting exhibition concepts are trialed. In each edition, documenta has played a leading role in taking the international discourse about art in new directions. Over the past decades, documenta has established itself as an institution that goes far beyond a survey of what is currently happening, inviting the attention of the international art world every five years for this “museum of 100 days.” The discourse and the dynamics of the discussion surrounding each documenta reflects and challenges the expectations of society about art.

Van den Heuvel raises the debate of the ‘legitimacy and effectiveness of documentary practices within the art circuit.’ This article was written in 2005 (published in 2006) and we still are having these discussions even now. Her observations that the mass media is increasing the general public’s visual literacy and understanding of the world has only multiplied as the internet and different social media platforms have increased exponentially over the past decade.

In her essay Documentary: the militant eye-witness van den Heuvel reviews the ‘visual tradition…of documentary.’

in bullet points:

  • ‘documentary’ can apply to every image made with a camera – interesting tie in with earlier exercise
  • there are 2 historical visual traditions – the human interest approach from the West eg Lewis and Hine and the FSA and then the Socialist/ Political stance that came from the East supporting the revolutionary Socialist and Communist struggle of the working class – everyone likes citing these traditions…from van den Heuvel to Rosler et al.
  • the 1960’s/70’s was still influenced by the revolutionist mood, images were captured using 35mm B&W film with high contrast and lots of grain. Photo-stories still has accompanying text directing the interpretation.
  • At this time there was a distinct line drawn between advertising photography in colour offering a vision of the perfect/the illusion/the dream B&W therefore was gritty reality.
  • After the 1970’s came a blurring of the lines -Meyerowitz and Eggleston were shooting in colour, Stephen Shores Uncommon Places was originally published in 1982…
  • Had documentary lost its way with the advent of TV and the growth of TV channels and broadcasts? Had the ‘window on the world’ that photography offered been replaced? – this was argued by Rosler.
  • Van den Heuvel argues that rather than sitting in a corner and sulking , ok so that’s my words not hers, documentary found new paths to travel.. documentary images cropped up in advertising and fiction. Docudramas and Reality TV also helped the crossover.
  • Images made for documentary purposes have now found different meanings – as art, as remembrances of the past and as teaching tools. – this can truly be seen when looking at the work of Brandt, Lewis and Hine.
  • Documentary images have come under intense scrutiny trying to establish the aspects which make it so.
  • The importance of ‘visual literacy’ that was first mooted in the 1970’s is becoming relevant again.
  •  Contemporary photographers are using different technical and stylistic approaches to documentary e.g Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff who use colour, huge canvas’ and topographical/architectural photography which lends itself more to the art market.
  • These images can stand alone and do not need to be part of a photo-story.

Only reading the first section (I’ll probably read the second later on) it further underlines why we regarded, and still do to a certain extent, B&W images to be the medium of choice for documentary. In both West and East there was strong tradition for its use; it was used politically by governments, the bipartisan and revolutionaries alike.

Whilst some may have taken different paths there are still many practitioners out there who currently shoot B&W and use photo-stories, as well as stand alone images, to make their points… as we will see from the next exercise pertaining to Marcus Bleasdale. Like her I feel that the documentary genre is still alive and kicking, that mainstream media has not diminished its impact and that it can function just as well in a museum/gallery setting.


Documenta gGmbH (no date) Available at: https://www.documenta.de/en/about#16_documenta_ggmbh (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/heuvel_discussingdocumentary.pdf (Accessed:21 December 2016)