just getting by

The  fissures in Australia are deepening and broadening after the global financial crisis due to the  growing geographical inequality,  the changing nature of work in a neo-liberal society--the re-emergence of the precariat-- and the politics of austerity.  

Globalisation for many means the ongoing de-industrialization, which has seen the emergence of  a dispossessed and marginalizaed section of the working class,   the lack of secure and paid employment, the lack of affordable housing in the overheated Sydney and Melbourne housing markets, and people’s basic needs no longer being securely met.  

For many working poor families it is increasingly a case of getting by whilst being stigmatised   for excluding themselves  from society with their “wrongness”, their bad culture and bad practices; or for being leaners getting a free ride on welfare benefits. The poorest and the most vulnerable people in our society are deemed to be worthless by the successful lifters. 

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documentary photography after the global financial crisis

It can be argued that documentary photography is a response to economic crisis--witness the 1930s (the Depression and the FSA in the US)  and in the 1970s  with its critique of the  liberal humanism (eg., Edward Steichen's The Family of Man) of documentary photography by John Tagg, Martha Rosler, and Allan Sekula in the form of  a politics of representation and the social history of art.

Tagg, for instance, in The Burden of Representation: Essays on the Photographies and Histories  was  sceptical about the capacity of social documentary photography to live up to its “act of compassionate looking”, a civic impulse which is, for Tagg, always subsumed into the liberal-capitalist machinery of the state apparatus beset to the right and left by the competing state forms of fascism and communism, before its impact can be registered. Documentary was the product of the continuing problematics of governance --crisis management in a shattered economic reality-- that turned on the management of public opinion to shore up the legitimacy and credibility of state-led solutions.

One  response to this analysis of photography being framed by the dominant economies of images and meanings in the  machinery of capture by New Deal reformism  is the idea of a historical understanding of documentary practices in photography as well as how it is produced and functions in specific historical conjunctures.  If so, then does  the after effects of the economic crisis resulting from the global financial crisis of 2007- 2008 correspond to a new documentary experience?

That economic crisis is not limited to 2008-9 as its after effects continue into the second decade of the 21st century.  By all accounts the global economy is in the worst shape in living memory. Deflation, stagnation, corporate and even government bankruptcy abound. Europe appears to be coming apart before our eyes. Even China has slowed sharply. Struggling to resuscitate growth, central banks have pushed real interest rates in much of the world to lows not seen for a very long time.  The politics of austerity is the response by the  conservative political elite in the US, Europe and Australia. 

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a documentary style

We can discern a shift away from photography as a medium to photography as style. The shift is part of a movement in the history of photography  away from a recorded image towards its construction; a shift away from the traditional and more restrictive modernist notion of photography as a medium.

In an interview with Katz in 1971 Walker Evans  said: 

"When you say 'documentary,' you have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. It should be documentary style, because documentary is police photography of a scene and a murder....That's a real document. You see art is really useless, and a document has use. And therefore art is never a document, but it can adopt that style. I do it. I'm called a documentary photographer. But that presupposes a quite subtle knowledge of this distinction." (Evans W,  1983)

As a 'documentary style' photographer, Walker Evans created images that looked like documents and looked like they had a use, when in fact, according to Evans own definition, they were not documents, since they did not have any use. 

Documentary style, then, is the mode of an image that makes it appear to be a document when it is not. For Evans photographic reality as produced by the photographic apparatus coincided with the underlying reality if the image follows the conventions of realism. Evans and his successors  recognised a coherent aesthetic in the pile of mundane photographs that everyone knew and used, filed, or discarded as the daily occasion required. Walker Evans and others took photography from the streets and into their portfolios.

However, photographic reality and realism are two separate categories, a fact even further underlined when photographs are digitally manipulated. Because the documentary style is uniquely photographic, it becomes the blueprint for a 'photographic style' in general.

Notes

Evans W,  Walker Evans at Work: 745 Photographs together with Documents Selected from Letters, Memoranda, Interviews, Notes. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983

 

  

 

 

 

 


documentary photography and positivism

 The philosophical underpinning of the realism of documentary photography has been a  positivism that assumes the unproblematic existence of an observable reality, a neutral, detached and unified observing subject, and a form of inductivism derived from sensory experience.  

This is documentary photography's originary and formative way of thinking and it underpins the way that the focus of the camera apparatus  assumes the sovereignty of geometrical perspective--Euclidean geometry  as the cone of vision. This convention of perspective centres everything on the eye of the disembodied beholder standing outside the field of vision.   

This is deemed to be a natural representation, the way things really looked, the way that we see,and  the way things really are. The world is clear and distinct even at the margins, and the entire field of vision is measurable and visible. 

The picture  was objective and truthful. It was the emergence of digital technology that ruptured this mode of knowledge, representation and photographic realism not the philosophical critiques of positivism.

on the margins of the art institution

It is commonly accepted that though many artists deploy photography for critical commentary on all sorts of issues in society, the modernist appropriation of documentary photography  within the gallery and museum art context has caused a rethinking of this mode of practice and its traditions and legacy in the 1970s.

The basic line of argument, as articulated by Alan Sekula's volume of early writings and photoworks entitled Photography Against the Grain (1984),   centred around working against those  modernist strategies that succeded in making documentary photography a formalist art.

This form of resistance starts from the view of photographs as common cultural artifacts rather than privileged art objects for the art market, thereby positioning   the photos on the margins of the art institution and highlighting how an image's possible meanings are produced within an economy of statements and discourses.

What emerges is the introduction of a certain fictionality into the work though  images or text fragments there by introducing the  element of the constructed, the edited or  the narrative. For Sekula it is the text that carries the critical weight not the image.The latter is a hindrance to critical knowledge.

So we have taken steps along the pathway to an anti-aesthetic position that has framed art history, photography and aesthetics since the 1970s. This uses photography to challenge the autonomy of art and its functions within our culture.The inference is that the image  can only offer us knowedge at   bargain basement prices.

What emerges is  a  documentary photography as a visual rhetoric, a mode of address that is both a document and a work of art. Hence its uncanny power. The same photograph can move between the contexts of dicument and art work and many more contexts. Notable examples are the work of Eugene Atget and Walker Evans.

documentary evidence

 Historians often regard documentary photographs as a critical form of documentary evidence that hold up a mirror to past events. Public and scholarly faith in the realism of the photographic image is grounded in a belief that a photograph is a mechanical reproduction of reality.

 

Susan Sontag captured the essence of that faith in her series of essays entitled  On Photography when she wrote “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it.”  

 This conception of pieces of  the image as the product of a machine and therefore an objective artifact  does not make sense of the Farm Security Administration (FSA work)  of Walker Evans, whio carefully arranged the position of objects and people when he was using his 8x10 on a tripod.  Jacob Riis did the same before him,  as did Mathew Brady  with his representations of the American civil war. 

Yet the subjectivity of the photographer is not factored in when we look at a documentary image.  Unlike a film or a written history we are unwilling to read documentary photographs  as particular  interpretations of a scene or event.

It appears  to be more important  to hang onto  the assumption of  of photographic realism as pure or unmediated. Yet we don't treat photographic images of consumer products in advertisments this way. We remain comfortable with  the old myth that documentary photographs  don't lie --or tell the truth--even though we know that the pictures  are constructed, are shaped by aesthetic conventions and that photographic meaning is culturally enframed.  The myth is what is important.    

boring images

The vast majority of photographic images on Flickr, the photo sharing site,  tend to be predictable, conservative and repetitive in both form and content. As a consequence they do not fit easily in the standard art historical narrative that is still focused, however anxiously and insecurely, on modernism's Romantic ideas of originality, innovation and individualism.

So they are routinely excluded by the art institution as the detritus  or junk of mass culture--- the antithesis of romantic originality and creativity that is so prized by art history. The Romantic idea is one of  the artist as an independent creator rather than a skilled craftsperson; one who creates an art work that is original and exclusive, which the modernist art institution exhibited in a white cube gallery, which is then experienced in terms  of  a specific aesthetic judgment along Kantian lines.     

Boring images are not just amateur snapshots---or tourist snaps--- many  documentary pictures are boring, especially when they are a part of a series.  Even when they do  more than illustrate, documentary photographs are seen to be visual cliches, that is they are trite, hackneyed and formulaic.  They deny individuality. 

It is true that photographs typically remain secondary as we continue to enact a hierarchy that places words above pictures and locates the written word at the centre of our critical thinking about our visual culture. 

Could we not think with photos when they are a  picturing of place? Think with photos in terms of what goes around the photograph as well as what takes place within it, even when they are commonplaces.  After all our  visual commonplaces or pictorial conventions are often containers of memory and embody history.

Though I have lived in many cities in both New Zealand and Australia Adelaide is my home and it has been so for severl decades. It is a place I know even though I have not known  it from childhood  like Christchurch in New Zealand. I knew Christchurch  in a bodily way, where my tacit  knowledge and understanding was built up slowly from an accretion of bodily memories over time. 

 I  know Adelaide differently  to  Melbourne.  I know Melbourne from working on the trams for several years --my body has a sense of the urban  rhythms of the  inner city. Adelaide is different. It's more a sense of fragmented memories of different sounds, the way the light shaped a building during the different seasons, the intensity of the summer heat, walking the dogs and so on.  

conceptual documentary

Melissa Miles in The Drive to Archive Conceptual documentary photobook design  in Photographies (Volume 3, Issue 1, 2010)  says that there is an international trend in contemporary photography that is known as Conceptual Documentary. This is characterized by a desire to explore a single, often banal idea from many different angles and it seeks out and frames its subject according to a pre-determined idea or scheme.

Conceptual documentary can be understood as a symptom of the larger “archival impulse” that pervades contemporary culture. Conceptual Documentary’s emphasis upon seriality and its framing of documentary photographs according to a pre-determined scheme attest to a rejection of the decisive moment that is spontaneously “captured” by the documentary photographer, and a comparable distrust in the notion of singular, authentic or original photographic meanings.

Miles says that  this appreciation for the contingency of photographic meaning owes a great debt to 1960s conceptual photography, and in particular to the use of seriality as a means of undermining the fetishization of the singular or discrete photograph. However,

Miles says that:

there is an important difference between 1960s conceptual photography and contemporary Conceptual Documentary. Like postmodernism, conceptual photography has been accused of treating the camera as a discursively neutral aperture through which the subject enters language. The conceptual artists Ed Ruscha and Robert Rooney both describe the camera as simply a tool for recording their serial photographs. Rooney famously described the camera as a “dumb recording device”.... In 1981, Ruscha similarly said of Twenty-six Gasoline Stations that: “The photography by itself doesn’t mean anything to me; it’s the gas stations, that’s the important thing.

Miles goes onto say that conceptual documentary is importantly distinguished from these earlier traditions because it is centred on a new self- awareness about the limits and possibilities of photographic technologies and their impact upon Conceptual Documentary projects.

The latter's emphasis on the viewer or receiving subject in Conceptual Documentary also counters conceptual art’s tendency towards emphasizing the power of institutions and systems of global capitalism in shaping mean ing, and points to another important distinction between 1960s conceptual photography with its asssumption of  the photographer as an expressive source of meaning  and contemporary Conceptual Documentary photography.

the "return" of documentary photography

It is commonly accepted that  in Australia and the US documentary photography's  attachment to the real world was essentially dismantled by post-modernism bent on the deconstruction of  the values of  modernist formalism in its Greenbergian form in the name of the anti-aesthetic.  Documentary photography's commitment to realism and the objects of photography  was usually understood in terms of  transparency in that the photographic image was simply reflecting (ie., copying, mirroring) the properties of the real.  

This homelessness of documentary  photography in a digital world opens up a space in which it  could interpret aspects of the world. It could, for instance, show things that cannot be shown and reveal that which cannot be seen. Examples are the traces of an event, the remains of a story that is difficult to tell,  or of lives whose experience and existence are written as a mere palimpsest into the surface of the city.

The German tradition that emerged out of the Dusseldorf School works with an understanding of a documentary form of photography that incorporates the documentary, conceptual and aesthetic. It is an authored photography in that  it goes beyond a singular photograph, and can only be understood in the greater context of a photographer’s oeuvre; remains remained committed to the visual language of photography itself,  and open to the  possibilities of  photography''s  capacity for truth and objectivity.

Donna MF Brett in The Uncanny Return:  Documenting place in post-war German photography in Photographies refers to documentary photography as returning in a variety of ways: as  the return home, the return to the street and the return to the past. The photographers considered in this text are  Friedrich Seidenstücker (1882–1962), Rudolf Schäfer, Thomas Struth  and Dirk Reinartz.  In this text Brett  explores:

 the notion of the return in terms of the “photographic return” to places and sites of historical unease and to an urban topography as a site of alienation – erased and empty. This idea of the return will be considered in terms of Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the “uncanny” or “unhomely” as that which is familiar yet becomes strange and Siegfried Kracauer’s “homeless” image in as much as the images themselves reference a history of place that is estranged from contemporary experience and from the place it records.

Such a documentary photography stares into the abyss of the past and yet  is propelled towards the future.

In this space the documentary photographer captures a photograph of something such as a place, but the real action, the event, is actually not in view. It represents that which is the process of disappearing, of coming into ruin.The return to the past and to that which is disappearing is a return to  the hisorical world in which we live. 

photographic anxiety

The recent transformation of photography’s technical and cultural form is deeply significant; not only for those who want to anticipate the future and understand the present, but also for those concerned with photography’s pre-digital past. This disruption by digital technogical has seen some talk in terms of post-photography or photography being over; others embrace a nostalgia for quaint obsolesence that we associate with daguerrotypes and other such antique chemnical processes.  

Since the nineteenth century that past  has  been deeply influenced by documentary photography; even when its ethos of documenting contemporary life (ie., social criticism)  was rejected by the tradition of modernist formalism, which placed such great emphasis on photography as a particular art, where art  is understood as a  particular medium. Hence the phrase art photography.

Since the 1970s, photographers and writers such as  Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, Susan Sontag and Abigail Solomon-Godeau have been critical about the power of documentary photography to wrest subjects from their political and social milieus. Over the last thirty years, documentary photographers’ claims for objectivity and neutrality have been challenged as the product of power, discourse and ideology. The emotive qualities of humanist documentary photography have been reread in terms of a double violence in which the victims of traumatic events also become the victims of the photographers’ and spectators’ voyeuristic gaze.

Thus we have the crisis in humanist and heroic documentary photography coupled to widespread cynicism towards the power of photography to generate real social change. There has been a shift away from humanist documentary traditions in an era of compassion fatigue.

This sense of crisis in documentary photography is deepened by the  photographic present, which is clearly digital. This reinforces the critique of the  ethos of photography as a represention of the  truth of a situation, process, event or  state of affairs. Both the indexicality of photography and  the visual expectations governed by conventions of photographic realism have been ruptured (the loss of the real). Moreover, the digital image is not necessarily photographic.

We now live in a digital world with  its creative potential of digitalized  data to generate a multiplicity of forms of visualizations.This decoupling of the photographic image from its indexical ground says goodbye documentary photography. This is now seen as belonging to photography's digital past. This in turn creates anxiety about the loss of the real (or indexicality).  

Can we address this anxiety by rethinking documentary photography in a digital world?

Surely we can for photography, like all things disruped by technogy it is changing a lot right now, if we sidestep the well worn discussions about the "rhetoric of the image" or the "politics of representation." Photography's distinctive value could lie in its humble documentary function, its intimate examination abd commenoration of every life. 

This photobook  book explores this possibility; a photobook that is an art object in its own right,  rather than a document or record of art that exists in its "original form"  on the gallery wall. What is over with the massive shifts now occuring in our image making culture is the art gallery's status as the construction of  the old photo silos within modern art museums whose mandate is the institution educating its public  with reasurringly complete and hernetically sealed gallery expereiences. The art gallery/museum is unable to respond meaninglfully to the energy of print on demand by a public who have a better grasp on photography as a creative tool.