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.