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. 

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.

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.