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.

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.