[1Jan2020 🎉, [2, p.34]] The course material (cmat) notes how the practice, presentation and appreciation of docphot changed in the last 50 years (specifically 'between 1967 and 2008'). John Szarkowski's curated shows at MoMA were key influences in this process of change.
The 1967 MoMA show New Documents, presented the work of Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand, described in the press release as using the 'documentary process toward more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life but to know it.'
Then in 1978, MoMA showed Mirrors and Windows, an exhibition and a book by Szarkowski based on the premise that photographs (or perhaps docphots) are on a continuum between windows, which tell the viewer more about the world, and mirrors, which tell more about the artist.
This is a great book with well-chosen images and eloquent and perceptive writing which sits to hand on my shelf, but which I haven't yet had time to write up. It might be the case that
Szarkowski's theory tells one as much about photography (and most art, for that matter) as one reasonably needs to know.
MoMA (principally through Szarkowski) moved photography into the art world. Some would say, this writer included, that this was not entirely a good thing. Jerry L. Thompson (who worked for and still reveres Walker Evans) in his analysis of the gallery and museum photography market place, Why photography matters (examined here) regards much of modern photography as complacent, comprising 'prestigious museums and lavish publications' dealing in 'decorative self-indulgence' [20, p.4].
The UK, in a belated effort to catch up, showed Cruel and Tender at Tate Modern in 2003 and Street and Studio in 2008 (this contextualises the seemingly arbitrary dates chosen by the cmat at the top of the page).
The cmat describes Cruel and Tender as, 'examin[ing]
photography’s relationship with realism. Artists such as August Sander and Lewis Baltz were shown alongside Philip-Lorca DiCorcia and William Eggleston to demonstrate the diverse nature of photography and its relationship with truth'. [2, p.34]
Street and Studio, 'amongst other things [it] questioned perceived notions of candid moments or real
events (traditionally linked with the street) and staged moments or made-up events
(traditionally linked with the studio) and how such distinctions were becoming blurred'. [2, p.35]
The foto8 review [i] greeted Cruel and Tender as 'a welcome excursion into photography by the Tate', but questioned some of its choices. The Telegraph [ii] described Street and Studio as, 'much too big, far too ambitious, and without focus or structure. With more than enough material here for two or even three exhibitions, it started promisingly but quickly descended into incoherence' (I have ordered the book and will express a view).
Incidentally, those two shows are described in the cmat as the first and fourth at Tate Modern. I think I need to know the second and third. Ten minutes online failed to determine that - back burner.
[spellchecked to here]
The change from 2003 to 2008 shows how the perception of photography in the UK had changed, in a similar way to the US, but twenty or more years later. Amongst the art-appreciating cognoscenti, at least, a photograph no longer (necessarily) depicted what is real, but a version of a perceived reality.
Not mentioned yet in the cmat, but a major contributing factor in this change was the rise of digital imaging. By 2003, digital cameras were outselling film cameras and at that time too, cameras began to be included in mobile telephones. [iii]
Next to Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murders. Three questions are posed, in the context of this short video of him discussing his work - https://vimeo.com/76940827
• How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?
• What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?
• If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?
The question asked of Seawright is, 'Much of you work is not explicit in its context or narrative, the viewer has to piece it together, can you talk about this?'
Seawright's response is succinctly expressed, '… the construction of meaning is not done by me, it's done by the person looking at the artwork. There's a fine balance there … if it is too explicit then it becomes journalistic, I guess if it's too ambiguous, it becomes meaningless.
Seawright is suggesting that the artist should not try to impose meaning on the viewer and, of course, according to Sontag, that does not work anyway —
photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer
Sontag, On Photography, quoted in La Grange, Basic critical theory for photographers, p.37
Given the interview quotes stated above, Seawright does not seek to challenge the boundaries, but sees them as explicit and avoids a documentary approach in pursuit of his artistic purpose (and does so very successfully in this writer's view).
As regard the works (using three as examples, available on the artist's web site), they are seemingly innocent, often pretty images, potentially meaningful in their own right (for example Jesus ' crucifixion echoed by the three pylons in the distance), collectively subverted by their overarching theme.
A reminder from the course preamble that narrative is what is inside that frame and context is what's outside the frame.. Of course the viewer already knows Seawright's purpose when seeing the images (or would having read the first or second caption) and so it is impossible to really know how one would react to them as context-neutral landscape shots.
Does any image or series have a single meaning? It might have a single intended purpose, but I would argue that images have potentially as many meanings as it has viewers. (Whether all those meanings are of equal validity of legitimacy is a question that will be left for further consideration). Barrett in defining his photograph types comments on the transformation of Lange (et al.'s) FSA images, created with ethically evaluative intention, being subverted by becoming highly valued gallery art (Sontag's intentions again). The external context of the presentation medium and environment does not change the image itself but is likely to affect the viewers' perceptions and preconceptions of it.
[5Jan] Pickering's series, Public Order is examined. In this the artist photographed what appear to be empty streets but turn out to be fake sets used for police training (figs. C1 and C2). The cmat[2, p.35] states,
we’re left feeling uncomfortable and even unsafe; destruction and danger seem to lurk there.
The uncanniness increases as we look closer. Constructs and façades emerge and things are suddenly not as they seem. Why are all the windows boarded up? Why is there so much debris? What has happened? We start to form our own narrative, based on news
reports, past experiences, hearsay...C&N [2, p.35]
but I didn't see it that way.
I was quite content to interpret fig. C1 as an empty street with boarded up properties, a commonplace in London, especially a decade ago when a lot of Lewisham looked like this and much of South Wales still does.
When I learned that it was a set (fig. C2) I'm afraid that my my philistine thought process led to Mel Brooks Blazing Saddles (figs. C3 and C4) rather than being 'released from [my] unease'. As I have previously reminisced in EyV, I grew up with the deconstructivist cinema of Godard and was even excited by a Status Quo promotional video which revealed the camera's circular track so I am drawn to Pickering's series, but I appreciate them as vital, active illustrations of the perpetual artifice of photography.
For reasons that have yet to become clear, I saw parallels between Pickering's photographed sets and Rachel Whiteread's internal casts of buildings (fig. D1) [iv]. While these at first sight might seem polar opposites, the two-dimensional nature of destructionist photographs and the three-dimensional solidity of Whiteread's sculptures have more parallels than are immediately apparent.
• How do Pickering’s images make you feel?
• Is Public Order an effective use of documentary or is it misleading?
Tellingly, the image shown in the cmat, fig. C1 is the only one in the series, as shown on her site, that could reasonably be interpreted as a real street scene: in all the others there are details that would indicate the real nature of the location. As noted above, my feelings are of nostalgia for the deconstructive art of the 1970s. Given that all but one of the images is (more or less) clearly depicting a constructed set, they are a accurately documentary. It is likely that the police would not go to the effort of building a convincing training ground because those using it would, of course be aware of its nature: the purpose of the training would be procedural, in the same way that training towers common at fire stations do not need to resemble inhabited buildings in anything other than height and apertures.
from …Guille and Belinda…, Alessandra Sanguinetti
[5Jan] [2, p.38] The last subject in the section is Sanguinetti's series, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams which purports to document the lives of two young sisters † but also depicts their fantasies. The New Yorker article [v] on the series suggests a greater influence by Sanguinetti over the children's play than the cmat description.
† sisters according to the cmat, cousins according to New Yorker.
Attitudes of photographers to the documentary and of its various audiences to photography as an art form changed fundamentally from the 1960s , led by U.S. artists (such as Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand) and curators (notably Szarkowski). Photographers now tend to actively interpret rather than merely depict or report their subject. Szarkowski's windows and mirrors epithet is tellingly and warmly apposite.