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Archive for November, 2009

Martha Rosler is a visual artist whose writings on photography theory have been widely influential over the last two decades. In this essay, her concern is with how documentary photography can continue to function in the postmoden world.

The traditional practice of social documentary photography as a means of helping underprivileged, dispossessed or marginalised groups has become deeply problematic for a number of reasons. Chief among these is that photography’s status as a unique medium for offering direct insight into truthful reality has been destroyed – by the widespread use of digital manipulation on the one hand, and by the postmodern tendency to question and analyse the motives of the photographer (and dissect the possible multiple meanings of the work they produce) on the other.

The role of the documentarian as the privileged outsider shedding light on those underprivileged communities fortunate to benefit from the attention of his/her lens is no longer tenable. At the same time, the idea that marginalised communities should document their own struggles without the interference of “outside” agents is also fraught with difficulty, not least of which is the impossibility of defining what “outside” actually means in many contexts. (more…)

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Cover Image of Criticizing Photographs by Terry BarrettTerry Barrett’s book Criticizing Photographs is a general introduction to photography theory with an emphasis on criticism – it aims to show the reader why criticism is important, how to understand photography criticism, and how to read photographs critically.

This is a pretty good introduction to the area of photography criticism. I’m not going to attempt a summary of an entire book but suffice to say Barrett is big on classification. He starts by classifying the act of criticism into four activities: describing, interpreting, evaluating and theorizing. He then takes each of these activities in turn and analyzes what is involved in each, using plenty of examples. This approach may well be too simplistic for some, but for those of us just starting to grapple with this stuff it provides a useful map of the terrain.

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Susan Sontag’s On Photography is a text that every photography theory student grapples with at one point or another. I read it myself a good year before starting this course but if there was ever a case of something you read going in one eye and out the other this was it. Second time around it’s a bit more accessible but the sheer density of ideas in it makes it a challenging read. “The Image World” is the last essay in the book and sums up many of the ideas that went before.

In spite of the claims of science and humanism that an objective non-image based understanding of reality is now possible, our culture has become more and more dependent on images, rather than less, and this can be attributed to the influence of photography. Photography and the “Image World” that it creates, has unique and peculiar properties that make it radically different to other forms of image-making, and Sontag’s essay explores the ramifications of this.

Photography can provide knowledge independent of experience and can capture, classify and store the information in a way that provides possibilities for control not feasible under earlier forms of information storage. It is an incomparable tool for predicting, analysing and controlling behavior because it is closer to the real, in fact it is a “trace, something directly stenciled off the real”. Like Barthes, in Camera Lucida, Sontag sees photographs, and the reality they depict, as inextricably linked. A photograph is an “extension of the subject” and a “potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it”. This echoes pre-Christian attitudes towards the image: photography has rekindled “something like the primitive status of images”.

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from The Photography Reader, edited by Liz Wells

Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is a classic text of the realist school of Photography theory. I’ve been reading extracts from it as published in The Photography Reader (ed. Liz Wells). This post covers parts 1, 2,4 and 5 of the original text.

Barthes commences by describing how a photograph of Napoleon’s brother caused him to start questioning what is the essence of photography’s uniqueness, and to what extent photography has a ‘genius’ of it’s own. He rejects the idea of trying to understand photography in terms of classification systems on the grounds that those systems can just as easily be applied to other forms of visual representation and hence can’t possibly get to the heart of photography’s uniqueness.

His first insight is that a photography captures a unique event that can never re-occur. Furthermore, each photograph is intrinsically bound to this event, or referent (or vice versa): the referent cannot be photographed again, the photograph cannot be retaken in order to point to a different referent. This strongly emphasizes the realist view that the photograph is the referent, and it is pointless to speak of the photograph as some sort of entity with its own life, unshackled from the referent.

He claims that there is no particular reason to choose a particular moment or event as referent (as any other might just as easily have been chosen) and hence photography is unclassifiable, has no meaning in itself. Books on photography, whether technical, historical or sociological, infuriate him for this reason, and because they tell him to shun the sort of ‘Amateur Photography’ that he enjoys – the sort of photography that is all about the referent and nothing else, such as family pictures.

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from Documentary Now! Contemporary Strategies in Photography, Film and the VisDocumentary Now!ual Arts

In this essay Maartje van den Heuvel examines the engagement of documentary photography with the art world and argues that we should consider this in the context of an increased visual literacy in our society, with documentary increasingly being used to hold a mirror to this visual culture.

Documentary photography has undergone radical changes in the last two decades as it has become increasingly appropriated into the art world.  Many people have questioned whether this signifies a new path for documentary and to what extent it can still function effectively in this new domain. Maartje van den Heuvel asserts that while these questions are continually under discussion, it is unwise to attempt to analyze this as an isloated phenomenon, but rather we should be considering it in the wider context of an ever-increasing visual literacy among our artists and our society as a whole.

She explains that our culture is becoming increasingly visual with an associated increase in visual literacy among viewers, consumers, image-makers and artists. Visually literate artists use visual means to analyze, reflect upon, and dissect all aspects of this visual culture and doumentary photography is but one aspect to be considered in this way. Contemporary artists who work in documentary photography are therefore often better understood as artists using the medium and conventions of documentary photography to examine documentary photography itself, along with it’s role in society and culture, rather than as documentary photographers pushing their work into the realms of art. The essay examines the work of documentary photographers with this in mind, and seeks to demonstrate that this signifies a general increase in visual literacy.

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