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.
She identifies ten trends in documentary:
- Artists looking for alternatives approaches within the documentary form. For example, photographers from the Becher School in Dusseldorf (e.g. Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth)use colour, sharp detail and other conventions of fashion and architectural photography within their documentary work.
- Changes in the subject matter of documentary. Traditionally the focus has been on the under-priveliged. Much of Martin Parr’s work has documented the middle classes of England and his recent work deals with the theme of luxury.
- Removing the distance between photographer and subject in order to achieve something more intimate and subjective, for example Nan Goldin.
- Engaging with the subject matter over an extended period of time. Allen Sekula is engaged in a long-running project on economic structures and trading routes.
- Pushing the limits of ethical norms in documentary photography. For example, Gilles Peress’s photographs from Rwanda shock the viewer with their explicit portrayal of the effects of the genocide.
- Examining the publicity and distribution channels of documentary photography and the media context in which is exists – Susan Meiselas comments on this within her project on Kurdistan.
- Using authentic source material such as images created by those directly involved in the events being portrayed. Julian Germain’s project on the steel industry in England is a good example of this.
The above examples all constitute new ways of doing documentary and perhaps making it more effective in a media saturated and visually literate world. The remaining ones that van den Heuvel identifies are not doing documentary phototgraphy as such but rather creating work that is clearly intended to reflect upon documentary itself.
- Work that grapples with the nature of reality: how it can be constructed or suggested (Hiroshi Sugimoto) or questions and/or mocks the supposed veracity of documentary images.
- The use of staging to show up cliche in the media (Jeff Wall).
- The use of re-enactments or re-staging of actual events. In the museum installation Black September by Christoph Draeger, a re-enactment of the events at the Munich olympics in 1972 is used as a way of examining how these events of portrayed and disseminated by the media.
She concludes that while all of the work discussed varies in the extent to which it directly reflects upon the documentary tradition it all shows an interest in how documentary is employed in the mass media and all is testament to “an increased visual literacy among artists and also makes an appeal for it among viewers of the images”.
Overall this essay is a great summary of what’s going on with documentary photography. However, I am not sure that what she describes necessarily implies an increase in visual literacy. She seems to imply that these developments are a a result of artists becoming visually literate. Does this means that they were not visually literate before the advent of the mass media? Surely visual artists have always been using their art to analyse visual culture itself, and the conventions of their own medium? Similarly, just because viewers are bombarded with more and more visual imagery does this mean that they are getting better at interpreting and extracting meaning from it? If so, then the forms of documentary discussed find a ready audience. If not then the subtleties of it are lost on most viewers as it demands a level of visual literacy that is beyond most of us. Is this the real reason documentary is moving out of the magazines and into the galleries?
For each of these pieces we read we are asked to find an image that supports, contests or reflects in some way the theme or arguments of the text. I have chosen Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier not simply because it is one of the most famous documentary images but because recent revelations call into question whether it was a photograph of a “real” event or whether Capa staged it. What was once thought of as a straight documentary piece might now be seen as closer to the work of Jeff Wall. So, in some ways Capa’s picture picture reflects (perhaps inadvertently) many of the concerns of today’s photographers