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Five ideas on Documentary Photography

In a world invaded by mobile phones with camera and video, the “best” document is anonymous and amateur. The here and now, by chance, unmediated, un-authored.

A document with photographic quality produces suspicion. The lower the technical skill, the closer is perceived to “truth”. (1)

A professional photographer present in an event or a place is an interested tourist that either brings an imported ideology or a desire for recognition. Or both. Not a valid testimony. (2)

The artistic-political documental construct lost its moral strength time ago. It gave visibility to democratic movements but also to Fascists and Stalinists.(3)

Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper” by Walker Evans marked the social document aestheticization’s defunction. (4)

Discussions around Form vs. Content should not hide the untenable position of documentary referentiality and its relation to the “real”. (5)

Four Ideas on Pictorial Photography

Photography possesses a trait that has determined most of its historical production; the apparent physical link between the object and the resulting sign: its indexicality. An automatic transfer of “reality” in which formal authorship can disappear, a concept as dear to post-modernist critics as to conservatives. (6)

Painting tried, with strength and conviction, to combine the pictorial and the photographic indexes (G.Richter being its best example). With more failure than success. Success because its ambiguity resulted in attractive and popular paintings. Failure because it is a simulacrum and leads to decorativism. (7)

Photography incorporated pictorial concepts since its beginnings. J.Wall being exemplary. “Fake” narratives on naturalistic spaces, like natural science museums’ dioramas. The negation of the document as an accurate narrative of the “real” is combined with a total faith in formal transparency. (8)

Photography’s efficiency with, and the strength of, the pictorial symbolic form, together with the apparatus, black-box nature of the camera limits formal innovation and foster nostalgia and conservatism. (9)

On Photography Now

Photography today is in a state of flux. The digital is questioning everything: Its production, its distribution and its use. But as important, it questions photography’s three key tenets: transparency, monocular perspective and documentary referentiality. (10)

Transparency: The digital file is invisible. It is a text. Each image is the visualization of the invisible. The original (the file) is invisible. The copy (the image) is a highly mediated interpretation of the invisible original. There is no reference that unquestionably matches original and copy. (11)

Monocular perspective: Any text is subject to translations, to interpretations, to re-writings. The camera’s structure is just one of those translations. (12)

Documentary referentiality: The digital file is ubiquitous. Taking a picture is a discretionary act in a world with billions of available files waiting to be interpreted. Taking a picture, in the traditional sense, is just one of photography’s current options. (13)

The potential expansion of the formal and the referential boundaries allows for new, looser, indirect connections to contemporary life. Photography will either engage with this challenge or will end up as the most conservative of artistic practices.



Notes

1. A very interesting discussion on this subject is G.Baker’s “Photography and Abstraction” included in LACMA’s “Words without Pictures” (2009).

2. A new generation of writers is shedding new perspectives on documentary photography. Although often interesting, in my opinion their arguments are too partisan to be really transformative. See A.Azoulay, “Civil contract of photography” (2008) and T.J.Demos “The Migrant Image” (2013).

3. On photography as political propaganda there is a very large bibliography starting with B.Brecht (see AIZ, nº41, 1931). A recent and valuable discussion on the tension between art’s autonomy and social critique can be found in B.Groys, "Art Power" (2008). The theoretical impermeability to such powerful critiques is built around a mixed bag of arguments that includes a dated critique of art’s autonomy or the supposedly democratic nature of photography, whatever that means.

4. I am obviously referring to Martha Rosler’s famous critique on the politics of representation in “In, around and afterthoughts on documentary photography” (1989). The resilience of the aestheticized documentary is exemplified by the popularity of the annual World Photo Press Awards or the work by S.Salgado.

5. An excellent example of the pains to be endured in defense of documentary photography today is TJ.Demos paper “Recognizing the Unrecognized: The Photographs of Ahlam Shibli” (2008): “With that severing of photography from the real, however, there looms a depoliticized eclipse of the medium’s traditional social commitments, one that sits well, not surprisingly, with the formalist preferences of artistic institutions and the art market in general”. On the contemporary tension between Form and Content, a good reading is “Formalism Redefined”, by A.Ellegood in “Contemporary Art” (2013).

6. Indexicality has been extensively researched and discussed. Sometimes with enjoyable intelligence such as in “Words without Pictures” (2009), more often in a very unproductive fashion. An amusing brief text that exemplifies the ideological abuses of the concept, and in this case of the authority argument, is R.Krauss “Introductory Note” included in J.Elkins “Photography Theory” (2007). A practical example of this terminology confusion is present in a recent interview of T.Ruff, who explains his appropriated NASA images on the basis of a “surrender of authorship”…to then proceed to subjectively adding colour to them without any perception of contradiction (see, Conscientious April 8, 2013).

7. A recent, wonderful and provocative text on painting (and very relevant to photography) is “The Value of Painting: Notes on Unspecificity, Indexicality, and Highly Valuable Quasi-Persons” by I.Graw (2013).

8. The depictive and transparent nature of photography has a long tradition of supporters that include such salient figures such as C.Greenberg, M.Fried and J.Wall. One of the latest is M.Fried’s “Why photography matters as Art as never before” (2008).

9. A classic text on the “apparatus” nature of the camera that still resounds fresh and provocative is V.Flusser’s “Towards a Philosophy of Photography” (1983). A delightful and fruitful reading on the ideological nature of realistic constructs in the even more classic book “Perspective as a Symbolic Form” by E.Panofsky (1927).

10. A personal rephrasing of an "Art Since 1900" (2004) quote: “At least for the time being, the traits long associated with photography - monocular perspective, realistic detail and, above all, documentary referentiality - remain natural enough to us so that any digital alteration of these terms still appears disruptive” Aren’t each of the three traits exciting targets for destruction?

11. See B. Groys “Art Power” (2008) and G.Baker’s “Photography and Abstraction” (2009) already mentioned above.

12. Since Wittgenstein, the idea of words not being farther or closer to reality but getting their meaning through use has been extensively developed throughout the last century. As Richard Rorty puts it: “Wittgenstein helped us overcome the temptation to ask the question: Which pieces of our language lock onto reality and which do not? On this pragmatic view of his achievement, he did not show metaphysics to be nonsense, he showed it was a waste of time.

13. Still the most brilliant and comprehensive analysis of the digital revolution (at least that I know) is L.Manovich’s “The Language of New Media” (2001): “In new media, the user of a narrative is traversing a database, following links between its records. An interactive narrative can be understood as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database. A traditional linear narrative is one among many trajectories, that is, a particular choice made within a hyper narrative.