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A David, a Tom and two Jacobs

Gaijin (c) David Favrod

The holiday has given me plenty of time to think about one of my favourite musing topics at the moment – the relationship between art and documentary photography. On one level the distinction can be made very simply – documentary photography seeks to represent. Implicit in this definition is a sense of purpose, the photographer is seeking to draw your attention to something in the real world and presumably has a reason for wanting to do so. However the distinction is slippery and some, including some OCA photography tutors would argue that the distinction is meaningless. I am not in that camp, but I do recognise the challenge.
Here is some work I have been looking at and thinking about:
Firstly, David Favrod is winner of the Aperture Portfolio Prize for 2010 for his work Gaijin. Although the work is clearly fine art practice, scenes are created to be photographed, there is also a drive to represent.
Secondly, I was fortunate to be able to go to the Serpentine Gallery to see a short film by Tom Hunter A Palace For Us. The film made in collaboration with the Skills Exchange and Age Concern Hackney uses family photographs, face to camera interviews and recreated scenes together with a highly evocative soundtrack to create a sense of time and place. There is a short extract together with an insightful review on the Guardian website. The film is viewable at the Serpentine until January 20.
Finally, I was given Jacob Holdt: United States 1970 – 1975. The book is a selection of images which can all be seen on Jacob Holdt’s website The images of shocking poverty immediately evoke comparison with Jacob Riis’ images of New York. United States 1970 -1975 contains a fascinating essay by Christoph Ribbat, which is available to read on Holdt’s website and summarises my initial reaction to the work perfectly
‘At first there’s the sheer organic force of these images. In response a hard, dark knot begins to form in the stomach. That knot grows, tightens, grows again. While looking at some of these images it is entirely possible to work oneself into an almost aggressive “Forget the whole theory-laden-postmodern photography”-attitude or into a state of “Here, in these photos, truth exists”-excitement and toward the conviction that Holt’s old-fashioned ways of seeing can teach us all kinds of things for the early 21st century, can provide us with an ethics of observation, are in fact calling out to us to stop taking apart authenticity in our superintelligent, bloodless fashion and to start looking at the mangled Body of Man, at the victims of our lifestyle…’
The full text is here and is well worth a read. As we expand to range of photography options available to study with the OCA  this year, I expect the nature and limits of documentary photography will be a heated topic for discussion with our course leaders and tutors.


Posted by author: Genevieve Sioka
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16 thoughts on “A David, a Tom and two Jacobs

  • We talk about ‘finding one’s voice’ as a photographer. In concert with that search one has to discover what one wishes to speak about through the medium of photography; in fact one could argue that they are two strands of the same endeavour, find what you want to say and you’ll have found your voice.
    What one’s themes might be and the motivations for them can be as disparate and unknowable as any expression in the arts; painting, music, literature, etc.
    For me photography is a collection of amoral technologies that one can learn the properties of in order to exploit to one’s own ends.
    A commonality amongst photographers is that they’ve chosen the process as the medium through which to express themselves, which perhaps says something about a common psychology amongst them, but past that point I see a wide divergence in what photographers are motivated to express through the medium of photography.
    In Jacob Holdt’s case it seems he was motivated to speak out on a subject that had meaning for him and chose photography as one of his mediums. His work is his work, made for his own reasons, irrespective of what label is put on it or him. I can’t see what difference it makes to the work whether it’s called documentary photography or not.
    I can see that labels are useful for the tallymen of art practice.
    One thing I notice in the essay is a common theme; the tally men are always keen to shamanise and mythologise the artist; some of whom appear to welcome it as a marketing tool.
    Every effort is made to put the cloak on Holdt’s shoulders and give him the magic of otherness, citing multiple proofs of his authenticity, and thereby that of the work,in difference from the life lived ordinarily.
    Perhaps this is an expression of a fundamental need that society has of its artists; who arguably began as shaman painting depictions of how to succeed at hunting on cave walls and have since angered their congregations by deserting them to produce unfathomable work that only speaks to the cognoscenti, or perhaps it merely excuses us from having to risk anything, once we have elected someone to perceive vicariously through.

  • Heres a thought – Photographs are inanimate objects that are incapable of passing a message to anyone. As photographers we can only hope that the viewer ‘sees’ what we want them to ‘see’. We have no power over this because all viewers are different and are a product of nature and nurture.
    We can of course channel the viewers thinking by using a title or adding a narrative but even then we are limited by our ability to communicate with others whose life experiences are probably different.
    Of course the ultimate straitjacket is when some critic categorises us as being of a particular genre that is too often very wide of the mark.

    • “Photographs are inanimate objects that are incapable of passing a message to anyone.”
      This is a provocative statement and one certainly worth considering Cedric but I don’t think it really convinces me. To take just one example – this image is generally thought to have had a decisive impact on the American (and wider) public support for the Vietnam war. It doesn’t say ‘this is wrong’ but it conveyed the message nevertheless.

    • “Photographs are inanimate objects that are incapable of passing a message to anyone.”
      Interesting view Cedric, but one which as a documentary photographer I cannot share. I would say that it is precisely the fact that photographs are inanimate objects that makes of them unique tools for communication. We are not hard-wired to see images but to see the world out there while we experience it with our full body and senses. This is why when presented with a photograph we don’t quite know what to make of it. Something is always missing in a photograph: our simultaneous experience of the situation that the photograph depicts. And that absence of experience is counterbalanced by our desire to make sense of it – hence it always serves as a communication device.

  • In our naming of a thing as ‘a work of art’ we erect some kind of limit or fence around that thing – a sign that ‘this’ (inside) is art, but ‘that’ (outside) is not, but we should also be aware that woven within and outwith the body of any artistic work/image/text are faint traces of context – cultural, historical, social, philosophical and political – invisible, yet vital strands that affect and support the work/image/text during its conception and reception. The imperceptibility of context may be accidental or deliberate, but once we acknowledge its presence (even though it seems absent or silent) then a diversity of meanings becomes available.
    A photograph doesn’t actually do anything except (perhaps) demand attention. The artist’s job is to start a chain of events – to show an image that is interesting enough to lure others. Those others then add to the work through perception and conversation. During these processes a diversity of ‘truths’ begin to emerge – none of which is truly true …

  • I must confess that I struggle to understand the boundaries between documentary and art photography. The work of Cartier-Bresson, Gene Smith, Winogrand, Arbus, Friedlander, Eggleston, Rio Branco, Alex Webb and many many other photographers have made it onto the walls of the top art galleries. A strong case can be made that the work of these photographers is essentially documentary….but curators in the past have deemed their work to be art.
    I wonder if contemporary curators would take the same view. I doubt that as art photography has moved on. Perhaps I am a cynic but it seems to me that art photography is what the critics, curators et al deem it to be.
    Does this matter? I guess that depends what one thinks about art photography today, as opposed to art photography yesterday. However if you are a dealer in art photography, a museum curator, a critic or indeed an in-vogue Art photographer, it matters a lot! All of these have strong financial and reputational issues at stake.

  • While I have serious concerns about how we display documentary work in the art gallery, and what purpose it serves, I do think that the convergence of art and documentary photography is inevitable – ‘was’ inevitable I should say. The paradigm of photography as a faithful conveyer of untampered reality was abandoned a long time ago, well before digital technology was invented. The ambiguous nature of the photograph is now widely accepted. We, documentary photographers, now that and make the most of it so that the photographic image serves our communication purposes. Every photographer has something to say. To be in the world is to be ‘from a point of view’. That can be a reflexive process or not, but that’s always the case.
    And what is that if not self-expression? And what is art if not a way to express yourself?
    So the inevitable coexistance of art and document – think Burtynsky, or Simon Norfolk – needs to be acknowledged and accepted. What is at stake here is the nature of the photograph as document, and to what extent the documentary photograph loses that essential quality in an art environment. Losing that essential quality for me is losing the connection between the image and the story that the photographer wanted to tell. And transforming the documentary image into an object of desire contributes to that loss.
    An interesting example for you all. On a recent visit to the Host Gallery in London I saw a large print by Simon Norfolk from his Full Spectrum Dominance series. Price tag? £3,000 I seem to remember. Across the room there was a much smaller print by Seamus Murphy, a highly respected and award-winning photojournalist who only works in b&w. Price tag £50 – but its comparative documentary value was much higher, in my opinion.
    Now, which one will be deemed worthy of the label ‘art object’?

    • Perhaps then someone who considers themselves to be a documentary photographer takes on a responsibility to ensure that their work doesn’t appear on gallery walls; as you point out, context becomes an active part of the image.
      From my limited knowledge it seems to me that the gallery tradition comes out of aggrandisement, both for the patron and the artist, so hanging pictures on a wall necessarily involves an element of exploitation; perhaps this isn’t so true of the published print which is more of a democratic broadcasting medium than an exclusive experience.
      As far as pricing work is concerned there seems to me to be a tradition of selling art by the acre; all else being equal bigger works cost more. Personally I’ve never sought any relation between cost and worth.
      It seems to me that private galleries, and indeed public galleries in their own competitive way, are the retail outlets of the art market, where art is traded in the same way as pork bellys, cocoa beans, or indeed currencies.
      As the Bank of England ‘promises to pay the bearer’, so the gallerist promises the purchaser that they are buying art and it doesn’t matter what that promissory note is ‘written’ on; perhaps A P Herbert’s ‘Negotiable Cow’ could be re-written as ‘The Negotiable Shark’.
      The market must have raw material to trade with and it doesn’t matter what it is. We don’t see signs hanging on gallery doors saying, ‘Sorry we are closed as there’s no good art around at the moment’; there’s always some raw material available that they can add profit to by putting it on their walls and thereby differentiating it.

  • @Cedric
    “Photographs are inanimate objects that are incapable of passing a message to anyone.”
    Where does that leave books? Books are inmanimate objects – are you saying the Bible or the Q’ran are incapable of passing messages – to give but two examples.
    In fairness you do immediately pull back from this statement and move to a position which appears to be that photographs are an imperfect means of communication. I find this difficult to argue with – as you say, photographers only control one part (the intended message, and only control to a skill-determined degree the next part (the medium). They have little, if any control over the recipient of the message.
    @Jose and CliveW
    Not really brave (or informed) enough to dip my toe into the ‘Can documentary = art’ discussion, although I’ve had the latest Don McCulllin book for Xmas and that leaves me in little doubt that sometimes the answer is yes. The portrait of the gypsy watching his family being evicted has to one of the best ever – or is that simply middle class guilt on my part – wry chuckle to self.

  • It seems to me that there is problem of semantics right from the start in this debate. The word art has become too wide to be used as a possible differential term from documentary in the photographic context. If what we are really talking about is fine-art and documentary photography then things take on a different complexion. Here we have reasonably clear cut distinction in terms of intention. The fine artist is usually inviting the viewer to join them on a voyage of exploration, seeking the possibilities of a course of action, and/or an attempt, perhaps, to understand; asking questions rather than supplying or indicating answers. The documentary photographer on the other hand, is displaying the results of an investigation, often asking the viewer to accept the photographer’s evaluation of the subject, even, perhaps, trying to persuade the viewer with a particular argument or to show them something that is extant and the photographer wants them to take particular notice of. ‘Ray’s a Laugh'(Billingham) is fine art, ‘Land of my Fathers'(Hurn) is documentary.

  • Reading Jose’s comments makes me wonder: is ‘Guernica’ less of a document of war and suffering than, say, Don McCullin’s war photograph”? Or Goya’s “The shootings of May 3rd, 1808?” While thinking about this I came on this excerpt from Kenneth Clarke discussing Goya’s work http://www.artchive.com/artchive/G/goya/may_3rd.jpg.html and comparing it (favourably) to documentary photography. I don’t agree with everything Clarke says in the excerpt but it is interesting reading.
    I don’t know the answer to my question – and may be missing the point you are making by asking it. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a difference between a painting of an event and a photograph, but just wondering why one should belong in a gallery and the other perhaps not.

  • Very astute comment Eileen. For me, the answer to your question is ‘no’. When I saw the Guernica and Goya’s ‘Shootings of the Third of May’ I felt sad. In my opinion they are no less a document of suffering than documentary photographs. I’m not an artist but I would say that cubism and b&w photography (McCullin’s) are both abstractions and as such they work in similar ways: distilling essential qualities of the world out there and communicating them to the viewer.

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