Essay: A new future for documentary? How are contemporary photographers challenging the pre-existing rules and confines of the documentary genre?

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  • A new future for documentary? How are contemporary photographers challenging the pre-existing rules and confines of the documentary genre?
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With boundaries constantly blurring, and the rules of each discourse ever-changing I find myself questioning which genre or discourse my work may fall into and whether that really matters. Definitions, specifications and rules help us define ourselves and our artwork, they give us something to work within. Each discourse comes with its own set of rules and codes, a history of language to build on. With these rules seemingly merging or falling away it is harder to place work into one specific category. Interdisciplinarity, or the crossing of lines, is one of the precepts of postmodernism. Once you recognise that meaning is insecure, then so are those discourses. An image in one instant could be documentary, the next it could be fine art. The term ‘documentary’ is sometimes treated with simplicity but it is a complicated term. In this essay I want to question documentary photography and what that means today. I will be looking and focusing on the works of Walker Evans, August Sander, Gregory Halpern and Max Pinckers. Having recently been looking at Pinckers’ photographic work and the research that underpins it, it has sparked something inside me that wills me to question this surge in post-documentary styles and the way that I wish to go forward making my own work. As someone who works in a ‘documentary’ style, it is important for me to gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of these things thus informing the way I work and make images.

In photography’s origin, photographs were regarded as ‘documents’. They were “seen to provide evidence of what was in front of the camera lens.”(S.Bull: 2010: 101). A photograph was “an objective device for revealing ‘things as they are’ ( in a primarily photojournalistic context.”) (Bull:2010: 102)

In Stephen Bull’s book he discusses a quote from Batchen, which talks about the indexical nature of photographs. An objects literal translation from reality to image. This idea, ‘the indexical’ is credited to Charles Sanders Pierce, an American semiologist who divided signs into type. One of these was an indexical sign in which the signifier is physically connected to the signified. A simple example would be a footprint in the sand signifying that a foot was there. Photographs involved a physical transference as light caused a chemical reaction on the film – ergo an indexical “ I was here” relationship. Stating that an image of a ‘thing’ could not exist without the ‘thing’ itself, therefore making the photograph an indexical sign.

“From its beginnings the photograph has been understood through its ability to record an objective image of events.” (Clarke.G: 1997: 146)

Objectivity comes into close scrutiny when regarding traditional documentary photography and its values. Documentary photography, and photojournalism, were assessed to be objective. They were believed to be truthful and objective without artistic influence from the photographer, but as Eugene Smith suggests this never was the case. Eugene Smith is a photographer and not a theorist or semiotician. In other words, somebody speaking from the experience of making as well as looking at photographs.

“The journalistic photographer can have no other than a personal approach; and it is impossible for him to be completely objective. Honest – yes. Objective – no.” (Smith.E: 1948: )

The nature of its supposedly straight forward recordability makes the images believable to society that what is shown is what happened. That it is fact and thus truth. However, I would argue that it has been misunderstood as having an ability to record objective imagery of events. In Smith’s essay he claims that “Photographers are entirely subjective, down to the equipment and process they choose.” (Smith.E: 1948: )

If something is objective it is something which has not been influenced by their feelings or opinions in relation to representing facts. If something is subjective it is the opposite, it is based on those feelings, opinions and experiences. I would say that nothing can be objective, for everything we do we use our own experiences and opinions to come to decisions or creative outputs. You are unable to create in a vacuum or to disregard your life’s worth of knowledge and experiences, whatever or however much that is, as that is what informs everything we do. Smith goes on to discuss how if 3 photographers, he suggests if Lisette Model, Cartier Bresson, and Gion Mili were given the same subject matter to photograph they would be incapable of creating anything but “fine and individual interpretations.” He poses the question “which is the objective truth?” (Smith.E: 1948: ) and then goes on to say that perhaps all three photographers would be telling the truth. Due to our past, our experiences, our upbringing we will all have varying ideas of truth, thus each and every person’s idea of truth, visualised, will look very different. None will be one and the same. It’s interesting to me to note that at university during seminars or tutorials, my peers will come in with an idea, excited and full of enthusiasm. The next week they’ll come back in with the information that they found that the subject matter has already been photographed, they’ll be deflated with this knowledge. In this image saturated society, it is without question that nearly every subject has been photographed but the point is that as everyone’s viewpoint is different, each different photographer would be able to make an entirely different body of work on a similar thing. If you are bringing your experiences and emotions and body of knowledge to the photographs, and rely on these, then they will be different and new. It represents politics of some sort. Which goes to prove the point that no two documentations of one subject can be the same and cannot be objective.

Walker Evans & James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is a body of work which, much before its time, aimed to challenge and deconstruct traditional documentary values and the way in which documentary projects were made at the time. Often categorised as social documentary, the book goes much further to try to represent the subjects than many other documentary projects, focusing on similar themes around this time. For example, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. Their work seemed to be made in order to ‘document’ the time they were in, it was published in 1941. In T.V Reeds essay Unimagined Existence and the Fiction of the Real he states that Praise was “the most exhaustive effort to represent the ‘real’ in American History.”(Reed.T.V: 1988: 156)

“Praise embodies the proposition that representational systems are always inadequate, always miss the real, but that this inevitable inadequacy calls for greater aesthetic-political reflexivity and commitment rather than abandonment of the attempt to imagine the real.” (Reed.T.V: 1988: 156)

The book was unashamedly aesthetic, or at least Evans’ images were. They didn’t have the sentiment and empathy generated by Lange, they refused to be propaganda, they were flat and unsentimental. The book sought to “document” the lives of 3 families of tenant farmers during the great depression. One of which you see below in Fig 2. Comprising of a relationship between text and imagery the book creates a kind of anti-documentary that used documentary’s codes and forms. Agee and Evans insisted that in order to remain faithful “to even the relative truth of the real, one needs access to a whole range of styles and modes.” (Reed.T.v: 1988: 173) The work was made in an interdisciplinary manner. Incorporating text and photographs that are not illustrative, they work independently and collaboratively within the work, they act as a counterpoint to the writing. The way that Evans made the pictures was distanced and respectful. The images speak in ways many others could not. They are quiet. They build a view of the families and their surroundings without exaggerating or emphasizing the struggle they were facing during the great depression. The images exude “dignity and complexity” (Reed.T.v: 1988: 173) There is a responsibility that comes with representing people, especially those that are in a somewhat inferior position to you in terms of social or economic status.

In speaking about Evans, Thomas Weski in his essay Cruel and Tender says “His aim as a photographer, working – as he put it – in the ‘documentary style’, was to create a balance between form and content. Ideally, neither would outdo the other, but they would be mutually complementary and enriching.” (Weski.T: 2003: 29) The two pictures featured below are included in Praise but have been taken from Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration. They illustrate this balance that Weski discusses. One of the really important things about Praise is that the images are all together at the front of the book, with the text by Agee at the back. This tactic elevated the importance of the image, not neccasarily in documentary terms, but in a poetic and artistic sense.

Fig 1 Walker Evans (1973) Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration.

The image depicts Lucille Burroughs picking cotton.

Fig 2 Walker Evans (1973) Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration.

The two above pictures are included in Praise but have been taken from Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration. This image, or infact the three that you can see, depicts the Tengle Children. In the two above images you feel as thought Evans is choosing the framing but not posing the subjects. He is allowing them to pose themselves.

Evans set a benchmark for American photography that was influential in the work of many that followed including Frank, Friendlander, Arbus, and Winogrand and later Shore, Egglestone, Epstein, Sternfeld and then later still, Raymond Meeks and Gregory Halpern. It is interesting to note that Evans had much in common with the acute observation of some European photographers, most notably, as Thomas Weski pointed out, August Sander. “Sander painted a picture of Germany between its imperial past and its national socialist future, clearly illustrating the prevailing class differences and social hierarchies.” (Weski.T: 2003 : 24) The way he went about choosing his subjects and the inherent formality of his portraits make them stand in a different light to the work of Evans. They are posed, usually front on, always addressing the camera. As illustrated in Fig 4, a portrait of a Pastry cook. The immense body of work that Sander created titled People of the 20th Century acts to record Germany during the early/mid century. Sander’s images stereotype in a way that Evans’ never did. They are more about the people of the 20th century than the actual individuals themselves. He went about creating an analytic cross-section of society with his portfolio of portraits. (Weski.T: 2006: 35)

“The staging can be felt more distinctly because he constantly stages connections between the photographed subject and his or her vocation and social position.” (Weski.T: 2006: 36)

By way of photographing the individuals in their place of work see Fig 4, or in their somewhat ‘social’ or work attire he emphasizes their role in society. They are what we might describe as authentically staged.

Fig 4 Konditor (Pastrycook), 1928, August Sander

“Post structuralist theorists were quick to note that no documentary can perfectly re-present or re-produce anything, and they declared the idea of documentary to be suspect.” (Carl Plantinga : 53)

If we accept, from Post-Structuralist theory, that meaning (and therefore truth) can never be captured, but merely represented, we can take objectivity off the agenda completely. That however does not mean that the representation of events and subjects isn’t worth our time. Stories are there to be told and must be told because morally we are obliged to take responsibility for what occurs, or at least try to communicate what is going on.

Postmodernism has different and alternating definitions depending on the artistic medium you are engaging with. “According to post structuralists, our perceptions only tell us about what our perceptions are, not about the true conditions of the world.”(Grundberg.A 1990: 167) This is the crisis that photography and all other forms of art are facing in the 21st centur, the idea that the artist does not control the meaning. Photographs cannot be literal for they become something different with each reading and with each context.

The question of the real in this hyperreal world is something that a lot of contemporary photographers are dealing with and a subject which they are working within. Trinh.T.Minh-ha describes documentary as something that “takes real people and real problems from the real world and deals with them.”(1990: 69) But who is to say what is real? We are now living in a post-truth era, where we are unable to take anything as truth, the news, the media is all doctored and cannot be immediately trusted at face value. As photographic artists we must be aware of the ways that images are being used in the greater world, not just the art industry, as well as how they are being seen and interpreted.

These are the ideas that artist and academic Max Pinckers is questioning in his research and photographic projects. “The foundations of his investigations lie in a concern to show reality in all its complexity, however paradoxical it may be.” (Kurt Snoekx). Ideas concerning the real and the unreal, certainties and doubt, and the tangible and the emotional. Max Pinckers is challenging the order and pre-conceived notions of “documentary”. He is creating a new language for what he terms Speculative Documentary. Stating in an interview that he feels the “documentary attitude, critical method, or gesture, is a way of coming to terms with reality. A way of doing, engaging and creating that embraces the multiple and mutable realities of our world.” Photography and art move with the times and the current climate of society and contemporary visual culture. So they should reflect this in their making and outcomes. Pinckers states that he sees the “documentary attitude” as a space where “photographs can’t really claim to be factual, but neither are they lying to us.” I see this as photographers adopting an authentic and honest way of making work. Honest in their intentions, and honest in their outcomes. Making work that is as true as it can be to the audience and the subject matter but in a way that is influenced by the way we read imagery. Documentary makers should be informed by the history of the medium and by the contemporary climate of how images are perceived.

Pinckers’ photographic essay “Margins of Excess” features artificially lit staged photographs such as FIG 5, ‘abstract’ imagery, found footage, news articles, documents and first-hand interviews. Fig 5 is a visual interpretation/representation of a news article which follows the story of a boy trapped in a homemade UFO. He uses this breadth of material to build a representation of the six stories he introduces. The six stories focus on people who received “attention in the US press because of their attempts to realise a dream or passion, but were treated as deceivers”. (Theys.H: 2017) The multi-layered way that Pinckers brings together these stories creates a portrayal of the stories, reflecting the times we are in, especially in the hyperreal of the US. In the work, fiction and reality are merged together “not to fool us, but to reveal a more intricate view of our world, which takes into account the subjective and fictitious nature of the categories we use to perceive and deceive it.” The work allows for the viewers participation. Through a deliberately loose narrative, it sits somewhere between Taryn Simons’ obsessiveness and Joan Fontcubertas Fictions.

Pincker’s work is complex and thought provoking. It deals with so many themes and issues surrounding the media and photography as a discourse. Whilst looking at the work there is a lot to understand and navigate. It aligns quite closely with what Walker Evans and James Agee were trying to do through Praise. They were questioning the way people at the time were being represented and those documents seemingly being labelled as truth. They were borrowing from the documentary tradition to expose it in some way.

Fig 3 Max Pinckers: Margins of Excess:2018

Previous notions of documentary might have relied on a candid camera notion to covert capture. Contemporary practice tends to work with the subject in open exchange, following the principles set down by Evans and Sander. Portraiture of the documentary genre, generally speaking, involves two main people during the making of the portrait, one being the photographer, the other being the sitter. How much control does the sitter have over the image? “It is when we present ourselves to the camera that we become aware of the need to make ourselves into a picture and to take control of the account of our soul.” (Lowry.J: 65). There is a performance that occurs whilst being photographed, you project a part of your identity in the hope that it gets captured. In chapter 5 of Camera Lucida, Barthes speaks of the awareness that overcomes him whilst being photographed, the posing that occurs and the wants on his behalf in terms of the outcome. He speaks of 4 “image repertoires” in regards to who he is in front of the lens, he is “at the same time, the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.” There are a lot of factors in the power dynamics between the photographer and the sitter and seemingly the audience. So if you, the photographed, are projecting or altering yourself before the image is taken, how much control do you end up having over the photograph made? How much control does that leave to the photographer? But even this exchange leaves out crucial variables, notably the viewer and the viewing context.

The kind of descriptive photography that Sander was making gave birth to a form of guile-less image making that became very popular, even common, in the fine art photography of the 1990’s – particularly in northern Europe, perhaps best exemplified by Rineke Dijkstra. Both Soth and Renaldi have used this type of image making in the US. More recently however photographers in the US have shifted their emphasis to a more affective abstracted practice. One such photographer who seems to be working and re-working closely to the practice of “documentary” is Gregory Halpern, although not self-professed. ZZYZX is a body of work made over 5 years, tracing “a path that begins in the desert east of Los Angeles, moves through the city and ends up at the Pacific.”(1000words.) Using the iconic idea of the journey west to find a better life, Halpern photographs his own journey whilst creating something of a fictional world. The images are detailed and beautiful, the book creates a fictional hyper-real place/ journey, and doesn’t accompany a particularly conventional narrative or leading story. He claims that the pictures aren’t ‘documents’ of things as they are images which he has ‘made’. Relying on the things/facts ‘in the world’ “but that are then shaped and altered” (ASX 2013) according to his vision of them.
Fig 5 Gregory Halpern 2017 ZZYZX

Throughout the work there are visual markers to America, such as Fig 5 which notions to the stars on the American flag. In an interview with Dianne Smith for the BJP, she describes the images as “evoking, yet at the same time undercutting, the sunny notion of the Golden State.”. In another interview Halpern remarks that the “best documentary work is as complex as its subject matter, does not attempt to fully resolve itself, and forces the viewer to interpret the work and engage with the subject matter independently.”(ASX) Work should impose the attention of the viewer and demand their questioning, if it can’t force the viewer it can only offer. They should be able to question the way the world is given to them and be aware it is no truth, because as discussed, there can be no one truth, but multiple truths.
With plenty of detail and an emphasis on beautiful colours, Halpern’s work is highly aesthetic and could fit well within a number of contexts and/or labels.

The last photographer (besides myself) that I wish to discuss is Lisa Barnard, and in particular, her monograph Hyenas of the Battlefield Machines in the Garden. The book “is a study of the ‘unholy alliance’ between the military, the entertainment industry and technology, and their coalescence around modern-day warfare.” (Lisa Barnard: 2014) The publication explores the complex relationship between the screen and its use and development between war, media and industry. The work questions photojournalism’s “truth claims”. The way that Barnard deals with these complex issues is through using interdisciplinary methods of photography. She uses still life, interviews, portraits, images taken from CCTV and drones.

Fig 6 Lisa Barnard 2014 Hyenas in the Battlefield Machines in the Garden.

Fig 6 is one of the few images that seem to be primary imagery shot by Lisa. I think the work is successful in talking about the issues at hand however the imagery is in some parts dry. The images don’t particularly draw me in or engage me which could be a flaw in this work. For things to remain interesting and get my attention they have to be aesthetically driven. To allow me to immerse myself in a body of work and feel a part of it I feel that the photographs should attempt to be beautiful. This means they are able to stand for a purely aesthetic thing as well as talking about complex ideas and problems.

To document something faithfully, it has to come from a personal perspective, or personal investment. Although Lisa is invested in her subject matter and in the creation of this body of work it somehow still feels detached and impersonal – Similar to the work of Taryn Simon.

After considering the work of contemporary image makers such as Halpern and Pinkcers and how they address the dilemma of style and documentary substance, how then do I deal with this challenge? I made a series focusing on the RAF Cadets. The work is called 2442 and it comes from two separate views or parts of my brain. It is first of all inherently about the Cadets. In the images I depict, uniforms, discipline, gender, youth and identity. As well as hierarchical institution that this youth club belongs to. In Fig 7 and Fig 8 I am attempting to show the way that military uniforms, and now the cadets’ uniforms are highly gendered. A relatively transparent motive and yet another part of the project is much more personal. It’s to do with belonging, the kind of belonging that comes from being a member of an organisation or group. It came from a part of me that was combatting some sort of loneliness and a want to belong to something.

Fig 7, 2018, Izzy de Wattripont, 2442

Fig 8, 2018, Izzy de Wattripont, 2442

We must be aware of the limitations of trying to represent people fully in images. The taking of photographs is entirely subjective and reading the photographs is entirely subjective. There will never be one way to make or read photographs. I remember as a child, being told at school by one person or another about how there is no way of knowing if we all see colours the same. Different animals see varying spectrums of colours and it is possible that what I see as ‘purple’, to another person could be ‘green’. This analogy could be a little off the mark but it is an attempt to say that different people can never view photographs in the same way. In this essay I have discussed photographers that began to challenge the original documentary tradition. I have discussed contemporary views of photography and how they come to question the way that we as artists can interpret reality now and how the act of trying to do so is inherently flawed. If work is to document something it must require time to make. It must somehow discuss the way that images can talk about issues concerned with the subject that you are talking about. Photographers working in the ‘contemporary documentary’ genre should be critically engaging with their subjects and the multi-layered relationships within certain structures, using the language and history of the subject as well as of the medium to discuss their ideas. Reality is messy, the world is messy, there are no truths but we can try our best to make work that is authentic and faithful to our appraisal of the subject.


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List of Illustrations

Fig 1 Walker Evans (1973) Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration.
Fig 2 Walker Evans (1973) Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration.
Fig 3 Max Pinckers: Margins of Excess: 2018
Fig 4 Konditor (Pastrycook), 1928, August Sander
Fig 5 Gregory Halpern 2017 ZZYZX
Fig 6 Lisa Barnard 2014 Hyenas in the Battlefield Machines in the Garden.
Fig 7 Izzy de Wattripont 2018 2442

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