Allan Sekula, Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation)

Found an interesting essay by Allan Sekula in his collection of essays and photoworks.

Political domination, especially in the advanced capitalist countries and the more developed neo-colonies, depends on an exaggerated symbolic apparatus, on pedagogy and spectacle, on the authoritarian monologues of school and mass media. These are the main agents of working class obedience and docility; these are the main promoters of phony consumer options, of ” lifestyle ,” and increasingly, of political reaction, nihilism, and everyday sadomasochism. Any effective political art will have to be grounded in work against these institutions.” (1984, p 55)

Sekula calls for a revised political economy, a semiotic praxis that exposes advertising as the discourse of capitalism, the ‘link between manufactured needs and commodity fetishism’, only then can meaningful social transformation take place. Work against the institutions would of necessity need to expose the myths of the society that we subscribe to. Does this mean getting politically activist? Not necessarily – it might simply be an expose of the consumerist trends and their fallacy or negative impacts.

A small group of contemporary artists are working on an art that deals with the social ordering of people’s lives… The initial questions are these: “How do we invent our lives out of a limited range of possibilities, and how are our lives invented for us by those in power?”” (p 56)

He introduces the aims of the artworks as he sees them. Of course the capitalist myth of freedom of choice is nothing more than an advertising campaign to get us to consume more – in a chimerical bid to improve our lives with products, with material objects.

We might be tempted to think of this work as a variety of documentary. That is all right as long as we expose the myth that accompanies the label, the folklore of photographic truth.” (p 56) He goes on to discuss in depth this myth – this is not a new argument, but Sekula adds his two bits…

The rhetorical strength of documentary is imagined to reside in the unequivocal character of the camera’s evidence, in an essential realism. The theory of photographic realism emerges historically as both product and handmaiden of positivism” (p 56). Positivism is Auguste Comte’s philosophical treatise, which holds that experimental (scientific) investigation and sensory observation are the only sources of substantial knowledge. It also asserts that society is subject to laws which can be scientifically measured and mapped, and as such it influenced a whole realm of social sciences that attempted to apply investigative scientific systems to all fields of human ‘social’ enquiry (sociology, criminology, anthropology, ethnography). Although very influential to Victorian thought, it is seen in postmodernist terms to be a bankrupt philosophy, and often countered in epistemological discourse. That Sekula mentions positivism here is a different tack to the customary trotting out of the ‘usual suspects’ who are accused of exacerbating the myth of photographic reality or objectivity. Actually, this is not the rhetorical strength of documentary photography, more the strength of objectivity that it was assigned in its early days (hence imagined – Sekula removes himself from accusation); to my mind its rhetorical strength lies in the way in which it is presented or used, the function it is assigned, the point it is illustrating.

Photographs, always the product of socially-specific encounters between human-and-human or human-and-nature, become repositories of dead facts, reified objects torn from their social origins” (p 56), the ‘encounter’ is reduced to a ‘fixed moment’, which is then removed from its original circumstance: the unassuming but insidious danger of the photographic image. Sekula’s graphic language is akin to Sontag’s violation analogy in On Photography (1978, p 14). The reified object can then be assigned commodity value and enter a new space – the consumer market.

I should not have to argue that photographic meaning is relatively indeterminate; the same picture can convey a variety of messages under differing presentational circumstances” (p 56-7). Sekula then goes on to give an example of criminals caught in the act by automatic video cameras, and how that evidence could be presented in a hypothetical courtroom to corroborate different truths. This goes back to discussions concerning how a photograph is displayed, and whether there is any text or con-text provided to direct a viewer’s reading.

…any police photography that is publicly displayed is both a specific attempt at identification and a reminder of police power over “criminal elements.” The only “objective” truth that photographs offer is the assertion that somebody or something – in this case, an automated camera – was somewhere and took a picture. Everything else, everything beyond the imprinting of a trace, is up for grabs” (p 57)

This is the punch line – basically the image can be interpreted in any way one sees fit! The text which surrounds and presents the image now acts as its con-text; the fact that Sekula says everything else is up for grabs here is interesting considering his later unashamed unilateral siding with the leftist position of the documentaries he mentions.

Documentary photography has amassed mountains of evidence. And yet, in this pictorial presentation of scientific and legalistic “fact,” the genre has simultaneously contributed much to spectacle, to retinal excitation, to voyeurism, to terror, envy and nostalgia, and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world. A truly critical social documentary will frame the crime, the trial, and the system of justice and its official myths. Artists working toward this end may or may not produce images that are theatrical and overtly contrived, they may or may not present texts that read like fiction. Social truth is something other than a matter of convincing style” (p 57)

To provide a meaningful discourse, the documentarian would have to show all historical aspects of a particular event to determine its context; only in this way could such photographs be accepted as documents that are critical of society and its accepted transactional norms. This flies in the face of whether or not the images look contrived or have a fly-on-the-wall candidness about them, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether they have been set up or they represent facts as they happened. Here Sekula seems to be in accord with Stryker (and Lange) – that documentary is about ‘larger truths’. But then he seems to dissociate himself from them (from that way of thinking):

Sekula calls for a ‘political critique’ of the social documentary genre: “Socially conscious American artists have much to learn from both the successes and the mistakes, compromises, and collaborations of their Progressive Era and New Deal predecessors. How do we assess the close historical partnership of documentary artists and social democrats?” (p 58)

How do we disentangle ourselves from the authoritarian and bureaucratic aspects of the genre, from its implicit positivism?” On political nostalgia of looking at the 1930s, and the co-opting of documentary style by corporate capitalism in the 1940s. “How do we produce an art that elicits dialogue rather than uncritical, pseudo-political affirmation?” Is he advocating the same kind of political activism as Rosler? Her point was that documentary that simply reports or reveals is merely affirming the status quo, without actually criticising it. It does not demand fundamental change so much as appeal for cosmetic surgery on the face of society. But the question still remains – how then do we produce art that elicits dialogue? Is it enough (relevant even?) to be outspoken and loudly (politically) critical (activist)? To my mind, there needs to be a subtle approach, involving public awareness, comprehension of the situation, empathy with the victims (there are always victims in the documentary genre!), and instilling a sense of empowerment among the affected. Sekula is quite right, in that he is saying concerned documentary is another kind of charity – which in all its forms merely acts as a societal analgesic. What is called for is diagnosis and treatment of the root condition, not merely curing the symptoms. This is an argument that I put to the administrators of an organisation working with street kids in Ulanbaatar – but the problem with this line of logic is that by addressing the root cause you make the symptoms go away, and therefore make yourself redundant, and none of them really wanted to be out of work!

Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” (p 58), i.e. when it is self-referential as opposed to referring to things external to itself. This results in the image being changed into a subjective expression of its author – the factors of mannerism and sensibility are added to the equation, and the image is elevated to new heights of artistic value. Rosler discusses this as well, in her essay ‘Afterthoughts’:

a documentary image has two moments:(1) the “immediate,” instrumental one, in which an image is caught or created out of the stream of the present and held up as testimony, as evidence… arguing for or against a social practice and its ideological-theoretical supports, and (2) the conventional “aesthetic-historical” moment, …in which the viewer’s argumentativeness cedes to the organismic pleasure afforded by the aesthetic “rightness” or well-formedness (not necessarily formal) of the image. The second moment is ahistorical in its refusal of specific historical meaning yet “history minded” in its very awareness of the pastness of the time in which the image was made.” (Rosler p 186)

Basically, the photograph is considered as meaningful within its context while it is still being used to ply the consumer; once it has fulfilled or outlived this context, the image is shifted to a different realm of transaction, and is accorded a different set of values. This is so true, but when you consider the work of the group VII: through the exhibition ‘War’ were they trying to raise awareness, or simply trying to promote their own careers and to commodify their art? (that art being based on the suffering of others) The fact that many of the original members have since left probably reveals a lot about this fundamental conflict of interests. Each time I apply this way of thinking to contemporary documentary I come up with the same result. Therefore, this algorithm has shown me that I need to rethink my own approach – it is not enough to simply say that I am not photographing from a condescending exotic point of view; I need to justify my own presence with meaningful documents and aim for a meaningful outcome. Otherwise I am simply serving up more of the ‘poor for as exotic fare…

The culture journalists’ myth of Diane Arbus is interesting in this regard. Most readings of her work careen along an axis between opposing poles of realism and expressionism. On the one hand, her portraits are seen as transparent, metonymic vehicles for the social or psychological truth of her subjects; Arbus elicits meaning from her sitters. At the other extreme is a metaphoric projection. The work is thought to express her tragic vision (a vision confirmed by her suicide); each image is nothing so much as a contribution to the artist’s self-portrait. These readings coexist, they enhance one another despite their mutual contradiction. I think that a good deal of the generalized esthetic appeal of Arbus’ work, along with that of most art photography, has to do with this indeterminacy of reading, this sense of being cast adrift between profound social insight and refined solipsism. At the heart of this fetishistic cultivation and promotion of the artist’s humanity is a certain disdain for the “ordinary” humanity of those who have been photographed. They become the “other,” exotic creatures, objects of contemplation. Perhaps this would not be so suspect if it were not for the tendency of professional documentary photographers to aim their cameras downward, toward those with little power or prestige. (The obverse is the cult of celebrity, the organized production of envy in a mass audience.)” (p 58-9)

He chooses Arbus to illustrate his point about the duality between photographer as objective observer and idiosyncratic auteur – in Sekula’s analysis, Arbus seems to bridge this abyss by producing work that is indeterminately placed somewhere in between. This is not only the aesthetic appeal of her work, it is also why her work is much discussed, I think – there is something uncannily irreconcilable about her images. The final part of this passage discusses the disdain of the photographer towards her exotic subjects – they are dehumanised and reduced to fetishist objects for contemplation (by those in power!), or adoration (by those in awe) depending on the camera angle. A fact I discussed when looking at Riefenstahl – she treats the Nuba as icons, objects of desire, just as she did the Nazi ringleaders and the Olympian athletes, shooting from the same low angles and using the same dramatic lighting. In my photography, I am very conscious of the angle from which I shoot; I always make it a rule to be on a level with my subjects – literally as well as figuratively. I feel more comfortable that way, and the resultant images tend to be less condescending or awe-inspiring. Nevertheless, Sekula continues: “The most intimate, human-scale relationship to suffer mystification in all this is the specific social engagement that results in the image; the negotiation between photographer and subject in the making of a portrait, the seduction, coercion, collaboration, or rip off.” In a sense, there is always an imbalance in the relationship between photographer and subjects, regardless of a photographer’s good intentions or the ultimate use of the image. This has been pointed out time and again, by Sontag, Rosler and so on. It goes without saying, and I think it is up to the personal conscience of the photographer, his moral and ethical standards, much the same as in photojournalism. To be sure, there is a certain amount of exploitation in any photographs of people, and the only way to avoid this promotion of the artist and fetishism of the subjects is to engage the subjects and allow them to have their own say in how and in what contexts the images are constructed, displayed and disseminated – true collaboration, empowerment.

…photo essays [are] a cliché-ridden form that is the noncommercial counterpart to the photographic advertisement. Photo essays are an outcome of a mass-circulation picture-magazine esthetic, the esthetic of the merchandisable column-inch and rapid, excited reading, reading made subservient to visual titillation.” (p 60) Sekula dismisses the photo essay as just another consumer product to satisfy the rapid image-voracity of the masses. In some respects this is true, as I have already looked at in National Geographic’s use of the image to sell the magazine. I am also losing faith with documentary as it stands, but have not yet accepted or adopted Sekula’s more activist stance. Is this a matter of time?

For all his good intentions, for example, Eugene Smith in Minamata provided more a representation of his compassion for mercury-poisoned Japanese fisher-folk than one of their struggle for retribution against the corporate polluter. I will say it again: the subjective aspect of liberal esthetics is compassion rather than collective struggle. Pity, mediated by an appreciation of “great art,” supplants political understanding. Susan Sontag and David Antin have both remarked that Eugene Smith’s portrait of a Minamata mother bathing her retarded and deformed daughter is a seemingly deliberate reference to the Pieta.” (p 67)

This is the danger and this is why I much prefer the other, similar photo from the same session, which doesn’t have the biblical allusion, and appears to be less contrived – more considerate than pitying (compassion vs. sympathy?). Nevertheless, the image comes no closer to displaying what Sekula demands from Smith – assisting the locals’ retribution against the factory owners.

Basically, what Sekula is advocating is a new kind of photojournalism, one that is leftist-activist in its demands, taking the point of view of insider in its approach. He cites the work (among other video artists) of still photographers Lonidier and Steinmetz. I’ll look at Lonidier for the moment, since from looking at the images published with the article, it appears Steinmetz takes the kind of biographical images I do not: Lonidier I can deal with.


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