Searching online for the original article where this phrase was coined (unsuccessfully, as it happens), I came across this exhibition review in the NY Times, which although it doesn’t actually mention the original context in which the phrase was used, does touch on some interesting issues worth considering.
Richard Woodward opens with an example of the photograph turned into mural – the example he uses is from a Woody Allen movie Stardust Memories, in which there is a huge blown up Eddie Adams’ photo of the execution of suspected Vietcong spy during the Vietnam War. Woodward points out that this is “...a macabre joke about the heartless vanity that can underlie high-minded gestures; and it’s a warning about photography, which can lose any claim as a moral force after countless reproductions on the wrong kind of wall.” What he means is that by changing the way an image is presented, you also somehow change its meaning or significance. A classic example of this is the use of shock images by the clothing retailer Benetton; the images change from being ghastly historic documents to tools in part of a clever marketing strategy.
Speaking on artists who attempt to tackle such subject matter as AIDS and the Holocaust, Woodward says of such political art that “…the danger remains always that the immensity of a subject will impoverish any means to express it.” And as such confuse the viewer, who has no idea how to react.
He cites the work of Riis, Hine, Lange, Evans and Burrows as examples of the documentary traditions; collecting data from the front lines and using their photographs as an attempt to address the situation and bring about social change. But, as he says:
“This documentary tradition, which not long ago seemed one of the main stems of the photography tree, has of late undergone a crisis of confidence. Ignored by an art world that favors big pictures and high prices, and outstripped by technology that gives the edge in immediacy and narrative scope to videotape, documentary photography has also come under harsh scrutiny from post-modern critics who question its tendency to separate and marginalize groups of people, serving up the poor as exotic fare for comfortable voyeurs.”
This is something that Andy Grundberg looks at as well in his Crisis of the Real. The idea is that documentary/photojournalism cannot compete with TV or the rise of the citizen journalist, and this means that the photographer has consequently had to move in to gallery space in a bid to get work shown or published.
Woodward tells of the exhibition by Mark Berghash called Portraits
of the Rooted and Uprooted, in which he showed portraits of homeless people and middle class alongside each other, taken at such close quarters to “eliminate
codes of dress, posture and hygiene,” thus rendering it impossible for viewers to infer anything about their status; we are confronted with the individuals themselves – as Woodward points out “the show presents only faces and they could be anyone. …Everyone preserves an anonymous dignity.”
Coupled with the extremely large prints, excerpts from taped interviews with the subjects were also played, but it is impossible to match face and voice – “discrimination is thwarted.”
“Mr. Berghash’s photographs appeared earlier this spring in ”Homeless: The Street and Other Venues,” the second of Martha Rosler’s three installations on Wooster Street in SoHo at the Dia Foundation, which has been sponsoring a yearlong program called ”Town Meeting” on ways that artists can, or do, affect their social environment. The installation included shelter for the homeless (sofa, chairs, a TV and a corridor lined with beds) along with works by homeless artists, traditional documentary photography and drawings of such projects as Krzystof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle (a metal carriage that meets the needs for sleeping, storage and mobility). Charts depicted the widening disparity between rich and poor, and a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development graph plotted a spiraling number of households with incomes under $10,000 against a vanishing line of apartment units that rent for less than $250 a month.”
The exhibition sounds like the kind of thing that I am aiming to achieve – an overall picture, not necessarily relying so much on photographic images to get the point across; using statistics, other documents. As Woodward noted: “The failure of documentary photography to analyze social ills – its inability to tell stories and its readiness to trust appearances and let a disguise pass for the truth – were expressed often. …It seems that Martha Rosler would gladly have dispensed with anything that might look like art in favor of harder information.” Basically this is the conclusion that I have come to about documentary photography, and why I wish to situate my photographs in broader systems of information (and as such broader discourse) – what began with making multimedia photofilms where the subjects were given the chance to express their own opinions in their own voices. Now I want to take this a stage further.
“Photography has never been very good at describing the cause of a disaster; it is much better at memorializing the victims.” This for me is the limitation of the still photograph, and although some artists are able to make this the central theme of their work and do it very well (Salgado, Nachtwey, McCullin), I’m not sure I want to continue down that path – at least not for the moment.
“For Ms. Rosler it seems that nothing less than organized action on behalf of – and preferably in league with – the homeless is an appropriate response to their condition. A heightened awareness that doesn’t lead to mass action won’t do.” Otherwise the taking of the images is a fruitless action – it will fall on deaf ears just as Goya’s and Vereshchagin’s attempts in the 19th century to reveal the futility and cruelties of war did nothing to reduce the amount of conflict in the world (in fact, since their time there have probably been more innocent victims killed as a direct result of conflicts – especially in the second half of the 20th century).
Woodward notes that in the accompanying essay by Mel Rosenthal, the importance of taking pictures of the homeless is important to avoid desensitisation (this is in direct opposition to Sontag’s assertion in On
Photography – but something that she herself recognised and rectified in Regarding the Pain of Others); although victims have been created in the process of photographing these subjects, nevertheless someone is forced to look at them. Perhaps this is one step on the way to dealing with the problem – acknowledgement.
Basically, the exhibition is looking at ways in which artists can affect their social environment, and seems to be a continuation of the Bowery work that Rosler herself conducted. But with a postmodernist swing, the ways in which the image is presented and received are held to scrutiny. This is the kind of conceptual art combined with documentary images that I want to produce.
Intrigued about Wodiczko’s homeless vehicle, I decided to look it up:
What a cool device!
From a website that features excerpts from an essay by sociologist Dick Hebdige:
“The product had been tested by a panel of homeless “consultants” and adapted to the precise subsistence needs of its prospective users. This replication of design and market-research procedures parodied the “logic” of the late-capitalist equation between consumption and active citizenship and was carried over forcefully into the final “product launch.””