Mirror of Visual Culture: Discussing documentary, Maartje van den Heuvel

In this article, van den Heuvel looks at the phenomenon of documentary images being displayed in art galleries, and whether this actually changes the way we should view documentary. She argues that it has largely come about as a result of “an increased role of the media in how reality is experienced in our western society” combined with an “increased visual literacy” among producers and audiences of images. The idea is that not only are our experiences of the world (reality) being shaped by the media, the media are actually becoming the sole means of our experience – a vicarious substitution or ersatz experience.

The author points out that visual literacy differs from literacy in other disciplines since it really only requires the subject to have consumed a lot of mass media! I recall reading about a social scientist who was appalled when her students could not identify certain religious icons (the pieta, crucifixion, deposition, etc – nothing obscure). To my mind this is a double edged sword – on the one hand a person who has limited visual literacy may be released from the shackles of formalism, stereotypes and the ‘rules’ of imagemaking; on the other hand, it could be argued that the rules are necessarily learned so that they can be broken more effectively, and all images constructed are to some degree referential. Does my recognition of a visual referent add more value to a work, or my ignorance mean that I can appreciate the work less? I think it does. Does the appreciation of a piece of art (and thus the foundation of aesthetics) require me to understand the historical, mythological, artistic or literary references? If so, visual literacy would require literacy in many more fields than simply a superficial knowledge of mass media imagery. It would require a knowledge and understanding of the referent, and thus contextualise perception of the reference; without such knowledge, a visual literacy would merely be an amassed memory bank of images without captions or contexts, and as such meaningless.

The author points out that the word ‘documentary’ was assigned its meaning of ‘militant eyewitness’ in reference to its function, which was drawn from the dual sources of Western human interest traditions and Soviet and German inter-war filmic explorations. I like the idea of militant eyewitness, since it sheds the burden of chimerical objectivity and distinguishes documentary from the event-snapping photojournalist.

Van den Heuvel looks at some fresh takes on the documentary tradition, or breaks from it. She cites the work of Struth, Gursky and Ruff, who in the tradition of the Bechers take straight images that are technically crafted and superior in their treatment of sharpness and detail.

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