Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

Gevers paraphrases Martha Rosler, explaining how the latter pointed out in her theoretical writings that documentary photography continues the hegemonic world view since it helps to maintain the social systems it purports to expose or criticize (Afterthoughts). Rosler’s own work employs documentary tradition to expose the inadequacies of descriptions, both photographic and textual.

By emphasising the incompleteness, inconsistency and thus inadequacy of these descriptive documents, she manages to relativise claims to truth and to give the people in question the space to regain control. These people get back their individuality – rather than an identity judged by their condition and thus fixed – and hence their life.” Not sure that Rosler manages to give these people back their lives, though she does indeed make one appreciate the inadequacy of both descriptive systems, the tendency to pigeonhole and compartmentalise with stereotypes, and this is something we are all guilty of. Setting about challenging this method of perceiving the world, labelling and defining, is difficult since it is an approach that has informed and driven pursuits for centuries, and is particularly prevalent in the sciences (held to be the pinnacle of human knowledge). I think that going a stage further, and actually personalising the work is the way forward. Rosler’s work is depersonalised and too general for it to work other than as a general critique. There are no individuals in her work (this is of course deliberate) and no personal stories or accounts (we are left to fill in the gaps with our own knowledge and experience) which might otherwise lead to a deeper understanding of the poverty and alcoholism in this particular neighbourhood, its causes and effects, and thus place the audience in a better position to take action.

Gevers also mentions Sekula, who she says “opts more consciously for a recognisable aesthetic approach, with the goal of involving the viewer in a world full of ambiguity and pitfalls.” Sekula uses a more personal approach and seems less to want merely to question our interaction with documentary than to employ it as a means of exploring our understanding of global systems of trade, economics and labour (in a similar way to Salgado, in fact). As such he is also conscious of the importance of how photographs are displayed in conjunction with text and in published or installation format – his photographs are never displayed alone as mere aesthetic devices, but used as part of a larger discourse which is at once intricately engaging and vast in scope and implication. (I have looked at Sekula’s work here)


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