Project 4 – The gallery wall, documentary as art
The section talks about the transition of photography as a document to photography as an art form, with reference to both how it was made and the presentation of it to the public. “Until the beginning of the twentieth century, general opinion had regarded all photographs as documents.” (Boothroyd, 2007 : 34)
America came to this transition a lot sooner than the UK, with artists such as Friedlander, Arbus and Winogrand. The UK followed late with the Tate Modern only putting on its first exhibition devoted to photography in 2003, Cruel and Tender, with artists such as Sander, Baltz, Dicorcia and Eggleston.
The Tate shows were instrumental in revealing the shift in a relatively short period of time (2003 to 2008), from photography as a document to photography as art. “As a result, photography was seen less as a record of reality and more as an expression of it…” (Boothroyd, 2007:35)
Research point – Project 4 – Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murders
Look online at Paul Seawright’s work, Sectarian Murders. How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?
‘Sectarian Murder revisited the sites of Sectarian attacks during the 1970’s close to where Seawright grew up in Belfast. The texts are from newspaper reports at the time and document the murders of innocent civilians, killed for their perceived religion. Reference to Protestant or Catholic background was removed from the text.
Exhibited in more than 20 countries, most recently in Planet Parr in Munich and Paris, The Troubles Archive – OBG Belfast and the British Council Collection exhibition at London Whitechapel Gallery.’ (Seawright, 2017)
Seawright’s work challenges the boundaries between documentary and art because the narrative is taken from the official report of events at the time of the incident but the image is a re-imagined image, aftermath photography, with traces that are informed by the original narrative. The image is subjective, as it is the photographers response to the narrative, which is objective, i.e. the facts. So it could be argued his work is a bit of both; it informs you of the incident but is illustrated by an imagined image taken some time after the incident.
For example, the first image titled Thursday 14th December 1972, the original newspaper report states:
‘The sixteen tear old youth was standing at the corner of Dandy Street talking, when a motorcycle with two youths on it drove by. The pillion passenger was carrying a Sterling sub-machine gun and opened fire on the group. The boy fell dying in a hall of bullets.’
Seawright’s image is of a street corner, which anchors the location. It is not obvious if it is the same street corner referenced by the original newspaper report or not but that is not important. The youth who was killed on the street corner appears to be represented by a stop sign – maybe this is saying ‘don’t shoot’!?. There is a motorcyclist on the road but unlike the newspaper report it is without pillion passenger but is also an anchor to the original report. We know it is unlikely to be the same motorcyclist as at the original incident so we know it has been used as a reference point.
“Listen to Paul Seawright talk about his work at: http://vimeo.com/76940827). What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?”
Seawright when he talks about his work states it can’t be too explicit otherwise it will be journalistic and if it is too ambiguous it becomes meaningless. It needs to have balance, something to draw people in, to visually engage with them and then let the image slowly reveal its meaning. He states that the context of the image is important and it is the viewer who finds the meaning in an image not the photographer. Art photography has a different timescale in which to deliver its meaning to, say, editorial photography whose images have to deliver their message within 15 seconds.
Do I agree with Seawright? For a document to be art I believe it does need to have the ability to hold a viewer’s gaze for longer than say an advertising image would. The context needs to be right though to ensure the viewer has the best chance of understanding the images. In the introductory section of the course notes we are introduced to Joachim Schmid who chose to present his found photography in photo books instead of a digital presentation, the reason he stated for this was “I have seen people who spent two hours looking at books. I never saw anyone looking at a monitor for more than ten minutes.” (WeAreOCA, 2013)
If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its
yes, I think if you define documentary photography as art it does change its meaning. If you take the original objective reason for taking the image away it becomes subjective and then the truth of the image is brought into question or is given a different interpretation due to a change in context.
Photography wanting to be recognised as art mimicked painting aesthetics which included manipulating images, for example, using gum-bichromate to create a brushed effect. Steichen did this with his image titled Self portrait with brush and palette, Paris which suggested art by association. This was one of the instrumental moves in raising photography to the same standing at painting and therefore art.
Once you call into question the authenticity of an image I think it then ceases to have the ability to act as a straight documentary image. The only thing that could sway the viewer to take an image at face value is the context, for example, the early black and while images of the war were so quickly developed that the images were blurry but knowing the ‘why’ around the aesthetic actually makes the image feel more authentic.
Migrant Mother taken by Dorothea Lange is an example where context elevated a documentary image to art status (or maybe iconic status). It wasn’t a straight image which showed the plight of migratory farm labour but instead became the image to represent migratory farm labour. It was not explicit in its representation but from the composition, closeness, subjects in the image and the context given it has become the image to represent that story.
Boothroyd, S (2017) Context and Narrative, Barnsley: OCA.
Seawright, P (2017) Sectarian Murder – Paul Seawright, Available at: http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/ (Accessed: 27/07/2017).
Imperial War Museums (2013) Catalyst: Paul Seawright, Available at: https://vimeo.com/76940827 (Accessed: 28/07/2017).
WeAreOCA (2013) An Interview with Joachim Schmid, Available at: https://weareoca.com/photography/an-interview-with-joachim-schmid/ (Accessed: 27/06/2017).
Bull, S (2010) Photography, Abingdon: Routledge.