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In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)

Martha Rosler is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn. Her work offers powerful social commentary on topics such as ‘bringing the war home’ and ‘the Bower’. In this post I discuss her essay, In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography).

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Source: nydailynews.com

Rosler examines documentary photography as a photographic practice. Her examination does not end with a positive message – ‘we do not yet have a real documentary’.

Rosler takes a historical journey through the genre, beginning with a period in the early twentieth century, which she describes as a period of state liberalism and reform, with photography providing social propaganda. She reconstructs the Bowery (a 1970s New York ghetto) in this period and what the role of documentary photography would have been, presenting images for the ‘rectification of wrongs’.  This period came to an end sometime after the end of WW2,  with the ‘New Deal Consensus’ (political/social reform in the US) – Rosler explains that the reform movement become institutionalised, or negotiable within this new framework.  The imperative for reform had become part of a routine, along with the photography that accompanied it.

Rosler moves on to explore ‘victim photography’, in which documentary photography is used to convey images of poverty and famine to affluent society through newspapers and glossy magazines; often accompanied by a request to support or help through charity. She explores how these images can cease to become news (presumably because they are pervasive) and how instead the news becomes testimony to the bringer of the news – the photographers brave enough to put themselves in harms way to capture the images and saving us the trouble.

The essay explores the complexities interpretation that occur when documentary photography takes on an aesthetic dimension, including Dorethea Lange’s iconic image of a mother and baby taken in 1936. The photo became one of the most reproduced images in the world, but the subject (Florence Thompson) who it was designed to help was unable to obtain a single dollar:

That’s my picture hanging all over the world, and I can’t get a penny out of it.

The essay is thick with language and references, which makes it challenging to read. However the model of the documentary photography having two moments, is particularly insightful:

(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 in the most legalistic of senses, arguing for or against a social practice and its ideological-theoretical supports, and (2) the conventional “aesthetic-historical” moment, less definable in its boundaries, 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.

Rosler explains how the secondment moment has encouraged a new generation of photographers who are more interested not the reform of life, but in knowing it; ‘Their work betrays a sympathy (almost an affection(for the imperfections and the frailties of society.’

The end message of failure for the genre seems to be the more that the photos become valuable commodities, displayed in galleries, the more distant they become from their purpose of analysing society and acting as a catalyst for change. There is incongruity in an image created to show the reality of social injustice then being exchanged as a high value commodity, with the subject of the photograph left in the same poor condition.

There is much uncomfortable truth in Rosler’s words. We are now surrounded by images of poverty, war and injustice – it is difficult not just feel numb at the sight of most them. We are over-loaded.

Rosler M (1981). In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography). Available from: http://web.pdx.edu/~vcc/Seminar/Rosler_photo.pdf [accessed 27.9.15]
Martha Rosler [website]. Available from: http://martharosler.net/index.html [accessed 27.9.15]

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