In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography) – Martha Rosler

28th July 2013

According to Rosler, in America today, there aren’t any true documentary photographers practicing their art.  Her premise is that documentary photography started in the early part of the twentieth century, with Lewis Hine, whom she rates highly, and Jacob Riis, whom she thinks used the work he made only to further his career and ambition, when these two made the upper and middle-classes of America aware of the atrocious living conditions of the indigenous poor and newly arrived immigrants, and those of the child labourers within American industry and agriculture.  The exposure of these practices led to the setting up of welfare departments and changing the child labour laws.  The culmination of the crusading documentary photographer apparently reached its peak with the New Deal legislation and then slowly died, until by 1969, when the Republican party lost their stranglehold on the presidency and the majority of the New Deal legislation was dismantled over the following decades.  From that point onward, no other photographer has dared to tackle, head-on, the government departments and industry about social ills, preferring instead to produce work that is destined for the art market, galleries or museums.

Meanwhile Rosler says, Europe, and particularly the UK, has a tradition of two documentary paths.  Social Documentary, which she considers to be still true to the original ideals, and Documentary, which in the supporting notes is disparagingly described by a student as ‘photo’s of ballerinas’ (Rosler, 2004, p.196).  The English tradition is a little older in origin than the American, having said to have been started by Henry Mayhew (1812 – 1887), social reformer, publisher and co-founder of ‘Punch Magazine’, who arranged for photographs of London’s poor and underprivileged to be made which he then had turned into wood-cuts for an early publication ‘Morning Chronicle’, later compiled in a book entitled ‘London Labour and the London Poor”.

It’s difficult not to agree with some of the assertions Rosler makes about the uses and purposes that documentary photography was, and is, used for.  In the earliest work, she sees that by making the upper and middle-classes aware of the situation of the poor, where the perceived danger posed, by increasing militancy within their ranks, to the social order the middle-classes dominated, required them to help ameliorate the situation with charity lest they allow revolution to wash them away.  Today, the practice in the U.S.A., she sees as photographers perpetuating the status of art for the middle class, increasing status and nothing at all to do with social change, and everything to do with the accumulation of wealth and prestige for the artist, gallery or museum.

One argument she poses about exploitation does touch a nerve with anyone who, like me, is attempting to make social documentary.  The case of Dorothea Lange and the ‘Migrant Mother’ photograph is a case in point.  Lange herself wrote in her field notes that the woman, now universally recognised as Florence Thompson, agreed to the series of images being made in the belief that if she, Thompson, helped Lange, then what Lange was doing would help her.  It later became apparent that Thompson really expected some direct help, whereas Lange took the bargain to mean help everyone in Thompson’s situation!  Clearly a massive misunderstanding which left Mrs Thompson very bitter in later years and wishing she hadn’t agreed to the photograph being made.  Whilst those of us who practice this form of art do so with the intention of ‘making a difference’, we have to be very careful that we don’t overstep the boundaries of propriety in an attempt to get an image that leaves the subject feeling exploited or used, so that we have a prize-winning image.  This must be a very hard thing to accomplish when trying to make a living from social documentary photography (the exploitative image could make the whole series much more saleable) especially when one moves from story to story without any personal involvement in the issue we’re covering, and I also wonder if it’s possible to actually make a living off social documentary on its own?  This question leads me to another point.

4 Responses to In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography) – Martha Rosler

  1. Catherine says:

    A good summary of the piece and your views are very well put Eddy.

  2. Lots of food for thought here Eddie. Will make for an interesting discussion on Saturday. One thought I had was that Rosler was part of a group involving people such as Alan Sekula who were proposing a new form of politically motivated documentary which stayed away from the old style ‘victim photography’. Her work ‘The Bowery in Two Inadequate Desciptive Systems’ which she discusses at the end of this paper is the way in which she approached the issue. See you on Saturday.

    • Eddy Lerp says:

      I have to admit to have not understood that part of the Rosler paper and so skipped over it a bit, although I did read the whole thing three times, it wasn’t her clearest piece of writing.

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