PHOTO Techniques

September/October 2005 pp 32-35

 

Documentary Photography Today

Tending the Fire Striking New Sparks

 

By A. D. Coleman

 

“As we work our way into the new millennium, the form of communication we loosely call documentary photography finds itself in a state of extreme flux. We can trace that back to the 1950’s, when some of the form’s practitioners began insistently intruding their own voices and points of view into their work, making the viewers awareness of the form’s inherent subjectivity unavoidable. Robert Frank and W. Eugene Smith exemplify that new, foregrounded self-consciousness. By the 1960’s, a variant that could be described as personal documentary had emerged, paralleling the personal journalism pioneered by Barbara Deming, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and other writers and reporters…

 

…The work that has emerged during this period often does not conform in appearance, style, or techniques to what we previously understood as documentary photography. At the same time, what shares with such work – a clear engagement with sociopolitical issues, and investigative intent, a frequent commitment to influencing public opinion by the act of putting something on the public record – makes it seem foolish to treat its variations and offshoots as unrelated. Let me propose, instead, a different rubric, that of issue-oriented photography and photobased art, and suggest four loose categories thereof.

 

Categories of current work

  1. 1.Traditional or classic documentary…

  2. 2.New or reinvented documentary…

  3. 3.Advocacy or activist photographic work. Here I’d position work that seeks, in Karl Marx’s phrase, to help us not only to understand the world but to change it. This includes such diverse projects as Gran Fury’s AIDS poster campaign, some of Hans Haacke’s and Krystof Wodiczko’s controversial installations, and Tammy Cromer-Campbell’s “Fruit of the Orchard,” an ongoing saga of corporate and governmental malfeasance deep in the heart of Texas. Such projects not only describe existing situations but trace cause-and-effect relationships, identify possible solutions, propose courses of action, and ask “Who profits?” – following money and pointing fingers at the culprits.

  4. 4.Diaristic, mixed-media, and experimental issue-oriented work. Forgive the cumbersomeness of this last umbrella… As for the experimental variety, I come back again to Cromer-Campbell. She made her pictures of a town in Texas whose residents have been poisoned by runoff from a toxic-waste facility not with a professional-quality camera but with a Diana – a cheap plastic toy camera with minimal controls, whose mediocre lens renders everything a little out of focus. In this particular photographer’s hands, addressing this particular subject, it proved exactly the right tool for the job…

PHOTO Techniques magazine

PHOTO Techniques

September/October 2005 pp 32-35

 

Documentary Photography Today

Tending the Fire Striking New Sparks

 

By A. D. Coleman

 

“As we work our way into the new millennium, the form of communication we loosely call documentary photography finds itself in a state of extreme flux. We can trace that back to the 1950’s, when some of the form’s practitioners began insistently intruding their own voices and points of view into their work, making the viewers awareness of the form’s inherent subjectivity unavoidable. Robert Frank and W. Eugene Smith exemplify that new, foregrounded self-consciousness. By the 1960’s, a variant that could be described as personal documentary had emerged, paralleling the personal journalism pioneered by Barbara Deming, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and other writers and reporters…

 

…The work that has emerged during this period often does not conform in appearance, style, or techniques to what we previously understood as documentary photography. At the same time, what shares with such work – a clear engagement with sociopolitical issues, and investigative intent, a frequent commitment to influencing public opinion by the act of putting something on the public record – makes it seem foolish to treat its variations and offshoots as unrelated. Let me propose, instead, a different rubric, that of issue-oriented photography and photobased art, and suggest four loose categories thereof.

 

Categories of current work

  1. 1.Traditional or classic documentary…

  2. 2.New or reinvented documentary…

  3. 3.Advocacy or activist photographic work. Here I’d position work that seeks, in Karl Marx’s phrase, to help us not only to understand the world but to change it. This includes such diverse projects as Gran Fury’s AIDS poster campaign, some of Hans Haacke’s and Krystof Wodiczko’s controversial installations, and Tammy Cromer-Campbell’s “Fruit of the Orchard,” an ongoing saga of corporate and governmental malfeasance deep in the heart of Texas. Such projects not only describe existing situations but trace cause-and-effect relationships, identify possible solutions, propose courses of action, and ask “Who profits?” – following money and pointing fingers at the culprits.

  4. 4.Diaristic, mixed-media, and experimental issue-oriented work. Forgive the cumbersomeness of this last umbrella… As for the experimental variety, I come back again to Cromer-Campbell. She made her pictures of a town in Texas whose residents have been poisoned by runoff from a toxic-waste facility not with a professional-quality camera but with a Diana – a cheap plastic toy camera with minimal controls, whose mediocre lens renders everything a little out of focus. In this particular photographer’s hands, addressing this particular subject, it proved exactly the right tool for the job…