Sunday, 6 January 2013
A response to Harvey Benge's Question "Documentary Photography- is It DEAD?
Harvey Benge on Sunday posted the question Is Documentary Photography DEAD? It's a question I've heard before floating around the blogs and in magazines, not as much as I've heard the question Is film DEAD? but still a fair few times. Thing is this is a far more interesting and important question than the film V digi thing, so I thought I'd have a bit of a think about it.
Myself I've always had an odd relationship to the documentary tradition even though I consider myself as a documentary photographer. I was lucky enough to have studied on a great course back in the late 90's called DOCUMENTARY & FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY, I loved it. It was a small course run at Stockport college for LIVERPOOL JOHN MOORES UNI. Even then on that course we were steering clear of Salgado and giving Richard Billingham big love. Tim Page was out, Simon Norfolk's more considered and reflective approach to documenting war was in.
I've used a picture of Ray's a laugh as my example instead of The Ballard of Sexual Dependency as Harvey did. I can at least relate to working class life even if it is so dysfunctional. New York gay clubbing scene may as well be Mars. Richard became a saint on my course and early photographic education. He was authentic. He shot colour badly with crap throw away camera's the camera phones of their day. The photographs he made had a truthfulness that I think has been central to their appeal. They were originally made as records and sketches for paintings. They were not made to sell as a story or book, that came later. The blurriness harsh flash, and sometimes off kilter framing comes from limitations of equipment and technical ability of the photographer not for reasons of current stylistic fashion or saleability. We believed in "Ray's a laugh" as a truthful document and Billingham as a reliable author in part because of his originality and ability as an artist to make sense and order out of this set of chaotic images.
As Harvey says Nan Golding has recently stated regarding The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. "I am terrified that everything I believe about photography, about this work, is over because of the computer and easy manipulation of images it facilitates. This work was always about reality, the hard truth, and there was never any artifice. I have always believed that my photographs capture a moment that is real, without setting anything up...
Now, it is so distressing: no one any longer believes that a photograph is real. Almost every time I give a talk or teach, I ask this question about truth and photography. If all but four or five in an audience of two hundred artistic people don’t believe that photographs are true, then what does that say about the rest of the world? So this eliminates the larger reason for having done this book — not for me, but if nobody believes it as having happened …what is the point? The belief that a photograph can be True has become obsolete."
I think Nan's worrying unduly and doing the viewing public a dis-service. Viewers ain't thick. We are all increasingly image savvy, fuck knows we see enough of them. We believe a set of photographs from the 80's like "The Ballard of Sexual Dependency" or a set from the early 90's "Ray's a laugh" because they look like authentic and truthful photographs from the period should look, and that's not looking like imitations of things that had gone before. Nan Golding didn't set out to replicate Diane Arbus and Richard Billingham didn't set out to replicate the look of Paul Graham or Martin Parr.
We don't believe photographs anymore not because of computers or manipulation but because of photographers conservatism and desire for commercial and perceived artistic success.
So to answer the original question is Documentary photography DEAD? my answer would be no. Much current work using traditional documentary styles that constantly rehash and repackage should die, in fact it should be taken outside and shot.
As long as artists use photographs to document the world using original and authentic means and continue to push the definition of what a document can mean and start new and as yet unimagined documentary traditions of their own we will continue to use forms of photographs to try and make sense and record.
Now that's the most I've wrote here in a long time I'm going to lie down......