Tags, documentary
5. Women and Work

It has often been claimed that the radical documentary practice of the 1970s attended to class politics to the exclusion of gender. This was one of the core arguments for a staged practice of photography. However, it is notable how much of the documentary production of the period was focussed on women’s labour. Victor Burgin’s UK76 includes a photograph of an Asian woman working in a textile factory and Photography Workshop and Jo Spence were centrally involved with the education of working-class women in east London. I’ll discuss the Hackney Flashers below. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 24.10.2017
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4. Production, Collectives and Skill

One pervasive theoretical problem running throughout the radical aesthetic work of the 1970s, and it is retained in much recent commentary, involves recoding Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer” as a matter of attentive viewing or reading, with the avant-garde ‘text’ at its heart. However, in his important intervention Benjamin was concerned with turning readers into worker correspondents, that is to say, producers. The point of the “Author as Producer” was to reject the passive reception aesthetics of the Communist movement in favour of productivism. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 18.10.2017
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3. Survival Programmes: An Interlude on Varieties of Documentary

In my next post I will pick up the thread of neo-Brechtian practice, specifically looking at questions of production and skill in photography. However, here I want to look at some forms of critical or radical documentary that have been largely passed over in critical writing. It seems an apposite point to do so; in the last two weeks I’ve read two post-graduate studies on Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s work and been asked to referee an article on Half Moon and Camerawork for an academic journal. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 10.10.2017
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2. Brecht’s UK Tour

The 1970s conjuncture in Britain that I want to discuss saw photography, and specifically documentary photography, aligned with what Sylvia Harvey termed ‘political modernism’ (strictly speaking, this would be second-wave political modernism). Examples might include works by Jo Spence, the Hackney Flashers Collective, the Women’s Workshop of the Artists’ Union who created the Women and Work exhibition, the Berwick Street Film Collective, Peter Dunn and Lorraine Leeson, Mary Kelly and Victor Burgin’s works between 1975 and 1976. These practices were closely identified with the work of the film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, particularly his collaborative Dziga Vertov Group films, but Bertolt Brecht’s ideas from the second-quarter of the twentieth century were pivotal for many artists, photographers, film-makers and theorists to the extent that collectively this work is often described as ‘neo-Brechtian’. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 19.09.2017
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1. Undocumented: ‘Intensification, Contraction and Localization’

In the week that President Trump tried to pass off assorted white supremacists and storm troopers as equivalent to anti-fascists, an exhibition of photographs commemorating the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in 1977 opened in Goldsmith College in the South London borough of Lewisham. In August 1977, massed anti-fascists confronted the far-right National Front. The clash in Lewisham was a decisive moment in halting the rise of the Nazi National Front in the UK. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 07.09.2017
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06.03.–30.04.2017
4. (Im)mobility

Mobility implies the ability – some say the essential human right – to move freely. But the global migration crisis reminds the world that not every subject can exercise that freedom due to their race, gender, sexuality, class, political persuasions, or national identity. Hence certain citizens of a country enter it with minimal restriction, while others and non-citizens are impeded or halted altogether. In the United States, press coverage of restrictions on mobility has increased in the wake of the executive orders in 2017 targeting people from certain predominantly Muslim countries. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 10.04.2017
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5. If Commodities Could Speak

“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood”, writes Marx, famously, in the first chapter of Capital. “Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”. For while, as an ‘ordinary’ object, “the table continues to be that common, everyday thing, wood”, “so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 09.07.2016
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4. If Images Could Speak

In a recent contribution to the collection Documentary Across Disciplines, based on a series of events held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin between 2010 and 2014, Christopher Pinney begins his essay, entitled “Bruises and Blushes: Photography ‘Beyond’ Anthropology”, with a quotation from Barthes’ Camera Lucida: “Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it”. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 17.06.2016
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3. If Things Could Speak

“What if things could speak? What would they tell us? Or are they speaking already and we just don’t hear them? And who is going to translate them?” It is such questions that Hito Steyerl suggests, in her 2006 article “The Language of Things”, are posed in an essay written ninety years earlier: Walter Benjamin’s posthumously published “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”. Here, Steyerl argues, the great German philosopher and critic “develops the concept of a language of things”, where “there is a language of stones, pans and cardboard boxes. Lamps speak as if inhabited by spirits. Mountains and foxes are involved in discourse. High-rise buildings chat with each other. Paintings gossip”. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 13.06.2016
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5. After Liberalism

One of the most idiosyncratic yet unrecognized trends of the 1970s is how it was precisely then, when the prewar documentary culture from the 1920s-30s began to appear in a new light. Besides the Walker Evans retrospective at MOMA in 1971, which I mentioned in the previous post, the decade started with a series of seminal monographs on the FSA and the 1930s documentary, including Jack Hurley’s Portrait of a Decade (1972), Roy Stryker and Nancy Wood’s In this Proud Land (1973), and William Stott’s Documentary Expression and Thirties America (1973). mehr

Veröffentlicht: 08.07.2014
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4. Heart of Darkness

The 1960s are dark and phantasmagoric, like an ambiguous terrain vague or “nowhere land” in the periodization of photographic history. I’m not free from that uncertainty about the interpretation of this complex decade. It seems like a moment when the past was not quite over and the future had yet to start. Such ambiguity is evident if we compare Steichen’s The Bitter Years with Szarkowski’s New Documents. Both exhibitions were created within only five years of each other, yet stand for two different historical eras in the same decade. In a way, The Bitter Years is the last hurrah of prewar modernism, a living fossil that represents the peak and the end of the 1920-30s’ innovations. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 29.06.2014
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3. Excursus: Politics of the Victim

I mentioned in my first post that the rise of documentary discourses between the World Wars resulted from the political need to visibilize the working class in the new media culture corresponding to the era of mass democracy. Both in its “from above” (state/liberal/Griersonian/FSA) and in its “from below” (social movements/revolutionary/worker-photography) versions, documentary rhetoric contributed to this political need, in part through the dissemination of an iconography of a victimized working class.

The production of a poetics of dispossession is a key contribution from documentary methods emerging from the 1930s to social struggles for justice and democracy. Beyond the specific historical prewar context, I think this poetics was a central contribution to the 20th century universal citizenship democratic imaginary, which finds precisely a key historical iconic source in the worker-photography documentary project. I mean, the iconography of a fragile and precarious life is constitutive not only of the project of proletarian documentary, but is in the root of the poetic construction of democracy and justice. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 19.06.2014
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2. Paul Strand after Margaret Mead

In this second post I’d like to expand the scenario somewhat by introducing a few other possible significant references for an interpretation of the logics of the 1950s.

In 1949, Beaumont Newhall’s 1937 catalogue of the MOMA exhibition, Photography 1839-1937, appeared revised and enlarged as an autonomous book: The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day. Postwar liberal modernist photographic culture now had its foundational text, its Bible. Chapter 10 in Newhall’s book was devoted to documentary, and the genealogy it proposes on the subject remains as canonical as Newhall’s history itself. The genealogy is as follows: first we have the 1860s and 1870s geographical surveys as a pre-history of documentary. Then we have Jacob Riis as the precursor and Lewis Hine as the founding father of 20th century documentary photography, which reaches its complete and most self-aware form with the FSA. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 10.06.2014
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1. Centrist Liberalism Triumphant: A Postwar Humanist Reframing of Documentary Photography

Hello world!

This is my first blog. I’m not a blogging person and I confess I’m feeling uneasy about the vulnerable improvisatory condition that blog writing involves, a kind of performative public conversation open to doubts and suppositions and maybe to banality :)), rather than solid demonstrative writing. But, anyway: let’s try it.

This blog takes informally, maybe perversely, the title of Immanuel Wallerstein’s recently published fourth volume of his landmark book series on the modern world-system. I will attempt to bring to discussion some ideas and intuitions concerning the postwar reframing of documentary photography as a liberal humanistic (or humanitarian?) discipline. I’ll come back to definitions of humanism further below. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 01.06.2014
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16.04.–31.05.2014
3. A Tale of Two Mapplethorpes

A large retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work has just opened at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is coupled with another Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Musée Rodin where Mapplethorpe’s photographs—I am not joking—are displayed with various sculptures by Rodin.

Mapplethorpe-Rodin, exposition at Musée Rodin, Paris, from April 8 to September 21, 2014 (installation view by Abigail Solomon Godeau).

As it happens, Mapplethorpe did photograph sculptures (torsos, heads, and backs) in ways not so different from those he used to photograph living bodies, although it seems not to have mattered if the sculptures were authentic, copies, classical, neoclassical, or kitsch. Somewhat perversely (I use the term advisedly), the photographs of sculpture are in the Grand Palais show, whereas the pictures in the Musée Rodin are mostly of living bodies (or body parts) as well as the miscellaneous self-portrait or still life. More to the point, what the exhibition really demonstrates is that for good or ill, Rodin’s sculptures, plasters, or small studies have nothing whatsoever to do with Mapplethorpe’s work and vice versa. Why would they? mehr

Veröffentlicht: 30.04.2014
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2. Boundary Problems: Addressing History in the Image

In the powerful group exhibition entitled Re-framing History at the Galerie Lelong in NYC, only one of the 21 works on view falls under the rubric of “photography.” But even so, in addition to its seven photographs, fifteen 35mm slides, and a contact sheet, the work includes two videos, a set of 20 matchboxes, and four reproductions of printed matter. I refer here to Susan Meiselas’ mixed-media The Life of an Image: Molotov Man. In fact, within the exhibition it is only Meiselas who would be described as a professional photographer, subspecies photojournalist. The others in the exhibition, Sarah Charlesworth, Juan Manuel Echavarría, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Emily Jacir, Alfredo Jaar, and Krzysztof Wodiczko are better described as artists using photography (as well as video, objects, installation, and text). In some instances, such as Sarah Charlesworth’s April 19, 20, 21, 1978 (1978), even to categorize the three b&w prints as “photographs” is something of a stretch.

Sarah Charlesworth, April 19, 20, 21, 1978 (1978), three black and white prints, reproduced same sizes as original newspapers; dimensions variable (installation view), © www.galerielelong.com

These were drawn from her larger series Modern History, consisting of her photographs of newspaper front pages with all the text (except for the masthead) whited out.1Charlesworth died suddenly this past summer and as is so often the case with women artists, there is now—belatedly—a heightened interest in her work, and one may expect a future spate of exhibitions. Her last retrospective was in 1997-1999, organized by the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. What remains in the blank spaces are the news photographs reproduced on the page.  mehr

Veröffentlicht: 22.04.2014
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15.09.–31.10.2013
5. Delirious Anthropology

I feel like I’ve spent the last four weeks overstating my scepticism about contemporary art’s retrospectivity—as seen in the repurposing of modernist art and architecture, the incorporation of pre-existing archives, and the retrieval of outmoded mechanisms of display. All three are examples of art’s fascination with the past that too often forgets to keep its sightlines on the present. This week I’d like to conclude my series of blogposts by looking at three recent videos that take past works and pre-existing archives as their starting point, but which do so in order to assess the present: Provenance by Amie Siegel (recently on show at Simon Preston Gallery in the Lower East Side), Grosse Fatigue by Camille Henrot and Ricerce Three by Sharon Hayes (the last two exhibited at the Venice Biennale). mehr

Veröffentlicht: 26.10.2013
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01.06.–15.07.2013
4. Sharing Seeing

“I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.”

I am citing Roland Barthes, from the opening of his book on photography, Camera Lucida. I want my post this week—a shorter post than usual, a set of questions or ponderings more than an essay—to act as a kind of postscript to last week’s entry.

I intimated there that photography invokes a rethinking of vision, of the look and of the gaze. Surely this is well-trodden territory. But is it exhausted? Does it need to be re-opened? Last week, my subject was the irreconcilability at the heart of photographic seeing, the non-coincidence of the gaze in photography as one of its most essential features. But there is of course another set of relations attached to the photographic gaze that needs further reflection. I am thinking now not of non-coincidence, but of doubling; I am thinking of what I want to call the recursive structure of photographic sight that non-coincidence spawns. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 02.07.2013
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3. Blind Spot

Not too long ago, I was combing through an antique store in a California town populated today mostly by the remnants of the counter-culture. There was a large selection of used books. To my surprise, I came across a copy of a monograph I had long wanted for my library, Mary Ann Caw’s volume on the photographer Dora Maar. Hippie villages, even post-hippie villages, always have the best bookstores. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 20.06.2013
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5. Popular, not Populist

My apologies for the extended silence. I have been putting the finishing touches to a book about the relation between popular culture, art and photography, which will also be the subject of this blog entry.

It seems generally accepted now that photography became a modern medium of art in the 1920s. This was when it gave up its resistance to the widespread industrial basis of photography (Pictorialism is thought to have typified that resistance) and came into a close or parallel relation to the medium’s various social functions. Photography triumphed artistically by remaking, diverting, re-presenting or otherwise contemplating its ‘applied’ forms such as the document, the film still, the advertisement, the commercial portrait and the archival image. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 27.05.2013
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3. Backwards and Forwards

For many years I have been looking through the back issues of the 20th century’s illustrated press. Magazines, journals, newspapers. It is really impossible to write or teach the history of photography without doing this. The Sunday Times Magazine from March 24, 1968 carries, among other things, Don McCullin’s celebrated black and white images of soldiers in Vietnam - one throwing a grenade, another lying dead with his possessions spilling out.

Don McCullin, 'This is how it is', Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

mehr

Veröffentlicht: 02.05.2013
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01.06.–14.07.2012
3. Aesthetic Ruptures

On June 20, 2012, at 7 p.m., Fotomuseum Winterthur will screen Renzo Martens’s Episode III - Enjoy Poverty (2008). For several years, I have been researching (and lecturing on) issues – related to photography and beyond – addressed in this film, which was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This has been especially the case within the framework of a research project that T.J. Demos (University College London) and I have been jointly working on. Entitled “In and Out of Brussels: Aesthetics / Histories / Politics Between Africa and Europe,” this project investigates how the figuration of Africa in films such as Episode III confronts Europe – in particular Western Europe – with the image it is keen to uphold of itself. The first chapter of the book that is the outcome of this project (forthcoming this fall) is entirely devoted to Episode III. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 18.06.2012
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1. What Has Photography Done?

In order to grasp what photography can do as an art today, I want to start with looking back, asking ourselves the question: what has photography done so far? What relevant lessons can we learn from photography’s past? Before which carts has photography been put – so to say – ever since it was invented? What intentions has it served, both within the art world and outside of it, in its relation to society? Reflecting on photography’s historical trajectory as an artistic medium is helpful when one wishes to imagine what photography’s future roles can be. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 31.05.2012
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15.01.–29.02.2012
4. Practice

Up until now photography has perhaps been conceived too much in terms of images, and its social function has been neglected. But ultimately it is the way photography is used that affirms or negates its realism. In talking about photographic realism, one should not talk about the images but about photographic practices. Practical application decides the function of photography and defines its epistemic fields of reference. It decides about good and evil, conviction and rejection, images and their meaning. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 05.02.2012
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