Exercise ·’In, around and afterthoughts…’

Martha Rosler’s piece addressing as critique, documentary photography

The contest of meaning.

Rosler’s critique starts from the basis of questioning the authority and even use of documentary photography, taking particular examples to explore her theme. The piece written by Rosler is complex, explores many related subjects tied into the theme of the art world and authenticity and also questions the critical process of the art establishment in general. Later in the article she explores feminist art and asks further questions about whether the art world isn’t still largely geared towards the white male expressionist spectrum, leaving female artists still somewhat sidelined in their practice and expression.

Rosler claims that much of the photojournalistic work looked at in her piece is sensationalist in nature, has an tendency to alienate the wealthy viewer or consumer of the images and generally does little to move society to improve the situation of the down and outcaste.

The liberal documentary assuages the stirrings of the conscience in its viewers the way scratching relieves an itch and at the same time reassures them about their relative wealth’ (Rosler, 1992.)

Pointing to the origins of documentary photography Rosler indicates that the main context for readership of this work is the liberal socialists of ‘the ascendant classes’. As such the work provides a way for individuals to feel superior, perhaps?, or at least console themselves that they do not have to experience the horrors of a down and out existence, poverty and an essentially interrupted life.

I feel also, now looking more deeply into the subject of photography from the documentary perspective that this has often been my own experience: that I look at the photos, have a sensation that is uncomfortable and then move onto the next subject. However, this is not to say that documentary photography has never had a practical use. There are documented cases of the opposite being true. However, it is difficult to understand peoples motives at times. Often they might be mixed. There is such a phenomena as ‘guilt money’. People giving money because they realise they have a lot of it and others don’t.

In one paragraph Rosler draws out the irony of the photos by Eugene Smith in his project ‘Minamata’ (shown in the April 1974 episode of Camera). The caption to the front page reads: “Eugene our man of the year“. Inside Hughes, the author of the article about Smith’s projects, more or less in not so many words states that if the photo cannot be found to engage the reader, it will be invented, fabricated. This admission seems quite stark and rather gives the game away in my opinion. Maybe Smith himself would not of been too happy with that comment as, how many documenters of human suffering really like to think that they are making it up solely to titilate the liberal class and keep them entertained?

As the different imperatives are from the start of photography essentially about the tension between ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’, this does seem particularly the case for documentary (Sontag, 1977.) The discussion of the two moments of a documentary photograph are the immediate production with an apparent intention to create or stimulate some social change and the later, the historical aesthetic that does not sit in time but is there for the general appreciation of the public in terms of the formality of a photo (Rosler, 1992.)

Another interesting point and section in this article argued by Rosler is that the determination of what accounts for objectivity and truth comes from an elitist and privileged position that dictates what constitutes the formula for this objectivity. I think that as the whole process of photography usually is undertaken by the privileged and educated, it would seem that we are in a position of some conflict as to what is objective truth. The people in Hine’s and Lang’s photos had no means to portray the objectivity of their situation and thus it was left up to the editors of certain magazines and the skill of educated and resourced photographers to do so.

The changes that took place within documentary during the sixties, initiated by the leading figure John Szarkowski, points to an important development in documentary photography. The ‘New Document’ that Szarkowski discussed, seemed to be putting social information behind the aesthetic production of images if I have understood the argument correctly. Rosler’s charge, further down the line of the argument is that the prelude to the turning of documentary photography was not so much a sympathetic engagement rather than a standing on high and being fascinated with the subject. I agree to some extent with this.

In Bretton’s work we see that his main concern is to capture a moment when all can be explained and seen but his images are aesthetically driven more that social, I would say. When I discovered that Bresson’s first assignments were photo journalistic and that many of his works were decontextualised to be reinserted in the art photography genre I was quite taken aback. We look to Bresson often with holy gaze as a paragon of photographic sensibility. Not to say that he is not a divine photographer. But the question that comes to my mind is: What was really his main motive in photographing some of the things that he did? Another reflection that comes to my mind is: is an image more assimilable if aesthetic consideration is taken into account? Does the composition and beauty of a work technically add to the message? Can this even be avoided if an image is to be appreciated as after all we are visually wired up to see objects in distinct relation and harmony?

Documentary is given a hard time in Rosler’s work. In her view the days of the resourced feeling sorry for the ‘have nots’ and being moved to respond (give money for example) have now passed. The old documentary model no longer has a stand. We seem simply to have worn out that approach in my view. That too many images have been seen and it is now obvious that those images are not always geared to realising awareness or making things better, seems to a be a motive for expanding the possibilities of what documentary can become. Rosler argues that as yet documentary has not arrived at its peak or final destination. Could this be so. And will it ever be so?

I was looking through the book of ‘World press photo’ that I bought in Edinburgh this year at the exhibition held at the parliament building for 19.95 GBP. A very beautifully published and polished object it is indeed. Inside it reveals a number of themes: war, social change etc. But the overall effect is quite alienated. I can see that these works have their value. But one thing that caught my mind in particular were the prizes that the photographers were up for receiving. This made me reflect. The urge to be published and well known goes hand in hand with a Neo-liberal market place attitude. Photographers that make it to the top can make big bucks selling their photos. What is the value of this?

Lastly in Rosler’s article she explores quotation. This section was difficult to read as she seemed to start the subject off from some assumed understanding from the readers side as to where she was coming from. In general the idea seems to hover over how quotation is used to justify authoritatively a work of art. A back up mechanism aiming to give validity to one’s own ideas and credence to an art work that has its roots in referencing the past. I see what she is saying and I agree mostly with her key points. Mostly however, whilst I think that the over use of quotation can undermine the creative impulse of an artist I believe quotation has a place in furthering a theme and trying to bring it to a new level of understanding.

Interesting interview discussion with aperture foundation (Liz Wells presents).


Presentation by Martha Rosler showing her work:



Rosler, M. (1992). In Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992). The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp.303-325.

Rosler, M. (1992). In Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992). The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp.303-325.

Sontag, S. On photography (1977:86) Penguin Classics


Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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