Exercise · Cruel and Tender
The Cruel and Tender exhibition was pivotal to documentary photography providing it with a not previously received acceptance both in the public gallery art space in the UK as well as an art format in its own right.
The brochure for the exhibition shows in outline the progression of documentary photography and its key practitioners who have contributed to the development of the medium both in analogue and digital.
I was unable to access the talks on the tate site as they are not accessible without membership however I came across this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSAmkX26cdw of Rineke Dijkstra A retrospective whereby her approach is discussed in interview with the curator of the Guggenheim museum, Jennifer Blessing.
The works that are discussed are the portraits of Dijkstra and the theme, her approach. Largely the work is done in such a way to minimise rather than decontextualise, the subjects of the portraiture. Dijkstra also uses video as a medium of active portrait filming people in such scenes as a night club dancing or looking at famous painting and witnessing the responses. Her work often focuses on people just after an intense or traumatic experience such as women giving birth or bull fighters. The interest for the viewer in this kind of depiction is perhaps to see how people fare under difficult circumstances emotionally. whilst not fully convinced that her stategy works in this respect in every case, still it is an interesting angle to experiment with in terms of documentary and portraiture.
Fazal Sheikh Interview: Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2008
Fazal Sheikh is a photographer basing his work on a wide range of themes related to India, Pakistan and women in that have suffered from the cultural and caste system oppression of India. His work as I saw it in this interview and through what he was saying comes across as a more traditional documentary style: black and white, close sometimes contextualised portraits and often representing the oppressed. Sheikh uses the subjects to portray a story and does not always display the face of the person. Often he resorts to showing body parts such as hands. He also frequently photographs the subject from behind. He incorporates text in the form of testimonial. On the whole my impression is of a photographer that cares about his subjects and he displays a strong sense of empathy with them. The images that are most striking are those of the faces of children. They are most impactful for their gaze, which we received very directly in a way that people in the West even would consider looking at each other. It is this juxtaposition and honesty that stands out most strongly.
To make a point of offering different perspectives on documentary photography, aside from the two artists mentioned above, the work of John Coplan’s self nude portraits stands out. They can be found here: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/coplans-self-portrait-frieze-no-2-four-panels-p78534. What I find interesting about this, is that they are mentioned in the context of the Cruel and Tender brochure. The way that the images are presented might more obviously of been placed into the genre of portraiture rather than documentary. But here we see the interesting and in some ways obvious overlap occurring in photography whereby the gap between genres is largely breaking down. The different conceptual strategies taken are wide in their approach. Coplan’s photo portraits are sculptural and also two dimensional. They are posed and not candid. What then warrants the title documentary for these images? The work is clearly an honest presentation of his body and its ageing process, but the way that the work is presented is more in the context of surrealism and portraiture. The value of seeing this document for me is that it shows in recent history how photography is still trying to clarify itself within the cultural climate of today. Its inherently ubiquitous nature tends, I think, to lend itself to ongoing debates about both the genres and authenticity of what documentary practice means now for photographers. We may not arrive at a comfortable conclusion.