Notes on ‘Mirror of Visual Culture’ by Maartje Van Den Heuvel

I have just finished reading a very intriguing, introspective (of the art world) essay by Maartje Van Den Heuvel entitled ‘Mirror of Visual Culture‘ and I have written down my notes as I went along.

Van Den Heuvel suggests documentary can still exist in the museum today, though only because documentary today is progressing from the documentary tradition, with photographers and filmmakers finding new ways to approach the genre. She explains this is necessary because the media is becoming ever-more prominent in society and as this increases so does visual literacy. Visual literacy is a way of saying viewers and indeed photographers understand and (produce work for) the world/images around them. This is the case so much so that the photographers have begun creating images based upon the way images are viewed in the context of the media – ‘art is beginning to function more and more as a mirror of visual culture’ – (Van Den  Heuvel, 2005). The implications of that made me think of a kind of meta-image where the image references itself. This was hard for me to imagine producing myself but something which also interested me greatly. Maybe the photographers would do this subtly in the form of visual metaphors. It is also important to remember that the media becoming more prominent in art not only applies to photographers but also filmmakers, advertisers, graphic designers or other image makers.

In ‘Documentary: the Militant Eye Witness’ (the first part of the essay), Van Den Heuvel makes the assertion we are talking about documentary tradition originating with Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine (around 1900) and continuing with photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans with the FSA project (1935-1944). While this documentary tradition was often seen as being realistic and objective, during later years (1970s onwards), these suppositions were usurped by the belief that mostly all documentary was subjective in some way. This coincided with the advent of TVs becoming widely available. Ironically as soon as people became more visually literate they also changed what they used as their ‘window on the world’ to the TV. This was for me yet another paradox of the photograph, other paradoxes including a photograph’s reproducibility and semi-permanence set against how fleeting it is in the first place. Also how photographs connote and denote at the same time and the fact we (now) see photographs everywhere and yet they are essentially transparent objects. I felt at least some of these paradoxes could be related back to how to represent the ‘meta-image’ where the image references itself visually.


Van Den Heuvel in ‘Documentary Remix’ implies a lot of the photographers use classic documentary as a base and expand their ideas from there. This is similar I think to what my course is doing, making me look at classic documentary as a starting point and allowing me to form my own personal voice. She also uses a lot of examples of photographers thinking about and producing work approaching documentary in new ways. I aim to look at at a few of the artists she mentions as a lot of their projects sounded compelling.



Van Den Heuvel (2005). Mirror of Visual Culture. Documentary Now! [online] Available at: [Accessed 3/3/2017].

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