In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography by Martha Rosler

I have been asked to read and make notes on ‘In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)  by Martha Rosler. I must admit this was particularly hard reading for me. The essay was quite long but more pointedly it wasn’t very flowing with the language used complicated. In one sense this was good practice because it would bring me up to speed with the documentary terminology but on the other hand I didn’t feel I learnt that much from the essay apart from a few key points:

Right from the outset, I found Rosler hints that documentary as it is widely known is all but gone from contemporary practice – ‘What remains of it?’ – ‘It’ being  documentary photography. She goes on to assert: ‘Documentary … preceded the myth of journalistic objectivity and was partly strangled by it.’ – (Rosler, 1992). Apart from suggesting documentary as it was known had largely changed, this last quote embodied much of what I was coming to realise about photography in general. Including documentary; photography is subjective because it is the photographer’s interpretation of what they are seeing that informs the viewer. While it is true there are more objective approaches – Bate’s example of August Sander where he used typographical portraits springs to mind – ultimately they are always subjective results.

Documentary, as it was known, was comparatively futile in enabling positive change in Rosler’s examples because it was an exchange of information about less privileged people to another, more socially powerful group who didn’t want to undermine their own wealth. Instead Rosler argues intervention in the real world outside of the media was more constructive in enabling positive change. For example Cesar Chávez with the Farm Workers’ Organizing Committee.

My next point about Rosler’s essay would be concerning ‘It is impolite or dangerous to stare in person’, which she suggests, ‘as Diane Arbus knew when she arranged her satisfyingly immobilised imagery as surrogate for the real thing.’ – (Rosler, 1992). This for me implies there is a kind of mental, subconscious block induced between reality and photography where the viewer loses their inhibitions to gaze at what may alarm or discomfort them when looking at the person in a photograph. The viewer is still seeing – though through the image – because they recognise the subject through it as part of a photograph they are therefore ‘safe’ to look at for as long as is wanted. Because of this, in my opinion, the subject then becomes more distant and objectifiable.

Perhaps for this reason it is justifiable then that the photographer ‘who entered a situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay, or combinations of these and saved us the trouble’ – (Rosler, 1992) should be accredited for their efforts. They as the taker photographer provided us with a platform to stare at, through photographs, the people and conflicts which reminded documentary viewers the realities of life (although not necessarily how to relate to them or avert them from happening respectively).

‘The subject of the article is the photographer.’ – (Rosler, 1992). This struck me as a bold statement from Rosler I partially agreed with. I had been convinced for a while that the subject of the photograph or the photograph itself were all that mattered as the eventual outcome of photographs being taken. Then I was sure it was how photographs related to each other and other forms of media (their context) as well as the photograph/subject that mattered. More recently I had started to come to the conclusion that the photographer, their relationship with the subject and viewer was another key aspect of photographs ‘mattering’. Sometimes I felt the photographer’s relationship with the subject could be more important than the composition/lighting of the photograph. The statement above somewhat reinforced this understanding I was beginning to grasp although more forcibly than I agreed with. It seems that often the photograph/photographer is more important than the subject, at least in documentary. Rosler then puts this thought to discussion by examining the interesting case of Florence Thompson, the subject of Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother (1936), where the photograph was seemingly more important than the subject’s real self. ‘Are photographic images, then, like civilization, made on the backs of the exploited?’ – (Rosler, 1992), made me think how the image world, while not necessarily bad, is ambivalent towards those it uses much like reality. However, by ‘exploiting’ those it uses in the image world, photographs help sometimes on a collective level in the real world.

I had become more aware that photography was intrinsically connected to the world outside of photography in that by having an interest in political issues for example in the outside world, the photographer could better inform their photographic practice. However, before reading Rosler’s essay I was not aware that political sides could affect the reading of photographs. On the one side the ‘left’ were guilty of undermining the integrity of the image by pushing for transparency of the real world on to the image world. For example Walker Evans’ subject Allie Mae (Burroughs) Moore was rephotographed by Scott Osborne much later but this time using her real name. On the other hand, the ‘right’ attempted to use photography to illustrate the divide between classes and equality. They did this by isolating ‘it within the gallery-museum-art-market nexus, effectively differentiating elite understanding and its objects from common understanding’ – (Rosler, 1992). One consequence of doing this I presumed was that the divide would grow further. All of this meant that the real meaning the photographer intended to convey behind the photograph was being undermined by political sides afterwards.

Rosler goes on to attack John Szarkowski for his passivity of the Vietnam war which was happening when he wrote of a new generation of photographers who constituted a more personal attitude and with relation to commonplace people in the more immediate society around them. I partly agreed with Rosler on this attack because the way he put it: ‘They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value’ – (Szarkowski, 1967), was quite pacifying of the terrible things that were happening in the world. However, I also felt that by undertaking projects which the photographer felt was local to their passion and place of living, they would be able to form a better relationship with their subject(s). Therefore Szarkowski’s assertions in his introduction to New Documents in 1967 were not totally unfounded. However, Rosler also states that under Szarkowski’s influence Garry Winogrand refused to accept responsibility for his photographs, claiming that: ‘all meaning in photography applies only to what resides within the “four walls” of the framing edges’. This was in direct contradiction to the work of Robert Frank who Rosler compares Winogrand’s work with. Where Frank based the presentation of his work on the photographs as a purposeful series, Winogrand approached his own work from a purely modernist stance as all meaning came from within each photograph. In this respect, Szarkowski’s comments in his introduction to New Documents made little sense if the ‘new generation’ of photographers with more personal motives for their photographs wanted to affect the world immediately around them meaningfully with the same attitude as Winogrand for example.

From 'The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems' - Martha Rosler, 1974-75
From ‘The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems’ – Martha Rosler, 1974-75

Finally Rosler finishes with an analysis of her own work: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. Rosler sardonically describes in this work through both photograph and text that of a world which belongs to the past. The medium used (photographs and text in a style from the 1930s) she argues should belong of the past too. That is because ‘There is nothing new attempted in a photographic style that was constructed in the 1930s when the message itself was newly understood, differently embedded’ – (Rosler, 1992) – in her own words. I would agree that this approach is dated and would tend to concentrate on ‘the ascendant classes … implied to have pity on and rescue members of the oppressed’ – (Rosler, 1992). As I understood from her text onwards photographers looking forwards can help instigate social change by analysing society that is all around us by exposing things like racism, sexism and class oppression, questioning whether ‘a radical documentary can be brought into existence’ – (Rosler, 1992). I would suggest that a visually striking and different aesthetic for photographs/bodies of work as compared to that of the 1930s or even Rosler’s own The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems would be necessary if Rosler’s encouraged approach was to work.


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

Szarkowski, J. (1967). New Documents. [Exhibition] 28 Feb. 1967 – 7 May. 1967. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

What Makes a Document

My answer, after reading through (all!) the replies and the post to What makes a document? is that a document is a piece (or series) of media from which the viewer can infer an actual event took place, however trivial this event may seem. The more context this piece of media has, the more a document it becomes. I don’t believe time and context are mutually exclusive as Stan Dickinson points out in the third reply. Photographs can be ambiguous and when there are several potential contexts for the photograph, complications arise about what the photograph is documenting. This usually happens over time, like with both of Jose’s examples.

You could say every photograph is a document (because a photograph is indexical to the world around us and so some sort of event took place).
This statement has been nicely summed up by others including Selina Wallace’s post conclusion with: ‘a photograph is an imprint of reality, and thus gives information about reality, and for this reason alone, should qualify it the definition of a document’ and John Walker’s post conclusion: ’[the image] will always be a document of the day and time the shutter clicked’.

However, some photographs in my eyes are more of a document than others. This could be because of the content of the photograph, how much time has passed since it was produced as well as forms of context like supporting media for the document being apparent which aid the photograph and whether it appears in a series of photographs.
By following the link above it is possible to find my response to the question: ‘What Makes a Document?’ along with many other answers by other OCA students.

The Transparency of Photographs

There were several distinctions I felt Kendall Walton was making in his 1984 essay titled: Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism, which I tried to sum up in a less complex way.


Photographs and paintings appear different fundamentally to the viewer but how so? Firstly I thought it was pertinent to admit the realistic differences between photographs and seeing with human eyes.

Distortions affect photographs differently to how the human eye sees the world but if you accept these differences (especially with wide angle lenses), a photograph for a lot of people unarguably records something that was there. This is because of photography’s indexical properties.

I think Andre Bazin, in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” What Is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray, vol. 1 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967) was referring to the indexical properties of photographs with the quote: ‘No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the [photographic] image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model’. Even so, I felt this was not exactly true; although a photograph shares the visual characteristics of the model of which it is the reproduction, it is never the actual model because it is in the form of a photograph.

Paintings differ from photographs because ‘paintings needn’t picture actual things’. With photographs on the other hand, ‘a photograph is always a photograph of something which actually exists’ (even if it is of something fake) – Walton (1984).

I believe this affects us as people because we (usually) automatically know a photograph is a photograph when we see it. This is unless the photograph is very abstract.

Walton then attempts to distinguish between two depictions of something ‘real’, a photographic rendition and a painting. He makes the assertion that photography offered a new way of seeing; that of looking into the past by looking through the photograph. I believe he is correct that photographs are unlike other tools for vision in that we see through the photograph into another world to a certain extent. However, this seeing through a photograph doesn’t pick up on the nuances of the scene/things around the frame. Also I believe he misses the greater context of time and place in which the viewer was seeing the photograph to allow for the past event to remain truthful.

For example if someone was looking at a photo of a loved one, they would see through the frame if gazing intently, so they would be perceiving their loved one (a past version). However, they would not be so aware of what was around the subject (outside of the frame) and in this sense the viewer sees the memory of the subject of the photograph, not the contents of the photograph. Also they’d be less aware of what was around them as they were viewing the photograph where they are then absorbed by the photograph and at that moment believe it to be true.


As an aside, it could be argued that virtual reality glasses, while offering a believable alternate to reality, are not as realistic to photographs in seeing terms. This would be in the as yet unmatched subtleties in shade and tone a photograph produces that virtual reality can’t reproduce. A (film) photograph naturally does as it is recording light onto a negative and a digital photograph records the light digitally and then the digital signals are reproduced in high fidelity visually.

Yet conversely, virtual reality, it could be argued, is more realistic in terms of actuality than photographs because you believe you are actually there and the objects before you are real to an extent. This is even more so than with traditional film footage – you fictionally see like you are there the whole time. This is because the seeing goes ‘straight’ to the sense organs (the eyes) – there is no ‘seeing through’ to do. Yet it still has the same attributes to photography when it comes to truth and trust or more so because the viewer presumably knows it’s fictional.

The Paradox of Documentary

The photograph is intrinsically associated with portraying a true depiction of reality; it is indexical to nature and recent generations have after all grown up with photography as photography has developed. This is especially so with the drastic changes in technology, with both people and technology  adapting as technology evolves. I believe as photographs as documents are seen to be true on the most part, this helps to evoke a response from the viewer to do with natural human curiosity. The viewer is naturally drawn to the photograph as a fact of nature and because it was presumably taken by another person there is a connection between viewer and photograph. This is where they potentially infer meaning from the taker’s interpretation of the world.

What is Documentary?

Documentary would be, in my preconceptions, the act of story-telling, whether it be through pictures or video footage of something from ‘real-life’. However, there is also the literal translation of making a document of something.

While listening to Miranda Gavin talking about documentary being categorised, she suggests perhaps the need for new terms and language to be used when describing documentary, instead of older ones like photojournalism and reportage. One reason for this would be the new ways people are approaching documentary in order to keep their work fresh, especially as digital accessibility has become so prevalent. I agreed with Gavin that photojournalism and reportage were quite old terms when digital was relatively new and I also realised the line between art and documentary was becoming more and more blurred in photographic practice. Factors like technological advancements as well as the influx of the female gender into documentary practice contribute to this blurring. The difficulty of categorising work which falls into both art and documentary while also often being creative, as Gavin discusses, is why the different groups merge into each other a lot. Therefore I would say Gavin’s viewpoint for new terms for documentary could be an astute suggestion in an age when technology in the form of digital has made the boundaries of documentary less defined.

Although digital accessibility change is mostly positive, Gavin did raise questions about the market for documentary, where there are more documentary photographers but less editors publishing physically so if online services are utilised, making sure the photographer has some control over editorial integrity is key.