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.

References:

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.

Summary of My Thoughts Regarding Assignment 1 – Documentary

I felt I responded to the brief well throughout the photo essay in terms of the project being a coherent body of work documenting the brewery and its people and my engagement with them. A strong area for me was the sense of progression from one photograph to another, which could serve to pull the viewer in to the project. I saw the research into Lewis Hine and Henri Cartier-Bresson beforehand as being very helpful in establishing a strategy for photographing the brewery and its people. I concentrated particularly on creating quite decisive moments in the brewery and its surrounding vicinity. This enabled me to show better my interpretation of the scene. Combining this with eye contact in a couple of photographs to further show my engagement but in a different (more direct) way.

 

In terms of creativity, I could see a few photographs where I was clever with composition but two photographs which stood out creatively as a pair were Photographs 4 and 5. They helped to give the viewer as much better idea of my engagement with the brewery worker during the project when viewed simultaneously. I thought the execution of the idea was quite good because the action of the brewery worker was captured on both cameras at pretty similar moments in time so the viewer could associate the two photographs in tandem.

 

By titling the photographs, I felt I gave them extra context which I had increasingly come to realise was important for the viewer to gain insight into a project. This was because it allowed them to make up their minds more readily. I thought most parts of the project could be inferred from photographs when seen as a series but the titling helped with the flow of the photo essay. My communication of ideas after titling the photographs gave extra context in what I saw as quite a clear concise manner.

 

I would say a few of the photographs could have been taken better in regards to technical skill, for example Photograph 2 where the sun flare was quite distracting and some of the highlights were blown. Overall though the photographs in my opinion gave a realistic depiction of the brewery at particular decisive moments in time in relation to its people and my engagement with them. This was what I had set out to document and I was pleased it showed the brewery from more than one dimension.

Photograph 10 – ‘The Bar Staff’

Photograph 10 was a massive contrast compared to the previous two photographs. Here, the scene was much more organised and the photograph was clearly posed; a group portrait of three of the bar staff. The reason I included this photograph was to show another side to the brewery, a more polished and refined side where the beer had been made. Evidence of the beer having been made was bottles proudly sitting on the shelves and on tap for the customers ready to be served by the welcoming bar staff. This was an example of me showing my engagement with the community because I maintained eye contact (albeit through the camera) with my subjects who were responding to being photographed by me. This portrayed something of my relationship with them; they were comfortable in my presence reflected in their smiles. I felt the 35mm focal length worked well here because I could frame all three of them in the camera easily within the confined space of the brewery. This was while still providing some subject separation from the background by using a fairly large aperture setting of f/3.2.

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The Bar Staff
Camera settings for Photograph 10 were:
f/3.2, 1/200s, ISO 1400, focal length 35mm, handheld.

Photograph 9 – ‘Mashing In at the Brewery – Part 2’

For me this clearly showed the second part of the mashing in process: the stirring of the mixture. Although there was less steam present for this part of the process there was a bit and so there was still some atmosphere while still retaining an accurate representation of the environment. I changed the camera angle slightly, while still photographing from a high viewpoint looking down I moved round to the right a bit. This was in order to show another part of the brewery and suggest to the viewer that this was a different part of the mashing in stage. Instead of using a small spatula instrument like the man stirring in Photograph 7 – ‘The Brew School in Full Flow’ was, the brewer used a massive paddle to stir in the grain. Therefore the contrast was obvious in scale from Photograph 7 up to Photograph 9 (similar as with Photograph 7 up to 8).

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Mashing In at the Brewery – Part 2
Camera settings for Photograph 9 were:
f/4.5, 1/200s, ISO 2000, focal length 35mm, handheld.

Photograph 8 – ‘Mashing In at the Brewery – Part 1’

Moving on from the smaller proportions of the brew school mashing in, here was depicted a brewer pouring in a whole sack of grain and mixing it with water from a hose. This was in contrast to the brew school where a bucket of grain and a comparative trickle of water were mixed in together. This for me showed the more serious side to the brewery when the beer had begun to be made on a bigger scale. I thought the steam coming from the mixture added to this seriousness as it added atmosphere to the more hands on approach of the process. I chose a high viewpoint looking down to document this process as I felt it added drama as well as showing more clearly what was going on inside the canister. The inclusion of more sacks in the distance suggested just how much grain the brewer would be pouring in to the mix. Lastly, I felt I managed to capture quite a decisive moment by photographing the brewer in full flow as he made sure to mix the grain and the water together, making the process more obvious to the viewer.

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Mashing In at the Brewery – Part 1
Camera settings for Photograph 8 were:
f/4, 1/200s, ISO 1400, focal length 35mm, handheld.

Photograph 7 – ‘The Brew School in Full Flow’

As the name suggests this was an action shot of the brew school as the brewers performed the ‘mashing in’ stage of the brew. I knew from photographing at the brewery that the mashing in was quite an obvious situation an action shot could occur at the brewery and so when I learnt the participants at the brew school would be doing this at a much smaller scale that day I tried to capture a decisive moment of their mashing in. I felt I was successful at this because it showed two of the brew school participants doing the mashing in as well as brewer running the brew school overlooking. Compositionally I thought the photograph was strong too because of an implied triangle between the three people pointing downwards towards where the mashing in was taking place. In my opinion it gave a better inclination to the viewer that there was a brew school happening at the brewery compared to Photograph 6. This photograph also served as a nice precursor and link to the next two photographs where the real mashing in for the brewery took place on a much larger scale.

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The Brew School in Full Flow
Camera settings for Photograph 7 were:
f/4.5, 1/200s, ISO 5000, focal length 35mm, handheld.

Photograph 6 – ‘In Discussion During the Brew School’

This was quite an opportunistic photograph in two senses. Firstly, I found out that the brewery was very characterful in that it didn’t just operate as a brewery and bar but also a brew school on certain days. I decided this would be a good opportunity to show another side to the brewery and I was glad I did as I felt I came away with portraying to the viewer another, more playful dimension to the brewery. One aspect of the brewery is that it is quite confined in space and so I was having difficulty acquiring many good shots of the relatively numerous amount of people attending the brew school that day. Eventually I went on a whim around to the other side of the main brewing equipment and perceived a potential opportunity for a photograph in between two of the canisters. Not only was there a gap in between them showing people at the brew school but I was fortunate enough to find the brewer running the brew school deep in conversation with one of the brew school attendees. I thought this combination of features worked well, the canisters on either side and in the background showed it was a brewery while the two people in conversation could be seen to be talking about some aspect of the beer being brewed there. Although the information that the discussion was taking place at a brew school wasn’t absolutely clear in this photograph, for me the next photograph worked well as a continuation of this one.

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In Discussion During the Brew School
Camera settings for Photograph 6 were:
f/4, 1/200s, ISO 7200, focal length 35mm, handheld.