As he is considered the grandfather of our modern understanding of documentary photography, I would like to take a moment to look at the legacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Cartier-Bresson started taking photographs in the early 1930s using a brand new light-weight, Leica 35mm camera. This allowed him to photograph life, unobtrusively as it was happening, without the need to stage or interfere with the action. The seeds of the documentary tradition were sown.
The tradition of documentary photography has been built on these foundations. Documentary photographs came to be viewed as windows on the world, to be trusted, as though there is only one true objective reality out there, waiting to be found and recorded by the photographer.
This concept was bolstered by the nature of the photographic image, which gives the viewer the feeling that they are catching an unmediated glimpse of the scene, as though the photo was a direct portal between the viewer and the reality it showed, and not an image filtered through the perspective of the photographer.
Documentary purists followed Cartier-Bresson’s lead and insisted that their images were all shown full-frame without cropping.
And the myth of the objective truthful documentary photograph was born.
I don’t believe that this myth was ever shared by Bresson himself. Bresson was a surrealist artist. The surrealists believed that there was another, more important reality behind the one we perceive in our day-to-day lives. His decisive moment was not the moment when hard facts about the world were revealed but when the surreality was glimpsed behind the curtain.
Bresson is quoted as saying: ‘Reality offers us such wealth that we must cut some of it out on the spot, simplify. The question is, do we always cut out what we should?’
In this quote lies the nub of my argument with the documentary tradition. Photography is above all a selective tool. We select subjects that we consider worthy of our camera, we select the best angle & crop to show off those subjects, choosing what to keep & what to leave out of the frame, as well as the moment which best represents what we want to say about them.
We are all stuck inside our own heads and it is a fallacy for any photographer to claim that these choices are based on an external truth, rather than representing their limited & subjective view of the world.
The photograph is a communication. The truth of the photograph is the truth of the painting or sculpture, a personal one, discovered by the artist & laid out for the viewer. It is a message from the photographer stating: This is what I see.
And in my view the most effective photographs are those that acknowledge their artistic heritage.
Whether a photograph is presented as a documentary or art image has an effect on the way people understand it. A documentary image is generally accepted passively as truth. The emotional effect it has is absorbed but not dwelt upon, the photographer’s feelings about the subject are not considered. It is as though it just sprang into existence.
A photograph presented as art does not have this distance from it’s maker. The artist’s views and intentions become integral to deciphering the picture’s meaning. The image is understood as communication from one human being to another.
In short we are encouraged to spend longer considering art photographs, to accept their complexity, to look for hidden meanings and to study our responses.
But Nan Goldin is an art photographer & she showed the image in that context. As an artwork it raises the issue of hidden violence within our society, it questions our concepts of strength and vulnerability and most of all it is an intensely, honestly emotional communication about her experience, direct from Nan to us.
I believe that art photography is more honest than documentary because it acknowledges the subjective and communicative nature of the medium and does not hide the photographer’s intentions behind a false claim of objectivity.
The truth is elusive, subjective and complex. It cannot be captured in a single 2 dimensional image. A completely objective photograph (such as one produced randomly by a mechanized photographer) would be an entirely meaningless one.
The power of an image is the power of it’s message.
The communicative strength of this incredible medium should be celebrated, not denied. You can’t take the photographer out of the photograph as to do so would render it as arbitrary, indifferent and confusing as the world which it is trying to make sense of.
All photography is art and art is the best way we have of describing our world and our experiences to one another.
Lisa Furness February 2012
Below I have presented four photographs for your perusal.
For each one, please consider how you would react to it if it was presented as documentary & then how that reaction might change it you saw it in an art context.