05 January 2009

Another review of Susan Meiselas ...

I have posted several times [1] [2] [3] [4] over the past few months on the uncomprehending - and mostly incomprehensible - critical reception the ICP retrospective on Susan Meiselas has received. Last week, this appreciative review appeared in The Nation. The author, Paul Roth seems to get it when he notes:
"In History is a remarkably complex installation, a kind of spatial assemblage of materials, including far more than just the still photographs for which she is best known. The show's multiplicity of objects and approaches makes clear that Meiselas seems to have developed ever more "difficult" approaches to historical documentation as her career has progressed, in evident frustration with the apparent oversimplification (and under-amplification) of traditional documentary photographic practice. One gets the sense that she wants to sidestep and supersede the forces ("the powers that be," in her choice of phrase) that typically control and mediate public experience of faraway lives through journalism. Increasingly, Meiselas has rejected even the positivist notion of "witnessing" that defines much "concerned photography." Her work, more than any of her peers, has come to occupy a radical (as opposed to a traditionally humanist or reformist) position in the creation of storylines about peoples and historical events."
But then, Roth seems to take it all back when, in the end, he asks:
"It is no great criticism to say In History exposes the conundrum at the heart of Meiselas's reflexive approach to her own image-making. Wandering through the exhibition, one can easily get lost in the consideration and re-consideration of the images, as though the politics of looking has replaced "looking" itself. What is left of the photograph when everything--subject, photographer and viewer--have all been called to question?"
It seems to me that Meiselas is pushing on the typically neglected reflexivity of photography as a technology - this is a theme that you can find, for instance, in the writings of Patrick Maynard or
Murat Nemet-Nejat - precisely to show that "the photograph" has no special standing and that we ought instead to focus on how differently situated agents - "subject, photographer and viewer" - seek to use photography for diverse, often conflicting purposes. If we are more resolute in that pursuit, photography indeed can prompt us, in Roth's words, to address "deeper, hidden, more mysterious and ineffable truths that lie at their heart, at their edges and, finally, outside the frame itself." But then we are not engaging in the documentary project to which the title of the review alludes. Indeed, it seems to me that Meiselas has left that project well behind her and that what we need is a revised language in which to discuss the work she and some few others are doing.

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2 Comments:

Blogger R.A. said...

Jim,

You wrote:

"It seems to me that Meiselas is pushing on the typically neglected reflexivity of photography as a technology - this is a theme that you can find, for instance, in the writings of Patrick Maynard or
Murat Nemet-Nejat - precisely to show that "the photograph" has no special standing and that we ought instead to focus on how differently situated agents - "subject, photographer and viewer" - seek to use photography for diverse, often conflicting purposes."

I completely agree. One problem with many documentary photography projects is that photographers often make big assumptions about what photographs "mean" and what they can do.

It matters how they are received, how people interpret them, and how they affect different people (if at all).

I think it's important that you bring up the fact that photographers, subjects, and audiences (viewers) often have conflicting understandings of photography, and that photography can be USED in many different ways.

Sometimes photographers assume that putting photos on a museum or gallery wall, or in a book, will have some automatic effect--and a lot of that, I think, is based upon how THEY react to photographs, not necessarily the viewers.

Do you read the work of Elizabeth Edwards? You two are working on some similar ground in many ways.

-ryan

oh ya, check out my new blog:

www.ethnografix.blogspot.com

05 January, 2009 15:44  
Blogger Sophia said...

A very enjoyable review; thank you. To add: you quote Roth as saying, "What is left of the photograph when everything--subject, photographer and viewer--have all been called to question?"
I would respond to him, What is THERE in a photograph (or the experience of a photograph) when everything -- subject, photographer and viewer -- has NOT been called into question?

Thanks again! Great blog.
-Sophia, www.zoom-in.com

05 January, 2009 17:05  

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