24 September 2006

Beauty in Photography (4): The Anti-Aesthetics of Documentary Photography

I want to pick up on a theme on which I have posted periodically [1] [2] [3], namely the convemtional view that photographers who undertake "documentary" projects ought to minimize their "aesthetic" pretensions. In her "Introduction" to Issue #33 of PRIVATE (Summer 2006), the Italian critic Roberta Valtorta offered the following diagnosis of and remedy for the travails of documentary photojournalism in our contemporary, image and information saturated, world.

"Images used in photojournalism today look, to me, like fragments of reality snatched from a complex world which is essentially indescribable. They are isolated moments, fragments of attempted accounts which are no longer possible, because contemporary man, assailed by communication, is tired of watching and seeing, without understanding, images stolen from every part of the world. ... I think that classic black and white photography helps to dramatise this impossibility. In the mythic age when photojournalism, the beating heart of communication, blossomed on the pages of newspapers and magazines, this chiaroscuro* code was an authoritative, symbolic and powerful document, true testimony of things seen and recorded in the places where they happened. Today, on the other hand, it dramatically shows an extreme desire to bear witness, and alludes to the past greatness of photographic documents, but at the same time it shows all our desperation about a world which is too full of events, disasters, changes and shifts. And if we look inside ourselves we know that this world cannot be understood or recounted.

Because of this, photojournalism today is a heroic thing. It is an old song, a last raised voice. Because of this, the strongest and truest photojournalism today is that which outlives itself without straining to be “beautiful”. It stays faithful to its “primitiveness”, its leanness, and far from aesthetics."

Here, Valtorta articulates something like the common view that Sontag describes in her Regarding the Pain of Others when she writes:

"Pictures of hellish events seem even more authentic when they don’t have the look that comes from being "properly" lighted and composed, because the photographer is either an amateur or - just as serviceable - has adopted one of several familiar anti-art styles. By flying low, artistically speaking, such pictures are thought to be less manipulative - all widely distributed images now stand under that suspicion - and less likely to arouse facile compassion or identification (26-7)."

Valtorta surely does not think that documentary photography concerns itself solely with "hellish events," with atrocity, catastrophe, disaster and their atatendant hardship and suffering, although she surely includes such subjects within the purview of such an approach. Rather, what is interesting is her recommendation that, regardlesss of their specific subject matter, practitioners adhere to an anti-aesthetic style.

Two things are important about this, however. First, as Sontag makes clear this anti-aestheticism is itself a style, one that repudiates reliance on "beauty." Second, Valtorta's reccommendation implicitly accepts an invidious distinction between "documentary" and "art" photography that, as I have mentioned here before, was established by some photographers precisely because they thought it redounded to their own advantage because adopting the mantle of "art" would afford them entry into the rarified (and lucrative) curatorial world of museums and galleries. One serious negative consequence of this is that it makes it difficult for those who adopt the stance Valtorta recommends to account for the important aesthetic dimensions of the photography of Lewis Hine or Walker Evans or Henri Cartier-Bresson or Sebastiao Salgado or James Nachtwey. There may be further consequences, but this one seems crucial enough to cast grave doubt on the remedy Valtorta suggests.
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* My dictionary offers the following definition for chiaroscuro "Noun. The treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting. - ORIGIN Italian, from chiaro 'clear, bright' + oscuro 'dark, obscure'."

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