30 April 2007

Photographic Conventions (Again)

In The New York Times you can find a review of Martin Duberman's new biography of arts impresario Lincoln Kirstein. This affords an opportunity to take up the comment in my last post about the dubious nature of the conventional dichotomy between "documentary" and "art" photography. As the reviewer remarks, Kirstein "put Walker Evans on the map." Although that is a slight overstatement, it is important to understand that elevating Evans hardly was an easy task. In that regard I recommend a recent essay "A Genealogy of Orthodox Documentary" by John Stomberg. The essay appears in the recent volume Beautiful Suffering: Photography & the Traffic in Pain. Stomberg details how the elevation of Evans was part of a concerted campaign to not only characterize his work as the pinnacle of proper documentary practice but to diminish the accomplishements of purported "competitors" such as Margaret Bourke-White. Like other social and political insititutions, the conventions governing photographic practice are artifacts that emerge as a by-product of conflict among asymmetrically situated parties. Evans, Kirstein and their allies simply had more cultural resources than those whose work they sought to marginalize.

I will have more to say on this general topic in the next few days.

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