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To see how Paul Seawrights’s work challenges the boundaries between documentary and art it is worth first examining these boundaries.

In his essay ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ (Sekula, 1982: 84-109) Allan Sekula attempts to define in historical terms the relationship between photography and high art using a comparison between two photographs:  ‘Immigrants Going Down Gang Plank’ by Lewis Hine (see fig. 1.) and ‘The Steerage’ by Alfred Stieglitz (see fig. 2.). Hine’s photographs originally appeared in social-work journals while Stieglitz published in the arts journal ‘Camera Work’. Sekula uses the comparison to show the weakness in the notion that:

the photograph derives its semantic properties from conditions that reside within the image itself. But if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image (Sekula, 1982).

In the 1990s there was a noticeable shift of social-reform photography into museums as ‘art absorbed new categories, museums tried out new roles and documentary photographers adopted artistic modes’ (Goldberg, 1995). Aftermath (or ‘late’) photography as practiced by Paul Seawright, could be included among these new modes.

Sekula (1982) concludes that ‘every photograph tends, at any given moment of reading in any given context’, towards one of two poles of meaning, and he identifies the ‘misleading but popular form’ of this opposition as ‘art photography’ vs ‘documentary photography’ (Sekula, 1982:108). Sekula continues:

The opposition between these two poles is as follows: photographer as seer vs photographer as witness, photography as expression vs photography as reportage, theories of imagination (and truth) vs theories of empirical truth, affective value vs informative value, … (Sekula, 1982:108).

Seawright’s  series ‘Sectarian Murders’ can be seen in relation to another set of opposites, that of the photographic representations of Northern Ireland which has ‘since the civil unrest of the late 1960s and early ’70s, revolved around two specific areas: documentary humanism and conflict photography (Carville, 2001). However, the series ‘brought to the fore an aspect of sectarian division in Northern Ireland that had remained invisible to visiting photojournalists and documentary photographers’ — the ideological territorialism that sectarian murder instilled in the two communities (Carville, 2001). In this Seawright would fall within Sekula’s category (above) as ‘photographer as seer’ (and towards the ‘art’ end of the two poles). However, all the images in the series are accompanied by an account of the murder as reported in the media and the date it took place, thus tending also towards the ‘photographer as witness’ pole i.e. photojournalism/reportage. In this and other ways Seawright’s work challenges the boundaries between documentary and art photography.

This blog entry continues at Research point (ii) – the core of the argument? At: https://cormac513273.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/research-point-ii-the-core-of-the-argument/

References

Carville, Justin (2001) ‘Re-negotiated territory’ In: Afterimage 29 (1) pp. 5

Goldberg, Vikki (1995) Looking at the Poor in a Gilded Frame. At: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=990CE1D9163EF93AA35757C0A963958260&fta=y&scp=22&sq=Sebastiao%20Salgado&st=cse (Accessed on 29.09.14)

Sekula, Allan (1982) ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ In: Burgin (ed.) Thinking Photography. London: MacMillan. pp. 84-109

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Hine, Lewis. Immigrants Going Down Gang Plank From Ferry Boat That Lands Them On Ellis Is. [negative, gelatin on glass ] At: http://www.geh.org/ar/strip11/htmlsrc/m198502540004_ful.html (Accessed on 29.09.14)

Figure 2.  Alfred Stieglitz (1907) The Steerage At: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/33.43.419 (Accessed on 29.09.14)

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