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

Question: Do I agree with the core argument?

Paul Seawright (Catalyst: Paul Seawright, 2014) concedes that his work is criticised for ‘not being direct enough, for it not being explicit, for it being too ambiguous, that the narrative is obscured or difficult’. He goes on to suggest that his work walks the dividing line between the journalistic photograph that is quickly viewed for ‘no more than 15 seconds’ and the art image that allows space for the viewer to partake in the ‘construction of meaning’.  Another means of expressing this balance is in the binary couple inside/outside (Solomon-Godeau, 1994:195-204). An advantage of analysis in these terms is that it allows discussion independent of two major themes in the criticism of documentary photography: the political/cultural, and the ethical as exemplified in the writings of Martha Rosler and Susan Sontag respectively (Solomon-Godeau, 1994:196).

In terms of inside/outside the work of Ed Ruscha — for example Ruska (1966) — could be considered the ‘degree zero of photographic exteriority, for not only are the photographs themselves exterior views, but they model themselves directly on the impersonality, anonymity and banality of the purely instrumental image’ (Solomon-Godeau, 1994:187). When aftermath images such as those in Seawright’s series ‘Sectarian Murders’ are first viewed a similarity with such ‘deadpan’ images as Ruscha’s is apparent. However, once context is added (in the case of Seawright each photograph is accompanied by an account of the murder as reported in the media and the date it took place), the series must be viewed differently.

An alternative is to view Seawright’s series in the light of work such as that of Larry Clark or Nan Goldin which ‘can be considered as exemplary of the insider position’ (Solomon-Godeau, 1994:187). For example ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ (Goldin, 1986) is a ‘personalised contemplation of the nature of subjects such as sexual relationships, male social isolation, domestic violence and substance abuse’ (Cotton, 2009:139) in which Golden photographed her own social and sexual world.

In relation to Seawright’s work the verdict of Solomon-Godeau on such ‘confessional’ photography as Goldin’s is relevant:

The desire for transparency, immediacy, the wish that the viewer might see the other with the photographer’s own eyes, is inevitably frustrated by the very mechanisms of the camera, which, despite the best intensions of the photographer, cannot penetrate beyond that which is simply, stupidly there (Solomon-Godeau, 1994:200)

And again:

 However their [Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus] photographic representations were originally intended or used, they exist now in a nether zone between art and spectacle, on view for the gallery and museum goer, the purchaser of photography books’ (Solomon-Godeau, 1994:198).

Aftermath photography seeks an intermediate zone between bland exteriority of empty locations and the desire to imbue the images with something of the transparency, immediacy of the insider image. Solomon-Godeau asks:

If we are then to consider the possibility that a photographic practice ostensibly premised on insiderness ultimately reveals the very impossibility of such a position in the realm of the visual, might it conversely be the case that a photographic practice that affirms its own implacable exteriority yields a certain truth of its own? (Solomon-Godeau, 1994: 202).

In relation to Paul Seawright’s work I would answer the above question in the affirmative. The work has undoubtedly its own ‘implacable exteriority’ yet manages to yield ‘a certain truth of its own’ by meeting the challenge Seawright suggests good art must meet in leaving space for the viewer in the construction of meaning. In other words his work finds the correct balance or mix between the purely objective (reportage) and the purely subjective (total ambiguity).

Question: If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning? The answer to this question is yes if it is accepted that photographic meaning is influenced by the ‘framing context’, an example being ‘the obvious polarities of gallery wall or magazine page’ (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 179). These polarities are obvious because a photograph ‘like any other entity, is inevitably subject to cultural definition’ (Sekula, 1982:84). However, there is something in a photograph that makes it appear independent of the any cultural milieu. Often:

we are informed that the photograph ‘has its own language’, is ‘beyond speech’, is a message of ‘universal significance’ – in short, that photography is a universal and independent language or sign system. Implicit in this argument is 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, 1982:86).

To accept the ‘fundamental premise’ above it must be accepted that the photograph is ‘an utterance of some sort, that it carries, or is, a message’, further, that the photograph is ‘an ‘incomplete’ utterance’, and therefore is ‘necessarily context-determined’ (Sekula, 1982:85).

An example of such a message carried by photographs in society relates to the body image that young women possess in modern industrialised societies — such is the impact of fashion photography that recently a 15,000-signature petition requested a fashion magazine to promise one un-photoshopped spread a month (Palatnik and Holpuch, 2012). This illustrates that photographs in magazines are more than simply images of models in stylish cloths but contain a ‘text’ (Sekula, 1982:87). These two attributes can be described in terms of ‘a primitive core of meaning, devoid of all cultural determination’ (the denotative function), and a second level of ‘invested, culturally determined meaning’ (the conative) (Sekula, 1982:87).

In this way by defining a piece of documentary photography as art the image is invested with culturally determined meaning (above) which it did not possess prior to its new definition. A good illustration of this point is the controversy generated when the, often harrowing, documentary images by Sebastiao Salgado were exhibited in galleries and viewed as art. Many disputed and objected to the new definition of these documentary photographs condemning the photographic style as ‘sentimental voyeurism’ (Kimmelman, 2001).


Catalyst: Paul Seawright Pres. Seawright. IWM (2014) 2 mins At: https://vimeo.com/76940827 (Accessed on 01.10.14)

Cotton, Charlotte (2009) the photograph as contemporary art. new edition London: Thames & Hudson

Goldin, Nan (1986) The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York: Aperture

Kimmelman, Michael (2001) Can Suffering Be Too Beautiful? At: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/13/arts/photography-review-can-suffering-be-too-beautiful.html (Accessed on 02.10.14)

Palatnik, A and Holpuch, A (2012) Girls petition for Teen Vogue to put an end to airbrushed photos [online blog] In: Guardian.co.uk At: http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/us-news-blog/2012/jul/11/teen-girls-ask-teen-vogue-end-photoshopped-photos (Accessed on 02.10.14)

Ruscha, Edward (1966) Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Los Angeles: self-published

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

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail (1991) ‘Who is Speaking Thus? Some Questions about Documentary Photography’ In: Solomon-Godeau Photography at the dock: essays on photographic history, institutions, and practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 169-183

Solomon-Godeau, A (1994) ‘Inside/Out’ In: Johnson, S. (ed.) The Everyday. London: Whitechapel, 195-204