Writing on photography

When Documentary Becomes Art II

This is part II of a write up of an introductory talk I gave earlier in the summer on the relationship between art and documentary photography, how the two sometimes blur together and what the consequences are when this happens.

(Part I)

The sixties saw what is often termed as a ‘documentary turn’ in art practice. Various ideas exist to try and explain this ‘turn’ some of these theories pointing to factors external to the art world and others arguing it was a result of internal trends. In terms of external influences, perhaps following the end of the Second World War there was a lack of desire to see the world reflected in art. People didn’t want to be reminded of the destruction, the holocaust, and the drab, difficult conditions of the post-war years, they wanted to be distracted from it. by the start of the 1960’s the world, and particularly Europe, had recovered sufficiently that people had retained the desire for art which acted as a mirror on the world. This return to looking also obviously coincided the social and cultural foment of a decade that saw major events across the planet and beyond, from civil rights and the war in Vietnam to the lunar landings.

Within the art world the emergence of Pop Art in the fifties and sixties seems to have been significant. With a focus on mass media and particularly photography, and its tendency to relocate familiar objects into unfamiliar settings, it seems hard not to believe that this movement and its offshoots might have played a part in setting photography and art, fact and fiction, on to a collision course. Another argument is that this documentary turn reflected a growing sense of disillusionment with the prevailing abstract expressionism of artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Both had been heavily promoted in the post-war era by the American government (indeed even by the CIA) as part of the cultural cold war against Soviet socialist realist art, and to a lesser extent socially engaged European art movements like Cubism. The documentary turn was perhaps a backlash against this.

In terms of art photography Hilla and Bernd Becher’s photographs are a profoundly influential example of this documentary turn. Trained as artists, in 1959 the couple set out to document overlooked German industrial buildings in the Ruhr valley. They photographed these structures with a consistent, almost scientific approach before arranging their photographs into thematic grids or typologies, intended to reveal the structural similarities between buildings which had, like Karl Blossfeldt’s plants, evolved in isolation from one another. The approach and philosophy of the Bechers indeed owed more than a little to the inter-war New Objectivity Movement of which Blossfeldt, Sander and a number of other artists I mentioned in part i were closely associated.

The Becher’s success and subsequent tenure as teachers at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf produced a generation of photographers who employed a similar synthesis of art and documentary. Notable example include Thomas Struth and Candida Hofer. It’s a measure of the continuing influence of the Dusseldorf school (for better or worse, and many would say worse) that the most expensive auction price to date is for a photograph by another of its acolytes, Andreas Gursky.

In counterpoint to this ‘documentary turn’ the last ten or twenty years appears to have seen something of an ‘artistic turn’ in documentary practice. This has manifested in documentary photographers, and indeed some photojournalists, adopting the strategies of fine art in both the production and dissemination of their work. For example forgoing traditional narratives in favor of more unconventional ones, or in some cases abandoning narrative altogether and employing complex conceptual approaches to investigate subjects. Similarly documentary photographers are increasingly employing the economic and curatorial strategies of the fine art world , selling expensive limited edition prints in galleries and employing the byzantine language of fine art in statements about their work.

A good example of this new turn are Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Their practice has evolved  from something which far more obviously resembles traditional documentary photography (see for example their 2003 book Ghetto) to something more anchored in traditions of art photography and conceptualism (for example 2011’s War Primer 2, which employs techniques like appropriation and collage). This is often controversial, as with the duo’s 2008 piece The Day Nobody Died, a response to the Afghan War, embedding and censorship. Strangely many photographers were far more vocal in their criticism of the work for it’s use of such a conceptual strategy to talk about a ‘journalistic’ subject, than they were of the issues of embedding and press censorship which the work was actually commenting on.

The reasons for this ‘artistic turn’ in documentary practice are again difficult to precisely pinpoint, I can think of two fairly obvious explanations. It may be the inevitable response to a world in which almost everything seems to have been documented, and certainly the most visually arresting subjects have been photographed to excess. In such a world photographers are increasingly turning to subjects which require complex approaches to depict them in a compelling way, or even to depict them at all. How for example is a traditional photojournalist to effectively document drone warfare or cyber-terrorism?

Also I wonder if financial motives are also part of it. With traditional editorial markets evaporating, even established photojournalists are increasingly looking to a relatively buoyant art market to fill the gaps left in their income and this inevitably requires that the work they produce speak a particular conceptual and aesthetic language. When I interviewed Magnum’s Alex Webb recently he told me how print sales had increasingly replaced editorial work as the basis of his income. If this is the case for an established and well respected name, what hope is there for the rest of us?

As was established in part one of this short history, the mixing of art and documentary isn’t a new thing, even if it remains controversial in some circles. One has to question the value of these distinctions as anything but a form of photographic tribalism. All photography is on a very literal level documentary, since all photographs document something. Inversely even documentary photography in the most rigorously, intentionally unartistic sense still nessecarily includes characteristics that are inherited from art practice because this is where photography springs from, technologically and philosophically. Equally, however we might feel about it, today anything and everything is at risk of being appropriated as art, regardless of it’s original purpose or intent.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography