Temporality and the Alpine Way: an exploration of post-photography and post-documentary
Author: Jacob Raupach, Charles Sturt University, Australia
Roland Barthes wrote his text Camera Lucida (1980) in an attempt to uncover the very essence of what a photograph was. He writes, “The first thing I found was this. What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” (76) What Barthes argues is that whilst what the photograph always represents is inherently in the past, the subject is always a referent of reality, a real thing. For Barthes the photograph is not an optionally real thing that is referred to via image or sign, but rather the “…necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph.” (76) Whilst painting can feign reality and represent what was not there, photography has the innate ability to only record what it sees, which for Barthes gives the photographic image an innate truth-value. He writes of this seemingly absurd characteristic:
According to a paradoxical order – since usually we verify things before declaring them ‘true’ – under the effect of a new experience, that of intensity, I had identified truth and reality in a unique emotion, in which I henceforth placed nature – the genius – of photography, since no painted portrait, supposing that it seemed ‘true’ to me, could compel me to believe its referent had really existed. (77)
For Barthes, the photograph becomes unquestionably true without a need to verify its truth-value, based entirely on its unique necessity to record things that have actually existed. This unique relationship between reality, representation and truth has been the driving force behind documentary as a mode of practice, from its earliest realisations and continuing into contemporary practice. Susan Sontag writes of this particular characteristic as culminating into “…a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.” (154) Gregory Currie expands upon this notion further in his article “Visible Traces: Documentary and the Contents of Photographs” (1999), stating that a key characteristic of photographic documentary practice is its relationship with ‘trace’. He makes a similar distinction as Barthes in regards to painting and photography, writing “…a photograph is a trace of its subject, while a painting is testimony of it.” (286) He argues that in order for something to exist as documentary it must involve traces rather than testimonies, due to the fact that:
…we can draw and write about things that never happened or have not happened yet, but only the real things can leave traces of themselves, and a trace can
be only of something in the past and never of anything in the future. (287)
However as Currie argues, documentary holds two representing functions; it is representative in its role as a trace of the real, yet it also gains further representative functions from its relation to a narrative. (289) Photography’s unique faculty as a medium of realistic representation has meant that it has long been seen as the unquestionable mode of historical documentation, becoming a self-historicizing object in itself. However, documentary cannot wholly rely on the photograph’s ability to record traces from reality, rather it is necessary for some level of interpretation from the author to be exerted upon the singular traces. This allows the work to transcend from merely being a singular document and becoming definable as documentary. John Grierson, in one of his early papers of the 1930’s, defined this as the creative shaping of the natural, stating, “You photograph the natural life, but you also, by your juxtaposition of detail, create an interpretation of it.” (23) Documentary as a practice has thus always been interlaced with the notions of narrative, leading to a long-standing relationship with the photo book, a means of legitimization that reinforces the historical canon of documentary narrative.
In The History of Photography: From 1830 to Present (1982) Beaumont Newhall argues that:
However revealing or beautiful a documentary photograph may be it cannot stand on its image alone. Paradoxically, before a photograph can be accepted as a document, it must itself be documented – placed in time and space.
Here Newhall acknowledges that in order for documentary to actually become the document that it has already acknowledged itself to be, some form of documentation must legitimize it in time and space. He goes on to identify this as “A series of photographs, presented in succession on exhibition walls or on the pages of a book, may be greater than the sum of the parts.” (246) Newhall suggests that the gallery or book form as context become the best methods for the photographic documentary to take shape, offering the conclusion that by legitimizing its form in some type of institutional space, photography can thus be considered a historical document. In her text “Reading Photobooks: Narrative Montage and the Construction of Modern Visual Literacy” (2007) outlines a simple definition of what the photobook is, writing:
Photobooks are publications characterized by the careful sequencing and editing of photographic images in order to convey visual arguments. They imply authorship by a photographer or photo-editor and are not intended to describe a book simply containing photographs nor a compendium of photographs illustrating text. (10)
Nelson argues that as their nature is to convey visual arguments, photobooks become a medium in which the linear narrative of history can be questioned. Nelson works from Walter Benjamin’s notions on history, using his ideas of narrative montage as a means to explore the ways in which the photobook both produces and disrupts histories. She writes of Benjamin’s belief that “history decayed into images, not into stories,” arguing that:
Photobooks, as a technology of history, developed when the project of history was under fire from various fronts. At the center of these debates was the overt ‘truth-value’ of photography, which was argued to be a viable alternative to written histories at a time when the linear relationship between language and meaning was being questioned. (11)
What Barthes called the very essence of photography was that which stimulated its continued expansion into the photobook, a medium that Nelson argues was successful in working outside of the linear history to create new singular, historical narratives. This is evident in works such as Walker Evans’s American Photographs (1938), Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958)and William Eggleston’s Eggleston’s Guide (1976),three photographic books that challenged the perceived social histories and political ideologies of twentieth century America. At the time, the work of Evans and Frank were challenging the very nature of political propaganda, with Evans work coming out of his frustration towards the Farm Security Administration and Roy Stryker’s blatant control of the project and its public scope. (Sontag 62) His work was not just as a means to inspire class-consciousness in the middle-class as the FSA was, but rather to show the ways in which the issue was not an issue of a single class, but the collective political climate. At the time that The Americans was published, Frank had become fed up with Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man exhibition and had set out in a similar vein to Evans, bent on exposing the true post-war American landscape. (Day 3) Whilst both Evans and Frank’s photobooks were decidedly political, Eggleston’s Guide was revolting against the perceived aesthetic canon of photography. In an age of black and white, socialist imagery Eggleston turned his camera towards the everyday with a roll of colour film normally reserved for advertising. These photographic books were crafted at a time when photography’s truth-value was paramount, which in turn caused all three of these works to become canonical of the particular time period of the 1940’s – 1970’s. It would be hard to imagine this photographic period without thinking of Evans’s Allie Mae Burroughs (1936)(figure 1), Frank’s Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey (1955)(figure 2) or Eggleston’s Memphis (Tricycle) (C. 1969-1970)(figure 3). The photographic books of these artists greatly contributed to the role the photobook has continued to play in relation to the construction and critique of social history. Writing of the twentieth century photobook, Nelson states, “Modern photobooks are, in fact, works of historical witness that by visualizing the past, helped produce history and construct cultural memory.” (13) These works were operating within the realms of documentary, creating narratives that challenged the linear histories of the twentieth century by offering multiple readings and answers. However, since this period, documentary practice has undergone a shift, due to both post-modern notions and the advent of digital imaging.
We can identify certain historical moments at which the sudden crystallisation of a new technology (such as painting, printing, photography or computing) provides the nucleus for new forms of social and cultural practice and marks the beginning of a new era of artistic exploration. The end of the 1830s – the moment of Daguerre and Fox Talbot – was one of these. And the opening of the 1990s will be remembered as another – the time at which the computer processed digital image began to supersede the image fixed on silver-based photographic emulsion. (Mitchell 20)
In his text, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (2001), W.J.T. Mitchell argues that due to the advent of digital imaging in the late 1980’s, photography was dead: “…from the moment of its sesquicentennial in 1989 photography was dead – or, more precisely, radically and permanently displaced – as was painting 150 years before.” (Ibid.) His argument conceded that due to the changing nature of digital imaging and the increased globalisation of images, the photographic image that Barthes envisioned would cease to exist. This shifting of the unequivocal belief in photography’s truth-value to scepticism came not long after Jacques Derrida declared that language was uncertain and subjective, therefore we can say little of what may be actually certain. (Derrida 1203) This led to what we know as post-modernism and also spawned terms such as Mitchell’s ‘post-photography’ and ‘post-documentary’. Martha Rosler sought to understand exactly this premise of a ‘post-‘ world in her text “Post-Documentary, Post-Photography?” (2001). She writes of documentary:
…undergoing profound challenges from multiple sources, on social, political, and ethical grounds. These challenges, which radically undermine photography’s fundamental claim to a unique capacity to offer a direct insight into the real, have produced something of a crisis among artists and intellectuals and troubled some in journalism and the legal professions, if not others in the wider audience. (207)
Rosler argues that these challenges have arisen from post-structural and post-colonial theories, as well as the increase of digital technologies, all of which are threatening the position of the photographer and the photograph’s phenomenological relationship to reality. For Rosler:
The tide of change poses its own particular threat to documentary, since ‘post-photographic’ practice at a minimum can be said to have abandoned any interest in indexicality and, perhaps just as importantly, in the privileged viewpoint of ‘witness’ – and therefore any embeddedness in a particular moment in time and space. The photograph seems poised to mutate into just another, relatively ephemeral, aesthetic form and its maker into an artist. (211)
What Rosler pinpoints here is what has evolved into contemporary post-documentary practice. No longer is the documentary photograph bound to inert realism and singular histories; rather, documentary practice has now been opened up to the mining of archival material, multiple narratives and alternate means of viewer interactivity. This has also seen a renaissance of sorts for the photobook, with the ease of self-publishing allowing the new post-documentarist to explore and disseminate these works to a global audience, offering realms of operation outside of institutional and academized contexts. The Alpine Way was envisioned as a project that would attempt to understand and interpret this new post-documentary language, whilst assessing the feasibility of these modes as a means of interpreting and constructing social histories in contrast to the singular historical constructions of twentieth century photobooks.
Contemporary photographic documentarists have been exploring both the book form and the gallery context in order to examine the ways in which documentary functions in a post-photographic world. Charlotte Cotton describes this practice as:
At its most literal, contemporary art photography is beautifully dialogical. Photography is the central subject within photography as an artistic medium, an entity best understood in relation to a host of mitigating factors, from its quotidian cousins in social image-making to the elder statesmen of highbrow art—especially painting and sculpture but also installation arts, including video. (Nine Years, a Million Conceptual Miles, 2013)
Documentary is no longer reserved for the singular image, or even the singular book, and artists have begun to explore the ways in which story telling and history can be disseminated through both the gallery and book context. For artists like Christian Patterson, this means undertaking a photographic project which mines present sites and past histories to present a photographic book and exhibition that is both fact and fiction simultaneously. Redheaded Peckerwood (2005-2011) comes together as an interactive photobook that includes photographs made by the artist (figure 4), found photographs, found objects and documents (figure 5), and other ephemera that are presented in a multitude of ways. This includes facsimile pages and various notes that present themselves over the top of other images (figure 6), inviting a variety of interactions and activations for the viewer to navigate throughout the narrative. This is not only particular to the book, with Patterson understanding the specific role of the gallery context. The exhibition of Redheaded Peckerwood involves various objects and ephemera placed on plinths, the gallery floor and walls (figure 7). These objects and ephemera invoke narrative autonomously from the photographs; yet also create a dialogue between object, image and viewer that ultimately lends to a greater engagement and creative interpretation of the work on the viewer’s part. This exhibition model is one that I identify with and borrowed aspects from when understanding the ways in which The Alpine Way could function outside of the photographic book. In contrast to the viewer’s experience of the photobook as a controlled, time-based medium, the gallery presents itself as a simultaneous experience. Gregory Halpern identifies this as a difference in personal connection, in which he argues that the book as an object, “fosters a personal connection between the artist’s vision and the viewer.” (Gregory Halpern 2010 Photo-Bookworks Symposium) For Halpern, this is something he has not experienced within a gallery context, however it is precisely this personal connection that Patterson has created within his installation, including a variety of objects which allow the viewer to become both spatially and interactively aware (figures 7 and 8). The Alpine Way was constructed to create a greater sense of engagement from the viewer, offering both objects that would create spatial awareness, such as Adelong Cairn (2013)(figure 9), and viewer engagement through interaction (figure 10). However, it is not only these means of engaging the audience with the gallery context that becomes important within Patterson’s work, but also the ways in which the archive has been utilized and appropriated.
Patterson states “…photographs are highly subjective interpretations of reality,” yet “individual images exist as facts.” For Patterson, it is when these individual images are placed together, “…that they mean something else, something more symbolic; without concern for fact or fiction, but intent on telling a good story.” It was precisely this resolve to tell a good story that made Patterson completely disregard the “…old way of thinking about documentary, truth and representation” when putting together Peckerwood. Rather, Patterson “involved all objects as an archive,” allowing him to treat all work with an equal importance rather than favoring his own photographs made on site over ones found from archival institutions, etc. ( Christian Patterson 2012 Photo-Bookworks Symposium) This treatment of archival material has been explored by other artists, such as Ron Jude and Daniel Shea, in order to create historically rich works that move between both past and present in a continuous dialogue. Jude’s work for Alpine Star (2004-2006) and Emmett (1984/2010) were both examinations of the archive, one from newspapers and the other from photographs taken by Jude twenty-six years earlier. These works exist very much in the realm of what Grierson coined as the creative treatment of actuality, meaning that their existence is ultimately based around being involved within a narrative structure, whether that be the book or the gallery (figure 10). Jude describes these works as “…suspending and then reconstructing the meaning and narrative of these pictures through context and sequencing.” ( Solo Show: Ron Jude, Humble Arts) Both Alpine Star (figure 11) and Emmett (figure 12) were intended as books that were to question both the historical structure of a singular place, Jude’s hometown in Idaho, yet also as structures questioning the very nature of photographic representation and the ways in which we construct notions of truth and fiction. Radiata (2013)(figure 13) draws parallels between both Alpine Star and Emmett, using Jude’s notions as a stepping-stone into understanding the ways in which appropriated images can construct a social history from the past. However, Radiata seeks to operate on another level; the creation of dialogue between the newsprint, the photographs made on site by myself, and the viewer’s engagement.
In the creation of Blisner, Ill., (2012)(figure 14) Daniel Shea used material similar to Patterson in the form of archive material, found objects/photographs and various ephemera that went towards constructing a historical arch of Blisner as a town steeped in the production of coal. Shea writes “As a strategy, the book conflates both the artist monograph and research document. This approach is reflected in the formal presentation of images and text in the exhibited works.” Shea utilised the modes of documentary practice and the photobook, extorting their ability to exert truth and legitimization upon the image, to construct an entirely fictitious place entitled Blisner, Ill. As a place, Blisner “…provides an account of what happened in and what remains of a single Rust Belt town during the process of deindustrialization.” (Blisner, Ill.) By utilizing a variety of images (both created and found) and engaging with post-documentary’s rejection of indexicality, Blisner becomes real due to the engagement of the viewer through a variety of characteristics particular to post-documentary. Blisner, Ill. is not entirely restricted to the book form, and the ways in which Shea uses the gallery space are telling of the ways in which post-documentary utilizes narrative structure within the gallery context. In his exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago in 2013, Shea utilized a variety of techniques that highlighted a reading of the photographs that was unusual to the gallery space (figure 15). Similar to Patterson (figure 7) and Jude (figure 10), these works subvert the traditions of photographs presented within the gallery, moving beyond the singular line at eye-level, forcing the viewer to reconsider the reasoning and ways in which photographic works create and hold dialogue between each other and also the viewer themselves. There is a parallel to be made in the ways in which The Alpine Way as an exhibition was constructed (figure 16), utilizing this method of disturbing photographic familiarity to question the viewer’s perceived relation to the work. Similarly, Shea used the traditional means of the photographic image, whilst further exploring historical and institutional constructs through visual literacy. His work becomes an example of the ways in which post-documentary can utilize the historical notions of the trace, interlaced with narrative, to become a discussion of both past and present which simultaneously questions the future.
In the text, “The Structuralist Activity” (1992), Roland Barthes writes of the ways in which the goal of Structuralist activity is “To reconstruct an ‘object’ in such a way as to manifest thereby the rules of functioning (the ‘functions’) of this object.” He continues on writing of the ‘structural man’, who “…takes the real, decomposes it, then recomposes it.” I would like to argue that the artists of the post-documentary world are Structuralist in nature, pulling apart historical canons and reconstructing them into new, challenging forms of photographic representation that discuss societal futures through the extracting of past and present. What is clear for these artists and the field of post-documentary is that their work is operating between what Barthes recognizes as “two objects, or two tenses,” that of the perceived roles of documentary practice and the perceived roles of the photographic medium. Post-documentary is creating the something new that Barthes notes, by understanding, exploiting and subverting old models of truth, realism and representation. (Barthes, Structuralist Activity 1128) Bill Nichols, writing of documentary in the electronic age, argues that:
Documentary as a concept or practice occupies no fixed territory. It mobilizes no finite inventory of techniques, addresses no set number of issues, and adopts no completely known taxonomy of forms, styles, or modes.
He goes on to state, “At one level we might say documentary is what those who regard themselves as documentarists produce, and that this group is largely self-defining…” (Representing Reality 12, 14) Post-documentary practice can be summed up decidedly by this final comment. It seems to navigate endless possibilities and outcomes, with the singular haracteristic of narrative remaining as paramount. This notion of narrative is an issue and cannot be the only definitive characteristic of what documentary is; yet the answer has not yet managed to appear. What post-documentary does however is explore the means of story telling and engagement through various approaches, of which no image is determined more or less important. Post-documentary has freed itself from the restraints of factual observation and singular historical outcomes, offering the artist working within the practice the ability to explore past and present in the hopes of understanding the future. The Alpine Way is an exercise in this exploration; mining past and present to create a dialogue between found and generated images and objects, ultimately speculating on the relationships and histories surrounding resource-based industries and their future in the Australian social landscape.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010, c1980.
———. “The Structuralist Activity.” In Critical Theory since Plato, edited by Hazard Adams, 1128-30. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.
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Currie, Gregory. “Visible Traces: Documentary and the Contents of Photographs.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57, no. 3 (Summer, 1999): 285-97.
Day, Jonathan. Robert Frank’s ‘the Americans’: The Art of Documentary Photography. Bristol, UK: Intellect Ltd, 2011.
Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences (1978).” In Critical Theory since Plato, edited by Hazard Adams. New York: Wadsworth Publishing, 2004.
Foundation, Humble Arts. “Solo Show: Ron Jude.” Humble Arts, http://hafny.org/exhibitions/soloshow/ron-jude/interview/
Grierson, John. “First Principles of Documentary.” In Nonfiction Film: A Critical History, edited by Richard Barsam, 19-30. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1932-1934.
Mitchell, William J. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001.
Nelson, Andrea. “Reading Photobooks: Narrative Montage and the Construction of Modern Visual Literacy.” University of Minnesota, 2007.
Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography: From 1839 to Present. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982.
Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.
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Shea, Daniel. “Blisner, Ill.”. Chicago: Daniel Shea, 2013.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. London: Penguin Group, 1977.
Workshop, Visual Studies. “Christian Patterson 2012 Photo-Bookworks Symposium.” Vimeo, http://vimeo.com/66020664
———. “Gregory Halpern 2010 Photo-Bookworks Symposium.” Vimeo, http://vimeo.com/album/2274426/video/44391738