Erosion: On Errol Morris
St. Ann’s Warehouse, a theater in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, was dark and crowded on a pleasant Saturday afternoon last summer, when about a dozen documentary photographers who were taking part in the New York Photo Festival wedged themselves behind a table on the stage. The cramped seating didn’t much ease the tension in the air. While discussing their work—one of them called it “hypersubjective,” another “nontraditionally” documentary—the photographers kept circling back to a review of the festival published a day or two earlier in the New York Times. Ken Johnson had written that their images evoked “the feeling of a fast, superficial skimming of the world appealing to random, short-attention-span curiosity.” While he argued that the photographs weren’t “striking enough” to waken deeper interest in their subjects—a serious fault for images billed as documentary—he also dismissed them as too beautiful, “nearly hallucinogenic” in their aestheticization. In different ways each photographer groped for a response, with the bewilderment of one who’s been misunderstood by a friend.
That documentary photography can’t be both gorgeous and ethical is by now an old and dog-eared criticism, though Johnson was probably also disappointed by the quality of the stuff he’d seen. Jessica Hines plays with irreconcilable scale and unbridgeable time in some of her photos, which reflect on her older brother’s suicide ten years after he served in Vietnam: she went to where he’d been during the war and held up his old snapshots of those places against present-day backgrounds—and photographed the combination. The visual effect is not quite as charged as the experience must have been. Alejandro Chaskielberg staged photographs of South Americans on the Paraná River delta at night, using a long shutter speed that made his large prints gush with Technicolor. His figures looked static, caught in sweetened and phantasmagorical setups. Later in the summer, at an exhibition called “Otherworldly” at the Museum of Arts and Design, I thought back on Chaskielberg’s bright-plastic scenes: they seemed related to the “false documentary” photographs of meticulously built dioramas and dollhouses that were on display uptown—conscience journalism from an imaginary place.
Probably the most provocative technique in Dumbo was also the least “creative”—that of Basetrack, a collective that had launched a web-based project to document the American war in Afghanistan. The pictures of one Basetracker were big, square blowups of snapshots taken with smartphones using the Hipstamatic app, a filter that simulates the grainy, faded look of prints and Polaroids that was common during the early childhoods of most of today’s iPhone owners. Basetrack’s idea was to make war images, which often look alien and alienating, seem as familiar as casual snapshots, and as difficult to ignore. The tiny furor ignited by the group’s decision to use a commercial app was similar to the debate that arose earlier this year when New York Times photographer Damon Winter earned a prize from Pictures of the Year International for a Hipstamatic photo of two American soldiers in Afghanistan. If there’s an initial jolt to seeing war captured with the same antiquing app used to immortalize a Sunday brunch, it wears off quickly in these photographs. They’re carefully framed, capturing “decisive moments,” yet look like they could have been taken during the mujahedeens’ decade-long war with the Soviets and snipped from faded issues of National Geographic.
At St. Ann’s Warehouse, a number of the photographers shrugged off the strictures of documentary work altogether. “We don’t go to galleries and ask for a text to a painting or sculpture, but photography has this claim to reality.” The word “claim” seemed cradled in scare quotes. Hines said that photography “just reflects what’s in our own minds, obviously.” A moderator of the panel and curator of the show, Enrico Bossan, couldn’t resist a cheeky question: “Documentary or citizen journalism? If we want to kill it, do we kill documentary or citizen journalism?” The photographer Benjamin Lowy said, “It’s not a competition. ‘Amateur journalism’ is a demeaning term. Did any of us go to journalism school? We’ve just been doing it longer. Our time of spot news recording is at an end.”
Lowy added that nowadays everybody carries a digital camera in their pocket, and often when he’s covering a conflict it’s being documented simultaneously by the combatants themselves. He didn’t think of them as his rivals, but in some sense they are. Social networking has immersed us all in photography to a degree that can easily go unnoticed, even by those of us who regularly log on to our Facebook accounts and see dozens of our friends’ snapshots per visit, new ones burping open every few seconds like soap bubbles. The last time “vernacular” images caught on so fast was the 1880s, when smaller and simpler cameras transformed photography from the pursuit of eccentric elites to a popular hobby of the middle classes. The rise of the “snapshot”—this was the era when candidly documenting one’s personal friends, holidays and special occasions first became a craze—in turn triggered the Pictorialist movement, dedicated to rescuing the medium from shutterbugs and elevating it to the status of art. Painterly conventions were meant to do the hoisting (it helped that no snapshooter was thought able to master the new aesthetic), and as a result many serious photographs from the 1890s and 1910s can look quite alien to us today: blurry, full of carefully concocted poses and often oversized and printed on watercolor paper so as to mimic the texture of paintings.
If the flood of snapshots is even deeper now than it was in the 1880s, what’s noteworthy is less the style of the images than the informality of their circulation. On Facebook, intimate, life-altering information is often delivered in the form of a pictogram rather than a written “status update”—the ur-example being the dim, grainy sonogram news flash, which gestates as the mother’s profile picture and then bursts forth into religious iconography with the posting of the Madonna-and-child snapshot. Births, bar mitzvahs, vacations, graduations, weddings and car accidents tend to be announced by way of their visual documentation. Compared with whatever we choose to write about ourselves, these snapshots seem to offer incontrovertible proof that how we wish to be seen is, in fact, precisely how we look. (Facebook’s choice of the word “status” for this theater of self-presentation seems borderline parodic.) Whether all those images are improving our visual literacy or just making us slowly go blind, I don’t know. Either way, we seem increasingly comfortable with the idea that our private mementos are part of a global archive of raw, impersonal data belonging to no one and subject to anybody’s assessing gaze.
Meanwhile, the professional documentary photographers working under these image-blizzard conditions tend to be declaring their imaginative freedom; an educated eye is perhaps the main asset they have over “citizen journalists.” Of course, if a photograph in a newspaper were found to have been posed or manipulated it would be the end of someone’s career, but elsewhere—in books, galleries and online—the truth claims of documentary work are blending with aesthetic ambitions that used to be sealed off, as a distinct genre, in art photography. While the men and women in Dumbo were not really reinventing the standard compositional mode of photojournalism—they stuck to rapidly legible images that focus on a moment of tension or action—they infused it with elements of a more painterly, confected style, and their prints were in general too large for magazine or book formats.
In all this they were gesturing toward the large-scale, sometimes staged photographs meant for gallery walls, made by the likes of Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky since the 1970s. (The work of William Eggleston and Bernd and Hilla Becher—lush color and fearless confrontation of blank contemporary spaces captured in a flat, deadpan tone—has proved enormously influential.) In the past twenty years or so this style has grown in prominence and made a new way of seeing available: an utterly detached and even lifeless gaze, opening windows onto Brueghel-like scenes whose sharp, omnipresent focus suggests the viewpoint of satellites or predator birds or gods.
Sebastião Salgado’s monumental tableaus, often of exploited workers from around the planet, form another bridge between the documentary and art schools (and have been criticized accordingly). New Yorkers could see a separate strand of the aesthetic last summer at MoMA’s exhibition of Boris Mikhailov’s series of enormous posed (and paid for) portraits of Ukrainians in distress. London’s Tate Modern has highlighted the aesthetic with a show called “New Documentary Forms,” featuring the work of five new documentarians, including Mikhailov and the French photographer Luc Delahaye. At the festival in Dumbo, the photographers’ attempts to anoint themselves with the pixie dust of this zeitgeist mostly fell flat: the trappings of bazooka color and hyper-realism (sometimes staged) were present in the images, but the way they zeroed in on subjects—with a belief in the photograph’s ability to mine psychological insights from one key incident and deliver them intact to the viewer—was deeply traditional.
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