Is Documentary Still Credible?
Martin Parr (UK) is one of the most celebrated photographers today. Respected in art circles and the documentary sector alike, his images of the everyday are ironic and amusing, yet somehow tender and sympathetic. Brilliant satires of contemporary life, his photographs engage and communicate with diverse audiences and have earned him an international reputation for his unique style and vision.
Parr has exhibited extensively since the early 1970s. Numerous publications of are of his available and his images are included in magazines and newspapers all over the globe. He became a full member of the prestigious Magnum Photographic Corporation in 1994.
More recently, Parr has curated exhibitions of other photographers’ work and photographed commercial fashion. He has also been developing his interest in the moving image, making several films including a video clip for the Pet Shop Boys. In 2004, he was appointed Professor of Photography at the University of Wales, Newport Campus and in the same year he was Guest Artistic Director for Rencontres D’Arles. Currently, an impressive retrospective of his work (initiated by the Barbican Art Gallery and National Museum, in 2002) is travelling Europe and he is working on a book exploring the relationship between Mexican and American culture.
Justin Clemens discusses an advertising poster, which he describes as the most graffitied image in Paris over the New Year period 2003–4. The advertisement is a photograph of a couple on a couch, the woman in lingerie, the man reclining with a camera; a familiar and perhaps even innocuous image these days. If some Parisians still seem to believe that daubing “Down with ads!” has some kind of beneficial political significance, the mutilations inflicted on this poster differed from the usual sorts of defacement in their focus and intensity. “Leave this guy,” the graffiti-artists advised, “this ad is sexist”. The anthropologist Michael Taussig has noted that public monuments are often only noticed after they’ve been defaced; otherwise, they simply disappear into their environment, subject to Walter Benjamin’s dictum that architecture is the epitome of “an art experienced by the mass in a state of distraction”. A number of questions follow: why bother defacing this stuff at all? Who really cares that much about an advertising image? And, perhaps: are some images precisely designed to encourage their own destruction?
Justin Clemens has written extensively on psychoanalysis, philosophy and art. His recent books include The Mundiad (Black Inc, 2004) and, with Dominic Pettman, Avoiding the Subject (Amsterdam UP, 2004). He teaches at Deakin University, and is the art critic for The Monthly.
With the advent of digital technologies, is the traditional notion of documentary photography, developed in 1930s America, simply anachronistic, a romantic longing for a simpler age? How might documentary be defined in a contemporary context: is documentary black and white, a narrative series, an unconstructed environment, the truth? Clearly there is still interest in documentary as evidenced by the huge audiences for Reportage and the Leica/CCP Documentary Photography Award. In 2005 the Leica/CCP Award was, for the first time in its 10-year history, extended to include digital as well as analogue processes. However, much was made of the photographers need to declare the verisimilitude of their work, that it was not digitally manipulated. In this panel discussion an artist, writer, curator and picture editor gathered to discuss what documentary might mean in theory and practice at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Helen Frajman is an independent curator and editor of photography, and Director of Melbourne’s M.33. Jesse Marlow is a Melbourne based documentary photographer. He is a member of Australia’s leading documentary agency Oculi and is in the process of publishing his second book Wounded. Dr Kyla McFarlane is Curator/exhibitions at Monash University Museum of Art and was previously a pictorial editor at The Age. Her essay Attending to the Real: Documentary Photography Now accompanied the 2005 Leica/CCP Documentary Photography Award exhibition. Jacqui Vicario is Picture Editor of the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Telegraph and the organiser of the annual Reportage Festival, initiated in Sydney in 1999.
The reputation of Paul Strand (1890–1976) as one of the twentieth century’s most notable photographers is based largely on abstract works made at the outset of his career. His later work, which dealt with apparently more naturalistic subjects, has attracted comparatively little attention. In his lecture Fraser MacDonald argues that this uneven construction of Strand’s genius is a legacy of his liminal status as a Marxist exile from McCarthyite America after 1949. This paper attempts to engage Strand’s post-war photography on aesthetic and geopolitical grounds, by attending to the relationship between his Communist politics and his modernism. In particular, MacDonald uses Strand’s 1962 book on the Scottish Hebrides to show how his seemingly straight treatment of rural sociality and folkloric knowledge became the vehicle for a critique of NATO militarism.
Fraser MacDonald is a lecturer in cultural and historical geography in the School of Anthropology, Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Melbourne. He studied at the Universities of Glasgow and Oxford and held a research fellowship at the University of Aberdeen before moving to Australia in 2004. A recent paper, Paul Strand and the Atlanticist Cold War appeared in the journal History of Photography.