YOP Critical Review….lots of indecision

Posted on October 26, 2013


In my last post on my plan of work for YOP I suggested a theme for the Critical Review which I have to undertake as part of YOP. My expressed intention was to explore ‘the issue of photographic meaning and how this is influenced by associating an image with other  images and with text as the theme’.  I have more recently been putting together a work plan for YOP for discussion with my tutor Sharon Boothroyd and I have been attempting to clarify the scope of the Critical Review. This post sets out some of my thinking so far. I have by no means reached a firm conclusion, but I wanted to write down some of my thoughts to help clarify my thinking and to set them on record as a starting point for developing the conceptual basis of my Critical Review.

The statement that I wish to ‘explore the issue of photographic meaning’  is with hindsight extremely open ended.  In reality I am most concerned with ‘how documentary photographers create meaning in their work through the interplay of images and text’. This research will I hope underpin the conceptual basis for my Women and Landscape and Always follow ur dreams!! projects.

At the heart of all this is the question of how photographs communicate meaning. Barthes’ ideas set out in his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ are a particularly useful construct to consider  this question. Whilst his analysis is directed at an advertising image his arguments are equally valid when applied to documentary photography. Barthes proposes that a photograph creates meaning through both detonation and connotation. The former is the literal description of what is depicted – a picture of a cross denotes its referent, a cross. The same picture may also connote other meanings – in christian countries for example the cross will stand for the church. Connoted meaning is created through cultural codes unique to particular societies – to a bushman in Africa for example a cross may mean something completely different. When referring to the linguistic component of an advertisement Barthes suggests that it is used to direct the  meaning connoted by the image, either by locking it down (anchorage) or by providing additional information suggesting other possible connotations (relay).  If one accepts Barthes analysis (and I do) then it becomes apparent that the idea of photography being a universal language capable of being read by all is a nonsense. Photographic meaning will always be dependent on the cultural codes applied by the viewer, which will vary from viewer to viewer and will depend on the context within which the photograph is viewed. Barthes uses the term polysemy to describe the capacity for photographs to convey multiple meanings. Barthes also talks about how sequences of images work to create meaning and takes the view that the ‘signifier of connotation is then no longer to be found at the level of any one of the fragments of the sequence but at that…of the concatenation’.

So given this analysis of how photographs create meaning my question perhaps should be redefined to be ‘how do documentary photographers tackle the polysemic nature of the photographic image in their work‘.  Documentary photographers wishing to convey particular point of view need to find a way to deal with this – possibly through sequences of images and/or the use of text.  In other cases the photographer’s aim might simply be to provoke debate and to raise questions. In which case he/she might be content to allow ambiguity to pervade their work. The aim of my Critical Review could be to examine these questions.

There are a number of ways in which I might explore this idea. I could conduct an historical review of documentary photography and to evaluate key trends over time. I could choose a particular photographer and study their approach in depth (this fits in closely with the exact wording of the scope of the Critical Review in the course notes which calls for the review of a particular photographer). I could select a several documentary photographers and compare and contrast the approaches they use.

Reflecting on the history of documentary photography in the West it is clear that there has been a multiplicity of approaches and that thinking has shifted over time. Here are a just a few highlights:

  • early 20th century social documentary work – photographs were used to illustrate text in pamphlets and other campaigning materials. The images  embellished the text rather than the reverse;
  • Mid 20th century photojournalism (including the photo essay, Picture Post etc) – photographs formed the principle component of the essays with connoted meaning firmly anchored by text (and directed at supporting the prevailing ideology of the publishing entity);
  • The rise of personal ‘subjective’ documentary in the 1950s – this constituted a break with photojournalistic principles through a more subjective form of personal documentary. Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ was groundbreaking is this respect. Text is limited to just short captions identifying where and when the photos were made and a free-wheeling essay by Jack Kerouac at the start of book which sets the tone for how the photographs might be viewed. Here Frank was offering up a form of documentary where intended meaning is not explicit and in which the viewer is allowed more freedom to make judgements on meaning. This form of documentary also positioned the photographer as auteur – a creative genius rather than just a reporter of facts. This was a significant factor  leading to the representation of documentary photography as art and photographer as artist – something in which John Szarkowski at MOMA played a significant part.
  • Late 1960s San Diego new documentary – Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler and others proposed a more politicised form of documentary and critiqued the traditional social documentary models and opposed the classification of documentary as art. Their writings exposed the inherent limits of a documentary genre based purely on photographic imagery . Many of their art works were image/text installations.
  • Contemporary documentary – a brief survey of several practising documentary photographers revealed an eclectic mix ranging from ‘Frank’ style subjective documentary to work with closely knit image/text structures. There seems to be a desire to have one’s cake and eat it. Images are presented as art – large (gallery) prints and in books without captions alongside. At the same time gallery installations include large text panels and books have supporting essays and caption information (most often at the rear of the book separate from the images).  It seems that the present day photographers want to be both art photographers and documentarians. My survey included Burtynsky, Shore, Meyerowitz, Misrach, Power and Sternfeld.

So is the Critical Review as I have conceived worth pursuing and if so how best to approach it….decisions, decisions…..