Exercise: A Decisive Moment – Jon Levy

This video is rather similar in vein that of Miranda Gavin explaining what documentary photography is. Jon Levy, founder of Foto8 magazine explains to Jose Navarro some of the criteria he looks at when selecting photo essays for his magazine. He stresses that there has to be the premise of storytelling, not fictional, but in the form of a report when work is selected.  He has one important criteria that he employs when evaluating work because of the ambiguity that exists between journalism and art and that is what is the intention of the photographer.

He stresses that the photographer’s intention with the work must be present at the outset when he/she begins to shoot and not come along as an afterthought after the work has been explained. It is this intention which separates photojournalism and art. This is a much better explanation, in my mind, than the one given by Miranda Gavin. Levy is of the same opinion as Bainbridge (2011) it should be the viewer’s job to try and understand what the photographer’s intentions/motives/ideas and instincts are when we view their work.

Photojournalism doesn’t have to be documents about far off countries, or wars. They can be about local, personal, intimate stories. The quieter and emotional stories can connect to people just as well. Neither does the work need to necessarily be made from a Western viewpoint. All viewpoints are valid.



Bainbridge, S. (2011) Time & Motion Studies: New documentary photography beyond the decisive moment. At: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/herefordbainbridge (Accessed on 24 May 2019)

Jon Levy on the Intentions of the Photographer. (2011) Directed by Open College of the Arts. At: https://vimeo.com/18504946 (Accessed on 29 May 2019)

Exercise: A Decisive Moment?

For this exercise we are to read Simon Bainbridge’s article on the 2011 Hereford Photography Festival and select one of the bodies of work in the article and write a 200-word reflective commentary. The photographers mentioned are Donald Weber, Robbie Cooper, Manuel Vasquez, George Georgiou and Vanessa  Winship.

The only photographer whose work I was familiar with was Robbie Cooper who I wrote about here. I found Donald Weber’s Interrogations quite disturbing and haunting in a way., but decided to look at George Georgiou’s work in more detail as I was intrigued by his presentation method. As Bainbridge states Georgiou’s work is with sequential imagery, but he doesn’t present the images in sequence. He interrupts the flow of one sequence with another, sometimes mixing up the order of the sequences and this creates a rather uncanny feel to his project. There is an aura of surveillance about his work as one discerns through his workflow images of the same people taken at varying distances from the photographer. I have to wonder if he was hidden when he made this images. Georgiou presents his work as contact sheets, but with an irregular grid format as can be seen below. This irregularity seems to emphasis the “geopolitical battle [that] is being fought out in Ukraine and Georgia, in their nascent stages of nation-building and as they try to free themselves from Russian influence” (Georgiou, s.d.).

The Shadow of the Bear: Georgia/Ukraine by George Georgiou

Bainbridge’s objective was to get the viewers to think about the photographers as these images are viewed, specifically how they position themselves in order to capture their images, think about what their motives and ideas could be. Most importantly he emphasises that ‘the decisive moment’ is not necessarily the instantaneous surreal event that the photographer is incredibly lucky to capture that we have come to know from Cartier-Bresson’s work. It can also be derived from editing, deciding where to pull a still from a video, or waiting for a particular moment and this is clearly evident in Georgiou’s project.



Bainbridge, S. (2011) Time & Motion Studies: New documentary photography beyond the decisive moment. At: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/herefordbainbridge (Accessed on 24 May 2019)

Georgiou, G. (s.d.) The Shadow of the Bear: Georgia/Ukraine. At: https://www.georgegeorgiou.net/gallery.php?ProjectID=183 (Accessed on 29 May 2019)

Weber, D. (s.d.) Interrogations. At: http://donaldweber.com/interrogations/ (Accessed on 29 May 2019)

Exercise: The Myth of Objectivity

For this exercise we are asked to compare two quotes by André Bazin and Allan Sekula, noting their positions and then record our own view on the topic of photography objectivity.

For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man…In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented.

(André Bazin, ‘the Ontology of the Photographic Image’ In Film Quarterly 1960 p. 7-8)

Bazin lays the foundation of his essay by comparing the plastic arts to the practice of embalming the dead, the purpose of this process being to cheat death by ensuring that the physical body remained in existence. This process evolved in other art forms into the representation of life, such as painting, sculptures and drawings. Like Kendall Walton (Walton, K.L. (1984) ‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ In: Critical Inquiry 11 (2) pp.246–277), Bazin is of the opinion that a painting is subjective because the painter brings forth his/her imagination and interpretation to the canvas and this can throw doubt on the veracity of the scene being painted.

However, Bazin opines that, photography is, by its very nature, objective. Hugh Gray, translator of Bazin’s essay makes an interesting point that the French word for a lens is ‘objectif’. This point is frequently lost in translation. Bazin claims that in photography there is only ‘the instrumentality of a nonliving agent’ that intervenes between the subject and ‘its reproduction’ and that this process is automatic, without any creative intervention on the photographer’s part (Bazin, 1960: 7). As far as Bazin is concerned the photographer just chooses where to stand and when to press the shutter. Perhaps this “objectivity” might be possible if the camera was mounted to a wall and programmed to take a series of photographs at specified times (as surveillance videos do), but even this would still involve human intervention in my mind. Someone would still have to direct the focus of the camera, decide on the angles, composition, depth of field and so on and even program the computer (or camera) to take the images at the specified times.

The quote above is quite redacted. There are a number of paragraphs missing (represented by the ellipsis) that convey Bazin’s passing nod to the participation of the photographer. Granted he doesn’t seem to regard the photographer as having any great role at all, except that of a glorified tripod, as he states that ‘all the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence’ (Bazin, 1960: 7). He then goes on to claim that ‘the photographic image is the object itself’ (Bazin, 1960:8). As Walton (1984: 249) rightly observed such an illusion is next to impossible. No one in their right mind would equate a photograph of Buckingham Palace to being the actual palace.

If we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.

(Allan Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning, 1975, p. 454)

Sekula’s essay is heavily influenced by the work of Roland Barthes. Like Barthes, Sekula is of the opinion that photographic meaning is influenced by the viewer’s cultural background. Although all photographs have a point of view and “message”, this message is incomplete and needs an external set of conditions in order for it to be read correctly. The context in which we read a photograph can alter its meaning. The same photograph seen in a magazine will take on a different meaning when seen as a 6 foot print in an art gallery. Photography is a language or sign system that to be learned. Sekula offers an example of a Bushman woman (correct name is actually Khoisan) who was shown a photograph of her child. Having never been exposed to technology like photography, she was unable to equate the representation on the piece of paper with her child until the likeness was pointed out and explained to her. Photography is a system of signs and Sekula goes on to provide two very in-depth case study examples of this using the photograhs, The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz and Immigrants Going Down Gangplank by Lewis Hine.

By this very nature, in my mind, photography can not be truly objective. As viewers, we bring our own interpretations to the image, based on the available facts (or lack of them), our culture and any background we might know, just as the photographer brings his own knowledge, culture and background into play when he makes the image. As Sekula concludes in his essay, all photographic reading is based on two poles of meaning, i.e. ‘symbolist‘ and ‘realist‘. This can be further developed as follows: ‘photographer as seer vs. photographer as witness, photography as expression vs. photography as reportage, theories of imagination (and inner truth) vs. theories of empirical truth, affective value vs. informative value, and finally, metaphoric signification vs. metonymic signification’ (Sekula, 1975: 472)

As an aside, I was able to watch an extremely interesting video on press freedom and objectivity last night which was a total eye-opener for me. Objectivity and fake news was discussed in great depth.  I found certain comments that Rosler made in her essay In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography) resonated with me while I was watching this video. I’m just putting the link to the short clip here in case someone is interested in watching it: https://video.foxnews.com/v/6038711418001/#sp=show-clips. However, the transcript of the interview is available at: https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/pete-hegseth-discusses-bias-in-the-mainstream-media.



Bazin, A. (1960) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ Translated by Gray, H. In: Film Quarterly 13 (4) pp.4–9.

Levin, M. (2019a) Pete Hegseth discusses bias in the mainstream media | Fox News Transcript. At: https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/pete-hegseth-discusses-bias-in-the-mainstream-media (Accessed on 19 May 2019)

Levin, M. (2019) Pete Hegseth discusses bias in the mainstream media | Fox News Video. At: https://video.foxnews.com/v/6038711418001/#sp=show-clips (Accessed on 19 May 2019)

Sekula, A. (1975) “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’, Artforum 13:5 (Jan 1975), pp 36-45; repr. in Goldberg, V. (ed.) Photography in Print, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981, pp 452-473.

Exercise: In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)

It’s little wonder that this essay, written in a murky, negative style, is so difficult to understand. Rosler’s writing style which employs multiple uses of double negatives in her sentences is confusing to say the least. I first read this essay when I was doing Context and Narrative and it isn’t any easier the second time around. The essay starts off by posing the question “how can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photographic practice?” (Rosler, 1992: 302) and concludes with “the gutting of feminism in society makes the continuation of feminist art essential” (Rosler, 1992: 333). Such a wide gamut to cover!

At the heart of Rosler’s essay is the gaze, subject, object and the way of looking. The essay then goes on to cover truth, neutrality, and the positions of power between the sitter and the photographer. Rosler argues that documentary photography is representative of the liberal social conscience. It is a public genre which she negatively describes as having “muckraking associations”. Historically it had sensationalist tendencies, where photographers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine would photograph life in the slums and advocate for the rectification of society’s wrongs. They would appeal to the more affluent class who would be guilt-tripped into providing charity for these people, thereby easing their social consciences, yet still maintaining their self-interest preservation of their superior class. This moralism was an important component of reformist documentary photography.  Rosler actually wrote this essay in 1981, so what has changed between the time when Riis and Hine made their images and the present day? I still think that we see elements of this reformist documentary photography in the media today. Just think of some of the UNICEF ads and certain fund raising campaigns such as this one: https://www.launchgood.com/campaign/save_yemen_children#!/. Surely this social discourse still relies on the shock element to appeal to the privileged sensibilities in order to raise money?

Rosler considers the type of photographs that historically were taken at the Bowery as victim photography. Would those inebriated persons be equally willing to be photographed in a similar fashion if they were sober? Is the photographer abusing his/her position of power by exposing this homelessness to the public? These are questions that documentary photographers wrestle with even today, but how else would the public be exposed to this world with its conditions and problems, which they don’t normally occupy if not via these types of photographs?

Mainstream documentary photography now has its beginnings in books, magazines and newspapers. As it becomes more expensive it moves into museums and art galleries, still serving as to ameliorate those viewers’ consciences who have a superior financial and social position. “Liberal documentary tends to equate poverty and oppression with natural disasters so avoiding causal links and the assigning of the blame to oppressors unless the oppressors are enemies of the United States” (La Grange, 2008: 114). Of course when this essay was written that enemy was “World Communism” according to Rosler. I think the world has become more complicated since then. Rosler draws our attention to the work of W. Eugene Smith and his wife, Aileen who spent time in the early 1970s working on an exposé on the devastation caused by the mercury pollution of the Chisso chemical firm into the waters of Minamata, Japan. The victims attempted to gain redress for their families, but when the court battle was successful, the magazine Camera 35 ran the story with their own headline and photograph (one of Eugene Smith entitled “Our Man of the Year”) and not the photograph and text that Smith had submitted. In this way the focus of the story was turned about face and became about the photographer instead of his subjects in Minamata. How often does the discourse of a documentary narrative get changed by the newspaper/magazine editor these days? I think that it is extremely prevalent today in this age of fake news.

W. Eugene Smith, Tomoko in Her Bath, Minamata, Japan, 1972, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1983.63.1276

Documentary photography has two paradigms. The first is the “immediate” one, where an image is created in the moment and is represented as a trace. The second is the “aesthetic-historical” moment where the viewer gives in to the visual pleasures of the image, but is less concerned with the historical meaning, but simply aware that it occurred in the past. This “covert appreciation”, says Rosler, is dangerous because as time passes the social aspect of the photograph (the collective memory), the initial purpose it was made for dims and all that is left is the aesthetics of the image. John Berger refers to the time between when a photograph was taken and when it is viewed as the abyss, or discontinuity. Look at Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Florence Thompson (Migrant Mother) as an example. How many young photographers today know anything about the dire conditions of the migrant farmers during the 1930’s depression years? If we consider the mutability of ‘aesthetic rightness’ that Rosler mentions we can see that of the three images displayed below it is the last image, the one which became famous, that has the most impact, even though it is cropped in tight and shows little context in which these migrants families found themselves. I believe it is the lack of eye contact from the subjects and the fact that the children have turned their heads away from the photographer/viewer that carry a more a powerful visual punch than the other two images. The worry lines on Florence Thompson’s face are more evident in the final image as well. There is a haunting quality to this image that is not present in the others.


Would that photograph be as powerful now if it was taken in 2019? I don’t believe so. Eighty three years have passed since that photograph was taken and the world has changed greatly. We have been exposed to more gore and bloodshed through the medium of film and television since the 1980s than is healthy for anyone’s consumption and have become quite inured to plights of hunger and poverty. We are all suffering from compassion fatigue – we have seen it all before. At the same time Rosler argues that the notion of ‘aesthetic rightness’ is flawed and notions of classical beauty lead one away from the real world into an ‘aesthetic eternality’ (La Grange, 2008: 123). What does Rosler mean by ‘aesthetic eternality’? Is it the effect that the photograph will have sometime in the future, perhaps decades later, across the discontinuities? I’m not sure. This essay raises more questions whenever I try to understand what point Rosler is trying to make.

Although Rosler advocates that her images “do not argue for political statements, however they stand next to the struggles and highlight them” (Galeria àngels barcelona, 2017), her essay is quite peppered with such statements. She states that the left believes that documentary is a social institution, mainly there to serve and reinforce the wealthy class. We need only look at the media of today to see that it has become a monolithic self-serving entity where objectivity is a foreign notion. The right, according to Rosler, wants to “secure the primacy of authorship and isolate it within the gallery-museum-art-market nexus” thereby making a distinction between “elite understanding” and “common understanding” (Rosler, 1992: 320) and this has caused photographic discourse to lean more towards aesthetics, while ignoring or downplaying content or politics.

Liberal documentary as it existed by appealing to the higher classes to take pity on the lower classes is a thing of the past, says Rosler (1992: 325). The documentary that is prevalent today is one which exposes workplace issues, racism, sexism and class oppression, etc., but its impact still hasn’t reached the full effect of generating social change.



Galeria àngels barcelona (2017) Martha Rosler – 1981 (the year the future began) – YouTube. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPOrpSqaDAo (Accessed on 17 May 2019)

la Grange, A. (2008) ‘Martha Rosler, In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)’ In: Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Oxford: Focal Press.  pp.113–124.

Rosler, M. (1992) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ In: Bolton, R. (ed.) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.  pp. 303–340.

Save Yemen Children | LaunchGood (s.d.) At: https://www.launchgood.com/campaign/save_yemen_children#!/ (Accessed on 16 May 2019)



Lange, D. (1936a) Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017762891/ (Accessed on 17 May 2019)

Lange, D. (1936b) Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is a native Californian. Destitute in pea picker’s camp, Nipomo, California, because of the failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tent in order to buy food. Of the twenty-five hundred people in this camp most of them were destitute. At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017762903/ (Accessed on 17 May 2019)

Lange, D. (1936c) Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is native Californian. Nipomo, California. At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017762908/ (Accessed on 17 May 2019)

Smith, W.E. (1972) Tomoko in Her Bath, Minamata, Japan | Smithsonian American Art Museum. At: https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/tomoko-her-bath-minamata-japan-22604 (Accessed on 7 May 2019)


I have created a mind map around the concepts of Postmodernism according to the article written by Mary Klages “Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed |Postmodernism” located on the course module’s resources tab.

Discontinuities – Appearances by John Berger

The course manual references Berger’s essay Appearances which features in Understanding a Photograph, a copy of which I have on my shelf. I have read this essay a few times since purchasing the book, but it would be good to make some notes on it with regards to this part of the module, even though I made a few notes about it during IAP.

Berger begins his essay with a reference to a rather anonymous photograph of a man smiling with his horse. There is no context as to who the man or the photographer were.

  • ‘Every photograph presents us with two messages: a message concerning the event photographed and another concerning a shock of discontinuity (Berger 2013: 56). The event that is photographed is done either in an objective mode or a subjective mode.
  • But what exactly is this discontinuity? Berger explains it rather well: “between the moment recorded and the present moment of looking at the photograph, there is an abyss (Berger 2013: 56). This abyss refers to the time lapsed since the photograph was taken and the viewer looking at the photograph now. One is only really aware of this abyss when the photograph is of a personal nature, i.e. a relative or friend living elsewhere or perhaps passed away. If we don’t know the people in the photograph then we are only aware of the event that was recorded. This is probably why all the respondents to the What Makes a Document? exercise just prior to this one had difficulty perceiving the context of the priest and military man image.
  • ‘The ambiguity of a photograph does not reside within the instant of the event photographed … The ambiguity arises out of that discontinuity which gives rise to the second of the photograph’s twin messages. (The abyss between the moment recorded and the moment of looking.)’ (Berger 2013: 57).
  • Berger compares a photograph to a stored memory, but stresses the fundamental difference between the two. An memory that we store in our brain is the result of an experience (residual), while a photograph isolates a certain moment in time without any connection to any experience. “… Meaning is not instantaneous. Meaning is discovered in what connects, and cannot exist without development’ (Berger 2013: 57). Interestingly Berger mentions that facts and information do not constitute meaning. Meaning comes with time and is a response to the known as well as the unknown. It is also inseparable from mystery and neither can exist without the passing of time. ‘Certainty may be instantaneous; doubt requires duration; meaning is born of the two. An instant photographed can only acquire meaning insofar as the viewer can read into it a duration extending beyond itself. When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future’ (Berger 2013: 57).
  • This discontinuity renders all photographs ambiguous as all photographs are snippets of time. If the event is a public one e.g. a photo of soldiers raising a flag on top of a hill at Iwo Jima, it becomes history; if it is a personal one, e.g. birthday party, then it forms part of a life story. Berger claims that even a landscape breaks with continuity i.e. light and weather (Berger 2013: 58). I must admit I had never thought about a landscape in this way before. But when we use words with the photograph the ambiguity is not always so obvious and the words lend certain credibility or authority to the photograph.
  • Berger offers a similar explanation as Gregory Currie (1999) does in his paper ‘Visible Traces: Documentary and the Contents of Photographs’ about the difference between trace and translation (which Currie refers to as testimony). A trace is an imprint of something that has been created by the object i.e. a photograph of a seascape or footprints in the sand. A translation or testimony is something that has been created from someone’s imagination of what he/she thinks they see i.e. a painting or a drawing. A trace is made mechanically without any intervention (a shutter button is pressed or a foot is pressed down into wet sand), whereas a translation is an ongoing process of looking and drawing (Berger refers to this as making and receiving).
  • Time is considered differently when looking at trace and translation too. When the shutter button is pressed on a camera the time taken to make that imprint is uniform. But when making a painting or a drawing time is not uniform. As Berger explains a painter will not take as long to paint a sky as he does to paint a face due to the finer details required (Berger 2013: 60).

Berger, J. (2013) ‘Appearances’ In: Dyer, G. (ed.) Understanding a Photograph. New York: Aperture Foundation.  pp.55–82.

Exercise: 5 Photographs

The Brief:

Make a selection of up to 5 photographs from your personal or family collection. They can be as recent or old as you wish. The only requirement is that they depict events that are relevant to you on a personal level and couldn’t belong to anyone else. (i.e. no photographs of the Eiffel Tower)

Using OCA forums such as OCA/student and OCA/Flickr group ask the learning communities to provide short captions or explanations for your photographs.

Summarise your findings and make them public in the same forums that you used for your research. Make sure that you also add this to your learning log.

(Documentary – Fact & Fiction | Photography 2 Course Manual, 2014:22)

I must say I did get a few chuckles from some of the responses I received for this exercise.

Image 1

There was overall consensus that this was a new house, new beginnings and new family. There were a few attempts to date this photograph. One person said 1970’s another 1980’s (that is correct). Another person who had an advantage stated that it was a new home on the Gold Mines, which is almost spot on as the house is situated within the gold mining town of Roodepoort, South Africa. This was my husband and myself’s first house purchase (it was brand new) and the photograph was taken about two weeks before we moved into the house. We were so cash-strapped that we couldn’t afford grass seed so cut runners of Kikuyu grass from my mother and mother-in-law’s lawns and using an old spoon made furrows in the rock hard ground and planted the runners in that. We used to travel about 60 kilometres during the week after work to go and water this piece of lawn. The pram contains my second son.

Image 2

This photo caused a little more confusion. A few folks guessed that some or other type of competition was happening. One person made a connection to World Cup soccer which was correct – just not the participants and the date. He had it down as 1970 with Brazil vs England, but this was 2006 with Brazil playing France in the finals. The photograph was taken in North Vancouver, Canada – yes we do get sun in Canada :-). The three gentlemen in the photograph are three homestay students who were staying with at our house at the time. Brazilian students always seem to have a national flag with them wherever they go, but the two French students didn’t have a flag so they created one out of their T-shirts. The flags were hooked onto the washing line and remained there until after the match, when needless to say, the French students went slightly crazy from the euphoria of winning.

Image 3

There were all sorts of comments which had me chuckling for this photograph. One person said it was a group of friends celebrating, another said it was a boozy night with the folks. Actually it was the aftermath of my twenty-first birthday party (I’m seated on the left) after most of the guests had left. My mother is in the photo (with the blue dress), but the pouting man is not my father, but was my dance instructor. His wife is sitting opposite him. Thanks to whoever said it was in the 1980s, but it was in the 1970s.

Image 4

This photo probably had the least amount of information attached to it. Some said it was my dad, a mine manager, the new boss signing his blotting paper and a studio portrait from the 1950s. I’m not sure of the exact date of the portrait but I think it would have been in the 1940s as the gentleman in the photo is actually my grandfather and was forty three years old at that time. Interesting, Simon had a punctum moment and commented:

My (me, Simon’s) first ever, proper punctum! (The embossing address stamp, to the left of man in the picture – my father had one just like it; after he’d died and we moved house, I used to stamp our old address on sheet after sheet of paper, fascinated by the mechanism as much as anything more consciously nostalgic).

Image 5

Doug came the closest to providing context for this image “Traveling and a ‘skodonk’ Not an RSA registration but landscape looks like Africa”. Other mentions were a summer holiday (complete with Cliff Richard’s soundtrack) 🙂 and “a ride of sorts”. The photograph was taken in Swaziland near Nhlangano. Our company had organized a long weekend tour for employees to Swaziland and a group of us decided to walk to the nearest town which turned out to be well over 10 kilometres away from the hotel. Part of the way was through the bush so as soon as we emerged from the bush and hit the road we decided to hitch hike. This was the first time I had ever hitch hiked in my life and this was our ride! The four of us sat in the back of the pickup which was so rusted that we could literally see the road under our feet through a variety of holes. And someone rightly guessed it was in the 80’s.


Documentary – Fact & Fiction | Photography 2 Course Manual (2014) (PH5DFF120419) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Exercise: What Makes a Document?

I come to this exercise some eight years and some ninety seven posts later and I feel totally glazed over. After so many posts it is very difficult to find something new and fresh to say. So my comments will be from a personal reflection standpoint.

In his short essay Jose Navarro poses the questions “Is it time or is it context that makes a document? Or is it something else?” I think pretty much everyone taking part in this blog exercise agrees with RobTM that a photograph is inherently a document. As Kenneth Clarke states the word ‘document’ has its origins in the Latin word documentum which means ‘evidence’. Any photograph ‘takes into evidence’ that which is before the lens at the time the shutter is pressed, whether it is an event being recorded, person or object. It may even be a fictional event being recorded, e.g. still shots taken during the shooting of a movie, but that still does not detract from the fact that the photograph of that event is still a document. It is simply a document of the fictional event. Whether the photograph exists as a physical print or as a digital file does not make a difference. Someone earlier brought up the question of whether a photograph can be considered in the same light as a text document and I believe it can be. Word documents, spreadsheets, etc and even photographs, are all composed of a binary language – 1’s and 0’s. It is just the arrangement that shapes the context in which we see them.

The photographic document carries traces of what was before the lens and these traces convey information. Unlike a painting which only bears testimony to something, traces are imparted to the world/viewer by the subjects themselves. Bazen likened photographs to footprints (which are also traces). Only real, physical things can leave traces of themselves and as Currie argues (1999:287), this can only occur in the past. The camera records what is in front of it, and not what the photographer thinks he/she sees. A painter will paint what he/she thinks they see.

The effect of time upon a photograph is fluid. Some photographs as mentioned by other bloggers in this post, have immediacy. I think of the 2011 Stanley Cup riots photograph of the kissing couple lying prostrate in the middle of West Georgia Street in Vancouver surrounded by riot police as a prime example of this. That photograph went viral round the world in an extremely short space of time. Contrast this with a photograph of let’s say a rhino taken in a game reserve in South Africa. There is nothing special about that – just a wild animal in the bush. But the rhino population is fast becoming extinct. Fast forward to the end of 2019 or 2020 (at the rate the poachers are killing them off) and that photograph will be an historical and scientific document of an animal that once roamed the earth.

We use context to apply understanding to the image that we view. Not having much knowledge about the Spanish Civil War I can use Kendall Walton’s argument about the transparency of the photograph in that we see through them and can discern the following in Navarro’s historical image of his grandfather and the priest, without the benefit of the backstory: a man in military uniform, I don’t see any insignia or stripes on his shoulders so assume he may be in the army’s lower ranks and from the style of uniform would probably date this photograph to be somewhere between 1939 and 1945. I think the other man, whose dress tells me he is a priest, is probably older than the military man as he is carrying a walking stick. Perhaps they are related – uncle and nephew, or just friends. Without the benefit of the backstory I cannot tell the soldier is from the Spanish army. The bare wall they are standing against offers no context whatsoever. However, with the benefit of Navarro’s backstory the photograph acquires a very different social and cultural background and it is eloquently richer for that.

But time can affect context. Take the recent reports of photos that surfaced of the Governor of Virginia’s 1984 medical school yearbook. In his yearbook Governor Northam appears as either dressed as a member of the Ku-Klux-Klan or as a blackface. He refuses to admit which character he was portraying. Today society is braying its discontent at the racist photographs, but back in 1984 the mores of society were different and this type of behaviour was considered student high jinks. In this example, the context has not changed – the photograph is still in the same yearbook, it is still a photograph of Northam and friend at a university event. It is only time that has changed our cultural understandings and perceptions.

So to summarise, both context and time contribute to making a photograph a document, but not necessarily in equal portions. What experience or cultural background the viewer is able to bring to the viewing of the image will help shape his/her understanding of the image. Likewise a photographer can never rely on his/her own cultural background to adequately convey his/her understanding of the scene before the lens to the viewer(s) at some time or other in the future.


Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Currie, G. (1999) ‘Visible Traces: Documentary and the Contents of Photographs’ In: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57 (3-Summer) [online] At: http://www.jstor.org/stable/432195

Pappas, A. (2019) Ralph Northam apologizes for medical school yearbook photo with blackface, KKK robe | Fox News. At: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/ralph-northams-medical-school-yearbook-page-shows-men-dressed-in-blackface-kkk-robe (Accessed on 2 May 2019)

Sorensen, C. (2016) The girl in ‘that kissing photo’ on the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot – Macleans.ca. At: https://www.macleans.ca/society/the-girl-in-that-kissing-photo-on-the-2011-stanley-cup-riot/ (Accessed on 2 May 2019)

Walton, K.L. (1984) ‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ In: Critical Inquiry 11 (2) pp.246–277.

Exercise: Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism

Kendall Walton’s essay is basically a reply to André Bazin’s The Ontology of the Photographic Image.  Bazin (1960: 7) argues:

The quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological; between true realism, the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and in its essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind) ; a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances.

So what do we understand by realism? According to the Metropolitan Museum it is the art movement introduced shortly after the French Revolution that depicted ordinary working people, like farmers and peasants, and daily everyday scenes as worthy topics for painting. The painters, such as Gustave Courbet, painted these scenes without embellishment, more concerned about the true state of society as it was, warts and all.

That photography is a more realistic medium than painting leaves little doubt, and the way we view them affects us differently. Viewing a photograph of a war scene versus looking at a painting or drawing of a war scene makes a very different impression on one. The photography has an immediacy that the painting or drawing lacks and it is this realism which is at the core of this essay.  We are reminded not to confuse a photograph with the real object which it depicts, as unlike Bazin’s statement at the beginning of the essay, the photograph is not the object. Photo manipulation can take place in the darkroom, or digital darkroom. The making of the photograph is also influenced by the photographer’s culture, prejudices and attitude and even view point. But even if the photograph has been manipulated by rearranging the scene or giving direction to the subjects on where/how to stand, we cannot get away from the fact that the resulting image is a product of something that did actually exist before the lens. Unlike painting where the painter can choose to work solely from his imagination if he so wishes. It is this aspect of realism that is quite unique to photography. Photo manipulation is not necessarily a bad thing in creative photography, but I would argue that it is definitely not ethical for documentary photography as these photographs should be accurate representations of the scene before the photographer so that the viewer/public  is not misled.

Photographs provide us with another way of seeing. When we pick up a photograph we are in actual fact looking through it to a time past. This is what Walton refers to as transparency. He argues that some might rather prefer the term perceive when looking at photos of ancestors as opposed to seeing someone in the flesh. But I think perception has more to do with becoming aware/understanding something. To me that means a gradual process. No, when I pick up a photograph of my mother, father who have passed, or relatives who I have never met, I am seeing them. I am instantly transported to that moment when the photo was made. I do not have to understand what is happening in the photograph, but I am looking through it (in time) and connecting with with that person.


Bazin, A. (1960) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ In: Film Quarterly 13 (4) pp.4–9.

Richman-Abdou, K. (2018) What is Realism Art? Exploring the Pioneers Behind the Groundbreaking Movement. At: https://mymodernmet.com/what-is-realism-art-definition/ (Accessed on 26 April 2019)

Walton, K.L. (1984) ‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ In: Critical Inquiry 11 (2) pp.246–277.

Historical Developments in Documentary Photography – Research Point

The term ‘documentary’ was first coined by John Grierson (1898 – 1972), who was a director, producer and writer within the visual media. However, documentary photography existed long before this.

Mission Héliographiques

In 1851 the French government selected five photographers to document the French medieval and Gothic architecture in France. This group was known as the Mission Héliographiques and their work would aid the Historic Monuments Commission to determine the urgency and nature of restoration that was required. Photography would provide a more accurate record than the previous architectural drawings hitherto relied upon and it would also be quicker. The chosen photographers were Hippolyte Bayard, Edouard Baldus, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, and O. Mestral who were all members of the Société Héliographique, the first photographic society. Each photographer was assigned a specific area of France to document and presented with a list of monuments to photograph. Edouard Baldus was commissioned to document the Church of Saint-Trophîme in Arles. He designed a method for creating a large print by joining ten negatives together and doing retouches where necessary.

Edouard Baldus, Cloiser of Saint-Trophîme, Arles, 1951. Partly hand-painted paper print. Musée National des Monuments Français, Paris.

Henri Le Secq was also a painter and he produced photographs with finely detailed registers of architecture and sculpture – Tour des Rois (Reims Cathedral). Gustave Le Gray was sent to the south-west to the châteaux of the Loire Valley—Blois, Chambord, Amboise, and Chenonceaux, and also to small towns along pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, and the Dordogne. Hippolyte Bayard was sent west to Brittany and Normandy, including Caen, Bayeux, and Rouen. Mestral‘s area covered south-central and central France (the fortified town of Carcassonne , Albi, Perpignan, Le Puy, Clermont-Ferrand.

The five photographers completed their assignment in the summer and autumn of  1851 and handed in 258 prints to the government. Sadly the government simply locked the prints away and the public were never able to see them. Today the prints, with the except of Bayard’s are at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Roger Fenton

Roger Fenton helped to found the Photographic Society in 1853 which later went on to become the Royal Photographic Society.  Fenton was a lawyer by trade but also studied painting. He learned the waxed-paper photographic process of Gustave Le Gray (of the Mission Héliographiques). Fenton was commissioned to make photographs of the Crimean War by Thomas Agnew & Sons in Manchester in order to counteract the negative press on the way the war was being handled by the British government. These photographs were later exhibited but Agnew retained the rights and published 160 photographs which could be purchased either individually or in bound volumes. Fenton’s war photographs were not explicit. He did not depict any of the hardships the troops underwent – the illnesses, the loss of limbs from frostbite – nor did he depict any war casualties. His main focus was on photographing the military leaders and the troops in camp partaking of normal social activities they might have done at home, ‘all tableaux of military life behind the front lines’ [Sontag, 2003: 50]. Graham Clarke describes Fenton’s work as reinforcing cultural assumptions in a similar manner that eighteenth century painting did for their patrons [Clarke, 1997: 45]. The photograph for which he is most famous, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855 was entirely staged as it was taken a few months after the actual battle had taken place – Fenton had not yet arrived at that time. He made two images from the same viewpoint. In the first image the road leading through the valley shows cannon balls strewn in the ditch next to the road. Before making the second image Fenton had the cannon balls redistributed so that the road was littered with cannon balls. This is the image that is usually shown [Bronx Documentary Center]. Both images can be seen here.

Félice A. Beato

Félice Beato was a pioneer war photographer, recording the Crimean War in 1855–56, the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny in 1858–59, the Second Opium War in 1860, and the American expedition to Korea in 1871. His battlefield photography was the first to show images of the dead.

After documenting the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny with his brother-in-law, James Robertson, Beato went with the Anglo-French troops to China in 1860 during the Second Opium War (1856-60). The opium trade was very profitable to the British, French, Dutch and Americans, even though the Chinese government had outlawed it. Beato photographed the aftermath of the battle at Taku, near Tientsin on the advance to Peking and was probably one of the first photographers to do ‘late photography’. Mary Warner Marien writes that Beato was known to have corpses moved and arranged into the scenes he wanted to photograph. I have to wonder if he learned this technique from Roger Fenton who moved cannon balls into his scenes.

Félice A. Beato, Interior of the Angle of North Fort at Taku on August 21, 1860, 1860. Albumen print. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Timothy O’Sullivan

O’Sullivan served as Mathew Brady’s apprentice and photographed the Civil War with him. In 1867 O’Sullivan took part in a survey expedition that was sponsored by the US Congress. The objective was to photograph along the 40th parallel from the Rocky Mountains and the great basin west of that. The survey was headed up by Clarence R King and it followed the proposed westward railway route. In 1870 O’Sullivan also took part in The Darién Survey Expedition to Panama. Other surveys he took part in were the US Geographical Survey West of the 100th Meridian (1871), an independent survey sponsored by Wheeler to survey the Native Americans and the ancient ruins of Cañon de Chelle, which is in Arizona.

More about Timothy O’Sullivan’s work can be seen on my Landscape blog at: Exercise 1.2 Photography in the Museum or the Gallery?; Exercise 2.1 “Territorial Photography” (Part 1); Exercise 2.1 “Territorial Photography” (Part 2).

Head of Cañon de Chelle, Looking Down, Walls About 1,200 Feet in Height, 1873 by Timothy O’Sullivan

William Henry Jackson

Jackson began his photographic career by retouching and colouring photographs. He derived his influences from writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Jackson used words such as “temple” and “castle” to describe sites at Yellowstone. His photography style was described as “descriptive” and “pictorial” [Smithsonian American Art Museum]. He briefly settled in Omaha and took up a studio photographic practice doing portraiture and photographing the local Native Americans in that vicinity. In 1871 he joined the first official government and scientific survey of the Yellowstone area. His photographs of this area played a huge role in persuading Congress to pass a bill declaring Yellowstone a national park – the first national park in the USA. He was often commissioned by the railroads to photograph new routes and in the 1880’s and 1890’s he made many large scale panoramas which were commissioned by the various railroad companies in the US.

Grand Cañon of the Colorado, 1880 by William H. Jackson courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

Albert Khan

Albert Khan was a French banker and philanthropist. In 1909 he made use of the first colour photographic process invented by the Lumiere brothers, called autochrome.  He commissioned photographers go to over 50 countries and take photographs of “human tribes of the world” [Popova, n.d.]. He wanted to create a catalogue to record human life in order to foster peace and cross-cultural understanding in the world. The 72,000 images that were recorded formed one of the most important and influential colour collections. Sadly his project came to an end when the Depression ruined Khan and his collection remained in obscurity until it was rediscovered in the 1980’s. I found the images and the colour renditions absolutely fascinating and so much more informative than monochrome would have been as one can sees in this video of Khan’s collection.


Bronx Documentary Center (s.d.) The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Crimea, Ukraine 1955 Photo by Roger Fenton. At: http://www.alteredimagesbdc.org/fenton (Accessed on 24 April 2019)

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Daniel, A.M. (2004) Mission Héliographique, 1851 | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/heli/hd_heli.htm (Accessed on 23 April 2019)

Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road (Getty Center Exhibitions) (s.d.) At: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/beato/index.html (Accessed on 24 April 2019)

Popova, M. (s.d.) The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Catalog of Humanity – Brain Pickings. At: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/02/23/the-dawn-of-the-color-photograph-albert-kahn/ (Accessed on 25 April 2019)

Smithsonian American Art Museum (s.d.) Timothy H. O’Sullivan | Smithsonian American Art Museum. At: https://americanart.si.edu/artist/timothy-h-osullivan-3600 (Accessed on 25 April 2019)

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. (4th ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing.


Albert Kahn (1860-1940) – Photography for a Vision of World Peace. (2013) [user-generated content online] Directed by John Hall. 16 September 2013 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNDXSdZsWLM (Accessed on 25 April 2019)

Baldus, E. (1851) Cloister of Saint-Trophîme, Arles, 1851. (Getty Museum). At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/41280/ (Accessed on 24 April 2019)

Beato, F. (1860) Interior of the English Entrance to North Fort on the Peiho River on the 21st Aug. 1860 (Getty Museum). At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/104454/ (Accessed on 24 April 2019)

Jackson, W.H. (1880) Grand Cañon of the Colorado | Smithsonian American Art Museum. At: https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/grand-canon-colorado-34267 (Accessed on 25 April 2019)

O’Sullivan, T. (1873) Head of Cañon de Chelle, Looking Down, Walls About 1,200 Feet in Height (Getty Museum). At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/40216/ (Accessed on 25 April 2019)