What is Documentary?

The opening exercises to the course ask questions about the nature of documentary, I didn’t appreciate that it might also be a test in gathering resource material – the first link to a video is incorrect (being updated now by staff at OCA) the text to ‘Who is speaking thus? Some questions about Documentary photography’ in Solomon-Godeau see Who is speaking thus which is incomplete (about half of the text) and is only available in book form, which I shall gently eschew at this stage, unless I am told it is required reading. And the third text ‘Transparent Pictures:On the nature of Photographic Realism’ by Kenneth L Walton was available for download after joining ‘JSTOR’ and paying the royalty. Mmmm! Looking at the essential reading list and the recommended I may be seeking additional funds.

Walton’s first three sections of his essay “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism” discusses how what we, as viewers, see when we look at a photograph, as opposed to any other form of visual image, most notably in his essay the painting, which is compared most frequently. On page 249 he states “Photographs include as a matter of course the most mundane details of the scenes they portray – stray chickens, facial warts, clutters of dirty dishes. Photographic images easily can seem to be what painters striving for realism have always been after.” Well that seems to me to be true but only to a certain extent. If the painter, who is blessed with a blank canvass to begin with and thus chooses what to include, as opposed to a photographer, whose viewfinder is fully populated with the detritus of life and has therefore to decide what to exclude, decides when applying content into his painting that reality, photo realism or an abstract impression/expression of what is in front them is a conscious decision. That stray ducks and geese have become part of the construct of the photographic image is as purposeful as Constable’s Haywain ducks and dogs, they are in the picture because he wanted them to be, much as the airborne cat in Richard Billingham’s photograph. So I am a little non-plussed by the contention that there maybe a difference in the photographer and painter in that respect. And perhaps by the notion p253 that ‘There is one clear difference between photography and painting. A photograph is always about something which actually exists.” That a photographer took a photograph of something that existed as opposed to something that exists might be closer to the reality, but even then the contention isn’t very firm. This is a picture of Half Dome that Walton goes on to later when discussing the reality of a photographic image pp249.

Half Dome Mono

However this is not an image of anything that ever existed, let alone one that existed at the time the photograph was taken. The sky was blue, not a warm toned grey. The same is true of the monumental granite edifices that loom large over the valley. Those trees in the foreground were themselves foregrounded by a pale green object that has been removed for pictorial reasons. The second image itself is a fiction on what was there at the time I composed the picture, the rendition of the image is itself a construct of technology, with aberrations  associated with the lens, colour, focus etc etc.

 Half Dome raw

I do think his argument regarding the vista of the ‘rear-view mirror’ the act of looking into the past of ‘seeing’ one’s antecedents through the medium of the photographic image works. The sense to me is that these are ‘visions’ of one’s history situated in an environment that may or may not have been alien to them, but to the extent we are able to connect visually and even to emote with these images in a way that for the vast majority of the populace would never have been possible if painting were the only medium to document the person.

And this is, I think, what Walton refers to at the end of his piece. That there is a…”failure to recognize and distinguish between the special kind of seeing which actually occurs and the ordinary kind of seeing which only fictionally takes place, between a viewer’s really seeing something through a photograph and his fictionally seeing something directly. A vague awareness of both, ….,could conceivably tempt one toward the absurdity that the viewer is really in the presence of something.” Pp254



One thought on “What is Documentary?

  1. Pingback: Thoughts about the course Documentary | John Umney - Documentary

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