Who is Speaking Thus?

Who is Speaking Thus – Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ‘Photography at the Dock ‘ published by University of Minnesota Press – Minneapolis pp169-183

Exercise: ‘Write some notes summarizing Solomon-Godeaus’ position. Do you (I) agree with her?’

In short, the author suggests in this essay dated 1986, that documentary photography, a relatively recent genre in the canon of photography does not come innocently to be judged. The photographer – and in this the essay is slightly out of date – is always present and comes to take the picture with their own agenda, their own prejudices and concerns, which may or may not be manifest within the framed image, but are nevertheless expressed in some way.

The author goes on to say that of course, unless the photographer has complete control over the way in which the images are viewed they lose control over how they are ‘read’ and by how they are edited for further reading. By that I mean that a magazine editor may display a photograph purposely beside another to reinforce or detract from editorial dictate, or the image may rest near an advertisement that either subverts or emphasizes that dictate – once the image has been released by the photographer it will generate a life of its own. That semiotically the photograph will be read a multitude of different ways, no matter how the photographer’s intent was made. “Who is speaking thus?” requires us to consider the position of the image in the way it is presented, by whom and for what reason; that it is a document is undeniable, the “Post Modern” world that Solomon-Godeau wrote this essay would have questioned all that was in the frame, and I think rightly so, but in today’s “Post-Post Modern” world we might see that the potential for cynical views of the nature of “Documentary” “… as a faithful and unmediated transcription of physical appearances…” – pp169 was rightly justified.

At length:

I think the quotation from Martha Rosler’s essay “In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)” in “Three Works” (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Arts and Design, 1981), 72. ‘Documentary photography has been more comfortable in the company of moralism than wedded to a rhetoric or program of revolutionary politics.” I haven’t read Rosler’s essay (more reading isn’t what I’m looking for at the moment!) but this could be read a number of ways, but the sense of it that I picked and made me stop for a while was the sense that the (documentary) photographer, according to the essayist, would more likely rest on the high-ground of moral sensibility than on the high ground of the battle field; which of course pricks a conscience and made me think about what I wanted to do with documentary photography, my work at the ‘Echoes Group” and other ‘Artscape” projects!

Moving on, Solomon-Godeau starts to talk about how Jacob Riis is widely regarded as the forerunner of documentary photography and she goes on to say: “In this model for documentary, the genre is defined within the framework of reformist or ameliorative intent, encompassing issues such as public address, reception, dissemination, the notion of project narrative rather than single image, etc.” (ibid pp173).  So it as all about intent, but what intent? I started to feel slightly alarmed when the work of Sally Stein was brought into the narrative quoting from her article “Making Connections with the Camera: Photography and the Social Mobility in the Career of Jacob Riis,” it is posited that “Stein makes a persuasive account of the latent, rather than manifest, meaning(s) of Riis’s photographs” (ibid pp175). It would seem that Stein’s contention was that Riis had a latent concern over the state of the American way of life, that it might be threatened if something wasn’t done about the (deserving or indeed undeserving) poor of lower Manhattan that society that he had relatively recently immigrated into, was perhaps disintegrating before his lens and that bringing it to the attention of the powers that be might ameliorate the situation. Well of course it did, it changed things, it changed perspectives; but the notion that I had – written about here – seems slightly naïve now.

Solomon-Godeau’s essay then moves to the FSA and how Stryker provided clear ideas of the images he required to back-up the political aims of the ‘New-Deal”. About how Stryker wanted images that delivered the ‘deserving poor’ and not the ‘undeserving’. That Lange and her cohorts images were the property of the FSA, and hence the Government, edited by the FSA to deliver the political message of the day was something that I was aware of. Of course the underlying political possibilities that were becoming more and more strident, than even Riis could have imagined, was the threat of communism. The potential for civil unrest was a subtext underlying the work of the FSA, but Solomon-Godeau’s essay has helped me to see it perhaps more clearly. I have written about Lange, Evans, the FSA etc here, here and here.

Towards the conclusion of this fascinating essay comes this extended quotation: “If we accept the formulation that there are ideological effects inherent in the apparatus, and that these effects typically devolve on relations of mastery, scopic command, and the confirmation of subject positions, the notion of a political documentary practice premised on subject matter alone is rendered even more problematic. For such a theorization of photography insists on the complicity of representational structures in a variety of ideological formations that will always impose a point of view independent of the personal politics of a photographer and the particular intention of the work. Furthermore, if we consider the act of looking at photographs with respect to gender or the operations of the psyche – the complex acts of projection, voyeurism, investiture, fantasy, and desire that inform our looking – we are obliged to abandon the earlier, innocent belief that the documentary camera presents us with visual facts that were simple “out there” and which we now, simply and disinterestedly, observe and register.” (ibid 181,182). Suggesting to me that veracity can only be by intent and integrity. That the documentary photographer is only ever part of a conspiracy between provider and receiver of the image, often mediated beyond the providers control, to a position of either trust or mistrust, perhaps equally valid as long as battle lines are clear. Solomon-Godeau goes on to say that “..it is incumbent upon an intelligent viewer to reject a specious universalist reading that functions to ‘innocent’ photography of it’s ideological labor, its (normative) dissemination of the doxa.” (ibid pp182). I’m somewhat troubled by this, not insomuch as she is possibly correct to elect that a reader might use their intelligence to decode the guilt in the image, but that there is a recognition that others will be disenfranchised from the debate due to their inability to recognize the ideology present in the image and thereby preventing the democratization of the image, keeping it for bourgeois consumption; but maybe that’s another debate.

This essay will prove, I think, to be a turning point for me in the recognition of the fallibility and strength of the image as document and the document as image. How the image is imbued with context and narrative beyond the control of the image maker. It’s creation, nascent with the intent of the photographer, can be subverted, amplified, twisted and turned as soon as it is out of the photographer’s clasp.

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2 thoughts on “Who is Speaking Thus?

  1. I haven’t read the essay but, from your reading, I had two thoughts (at least) that saying “I know what I know but I don’t know what I don’t know”, linked with the thought that I’ll never be able to approach a documentary image again just from the point of ‘looking’. I’ll always have to be wondering about the surrounding context, plus attitudes and beliefs of both the photographer and, if appropriate, the person/organisation who commissioned it. Oh for the days when I looked with an innocent eye!

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