It is now widely accepted that Photography can be art and the exhibitions held the MoMA, New York, New Documents (1967) and Mirrors and Windows (1978) enabled the influential John Szarkowski to make the case for the medium. The UK eventually followed suit with the Cruel and Tender (2003) and Street and Studio (2008) exhibitions held at the Tate Modern, London.
It was also recognised that photography was more about the expression and interpretation rather than a photographer following a process of recording and this allowed a critical acceptance of the artistic possibilities within the medium.
Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murders is a good example of artistic expression and the work challenges the difference between documentary photography and art. He discusses his work in a video interview, which can be seen at:
Seawright describes how his work is often criticised for not being sufficiently explicit but his view is that if the work is too direct then it becomes more journalistic as oppose artistic. He describes how ‘good art’ is accessible but that it slowly reveals itself. He also adds that if the work is too ambiguous then it may not even make sense and then it does n’t work as art. In his work Seawright seeks to leave room for the viewer to develop an interpretation of the construction of meaning.
What happens when documentary work becomes Art
If a documentary work becomes regarded as art this does not change the original meaning. What does happen however is that by hanging the photograph in a gallery an additional dimension is created and that new dimension can obscure the original message or may not carry that message as it’s primary objective but that doesn’t necessarily equate to a change of meaning. It merely adds an additional layer of complexity to the work.
Sarah Pickering series Public Order continues to explore the boundaries between documentary and art. When viewing the images it was a strange sensation to slowly recognise what was so vastly different in her scenes to the usual view of reality. When I began to realise that the usual signs of life, people, cars etc were missing, my brain began to go into overdrive, scouring the image in order for it to make sense and to create a new meaning for what was before my eyes. The complexity and effect of the work was very powerful. I started to rethink my understanding of the role of the police and this created a sense of exposure and vulnerability and I saw how difficult it is for the human brain and psyche to live with ambiguity and things not making sense.
I also considered the work of Alessandra Sanguinetti whose series The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams, which lies between staged and real life and therefore between ‘truth and fantasy’. What I found most interesting in this work what how in the end I had completely given up on the question of whether particular compositions were staged or ‘real life’. Firstly because I could n’t actually tell the difference but more importantly the question had lost it’s meaning. It no longer seemed to matter.
Bull, S (2005) Photography Abingdon: Routledge
http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/Works/Pulic-Order/workpg-01.html (accessed 06/03/2016)
http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/ (accessed 06/03/2016)
http://alessandrasanguinetti.com/index.php/adventures/info/ (accessed 06/03/2016)
Museum of Modern Art, New York New Documents (1967) press release can be read in full at https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/3860/releases/MOMA_1967_Jan-June_0034_21.pdf?2010 (accessed 05/03/2016)
Museum of Modern Art, New York Mirrors and Windows (1978) press release can be read in full at https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/5624/releases/MOMA_1978_0060_56.pdf?2010 (accessed 05/03/2016)
Tate Modern, London. Cruel and Tender (2003) press release can be read in full at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/cruel-tender (accessed 05/03/2016)
Tate Modern, London. Street and Studio (2008) press release can be read in full at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/street-studio (accessed 05/03/2016)