Martha Rosler, In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) and The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

In developing an awareness and understanding of photography as a document I have reflected upon Matha Rosler’s essay In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) (1981) in which she is critical of current documentary work. The essay is a thought provoking text raising many valid if not controversial points such as, “documentary fuelled by the dedication to reform has shaded over into combinations of exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psychologism and metaphysics, trophy hunting and careerism.”(Rosler, M. 1981).

On many levels I agree with the overall direction of the essay but I believe that if there is a weakness in her criticism it is in her treatment of the individual, “The liberal documentary assuages any stirring of conscience in its viewers the way scratching relieves an itch and simultaneously reassures them about their relative wealth and social position specially the latter, now that even the veneer of social concern has dropped away from the upwardly mobile and comfortable social sectors.”(Rosler, M.1981).

I believe that although there is a sense of ‘well at least it’s not me’, in people’s minds and even a voyeuristic sense of superiority over the other may at times be it’s expression there is also a subconscious element of survival as well as perhaps a lack of individual and collective understanding, education and awareness and this to a greater or lesser extent makes us all victims of convention and system. I would therefore balance this criticism with an emphasis on the shortcomings of a society based on a capitalist and political system in creating and perpetuating how society is structured and how reality is represented and ultimately how human behaviour is shaped.

Either way it is a really and important essay to read certainly at this stage in my photography which is well summarised in Ashley La Grange’s, A Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (2005).

As part of this exercise I have also looked at Martha Rosler’s own representation of the problems of The Bowery in her work, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems where she depicts the area in an alternative manner to the traditional format of documentary photography. Rosler’s work combines views with text but omits the people of The Bowery and in doing so avoids their personal exploitation. She describes her work in the following way, “a work of refusal. It is not defiant anti-humanism. It is mean’t as an act of criticism….there are no stolen images,”. (Rosler, M. 1981).

How effective is this work? By omitting the expected drunk and vagrant subjects from the images the viewer is forced to question their own reaction to what is missing from the image and this is magnified by the range of words used to describe drunkenness and through their implied meanings have the effect of lightening and darkening the atmosphere of the project. I think that the work is much more successful than a traditional range of street based people getting drunk images could ever be.

There is a sense that the artist is approaching the subject on a far deeper basis and asking many more questions than would ordinarily be achieved by simply highlighting the situation and plight of the residents of the Bowery. Rosler is clearly a talented and experienced photographer and artist who is able to translate her thoughts and views into a simple yet complex artistic representation without having to resort to straight forward basic voyeurism. It was difficult to download any images of the collection but they are easily accessible via internet searching from various gallery and photography art websites and of course the artist’s own website.

Reference List

La Grange, A Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (2005) Abingdon: Focal Press

Rosler, M In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) (1981) copy of the original essay can be seen following the link: (accessed 30/03/16)

More information can be found on Martha Rosler the artist and her collection The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems at (accessed 02/04/16)


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