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“ What’s documentary about photography?:
From directed to digital photojournalism ”

by John Mraz



Meyer asserts that his interest was not just that of constructing a discourse about migratory workers, “although it is inevitable that it is ALSO that.” But, he would insist, it is more concerned with the experience of observing, and the ways of seeing opened up by digitalization, which offer the possibility of constructing a “historical” vision by incorporating the past into the perception of the present:

I would argue that this image has much to do with the memories through which we perceive. As we walk from point A to point B, we continually make associations between the things we see during that walk. Thus, it is not just a question of what presents itself immediately in this image, the ‘social’ commentary inherent in the inevitable irony of the billboard and the workers but, what is more important, a new discourse about photography. Though the ‘style’ would seem to fall within the genre of documentary photography, I am utilizing that in a way to subvert that genre. This is exactly the contrary of what documentary photographers do in their obsession to maintain the credibility of their images. The more they want to convince us of the photograph as a referent, the more convinced we are of the contrary. The subjectivity of the author is necessarily at the root of any photograph (Meyer 2001b).

Now, in part, Meyer’s position is an important call for the development of a critical perspective on photographic imagery, be it produced by chemical or computer processes. And, it should be emphasized that Meyer is not pretending to be a photojournalist in his digital imagery, for he has clearly labeled his pictures as altered by putting two dates of production. He is governed by artistic rather than documentary conventions, and only a few of the images he has digitalized “play” with the documentary aura; most are obvious constructions, which would not even require the indication that they have been altered. Hence, Meyer is working as an artist, a field in which, like advertising, manipulation is not only accepted but also encouraged and rewarded. Nonetheless, though his work is not governed by documentary conventions, he has extended his argument on occasion to documentary photography.

Here, though he could have limited himself to noting that digital imagery does not necessarily produce a different sort of picture than does chemical photography, he instead argued for alterations that “enhance the veracity of an image” (Meyer 2000). Meyer believes that “photography per se, is tantamount to manipulation,” and he asks: “What is the difference between my computer alteration, and the photographer who chooses his or her angle to place a camera? Or when the photographer asks, sometimes by nudging ever so lightly for those depicted to move their location to a more favorable light or position.” He believes that “luck” has been the fount of photography:

I am of course not questioning the validity of patience that some great photographers have exerted in order to get at exactly the image that they imagined, but even when patience was at the core of such endeavors an element of chance would inevitably crop up here and there. I personally dislike the notion that my work would be determined mainly by luck (Meyer 2000).

It strikes me that Meyer is here setting to one side the difference between photography as a technical image, whether produced by chemicals or computer, and other forms of visual representation. Whether a decisive moment is “found” by the straight/digital photographer in a coup of timing, positioning, and technical virtuosity, or whether, following Salgado, the primary mediations of the documentary esthetic are the rapport which you have been able to establish with the subjects and the knowledge that you have acquired about their situation, photography offers a fundamentally different approach to the real world than does creative manipulation. By conflating all forms of expression into subjective representation, we lose sight of what is different about photography. As Barbara Savedoff has articulately argued in relation to Cartier-Bresson’s classic picture, Behind the Gare St. Lazare (1932):

The leap might have been staged or the location misidentified; nevertheless, on the basis of this photograph, few of us would hesitate to say that the leaping man, puddle, ladder, and posters existed, if only for an instant, in proximity to each other…. Instead of the photograph being a happy confluence of reflected leaping figures caught at the decisive moment by the photographer, the possibility of digital manipulation would make the work seem much more contrived, and I believe it would give us less delight, or at least a delight of a different kind…. Those who grow up in an age where the photographic image is seen as fluid and manipulable may have trouble appreciating the aura of evidential authority surrounding traditional photographs.

But, evidence of what? Evidence, most importantly, of a world beyond and apart from our bellybuttons. The events of 11 September may well shake the U.S., and the rest of the developed world, out of its solipsism. As the former Picture Editor of Time, Arnold Drapkin, wrote in an email shortly after the attacks, “The aftermath of the terrorist strikes has exposed America’s [sic] shallow knowledge and understanding of today’s complex world in which we live. The media abdicated its responsibility to inform the public with insightful reportage, in-depth enterprise journalism, and hard news. Instead, they fed us softball lifestyle features that would ‘sell.’ We were entertained instead of educated” (Halstead). But, writing before 11 September, Fred Ritchin argued that the development of digital imagery is in fact simply part of a larger shift in paradigm:

Already the photographer as eyewitness, the photograph as history and memory, are becoming somewhat like the post-automobile horse…. With this technology [digitalization], the photograph can be newly orchestrated, made to fulfill any desire. The viewer cannot tell what is being depicted and what projected. The world, rather than speaking to us in the dialectic of the conventional photograph, imposing itself on the image as it is simultaneously being interpreted, becomes more controllable, and we become more capable of projecting and confirming ourselves and our own world in our own, or any other, image.(Ritchin)

In sum, digitalization seems to be as unavoidable as globalization. However, as important as acknowledging the victory of computer over chemical photography is the examination of its implications. Does digitalization necessarily include alteration? Will the documentary esthetic of discovery, of research, of receptiveness to chance disappear with the chemical process? I would argue that -- despite the many instances of direction, alteration, or manipulation in chemical photography -- the medium invented in 1839 made available to the world a new form of communication and a new way of preserving the traces of the past: technical images. This medium led to the development of a new esthetic, which we have come to call “documentary,” that is somehow bound up with the real world in a way different from that of other forms of representation. If we make the mistake of throwing this baby out with the bathwater I fear we will all be the poorer for it.


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