documentary about photography?:
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:
Now, in part, Meyers 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:
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-Bressons classic picture, Behind the Gare St. Lazare (1932):
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 Americas [sic] shallow knowledge and understanding of todays 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:
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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