Discussing Documentary

Read the introduction and first section (pp.105-10) of the article ‘Discussing Documentary’ by Maartjie van den Heuvel (Documentary now! 2005)

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Maartjie Van denHeuvel discusses whether documentary photography is being regenerated and considers the possibility that as a result its relevance as a truthful means of communicating has been diminished. Can complex documentary imagery displayed in the museum or art gallery continue to be considered authentic , does it even belong there?

The growth and easy accessibility of mass media during the 1970’s has enabled viewers across the globe to experience world events without the need for participation, personal experience has become unnecessary. We are bombarded daily with imagery , an outcome of which that has led to perceptions of reality being altered , something visually literate artists may draw upon to create intricate imagery using signs , symbols and code , which in turn can be deciphered by a more knowledgable and sophisticated audience.  Reality is no longer considered a prerequisite in order to be universally comprehended and communicate a message.

The essay proceeds to discuss the documentary visual tradition citing the work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine , socially committed photographers hoping to precipitate change through their images of the disadvantaged. A tradition that continued with the project work of the FSA photographers, publishing images that were seen as truthful and objective, not fabricated versions of events.Photography was deemed modern and authentic , unlike painting perceived as conventional and unreal. Documentary was a term initially given to non-fictional film and synonymous with reality. During the post war years of the 40’s and 50’s illustrated magazines continued to publish investigatory work.

Using 35mm cameras with black and white film documentary photographers of the 60’s and 70’s continued to be advocates of the underdog. Their work had nothing in common with the colourful and illusionary photography of the growing advertising industry.

Following the arrival of mass media documentary photography lost its definitive status as an objective medium.In place of gritty black and white imagery technically immaculate photographs were produced, fabricated and subjective narratives were displayed in art galleries. The merge of art and documentary that evolved during the 70’s allowed documentarists to re-invent themselves as artists who explored how to perpetuate a genre whose origins had grown from what was once considered to be unbiased reportage to often highly personal investigations.


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