“Isn’t it Freaky When Your Life Becomes History?”

The Paris Review published a response to an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York entitled, ‘The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951’, by photographer and writer Lucy McKeon. You can read it here. It’s a lively and provocative piece, observing her own responses to the images, as well as those of others around her.

Before street photography had become accepted as an art form, the Photo League wanted to merge socially motivated documentary with formal artistic sensibility and were ‘alive to the reciprocity of politics and aesthetics, life and art.’ For me this recalls, among other projects, the work of The Free Cinema group in Britain in the 1950s that had been inspired by the work of Humphrey Jennings and the Mass Observation Project, which demonstrated a heightened awareness of aesthetic devices for political persuasion.

In her piece for the Paris Review McKeon makes a provocative statement that, ‘this historical meeting of social justice and aesthetic value seems today both canonical and impossible.’ Her argument is informed in part by present political realities (‘The financial crisis of the 1930s helped provoke the hard-nosed solidarity of the Photo League, both its politics and its aesthetics, whereas our own crisis is shadowed by skepticism on both fronts.’) and in part by the present social status of photography and spectatorship.

Jerome Liebling, Butterfly Boy, 1949

Faced with Rebecca Lepkoff’s Early Morning Rush Hour (1947), McKeon touches upon photography’s relation to the supernatural – to an in-between space – by way of its relationship to light and time, and the aesthetic effect this provokes.

She demonstrates the formative role of the imagination in the way we engage with photographs when two different pictures from the show become connected in her imagination, due simply to their proximity in the exhibition. A boy from one particularly compelling picture becomes the subject of another in her mind, with no bearing on reality: ‘I imagine that Butterfly Boy is the child in the left-hand corner, off school for a day, his schoolboy attire hastily discarded, rumpled in a pile left for his mother to wash.’

Referencing Susan Sontag, McKeon also remarks on something else that complicates a spectator’s relationship with photographs today: ‘an acute sensitivity to photographer-subject relationships has bred within the medium an identity politics that’s not easily negotiated’, she writes. Photographic criticism that is too concerned with identity politics can compromise the radical aims of these social documentary projects. Combined with expanding technologies, the uneasy connection between spectatorship and consumerism, and the financial motivations of the modern business of photojournalism, there are very real reasons for being cynical of documentary photography today.

She poses another provocative question: given the prevalence of identity politics in representation and spectatorship theory, ‘Is there an equivalent of the Photo League today? Or would today’s Photo League be something like class tourism, even if backed by a Marxist middle-class ethos?’ McKeon’s consideration here to me recalls the perpetual debate over the ‘value’ of photography today; a somewhat hyperbolic legacy of most postmodern engagements with photography.

In 2010, the San Francisco Museum for Modern Art hosted a symposium aptly titled, ‘Is Photography Over’ that was designed to address such concerns. An archive of contributions to the event are kept here. The artist and writer Walead Beshty argued that these debates represent a crisis, not for the medium, but ‘a crisis of the institutionalization of art itself. . . academia or museums. . .of paying the bills, of funding lines, departmental autonomy, curriculum, intellectual fiefdoms, library tabs, allotted real estate, and canons wrapped in the guise of a broad philosophical conundrum.’

There is an imperative to consider these conditions for photographic production in the midst of socio-economic flux. But what is at stake if an awareness of these debates become a preoccupation for photographers working in a documentary capacity today? In addition to this we need ways of understanding the role and affects of the medium upon spectators. There is a subtle irony that the question of whether or not socially motivated documentary can exist today (or ‘is photography over?’) compromises the possibility of its actual existence. Is it best to get out there and find out? Whether or not we can ‘trust’ the politics of a photographer, can we afford some certainty, or at least integrity, in our own, as photographers ourselves, or as spectators?

Elsewhere 2013 has been declared “a triumphant year for the art of documentary” by Sight and Sound magazine. Amongst the recommendations listed, writer Robert Greene extolls the documentary filmmaker’s ability to exploit the “mysteries of observational cinema and the power of restraint.” Photography is perhaps not over at all but experiencing a change in method. Whilst putting an end to notions of “objective” representation, there is a clear support for “a clear-eyed observational look.” Greene also celebrates this elevation of documentary and a break from its “subservience to journalism.”

The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Back at the Photo League retrospective, looking at pictures of protest marches from the 1940s, the present moment may not seem so radically different from the past, where political turmoil still runs like wildfire around the world. The events in our own life can often become clarified through photography by allowing other isolated events to be seen from some historical precedent; perhaps one that is still in formation. Any perceived differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’ are as significant as the similarities, and photography can facilitate the understanding of both, even if it is tinged with the perpetually tragic necessity of retrospect.


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