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Martha Rosler in and Around Afterthoughts

Martha Rosler in and Around Afterthoughts

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Published by Sjaan Klijnee

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Sjaan Klijnee on Sep 29, 2011
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06/29/2012

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MARTHAROSlER
n,around,andafterthoughts(ondocumentaryphotography)
TheBowery,inNewYork,isanarchetypalskidrow.
It
hasbeenmuchphotographed,inworksveeringbetweenoutragedmoralsensitivityandsheerslummingspectacle.WhyistheBowery.somagnetictodocumentarians?Itisnolongerpossibletoevokethecamouflagingimpulsesto"help"drunksanddown-and-outersor"expose"theirdange-rousexistence.Howcanwedealwithdocumentaryphotographyitselfasaphotographicpractice?Whatremainsofit?Wemustbeginwithitasahistoricalphenomenon,apracticewithapast.Documentaryphotography]hascometorepresentthesocialconscienceofliberalsensibilitypresentedinvisualimagery(thoughitsrootsaresomewhatmorediverseandincludethe"artless"controlmotivesofpolicerecordkeepingandsurveillance).Photodocumentaryasapublicgenrehaditsmomentintheideologicalclimateofdevelopingstateliberalismandtheattendantreformmovementsoftheearly-twentieth-centuryPro-gressiveEraintheUnitedStatesandwitheredalongwiththeNewDealconsensussometimeaftertheSecondWorldWar.Documentary,withitsoriginalmuckrakingassocia-tions,precededthemythofjournalisticobjectivityandwaspartlystrangledbyit.WecanreconstructapastfordocumentarywithinwhichphotographsoftheBowerymighthavebeenpartoftheaggreSSiveinsistenceonthetangiblerealityofgeneralizedpovertyanddespair-ofenforcedsocialmarginalityandfinallyoutrightsocialuselessness.Aninsis-tence,further,thattheorderedworldofbusiness-as-usualtakeaccountofthatrealitybehindthoseimagesnewlyseen,arealitynewlyelevatedintoconsiderationsimplyby
beingphoto8raphed
andthusexemplifiedandmadeconcrete.
 
JacobRiis,
Hell
on
Earlh,1903.
Riiscommented:HOnenight,whenIwentthroughoneoftheworstdivesIeverknew,mycamerocaughtandheldthisscene....WhenIlookuponthatunhappygirl'sfoce,IthinkthattheGroceofGodcanreachthat'lostwoman'inhersins;butwhataboutthemanwhomodeprofitupontheslumthatgaveheruptothestreet?nFrom"ThePerilandPreser-vationoftheHome:inJacob
Riis,
Photographerand
Citizen,
ed.,AlexanderAlland,Sr.[Millerton,NY,Aperture,
1974).
In
TheMaking
if
anAmerican,
JacobRUswrote:
'.'
Weusedtogointhesmallhoursofthemorningtotheworsttenements...andtheSightsIsawtheregrippedmyheartuntilIfeltthatImusttellofthem,orburst,orturnanarchist,orsomething...Iwrote,butitseemedtomakenoimpression.Onemorning,scanningmynewspaperatthebreakfasttable,Iputitdownwithanoutcrythatstartledmywife,Sittingopposite.Thereitwas,thethingIhadbeenlookingforallthoseyears.Afour-linedespatchfromsomewhereinGermany,ifIrememberright,haditall.Awayhadbeendiscovered,itran,totakepictures
by
flashlight.Thedarkestcornermightbephotographedthatway.
2
Incontrasttothepuresensationalismofmuchofthejournalisticattentiontoworking-class,immigrant,andslumlife,themeliorismofRiis,LewisHine,andothersinvolvedinsocial-workpropagandizingargued,throughthepresentationofimagescombinedwithotherformsofdiscourse,fortherectificationofwrongs.
It
didnotperceivethosewrongsasfundamentaltothesocialsystemthattoleratedthem-theassumptionthattheyweretoleratedratherthan
bred
marksabasicfallacyofsocialwork.ReformerslikeRiisandMargaretSanger~stronglyappealedtotheworrythattheravagesofpoverty-crime,immorality,prostitution,disease,radicalism-wouldthreatenthehealthandsecurityofpolitesocietyaswellasbysympathyforthepoor,andtheirappealswereoftenmeanttoawakentheself-interestoftheprivileged..Thenotionof
charity
fiercelyarguedforfaroutweighsanycallforself-help.Charityisanargumentforthepreservationofwealth,andreformistdocumentary(liketheappealforfreeandcompulsoryeducation)repre-sentedanargumentwithinaclassabouttheneedtogivealittleinordertomollifythedangerousclassesbelow,anargumentembeddedinamatrixofChristianethics.Documentaryphotographyhasbeenmuchmorecomfortableinthecompanyofmor-alismthanweddedtoarhetoricorprogramofrevolutionarypolitics,EventhebulkofworkoftheU.S.versionofthe(Workers')Filma_ndPhotoLeague
4
oftheDepressionera
IN,AROUND,
AND
AnERTHOUGHTS
 
LewisHine,Cannel)'
WorkersPreparingBeans,
c.
1910.
From
Americaand
Lewis
Hine:Photographs1904-1940
(Millerton,NY:Aperture,
1977).
LeoSeltzer,Rent
Strike,Upper
East
Side,
NewYork
City,
1933.
SeltzerwasamemberoftheNewYork(Workers1FilmandPhotoLeague.Hisworkinphotographyandfilmseemsmoreccnsistentiymilitantthonthatofmanyothermembers.
MARTHA
ROSLER

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