Monday, 13 October 2008

Documentary Photography

In May 2008, there was an exhibition at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warszaw entitled: "She-Documentalists - Polish Women Photographers of the 2oth Century". The works of over fifty largely forgotten or unacknowledged Polish women photographers were shown. "There are two principal reasons why this extremely interesting material requires discovery and evaluation. Firstly, the status of documentary photography, until recently ill defined, and secondly, the professional and artistic status of women", the catalogue text reads.

the author unknown, "Maria Chrząszczowa", luty 1933, privat owner

Since I hadn't known that "the status of documentary photography, until recently (was) ill defined" (who would define that anyway?), and since I'm not aware that this should nowadays be less so, I looked forward to get enlightened. And I did - by a convincing, insightful, and well written text by the curator, Karolina Lewandowska, who, after stating that there have been as many concepts of documentary as there are authors, defines documentary, in regards to the exhibition, as "those projects, albeit selected ones, that required the photographer to go outside, to leave the studio and confront herself with people, projects that focused on documenting a certain phenomenon, or that, once realised, had to function in contexts other than the safe gallery context."

Elgas-Markiewicz Irena, „No more war”, ok. 1954,
owner - National Museum in Wrocław, Poland

Here are some of the insights that I gained from Karolina Lewandowska's
An Unconventional Map of the 'Documentary' :

"Two main tropes, or strategies, of representation are present within documentary - on the one hand, descriptive photography, which tries to remain neutral, and, on the other, photograqphy that is strongly involved ideologically, even propaganda-orientied."

"Photojournalism satisfies the universal need of curiosity, peeping, the need for enchanting reality, for getting to the 'truth'. That is why it 'spies' on and describes fragments of reality that most people do not usually notice - work in factories, a small-town market, a courtyard. However, when fitted into the form of a visually attractive photo story, even a very good one, these aspects of human life can often be reduced to nothing but aesthetical motifs alienated from reality."

"The fact that photographs so different are shown together, and in the space of Zacheta National Gallery of Art with ist powerful context, does not mean they are all being elevated to the level of artistic objects - though the whole is taking place 'in the name of art'. Rather, the idea is to dissolve the radical division between artistic photography and non-artistic photography by demonstrating the fluidity of the qualifiying characteristics, which are dynamic and cannot be 'frozen' by the institutional context ...

The fundamental question is not whether the given photograph is art or not, but rather how it can influence the viewer and the reception of other photographs, whether it is an important element of culture, history, and the iconosphere, of our map of pictorial representation."
Rydet Zofia, "Heavy bread", 1958,
owner - Museum of Art in Łódź, Poland

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