Documentary photography was the subject of this Scholarship Tuesday’s coursera class from MoMA. I felt like it would be repetitive of the first class, where we read the documentary photography section of Baumont Newhall’s The History of Photography. But alas, MoMA’s pretty sharp.

The bulk of the material this week (I should say the bulk of material I have read so far, which includes the required readings but not all of the secondary readings, yet) talks about the transition documentary photography saw in the 1960s. Sarah Meister (girl crush) does a really fantastic job in her piece, “They Like the Real World: Documentary Practices after The Americans”, talking about the three major transformations in photography that happened in the 1960s. As a side note, if you have not read Tod Papageorge’s essay on Walker Evans and Robert Frank, it is a must.

First was the publishing of The Americans (actually in 1959) by Robert Frank, which received harsh criticism for its pessimistic view of America and Frank’s sloppy style. Maybe sloppy isn’t the right word. I used sloppy in my notes to condense this quote from May 1960 Popular Photography, “so many of the prints are flawed by meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness”. But these same qualities inspired younger photographers to take more risks with their work and also to create photographs for reasons other than assignment work. The generation that came of age artistically in the 1950s or earlier began in magazines, but younger artists rejected magazine publication in principle (to protect their artistic integrity) and because other options for making a living were becoming available (for example, publishing bodies of work in book form).

Second was the introduction of the study of photography in academia, as in, you could be a photo major. And the third was when John Szarkowski, my make-believe-if-only-he-were-alive boyfriend, became Director of Photography at MoMA in 1962. If I wasn’t convinced before that John was deserving of my love, this sealed it. Susan says, “his approach to the medium had a transformative effect on the ways historical and contemporary photography was understood”. The man is a god.

Szarkowski’s 1967 exhibition, New Documents, showed the shift in documentary photography from one with social reform motives to one with more personal ends. “Their aim is not to reform life, but to know it… What they (the featured photographers - Winogrand, Arbus, Friedlander) hold in common is a belief that the commonplace is reall worth looking at, and the courage to look at it with a minimum of theorizing.” (excerpt from Szarkowski’s wall text for the exhibition)

So this set the stage for the rest of the readings (again, so far) - how documentary photography shifted from the creation of images in service to larger social issues (think: Lewis Hine, FSA, etc.) to images that document the world but are not statements of fact - they can be read and interpreted in many ways. The New Documents photographers were using the same documentary style to make pictures for no other purpose than making that picture. They were not working for a client or making a social statement. They believed the everyday had value as a subject.

At the end of this Scholarship Tuesday session, I decided to squeeze in one more reading before moving on to real life obligations, and I selected a short article Tod Papageorge wrote for Transatlantica about Garry Winogrand, called About a Photograph: New York, 1967, by Garry Winogrand. So Tod and Garry were friends, and they would walk the streets of New York and shoot together (usually about a half block away from each other, Tod says). One day Papageorge sees people with dressed up monkeys and takes a quick photo, not really thinking too much about it, until Winogrand shoves him out of the way to make the photo. And Papageorge’s point was that Winogrand saw something instantly that he didn’t. And also that Winogrand was a pure artist. Some say he was a student of America, but Papageorge says he was a student of photography. He saw puzzles and tried to solve them. Great article. Worth a quick read to get a great sense of Winogrand’s process and mindset, which are pretty remarkable.

Then, just as I finished the article, I popped onto Facebook, as one does, and saw that Blake Andrews had posted Winogrand’s photo into the Flak Photo Network group, asking if people thought it was a racist image. Mayhem ensued, apparently uninterrupted since Blake first posed the question yesterday.

If you don’t know anything about the Flak group on Facebook, here’s what I can say. It is a forum for photographers to ask questions and post articles and make comments. It can be a great resource, because someone always has an opinion to share. That said, I imagine the Flak group to be made up of a certain percentage of unknown (to me), faceless photographers wearing pajama pants in the middle of the day, just waiting to pounce on the very next post. So you can feel confident that whatever you post will get attention, but you can also count on a few pajama people to kick up the drama a few notches.

So racist? No. A candid photograph is not racist. Did Winogrand see how a photograph of a blond woman and a black man holding two well-dressed monkeys, as if they were their children, could call attention to some political, social and ethical complexities America was struggling with at the time? I’d say yes. 

Isn’t photography awesome?

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