(Unless it is stated otherwise, all quotes in this post come from Martha Rossler’s 1981 essay, In around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography). The essay was written later than, but included as a third work alongside, The Bowery in two indadequate descriptive systems in Rosler’s publication, 3 Works (1981). It provides a commentary on the pictures, and can perhaps be seen as a third (inadequate) descriptive system…)
When I first read In around and afterthoughts (a couple of years ago now), I was delighted to be reading something that took me back to being my much younger self, at university in the early eighties and studying a subject that ended in ‘studies,’ a time when all this stuff seemed still to be up for grabs. The familiarity of the language, the oppositional political position, the absence of any sense that if you hadn’t seen a picture mentioned, you would just be able to find it with a couple of clicks of a keyboard, all this felt really comfortable to me.
Now of course, it also reads as a historical document. In around and afterthoughts is a postcard from a time before the baddies won, when ‘oppositional’ could be seen as a political and social position when neither monetarism nor post modernism had swept all obstacles from their path. But also, post-crash, there is once again a relevance to Rosler’s work. If Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party, why shouldn’t other figures (and more importantly their ideas) from forty years ago take a step back in from the margins?
The essay opens with three numbered sections, dealing with the development of documentary photography (both in terms of the intention of the photographer, the subjects of the pictures and their expected audience) from the end of the nineteenth century up to the mid-seventies, when Rosler took her series of pictures in the Bowery.
Section 1 looks at documentary’s tabloid/sensational beginnings, literally shining a light (or a burst of flash powder) on the dark, unseen corners of society and how this came ‘to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery.’ The Bowery – New York’s ‘archetypal skid row’ – and the people who lived there were from documentary’s beginnings grist to photographers such as Jacob Riis’s mill. The intended audience was more privileged than the derelicts in the pictures and the expected response was charity – ‘an argument for the preservation of [the givers’] wealth’ – and limited social reform, ‘giving a little in order to mollify the dangerous classes below’. Documentary became institutionalised (you think of the work of the FSA in America during the depression) and – even when taken by insiders – workers’ film and photo societies etc – suggested a need for reform of the existing system rather than any radical changes to it and the existing social order.
Section 2 looks at the situation at the time Rosler was writing in the early eighties. In America the response to the depression (Roosevelt’s New Deal) and the post second world war boom had run out of steam; Ronald Reagan had been elected president. ‘The War on Poverty has been called off. Utopia has been abandoned, and liberalism itself has been deserted.’ Alongside this, ‘The exposé, the compassion and outrage of documentary fueled by the dedication of reforem has shaded over into combinations of exoticism, tourism, voyeurism […] trophy hunting – and careerism.’ Even when there is still some remaining element of showing things to expose something awful, there is still only a call for the ‘us’ of the viewers to feel pity (and possibly to donate to a charity) while admiring the bravery of the photographer who has spared us the need to go and see ‘them’ (or in the case of a ‘natural’ disaster, ‘it’) for ourselves. ‘Causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome.’
Section 3 – Rosler sees documentary’s purpose as having moved from being about its subject matter to being about the heroic photographer: ‘What has ceased to be news becomes testimonial to the bearer of the news.’ Photographs are presented as the work of individuals; what they depict becomes secondary. They allow the viewer to vicariously experience things that are distasteful, dangerous, or far-flung. They become opportunities to view things seen as ‘other’ rather than as subjects for compassion or charity or reform. ‘Documentary’ pictures can act as art or as advertisement, as substitute for actual travel or as romantic depictions of other cultures, always seen from the perspective shared between the photographer and the viewer.
Along side this there was the reinvention of documentary photography as something that has changed its focus from the social causes of the first half of the twentieth century (seen in the work of Hine and the FSA and Robert Frank) to point instead towards more personal individual ends. And so Dorothea Lange had given way to Diane Arbus.
Documentary photography had become spectacle and been severed from its earlier political purpose; viewing it had become a question of connoisseurship (in the gallery) or a test of the viewers’ courage inspiring in them ‘anxiety and perverse fascination’ when viewed as images in the mass media, providing (in John Lydon’s words as he opened the Sex Pistols’ fourth single) ‘A cheap holiday in other people’s misery.’
The remainder of Rosler’s essay (3 much shorter sections) examines what she was trying to do with her photographing of the Bowery. She begins by examining what pictures of ‘drunken bums’ show (people ‘to be finally judged as vile’) and what they are not (‘a treatise on political economy,’ analysing the pressures which lead to members of society falling out of its bottom). It is this analysis that pictures are inadequate to provide. There will be no people ‘captured’ and displayed as trophies from Rosler’s expeditions into skid row.
The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems is made up of twenty four rectangular framed panels. All of the panels have room for two 6:4 prints mounted on a black background. All twenty four of the panels have a print of typewritten words, photographed and enlarged; twenty one of them also have a black and white photograph taken in the Bowery. None of the pictures have people in them, though they all contain evidence of human activity in the form of shop fronts, abandoned bottles and other slum-area city detritus. This is described as ‘radical metonomy’ – the street standing in for the condition of the people who live there.
Although the work does not form a typology, the installation views of the panels show them displayed in a regular grid. Rosler refers to the way there are two groups of words: ‘First the adjectives, begging with playful metaphor […] A second series begins, of nouns belonging firmly to the Bowery…’ The adjectives occupy the right-hand side of the diptyches; the nouns the left.
Neither the pictures nor the words are intended to be original or offering a new perspective. They are inadequate to the task of making ‘an argument about social relations,’ but in Rosler’s view perhaps they contain ‘the germ of another documentary’ that is not given high status by art of the media, but which instead is ‘committed to the exposure of specific abuses […] a body of documentary works about militancy or about self-organisation, or works meant to support them.’
- Rosler, M (1981) In around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography); essay, widely available online.
- Edwards, S (2012) Martha Rossler, The Bowery in two indadequate descriptive systems; Afterall, London