For contemporary photographers, the Information Age creates an ocean of images that prompts a sea of questions. But one query floats atop the waves: What does it mean to be an image-maker in a world of countless images?
History of Art Symposium Part II: “Contemporary Strategies in Documentary Photography”
Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
Helmut Stern Auditorium
“So much of my time is spent wading through this giant pool of photographs, and I feel overwhelmed by them,” said professional photographer Alec Soth. “I know a lot of professional photographers who feel the same way.”
The two-part History of Art Symposium “Contemporary Strategies in Documentary Photography” presents three diverse speakers who address the shifts in documentary photography, as well as its historical context.
History of Art Professors Matthew Biro and Alexander Potts spent a year planning the symposium, and they specifically chose photographers who represent the two divisions of photography: fine art and documentary.
Soth, who spoke during the symposium’s first day, Jan. 30, personifies the fine art spectrum, which is increasingly influenced by a documentary tradition “interested in defining and influencing society,” Biro said.
Allan Sekula, a professional photographer and prominent theoretician who will speak on Saturday, epitomizes a documentarian. Feminist art historian Sally Stein, also scheduled to speak on Saturday, helps define a historical context.
And the division of genres has a definite historical basis.
“Throughout photography’s history, it has been pulled between two poles,” Biro said. “On the one hand, the photograph as a document of a particular person, event, piece of architecture, moment in time; on the other hand, the photograph as a work of art, the expression of a photographer’s objective vision.”
However, the digital era has altered the relationship between documentary and fine art photography.
“There’s a big crisis,” Biro said. “I have a friend who worked as a documentary photographer and the work has just dried up — it’s really shifted. People who want to use photography in the way traditional documentary photographers did, to give you a picture of a particular situation or a particular world, are often working as fine artists.”
This mode that is both documentary and artistic — and the question of where strict documentary photography is going — are topics Biro hopes the symposium will address, and Soth agrees the discourse is important.
“It’s essential to talk about new rules for photography because everything has been turned upside down,” he said.
Both Sekula and Soth have published books of photography. But according to Potts and Biro, Sekula is engaged in capturing photographs that enter the political realm with text that establishes a frame of reference, while Soth leaves interpretation to the viewer.
“In his books, Soth gives very little information about the environment of these photographs, and sort of allows the photographs to speak for themselves,” Potts said. “Sekula takes a rather different view and says, ‘Well the thing is, the photographs don’t quite speak for themselves. You need some kind of contextual information in order for them to really deliver.’ ”
However, 40-year-old Soth readily acknowledged that his best-known work has “struggled for narrative,” and he is avidly developing a new approach.
“The work I’ve done exists in the fine-art context, and it’s no different than me in a basement finger-painting in some ways,” Soth explained. “While I continue in that vein, I’m also really exploring how to tell photographic stories actively.”
In his lecture, Soth, a member of the documentary photography group Magnum Photo, presents the four-billionth photograph uploaded on Flickr, illustrating how that image resembles a photograph by William Eggleston, who Soth called “a contemporary master.” Soth’s lecture title, “The Democratic Jungle,” plays off Eggleston’s idea of a “democratic forest,” in which everything can be made a subject of meaningful photography.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, photographers were realizing that the most mundane street corner could hold rich cultural information,” Soth said. “In the digital age, these fragments, to me, mean less and less. The forest is overgrown — it’s tangled with images and information. So, jokingly, I say that photography should provide a narrative machete. It’s like cutting away the story to find your way through.”
His emerging strategy is thus a direct response to the metaphoric ocean of photographs.
“Let the cell-phone people have the raw documentation — they’re doing it,” Soth explained. “But to tell a story is a whole different thing, and that requires a lot of skill.”
Yet, Soth does not agree with the notion that documentary photography should present objective truths about its subject or society. Rather, he is interested in documenting his movement through the world.
“I equate this to the New Journalism of the 1970s — Tom Wolfe and people like that who were creating this new first-person journalism, where they are getting rid of that authoritative voice, that sort of all-knowing voice, and saying, ‘this is my experience,’ ” Soth explained.
That denial of complete objectivity is of interest to Stein, who will present her research on female photographers from the ’20s to the ’50s.
In an e-mail interview with the Daily, Stein wrote that she evaluates “strains of feminist thinking and viewing” in work from an age when “objectivity was most prized in photography,” illustrating how bias always finds a way to seep into expression.
But Soth emphasized that his subjective approach to photography is still experimental. He is developing a storytelling slideshow blog for The New York Times that will be a “foray into proving my thesis or falling on my face.”
Soth’s work accordingly dovetails with the symposium’s explorative purpose.
“We really want a serious academic discussion on the nature of photography in the contemporary world,” Potts said. “And in order to get at this we want people who have direct experience and are key figures in the making of photography.”