Saturday 9 November 2013

Documentary - 1


That's what they said,


I'd scattered the photographs large and bold across the floor.


I've spent the last few years trying to escape from documentary. It was what I did. Now I don't. Or so I thought.

There were reasons for my escape from that harsh world of reality. Perhaps it wasn't reality. That harshness and suffering, even misery. Not real at all for those who looked in magazines, newspapers, colour supplements, books and galleries. Perhaps it was all a different kind of fantasy and artifice for them. If it had clearly showed the reality they would look away. Perhaps some did look away from the more powerful ones. I do now. In fact I no longer even try to look at them.

The Life Room project with Suki was so much safer it seemed to me.

It was about art, not reality. A place of gentleness and quiet, intense concentration. People creating not destroying. Growth rather than decay. Promise not despair.

But there too there is a power struggle. Who is in control? The artist or the model? Who is dominant and who submissive? They all give different answers. Suki has documented it and curated discussion on her blog. Do read some of the issues here, here, here and here. There was also an interesting Radio 4 programme relating to it the other day, Behind the Looking Glass.

So perhaps I am still involved in conflict and documenting it.


I'd tried so hard to escape from it but failed.

Must try harder.


  1. Bel, you are equating the relationship between 'art photography' and 'documentary photography' with the relationship between 'art' and 'reality'. This feels like a huge topic to address.

    Did you hear Grayson Perry's first Reith lecture in which he joked - you can tell whether a photo with people in it is 'art' by whether they are smiling, i.e. if they're not smiling, it's 'art'.

    I personally find photographs that are documentary quite distinct. Isn't it about the intention of the photographer? Documentary photos are about keeping a record. Conveying an informative message.

    Having said that, I think there are many grey areas...
    Must the 'documentary' photograph be an authentic moment captured, or may it have been 'set up'? If the subject has been 'posed' or shaped or modified by the photographer, does the photo become therefore a 'created' image - i.e. art?

    (And speaking of 'grey areas' - Grayson could similarly have quipped - if the photo is black-and-white, it's art.)

    The context in which we view a photo is perhaps the decisive thing. The function of an image is dependent on the context in which it is displayed. Once a photograph has achieved a place on a wall in a fine art gallery, has it become art?

  2. Thanks Suki.

    I had planned to follow up with another post addressing the issues you raise. I will try to do so next week.

    In the meantime here are just a couple of immediate thoughts.

    You suggest documentary photographs are mainly about "keeping a record". I think they are more than that. There is a branch of technical or scientific photography where the sole purpose is to create a record. Even mug-shots of criminals may clain to fulfill a similar purpose. (Though I see so much more in them than just a record. Each one seems to hint at a deep story.) Most documentary photography though is not just a record. it is an interpretation. It may even be trying to tell the story rather than record it.

    You've stolen my lines about Grayson Perry and photography. I'll probably just steal them back and pretend you haven't already written those ideas here!

    A photograph on the wall of a fine art gallery makes it art? Is that not what makes any object art? The implication then is that it is curators who decide what is art - because they have the requisite training and expertise. Seems very dodgy to me, though perhaps, sadly, often true.

  3. I think art and photography should avoid each other.

    However, the creative selective brain and camera software allow photography to be interpretive, and that’s great. But to call photography art is to demean it. It has a nobler purpose than art, i.e. to document visual fact – or as near as dammit.

    Bel, I’m assuming photography is categorized as either documentary or interpretive, and that you now wish your work to be the latter.

    It is.

    Your Life Room Project guides the viewer lovingly into rarefied atmospheres – serene on the surface and intense beneath. Each photo speaks volumes and invites the next, and makes us feel privy to something unique.

    I reckon that if you had submitted photos of some tattooed babe with stud in navel, tight ripped jeans, brush handle nudging her petulant lip and Suki-in-pose reflected in her ear-ring – or, of a pair of parted men’s legs framing Suki-in-pose, paintbrush jutted in her direction, caption ‘male gaze’ – some witless wonder at the regional gallery would have croaked “Corr…now that’s art”.

    No need to “try harder” Bel. Stay true to your instincts. Continue to celebrate character in your amazing, sleuthy way. It’s honest and compelling. Photography at its best.

    Please leave the silky fondant-icing waterfalls, plexi-glass oceans, collages, mock-ups and air-brushed bimbos to those who haven’t much to say.


  4. Thank you Lois for your very kind words about the LIFE ROOM project. I promise to stay away from airbrushing bimbos!

    Regarding the distinction between documentary and interpretative, I think my point is that photography can be both documentary and interpretive. Indeed I believe that good documentary photography must be.

    - Bel