Saturday, August 26, 2006

When Did "New Documents" Stop Being New?

Just finished reading "Two Jacks and a Jill: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and the Judgment Seat" by A.D. Coleman, a short essay in the April / May 2005 Camera Arts magazine. (Yes, I am aware that magazine came out 16 months ago -- bear with me here.)

Coleman, referencing the February 28, 1967 "New Documents" exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, quotes Curator John Szarkowski's text introducing the show:
"In the past decade a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy -- almost an affection -- for the imperfections and frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value -- no less precious for being irrational..."
and points out that maybe -- just maybe -- there's something troubling about placing photographs that reveal "the imperfections and frailties of society" into an aesthetic that considers them as "formal play with neutral (if ironic), apolitical observation of human social behaviour...."

I like Coleman's point: these works, charged and loaded with all sorts of political and social content, were effectively "framed" as being somehow divorced from the concerns that "documentary photography" had carried previously. They were positioned to be like abstract paintings, when they were clearly the opposite.

Score: Museum Wall Text 1, Photographs, 0.

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