Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others & Rosler: 3 Works

The following is the third papers submitted to VCFA as part of my MFA studies:

Visual Studies Project
A Discussion of:
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Print.
Rosler, Martha. 3 Works: Critical Essays on Photography and Photographs. Halifax, N.S: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1981. Print
By David Kutz
Submitted to VCFA Faculty Adviser Humberto Ramirez on Friday, December 19, 2014

This paper will focus on Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and on Martha Rolser’s essay, in, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography), which is one of the three parts of her book Martha Rosler, 3 works which was first published in 1981, and updated with an additional essay in 2006.

Rosler’s 3 works present three discussions on the nature, status and significance of documentary photography as an artistic practice. Rosler’s approach to her subject uses diverse media; words, photographs and unconventional typographical layouts which provoke a multilayered consideration. She states that in, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography), “runs on a parallel track as another descriptive system” (p. 86) and is connected to part two of her book, her photographic and text based work, the bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. Sontag takes a traditional chapter and text based approach, without illustrations or supporting photographs.

Rosler opens her essay by asking, “How can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photographic practice? What remains of it?” (p. 73) These questions are initially addressed through a historic review of documentary photography, which Rosler states began during the Progressive Era in the United States “and withered along with the New Deal consensus some time after the Second World War” (p. 73). The Progressive Era documentary photography of Jacob Riis, who, like Rosler, photographed the Bowery but with a much different approach, is presented along with the later work of Lewis Hine. Both Hine and Riis believed that photography was a powerful tool to instigate social change and rectify social wrongs imposed on the powerless, poor, working class emigrants to the United States.

Susan Sontag’s book, Regarding the Pain of Others, is a social critique on the implications of war and man’s inhumanity to man. Sontag uses photography as a way of questioning how it, as a representational art, has impacted the trajectory of war, or rather, questions whether photographs of the horrors of war or the representation of other horrible human acts can positively impact the future. Sontag writes, “For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough (through photographs), most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.” (p. 14) She poses the question, “Who believes today that war can be abolished? No one, not even pacifists. We hope only (so far in vain) to stop genocide and to bring to justice those who commit gross violations of the laws of war … and to be able to stop specific wars by imposing negotiated alternatives to armed conflict.” (p. 5)

Sontag, like Rosler, takes a historical tack. The Crimean War (1853-1856) is the first war documented with photographs, followed shortly thereafter by the work of Brady and O’Sullivan, who photographed the American Civil War (1861-1865). In both cases, the photographs of these events were either staged or made in the aftermath of the historic battles due to the then available technology. This limitation in coverage continued through the First World War and Sontag points out that only with the invention of 35mm roll cameras, like the Leica, “the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was the first war to be witnessed (“covered”) in the modern sense: by a corps of professional photographers at the lines of military engagement and in the towns under bombardment, whose work was immediately seen in newspapers and magazines in Spain and abroad.” (p. 21)

So although both Sontag and Rosler discuss how or whether photography will have an impact on our understanding and knowledge of historic events and circumstances, their perspectives are slanted by the issues that were most top of mind to each of them. Rosler sees ‘documentary photography’ as a reformist’s social tool whose power was diminished as the New Deal and State liberalism faded after the Second World War. Sontag observes that ‘war photography’ didn’t become a force in society until the Spanish Civil War. Hence as one purported social use of documentary photography faded, the other grew in significance. Rosler sees documentary photography as a tool to effect social change and Sontag, with her focus on war photography, sees documentary photography as a way to effect individual and collective attitudes.

Rosler states that true social documentary photography, photography that proactively demands attention to the needs of social change, has declined, but documentary photography as a “cultural expression still survives” (p. 75). That cultural expression began in glossy magazines and books, and has now migrated to a privileged and more expensive form of social statement in art galleries and museums.

Sontag also acknowledges the move of documentary photography, or in her case, more specifically, photographs of war and human disaster, to museums.

“As art has been redefined during a century of modernism as whatever is destined to be enshrined in some kind of museum, so it is now the destiny of many photographic troves to be exhibited and preserved in museum-like institutions. (p. 86-87) … So far as photographs with the most solemn or heartrending subject matter are art – and this is what they become when they hang on walls, whatever the disclaimers – they partake of the fate of all wall-hung or floor-supported art displayed in public spaces. That is, they are stations along a – usually accompanied – stroll. … Up to a point, the weight and seriousness of such photographs survive better in a book, where one can look privately, linger over the pictures, without talking. Still, at some moment, the book will be closed.” (p. 121)

Rosler addresses how the display of photographic works, principally in galleries and museums, has moved toward the use of a grid and the presentation of photographs in series. She points out that “The grid has a long pedigree in art. … it invokes the industrial processes of mass production, decreasing the value of the individual object or “utterance,” avoiding the fetishization of the unique or “folkish” object. It can lower emotional temperature as well, something critical to the new approach to photography, characterized in part by seriality, but which in turn led to breast-beating about the end of beauty, expression, and originality.” (p. 96)

Rosler proclaims “The end of the single image as the unit of art photography” (p. 100). Sontag references a world of nonstop streaming imagery provided by television and the internet, “when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bit. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it.” (p. 22) Rosler’s position on a “unit of art photography” and Sontag’s idea that a single image has “the deeper bit” on our memory are divergent views, but both are taking positions on the significance and value of a single photograph, whether as a statement that triggers one’s memory about a particular event or seen as a work of art.

Rosler, found the origins of documentary photography grounded in leftist, liberal and progressive muckraking, in theory with journalistic objectivity. She then distinguishes that there are two types of documentary photographic practice: “social documentary” and “just documentary.” The later term, which she acknowledges is a socially liberal approach, “denotes a photographic practice having a variety of aesthetic claims but without involvement in expose” (p. 73) and that “liberal documentary assuages any stirrings of conscience in its viewers … ” (p. 75) so that, “documentary photography has been much more comfortable in the company of moralism than wedded to a rhetoric or program of revolutionary politics.” (p. 74) Hence, there is the social documentary photographic practice where the work is used as a tool for social justice and another practice that is ‘just documentary’, simply art without activism, but with an attempt to reach some liberal moral high ground.

Rosler’s expands her dualistic approach as she discusses one of the world’s most iconic photographs, Dorothea Lange’s, Migrant Mother, photographed on assignment for the depression era Farm Security Administration in 1936. In the late 1970s, United Press International, Associated Press (AP) and the magazine American Photographer all reported that Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of the photograph, was living in California on her small Social Security payments. The AP article quotes Thompson as saying, “That’s my picture hanging all over the word, and I can’t get a penny out of it. … What good’s it doing me?” (p. 80). Then Rosler, in discussions with whom she frames as “a good, principled photographer she knows,” expresses that although Thompson did not personally profit from her own notoriety, this photograph likely spurred the government to improve conditions for many people in similar straights.

Rosler considers this rift in the context of her earlier statements about the two types of documentary photographs – the “social” and the “just documentary.”

“A documentary image has two moments: (1) the “immediate,” instrumental one, in which an image is caught or created out of the stream of the present and held up as testimony, as evidence in the most legalistic of senses, arguing for or against a social practice and its ideological-theoretical supports, and (2) the conventional “aesthetic-historical” moment, less definable in its boundaries, in which the viewers’ argumentativeness cedes to the organismic pleasure afford by the aesthetic “rightness” or well-formedness (not necessarily formal) of the image. This second moment is ahistorical in its refusal of specific historical meaning yet “history minded” in its very awareness of the pastness of the time in which the image was made.” (p. 81)

Sontag has her own dualistic perspective explaining how a photograph is objective but always has a point of view when she states, “They (photographs) were a record of the real – incontrovertible, as no verbal account, however impartial, could be – since a machine was doing the recording. And they bore witness to the real – since a person had been there to take them.” (p. 26)

In conclusion, while Rosler focuses on social injustices that result in impoverished and denigrated lives, Sontag concentrates on how the imagery of war might impact the public discourse. Both are concerned with how photographs are read and consumed by society and both present thought provoking discussions about the historical development of photography, power relationships, and the true meaning and value of the traditionally created or straight photograph.

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