The Razor’s Edge: Between Documentary and Fine Art Photography
All artists walk a razor’s edge between form and content. It is the core struggle all artists must resolve with their work. By its very nature though, documentary leans heavily toward content. But the marketplace creates an environment that is uncomfortable with the emphasis on content and demands an emphasis on form.
The core concern of documentary photographers is the subject matter, and the photographer, as an artist, uses the formal language of visual art to communicate this context to their audience. But when documentary photography enters the fine art world of commercial galleries, the connection to the subject matter is downgraded and the formal values of the work, manifest in the print, is elevated. Gallery sales, though potentially lucrative, can substantially change the nature of the work.
There has always been an uncomfortable relationship between documentary photography and fine art photography. Even “fine art” photographers who work primarily in the documentary genre often will not admit to the term. The elephant in the room in the fine art world is that tendentious work—work that has a motive beyond pure “artistic” pleasure —is tainted and beneath work that is purely fine art.
But quite the opposite is true. Documentary has twice the pressure as art based in formalism. Not only must documentary excel in formalism, it must then channel this honed skill to create a meaningful message. Documentary can tell us truths about our relationships to other people, to nature, and to ourselves. Isn’t that what we want from art—truth?
Fundamentally our culture does not want to face difficult or complex truths about our world. Is it that we don’t care? Or that the truth is too painful, or that our guilt is too great, or just that the truth is too enormous for the average human psyche to fully grasp. It is much easier and safer to parse the subtleties of form than it is to grapple with the complexities of a world wrought with poverty, disease, hunger, exploitation, and war, or to explore dissonant gender and family relationships, or radical ideas about relationships to power and commerce—in other words the fare of documentary photography.
The dictates of the marketplace don’t help us answer this question; for markets to flourish, they must present a never-ending optimism and conformity, warranted or not. Photographers grappling with complex social issues are thus persona non-grata in the marketplace of art unless they turn their discourse to formal values that are more palatable to buyers of art.
The landscape documentary photographers face is both a culture that avoids facing difficult issues and a marketplace that rewards obfuscation. But luckily we have artists who demand truth, explore far beyond the measure of normality and the pedestrian, and who grapple with complex issues. But they want—and need—some measure of success in the marketplace, as we all do in contemporary society. They therefore must walk a razor’s edge fraught with these contradictions.
This show—featuring Bruce Davidson, Reza, Platon, Rina Castelnuovo, Lori Grinker, and Eugene Richards—is about that tension, and exploring where these artists stand on this edge and how they grapple with these contradictions.
Glenn Ruga (NYPH’12 Curator) is the Executive Director at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, and founder of SocialDocumentary.net, a website for documentary photographers to create online galleries of their work. Ruga received a BA from the University of Massachusetts in Social Thought and Political Economy and an MFA from Syracuse University in Graphic and Advertising Design. In 1984, he started Visual Communications, a graphic design firm working primarily with non-profit organizations. From 1993-2009, Ruga was the volunteer Executive Director of the Center for Balkan Development. He has produced four traveling documentary photography exhibits, two of which were based on his work in the former Yugoslavia.