Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Which Picture, What Story?

Matthew Schechmeister’s recent article, “The Unlikely Events of a Water Landing: New Photos From Flight 1549,” an essay with images by photographer/photojournalist, documentarian and, ultimately fine artist Stephen Mallon published at, highlights the slippages and interstices in our understandings of both the ways in which images are captured and, ultimately, the ways in which they are received.

In an era in which an audience is far more likely to see one of Mallon’s images than, say, a work of more characteristically regarded fine art, simply because our exposure to mass media is far more pervasive, one might remember that at times this notion of photojournalism simply transcends the strict limitations we traditionally place on the fine artists.

Two remarkably disparate examples might be the photographic responses in the wake of 9/11 that resulted in the incredible, and incredibly moving exhibition, “Here is New York,” with its subtitle, “A Democracy of Photographs.” I had the privilege of seeing the exhibition in its original venue in 2001, only weeks after the tragedy. In a city marked most then by its silence, this exhibition gave both the relevancy of photojournalism, the immediacy of the digital image, and the existence of the “citizen journalist” (regardless of how problematic I find that term) a voice that was far more powerful, far more moving, and far more expansive than anyone could have expected.

What separates these images from something like William Eggleston’s “Stranded in Canton” or perhaps Larry Clark’s “Tulsa”, or even Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” is that at the same time that they are documenting these events, they are always already aware of the fine arts context that is inherent in the works. As a result, these pieces purport to be situated somewhere well outside the motivational space of a work by Stephen Mallon, although this clearly can’t be the case.

The challenge comes from the situational positioning of the images. It appears that Mallon recognizes the convergent values of documentary and art, or, perhaps, documentary as art. At the same time, it seems that he understands the specific needs of each genre, and may perhaps even ask himself the question, “How can a complex documentary image also meet the needs and expectations of the fine arts?” Clearly, his compositions, framings, exposure, and subject selection are grounded in an understanding of both what the image needs to mean and what it hopes to share. If you then juxtapose any of his “Water Landing” images with ones by Larry Clark from the Tulsa series, wouldn’t they both merely map differing positions along something like a photographic construction of heroicism? Wouldn’t one merely show an obviously heroic success in the face of danger, while the other would merely indicate the apparent failure with the slightest possibility of success in something like Clark’s “Accidental Gunshot Wound”?

I ask these questions in part because I believe it is the role of the curator, as well as the role of the critic, to consistently and constantly evaluate images of all types and media outside the frameworks of the academy, and thereby outside the realms and restrictions of the traditional fine arts.

We might recall here the words of the late Donald Judd, writing in his classic essay “Specific Objects,” where he made what might be the ultimate subjective analysis now somehow dressed up as an objective and overarching rule. He said, “A work of art need only be interesting.” Yes, Donald, that probably is the case. Now how do we go about constructing a set of criteria and values that might actually help us respect what ‘interesting’ actually is.

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