Martha Rosler- some personal reflections

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I enjoyed Rosler’s (1981) essay, ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography) it is quite accessible and raises a range of familiar and new to me, notions about the purpose of documentary image making. The essay also offers a sort of highlighted mini history of the genre, using the work of some iconic documentary photographers to illustrate the argument she is positing.

I felt there was quite a marxist feel to the tone of her arguments, and a clear sense of the power and inequality in capitalist societies where the poor are very much part of a structured and perhaps necessary hierarchy or order of things.

She makes a strong case for the  gap between the ideals and intent of photographers such as Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, who saw the genre as a tool to first identify and then tackle injustice on the emerging post modern society of 20th century America, and newer 20th Century image makers such as Winograd, Freidland and Arbus. Hime and Riis were perhaps making images as a tool to highlight a perceived injustice and create change. The latter photographers are used to sharply contrast with earlier documentary image makers approach and fundamental motives. New Documents in 1967 gave a platform for exposure at MoMA of a different form of documentary photography.  Szarkowski, the director of photography and curator of the new Document exhibition offers an entirely different take on documentary image making where there is perhaps a greater shift into the art world and away from social commentary and indeed social conscience.

Highlighting Winogrand, Rosler (1981) says of him that he:

“aggressively rejects any responsibility (culpability) for his images and denies any relation between them and shared or public human meaning.”                                                 pp10

The essay culminates in the assertion that we do do not yet have a real paradigm of documentary, all that has proceeded does not achieve the notion to document.

There is a strong sense of a cubical but realist view of much documentary image making as supporting the prevailing orthodoxy of class and wealth hierarchy.

I suspect I will write more about this theme  but I wanted to record some of the key themes that struck me on initial reading of this essay. These are summerised as bullet points below:

  • Challenging questions about documentary photography as a genre or series of connected genre
  • An historical survey of approaches in the genre revealing something about motive and intent
  • Draws strong links between early documentary work and liberalism
  • Riis after reading a German magazine saw the power of the image over words
  • The notion of documentary photography offer the possibility of rectifying wrongs
  • Documentary images linking to social reform
  • Victim and Victimhood photography
  • The poor and needy being captured or visited upon by the ‘Nikon Set’
  • Documentary is a little like a horror movie
  • The liberal approach to documentary photography often references misfortune and natural disaster
  • More recently there has been less charitable views, the drunk the benefit chat, duster brought on by the subject and their behaviour
  • Documenatry as voyeurism
  • Documentary photographers taking the viewer to places they could not visit, like astronauts going to the moon
  • a new and manipulative take on quasi anthropology- Edward Curtis dressing north american aboriginal people in clothes he carried about!!!
  • Sentimentalism
  • The New Document and shift aye from reform to expression and srt
  • Documentary photography supporting and  underpinning the prevailing class and social order orthodoxy


Rosler, M. (1981) In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography) found at: (Accessed April 2016)

MoMA (1967) New Documents Press Release February 28th 1967 found at: (Accessed April 2016)


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