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New exhibition and catalogue examine subjective nature of documentary photography
Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–84), New York City, New York from the portfolio Women Are Better Than Men. Not Only Have They Survived, They Do Prevail., 1969. Gelatin silver print. Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. Gift of Varick D. Martin © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco. Photo by Bryan Whitney.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ.- In an era when most people employ their phones as cameras, attempting to document every detail of their daily lives, the phrase “social photography” may bring to mind countless posts of #avocadotoast and filtered selfies in an effort to garner as many “Likes” as possible. But outside influences on public images are not a new phenomenon. The exhibition Subjective Objective: A Century of Social Photography, which opened September 5 at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers and is accompanied by a 368-page catalogue, traces the history of documentary photography, from the late 19th century to the present, and the social aspects behind some of the world’s most recognizable photos. Iconic documentary images have become a staple in art history classes and museum exhibitions, shaping our visual perceptions of people, places, and events; but that is a relatively new standard. Photographers have long sought to shape public opinion about social problems, outside the rubric of being considered “art.” They often reinvented the genre in response to evolving concerns and appealing to audiences; dynamically swaying between goals of exposing social ills and promoting nationalistic agendas; between emphasizing the collective over the individual, and vice versa. In recognizing that such tactics originated long before the existence of current social media platforms, which inundate our daily lives with visual media, visitors may reconsider their own relationships with images: the ones they view, as well as the ones they post.

“This exhibition reflects on the relationships between photography and truth, authenticity, objectivity,” notes Donna Gustafson, the Zimmerli’s Curator of American Art and Mellon Director for Academic Programs, who co-organized the exhibition with Associate Professor Andrés Mario Zervigón, who specializes in the history of photography, from the Department of Art History at Rutgers. “Public acceptance of photographs as visual evidence has made documentary photography possible. In turn, what we see, or what we think we see, tends to shape how we perceive historical and current events.”

Zervigón adds, “Most people accept an implied objectivity in documentary photography. But that acceptance has fluctuated over time, especially when questions arise about whether or not an image has been manipulated to accommodate a photographer’s motivation. We also have come to realize that photographers, as well as viewers, are subjective. The exhibition emphasizes that photographs are not as transparent as they seem; that they are part of the public sphere and need to be read in context.”

Subjective Objective provides that context, drawing on history, visual anthropology, material culture, and trends in art to contribute an understanding of photography as a public medium: a document rather than solely a work of art. Most works on view are by American photographers, many of whom captured an image of the United States that survives as a document of a particular era: it is less about a photograph’s objective truth than its psychological and material density. In addition, photographs by their European, Russian, and Soviet contemporaries demonstrate universal themes and concerns. Subjects cross cultures and become timeless: poverty and income inequality; dangerous labor conditions and loss of industry; communities altered by gentrification and environmental devastation. And despite how complex and hard life can be, there also are moments of beauty, joy, laughter, mischief.

The exhibition includes some 200 photographs – by recognized and previously overlooked photographers – supplemented by artists’ books, original magazine spreads, a video, and Instagram posts. It is drawn from the Zimmerli’s collection, with additional loans from public and private collections. Subjective Objective is divided into multiple sections that define the shifts in criteria embedded within the public image and the responses of image makers:

· Social Reform Photography has broadly shaped the modern perception of documentary: that a photograph is transparent and its role as a mediator of the real can disappear before the striking reality depicted. In the 1880s, Jacob Riis was an early adopter of harnessing the power of an image to shape public opinion, a tactic that is ubiquitous today. His photographs from New York’s Lower East Side, then inundated with poverty and crime, were aimed at inspiring social reform by “bringing” the experience directly to potential middle-class donors. A couple decades later, Lewis Hine’s stealthy photographs of children – emphasizing their injuries from working in mines, factories, mills, and on farms – provided the National Child Labor Committee with evidence in its campaign for protective labor laws.

· The radical Worker Photography movement (Arbeiterfotografie) centered on the German illustrated magazine A-I-Z (Die Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, or The Workers’ Illustrated Magazine). Between the two world wars, it built a cadre of photojournalists for the communist cause. Working poor and unemployed citizens documented their hardships to comment on the brutal effects of capitalism and solicit empathy for their subjects as heroic proletarians. German photographer Hans Bresler’s carefully posed portraits from the 1920s suggest a timeless stasis of collective identity: these were emblematic workers, rather than individuals, who embraced working-class identities, distinct from the middle-class norm portrayed in other magazines.

· Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the newly established Communist government incorporated the visual power of photography to assure a war-weary (and largely illiterate) population that a bright future was on the horizon. One of the most popular photo essays became the series Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of the Filippov Family, by Maks Alpert and Arkady Shaikhetin, which first appeared in A-I-Z in 1931. They documented members of a “typical” working family, emphasizing the superior living conditions of Soviet workers over their counterparts in capitalist countries. Also dedicated to the Soviet state, Alexander Rodchenko monumentalized his subjects by photographing them from dramatic angles and unusual perspectives: a new way of seeing the world as revolutionary as the new society itself.

· Photos from The Farm Security Administration (a New Deal program from 1937 to 1942) raised awareness about a new crisis in the 1930s: the devastation that American farm owners and their migrant staff suffered as a result of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. Dorothea Lange’s unmistakable Migrant Mother (1936) is often assumed to be a candid scene, but it resulted from a series of poses to evoke the concept of eternal motherhood and generate sympathy for the greater plight of humanity. The FSA also provided work for many unemployed artists – including Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn – who later developed active, influential careers during the second half of the 20th century.

· As the nation recovered from the Great Depression, photographers began to shift their focus from strictly documenting the conditions of poverty. Through the 1940s and early 1950s, members of the New York Photo League – Berenice Abbott, N. Jay Jaffee, Aaron Siskind, Weegee – sought out multiple facets of life in their city: from people’s mundane routines to sensational crimes. Helen Levitt’s street photography often captured fleeting moments of joy. In particular, two works entitled New York, depicting children dancing in the street (1940) and a boy playing with a ribbon (c. 1942), now seem to represent a brief interlude between the prior decades’ hardships and the imminent concerns that would dominate society from the middle of the century onward.

· Following World War II in the United States, Life magazine refined the art of the photo essay (a format that had developed in Germany prior to the war and remains popular online) to raise awareness about global and national issues, with many historical narratives that resonate today. “When Atom Bombs Struck—Uncensored” (1952), by Japanese photojournalist Yoshito Matushige, contains the only known photographs taken in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped. W. Eugene Smith chronicled the intensive labor of those contributing to the nation’s post-war prosperity, such as the refinery workers in “Taft and Ohio” (1949) and Maude Callen, in “Nurse Midwife” (1951), who provided services to poor residents across the rural South. Gordon Parks used photography as a “weapon” against poverty, racism, and discrimination, in such works as “Segregation Story” (1956) and “Black Muslims” (1963).

· Later in the 1950s and through the 1960s, American photographers abandoned the search for a universal vision of society and pivoted to more personal points of view. According to the Museum of Modern Art’s influential photography curator John Szarkowski, their goal was “not to change [society] but to know it.” Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Leon Levinstein emulated the informal structures of snapshots, accepting imperfection as individual expression. A selection of Garry Winogrand’s street photography captures Americans’ leisure activities, while a copy of his book Public Relations addresses the social rituals that indicated an increasing eagerness for publicity.

· With several important American museum exhibitions occurring in the 1960s, a reevaluation of documentary photography was under way in the United States by the 1970s. Many younger documentarians sought to create authentic studies of what occurred behind closed doors and neutralize the unequal power relations between photographers, who often had objectified their subjects. Larry Clark’s 1971 portfolio Tulsa shockingly revealed teenagers’ habits regarding drug abuse, sex, and guns; while Donna Ferrato exposed the brutality of domestic violence on women and children, sometimes as it happened, in her 1986 series Living with the Enemy. In contrast, selections from the 1970s books Working and Suburbia by Bill Owens chronicled the ironic and absurd, with his subjects often trapped in their own self-perpetuating myths about the era.

· As revolutionary climates shifted in the Soviet Union, so did the use of social documentary: what had once reinforced Soviet ideology now critiqued it. Following World War II, photo clubs were established as recreational activities for state employees. By the late 1960s, a new generation of “amateur photographers” emerged. The term did not imply a lack of ability, it simply distinguished those outside the press establishment. They pursued photography free from ideological restrictions and created testimonies to the country’s decline, in contrast to the propaganda imagery that attempted to conceal political and economic stagnation during the 1970s and 1980s. Such photographers as Farit Gubaev, Alexander Lapin, Boris Mikhailov, Oleg Poleshchuk, and Valery Schekoldin focused on private and experiences, emphasizing authenticity. Photographers also became preoccupied with forbidden topics: poverty, alienation, crime, and neglected Soviet monuments, as well as rock music, sex, and drugs – considered afflictions of Western culture. The 20-somethings in Igor Moukhin’s 1986 series Young People in the Big City could easily be mistaken for their punk and new wave counterparts indulging in the freedoms of young adulthood in Western Europe and the United States.

· In a sense, Subjective Objective comes full circle, with photographers who openly declare activist missions in the 21st century. They seek to reveal the effects of poverty, environmental devastation, injustice, and war: Nina Berman explores the militarization of American life since September 11th and the consequences of fracking; Jerry Hirniak and Donald Lokuta both documented peace marches in 2003 and the demonstrations at Occupy Wall Street in 2011 (the exhibition also includes Lokuta’s photos from a 1972 Anti-Vietnam War Protest in Central Park). Martha Rosler and LaToya Ruby Frazier, who both taught at Mason Gross School of the Arts, address the displacement of working and middle class people. Rosler’s Greenpoint Project Series (2011) examines urban gentrification in Brooklyn and the ongoing debates about the practice as it consumes yet another of the borough’s neighborhoods; while Frazier’s Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save our Community Hospital), also from 2011, echoes the national furor over Rust Belt decline from a very personal perspective in her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Perhaps the only difference between these current photographers and their predecessors is the widespread availability of their images: whether selected almost immediately for museum exhibitions – Sarah Blesener’s 2016 “Toy Soldiers,” documenting how patriotism is being instilled in Russian adolescents – or viewed in real time through the artist’s own social media accounts, such as Matt Black’s #geographyofpoverty and Ruddy Roye’s #whenlivingisaprotest on Instagram.

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