Documentary Art

I had my Art and Artifact post all queued up and ready to go when a post from Fototazo* started me thinking about additional variables besides the time question. Time is still relevant, but not as much as it used to be. A lot of photography is coming out now which satisfies the documentary function while also being acceptable to the art world. It’s an interesting change.

*Prompted by the same discussion which inspired my post about all photography being propaganda. I probably need to go more in depth on that point too since it seems many people forget how much personal snapshots are edited to present only the memories we want to remember and show.

The idea that the transition of “journalism” from being news-based to personal-based has blurred the lines where a new project can both be functional and artistic at the same time is interesting to consider and makes perfect sense since it’s a rationalization of photography with its inherent function.

Unlike a lot of other fine art which thrived on the commission-based model. Photography can be distinguished as an artform by its extremely low barrier of entry. Its history is one of consistently-increased access to the means of creation. As a result, it’s much much easier for people to do their own personal-driven projects.

Fototazo’s follow-up post also brings up another great point in this area. As we’ve become more familiar with post-processing and the mechanics of creating a photograph* we’re starting to accept the idea that photographs can be questioned just like any other evidence. That we now know photographs are not true is why current documentary photography can be accepted as art.

*I see this on Facebook all the time now too. It’s completely common for me to see responses to photos be something—whether it’s a sarcastic “shopped” comment or a curious “what filter” question—which questions the technical means of creating or producing the image. People know more is going on now.

If anything, the standard photojournalism restrictions about photo manipulation—and the controversies when people violate them—have actually helped in this department. People remember the controversies, not the resolutions. Each time the news tears a photo apart as being “manipulated,” our distrust of images as being true decreases. This is not a bad thing.

We’re reaching a point now where the context matters almost more than the image. Photographs are being displayed in multiple functions at the same time now. The meanings we take from them and the way we react to them will vary greatly depending on the functions we perceive.

It’s no longer just about treating art in a way which shows its function. And it’s not as simple as making it clear that there are multiple functions at play. When an object is presented as both functional and as “fine art” at the same time but in different contexts, it’s almost impossible for a museum to truly step back without changing the meaning.

The good news is that artists like Mark Dion and Fred Wilson are have already started the ball rolling on meta-level art which critiques the context we give things. I’d love to see an approach like theirs be taken with photography. And I’d love to see a museum try and address the multiple functions that photography can have by displaying the same collection in different ways.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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