On the documentary style in German photography

EAST - For the Record / Zu Protokoll
On the documentary style in German photography

Photography sculpts and encapsulates the view of the past; the documentary style provides an opportunity to unlock this.

Documentary photography
Retrospectives, perspectives and prospectives

Klaus Honnef

Whilst the political system of "real socialism" collapsed in an almost peaceful manner in Europe, in the field of visual communication the transition from analogue to digital processes of visualisation was a revolution truly worthy of the name. Because this media-revolutionising technology shook the world to its very foundations, bringing with it unforeseeable consequences and systematic turmoil. At the same time, it is a remarkable process. On the one hand, it is unlikely that noteworthy interrelations will exist between the two developments, the symbolic references are certainly evident. On the other hand, the presumably random coincidence provides impetus for considerations that, with hindsight, open up possible perspectives for the documentation-oriented practice of visual and image-based media, with regard to its authenticity in the age of increasing fictionalisation of visual data and information - and in the sphere of credibility of visual information as a whole. In addition, it also offers a field for fertile speculation regarding the relationships between reality and media reality. The collapse of the communist system buried the failed social experiment of the most potent social utopia of the modern era. However, this had already long discredited itself in the political reality of "real" socialism. Following the triumphal march of the printed page in 16th and 17th century Europe, photography and film were the first mass media in history to possess a global reach, capturing the attempt to make utopia reality with remarkable images, albeit without managing to lend it an aura of mysticism for posterity. The reason for this lies in a peculiarity of media technology. Because as a result of its specific image structure as technical image methods fixing occurred in the form of the inevitable "past" (Roland Barthes), in the mode of a quiet force that lends every present the form of the irrevocable past. The moment of the retrospective consumed the utopian moments and clearly does not permit the actions and gestures to develop into anything resembling role models or specific guides for action. Photography and film have frequently failed to effectively document key events in history due to the fact that they were not present or only present in the form of inadequate image competence. A subsequently staged scene, such as in painting, is typically viewed as a falsification. In addition, photography and film have frequently only distorted the events recorded for propaganda purposes. Even photography that attempts to acquire a documentary ethos condenses the events to the respective viewpoint of the photographic device. The storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg took place without the documentation of photography or film. Most of the "documentary" images that reflect the founding legend of Soviet socialism are drawn from films shot at a later time. And the impressive pictures taken by illustrious representatives of modern photography such as Aleksander Rodtschenko of the construction of the socialist regime, of the digging of mighty canals and the erection of large industrial conglomerates by forced labourers, including political prisoners, merely document their propaganda purpose and not the actual situation. Totalitarian systems such as communism as well as fascism and national socialism have done enduring damage to the claim of photography to provide a true image of reality, by inverting it to show the opposite. There were primarily three formal innovations that led to a documentary style in photography in the 20th century: the use of the series by August Sander (following on from the encyclopedial approaches of scientific and pseudo-scientific photography in the 19th century), Walker Evans and Bernd und Hilla Becher, secondly the use of unconventional camera angles and visual montage elements within images by the Soviet "revolution photography" and the "new vision" with an intrinsic tendency towards propaganda and advertising and, last but not least, the use of unusual perspectives in neo-verist aesthetic by Robert Frank, Chargesheimer and William Klein. All of these innovations are ultimately a reflection of the particular structure of the medium of photography, its serial, industrial production style, its mechanical image creation process and its constructivist nature. From that time on documentary photography has undergone a stagnation. There is no disputing that technological upheaval has yielded significant consequences for photography. The basis of its authenticity as a primarily indexical form has been lost. Light no longer forms a direct connection between object and image carrier, instead it triggers an algorithmic process. The image information received is no longer deposited directly onto a coated layer of film, instead it is transformed into a computing operation, with the results a mimesis not of a designated motif, but that of the photographic image. As a consequence, in the optical impression the fundamentally-different image processes are blurred to the point of indetermination, just as the differences - already largely perceived as academic - between staged and unstaged photography. As a result of this, the assurances of the photographers that they depict things realistically and verifiable claims are without basis. On the other hand, technological transition has not meant the end of photography, not even that of analogue photography, which will survive as an artistic technique at the least. Nevertheless, the documentary branch of photography is undergoing a re-evaluation. In future its credibility will have to rest upon authors clearly identifying their images as subjective visualisations of specific events and situations, whilst at the same time highlighting the respective emphasis of the pictures as images which are not fundamentally superior to painted pictures as far as the degree of verity involved is concerned. Beyond this, it is not excessively bold to predict that the continuously increasing "aesthetic" refinement of image worlds is bringing with it a rise in demand for un-artificial, realistic and tangible depictions of real circumstances in the sense of communication pipes. The success of documentary films in recent times expressly underscores this. However, it would be unwise to conclude an increased interest in veracity from this; rather, the focus on 'real life' is merely a stylistic change. Portraying the world and viewing it in a manner other than that which the ingrained, almost clichéd conventions wish will therefore continue to represent a challenge. One condition for this is that the ability to "read" pictures, to decipher them and not submit meekly to their undisputed powers of seduction is continuously honed and trained. However, this requires that efforts be made by both "consumers" and in the field of training. In Germany, there is undoubtedly considerable disorder in this respect. It is therefore all the more vital that impulses are given by exhibitions, collections, panels, texts and papers in pursuit of this goal.

This text was created as a consequence of the panel discussion  "Regarding the documentary style in German photography" held at the Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig on 09 December 2009.

In addition to Prof. Klaus Honnef, freelance author and curator, participants in the discussion also included the documentary filmmaker Andreas Voigt, Dr. Hans-Werner Schmidt (MdbK Leipzig) and Frank-Heinrich Müller (curator of the EAST collection). The discussion was held on the occasion of the exhibition "EAST – For the Record / Zu Protokoll", the subject of a book published by Steidl Verlag. A review by Andreas Krase of the first stage of this exhibition was published in Photonews of May 2009