Photographic document or picture? With reference to Ruscha, Ono, Sekula, Kander and others.

I found Steve Edwards Chapter on Photography out of Conceptual Art (Edwards, 2004) to be an interesting summary of the topic which encouraged me to further explore contemporary documentary photography and examine its rationale. It raises the question, where is the line between document and picture? Hito Steyeri (2007) in his essay Documentary Uncertainty comments that ‘there is no viable definition of documentary’ and that ’there is no viable definition of art’. A picture is to me is a representation on a surface and Edwards defines documents as collections of facts which I accept. David Bate (2010) refers to documentary within art photography (as well as within cinema, theatre and television). But a definition of art is to me, like Steyeri, a longstanding and unresolved issue.

In discussing the place of the photograph as a development within conceptual art Edwards makes the important point that this genre began with/coincided with a need to document performance art. Aesthetics were unimportant, so the images produced were often compositionally uninteresting or as he described ‘artless or style-free’. This raised the difficult question of deciding whether the performance or the photographic/video record of it constituted the artwork . Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (Ono, 1964) is a case in point as each of its many performances was an artwork in itself, but now the sole records are still and video images of the work. Indeed is a performance primarily staged for the creation of an image? Or is the camera secondary, existing solely as a means of documentation? ‘Artless’ documentation became almost visually banal in the 1960s work of Ed Ruscha and Robert Smithson. These artists(?)/photographers(?) made image collections related to single themes, one of Ruscha’s most well known being Twenty-six Gasoline stations (Ruscha, 1962), whilst Smithson recorded in images and words the decomposing steel structures throughout Passaic, New Jersey. The images had no sequential narrative (they are collections of facts, and as such are photographic documents), and their snapshot nature gives them a sort of cult anti-style status.

Edward Ruscha: Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1962 – Photographer

Since these beginnings, fifty years ago, there has been a huge widening of people’s political awareness. This initially led to similar, though politically focussed documentary series; more recently a more analytical approach has led to much more complex pictorial outputs. Photographers like Victor Burgin and Cindy Sherman have made work which critiques world politics as well as the politics of social and sexual difference. The methods often manipulate and juxtapose pre-existing imagery, and complex staging is also employed. These images are based on documented research but the constructed outcome is a picture which makes political comment. Jeff Wall is a radical proponent of constructed photography often referencing 19th century film and paintings and many of his pictures such as Picture for Women, 1979 are a comment on sexual politics. (in this case referencing Edouard Manet’s painting A Bar at the Folies Bergères, 1881-2).

 Jeff Wall, Picture for Women 1979
Transparency in lightbox 1425 x 2045 mm
Collection of the artist. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Cinematographic photograph
© The artist

An artist whose work is more difficult to categorise is Alan Sekula. In the 1990s he made Fish Story, an extensive visual photographic record with written text of the fishing industry and its global consequences. It is sequential montage like a series of film stills, it is illustration, it is descriptive, it is pictorial; but it is undeniably photographic documentation at its roots.

Very recently Bate (2010) described documentary photography as ‘the attempt to marshal documents of one kind or another (eg photographs, films, writing, sounds) into a form for social purpose. ………… the question most often asked of documentary practice is what do the pictures represent?’ He is also concerned about questions of authenticity and accuracy and very importantly ‘whose interests are advanced by those representations?’ He makes the point that the photographer constructs a scene and this organises the image to the viewer. The documentary camera has to abstract something from the scene before it, and visually mediate it into social meaning. Two of Nadav Kander’s images from Yangtze, The Long River, 2006 – 2008 (Kander, 2010 and O’Hagan 2010) raise, through allegory, many issues about the role and consequences of industrial development in people’s lives and wellbeing.

Nadav Kander, Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), 2006


Nadav Kander, Bathers, Yibin, Sichuan, 2007


In conclusion I think the photographic document in contemporary art is a fairly loosely defined concept. It needs a viewer to complete its function. Depending on the intentions of the maker, and the intuition of the viewer it can be read as a uncomplicated picture right through to a complex and contextual socio-political statement. Its role correspondingly depends upon both the artistic intent and the perception of the recipient.

Edwards, S., 2004. Photography Out of Conceptual Art. In: G. Perry and P. Wood eds. Themes in Contemporary Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp 137- 180. Accessed at <>
Steyerl, H.,2007. Documentary Uncertainty, A Prior 15, [online] Accessed at:

Bate, D., 2010. The Real Aesthetic: Documentary Noise. Portfolio 51, 2010, pp 5 – 7

Ono, Y.,

Ruscha, E., image accessed at

Wall, Jeff, image accessed at

Kander, Nadav., 2010. Yantze, The Long River, Portfolio 51, 2010, pp 8 – 17 and front cover

O’Hagan, S., Nadav Kander’s Yangtze photographs show a people sold down the river, accessed at

This entry was posted in photographic document in contemporary art, tp1011 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Photographic document or picture? With reference to Ruscha, Ono, Sekula, Kander and others.

  1. paula roush says:

    heather, your post navigates very successfully the readings for this week and outlines some of the crucial issues at the core of recent debates about the definition and values of the photographic document in contemporary art; i’m looking forward to your contribution to the seminar.

  2. heather says:

    Thank you. I found some very interesting images in Portfolio and was particularly pleased also to find the essay by David Bate. It was a good topical find for this week’s assignment.

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