Documentary photography of the classic mode depends on the assumption that appearance is meaningful, and that the relationship between the look of a scene and its significance is straightforward, even if not always easily understood.
In recent years many younger photographers have used the documentary style in ways that challenge this assumption and emphasize the plasticity and equivocation of visual meanings.
Often, as in the work of Mary Frey and Philip Lorca diCorcia, such work explores photography’s uneasy relationship to the question of narrative. Photographs describe the visual equivalents of nouns and adjectives, are weak on verbs, and have had difficulty with ideas that involve duration. Narrative, if required, has been the function of accompanying texts, either brief or extended, that add a past to the picture’s present, and interpret information that might have been ambiguous (“The crop froze this year and the family is destitute.”—Dorothea Lange). Mary Frey skews this procedure by adding to her pictures texts which are not logically impossible but stylistically dissonant. The pretentiously literary quality of her texts is undermined by the resolute naturalism of her photographic style; the comic mixture of rhetorics persuades us that the assigned interpretation is fictitious and probably—but not certainly—false.
Philip Lorca [sic] diCorcia involves us in the issues of story and plot by constructing tableaus that withhold information that we expect to be given. His pictures invite us to consider them in theatrical terms, in part because his pictures remind us of frozen frames from modern films. They invite us to wonder about facts that lie outside the pictures’ edges or that are invisible from our vantage point (What is in the refrigerator? Who greets the guest in the doorway?). These are questions that film typically answers in the next shot. In diCorcia’s work we see moments lifted without explanation from the flow of unfamiliar stories. His pictures are elegant and compelling puzzles to which the answers have been lost.
David T. Hanson’s extended documentation of the town, mine, and power plant of Colstrip, Montana, is in its motives closer to the traditional concerns of documentary photography. Hanson sees his work as a meditation on a ravished landscape and on the meaning of “the machine in the garden.” It describes, without irony or exhortation, the current condition of a fragment of the earth’s surface. Hanson offers us, however, not one set of facts but two, one describing Colstrip from the ground, a place informed by the circumstantial, indeterminate particularity of temporary places; the other, made from the air, showering the terrible beauty of an unfamiliar and inhuman landscape. The two views challenge each other and the habit of mind that allows us to equate a sharp photograph with the truth.
John Szarkowski, Director, Department of Photography.