Socio-documentary photography, put in context

Wrinkled prints, poorly reproduced images, frayed advertising material, these are not what you would expect when you walk into an art gallery. “This is not a documentary picture, but the documentary fashion that we see here on journal pages and exhibition walls, ”writes Maren Stange in her catalog introduction to“ Social Forces Visualized, ”on display at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University.

At the turn of the last century, Jessica Tarbox Beals, Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis and others defined social documentary photography. “As a result,” says co-curator Drew Sawyer, “many of their works are now part of the collections of major art museums and are most often seen as self-contained aesthetic objects.” But these works were often commissioned by philanthropic organizations for their advertising campaigns, and curators insisted on showing the photographs in their original contexts. “It’s never photography alone that gives viewers meaning,” writes Stange. Each photograph is “anchored in a fixed relationship to its caption, an associated investigative text and an authoritative presentation agency.” Most of the documents have never been published or even publicly displayed.

During an event at the gallery on Saturday, at 4 PM, contemporary artists Martha Rosler, Trevor Paglen and Lucy Raven will reflect on the role of documentary photography in their own art.

All courtesy of Community Service Society Records, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

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