This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – a new book and exhibition on post-documentary photography But Still, It Turns.
But Still, It Turns
In a new book and exhibition, But Still, It Turns, curator and editor Paul Graham, a British artist and photographer based in New York, suggests that “conventional documentary photography” has been superseded.
Building on Martha Rosler’s conception of post-documentary, Graham says this collection is “released from restrictive briefs and reductive narrative within which places and people are all too conveniently shuffled. Talented artists know when to leave the poetry of the world alone. No editorializing, no words to illustrate: that there is no singular story is the story.”
This collection, according to Graham, shows us 21st century America (or a narrow slice of it). The book features work by seven photographers and one photography team.
“Without being tempted by the artifice of the studio or the restrictive demands of conventional documentary, these artists tell open-ended stories that shift, warp, and branch, attuned unfailingly to life-as-it-is,” says Graham.
I “read” and look at photography from all over the world every day as a journalist and scholar. The vast majority of photography I engage with could be classified under a documentary umbrella. As such, I am not convinced that working beyond what Graham terms “conventional” documentary is as groundbreaking as he suggests. I do agree the work presented in this collection is not impeded by convention, yet narrative elements are present, as they should be.
When we are documenting the lives of human beings narrative storytelling becomes even more important ensuring those pictured are not relegated to objects or curiosities. And if we want to provoke a reaction in the viewer, then even open-ended stories need entry points. I’m not suggesting these elements are not present in these images, what I’m alluding to is that to work in a post-documentary context does not mean abandoning the unique properties of documentary storytelling and the evidentiary capacity of the photograph even when narratives are abstract.
While I realise Graham had to work within specific parameters, and was not attempting to curate an encyclopaedia, I would have liked to see other nations included in the book providing the opportunity for a comparative discussion on post-documentary beyond an American viewpoint. Perhaps in a future edition.
The book and exhibition feature work including: “Gregory Halpern’s Californian waking dream ZZYZX; Vanessa Winship’s peripatetic exercise in empathy she dances on Jackson; the human assemblages of Curran Hatleberg’s Lost Coast; Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s rich and multitudinous One Wall a Web; the mortality-tinged America of Richard Choi’s What Remains; RaMell Ross’ visionary documentary work South County; the collaborative project Index G by Emanuele Bruti & Piergiorgio Casotti; and Kristine Potter’s disorientating exploration of the American landscape and masculinity in Manifest.”
The book includes essays from Paul Graham, Rebecca Bengal, RaMell Ross and Ian Penman.
Published by: MACK
On show at the International Center for Photography, New York until 9 May, 2021
Featured image: RaMell Ross. Image from the series South County, AL (a Hale County), in But Still, It Turns ed. by Paul Graham (MACK, 2021). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.