I am going to start on and off series of blogs going forward talking about whether social documentary photography itself is art and can be seen as such. I am sure my own perceptions will evolve as well and it will be interesting to see how and why they do so.
I think it is safe to say that whether photography can be considered an art form was resolved an age ago if the museum and gallery photog collections and thriving auction sales of this world are anything to go by. As far back as the mid-70’s Susan Sontag – in her seminal work ‘On Photography’ was discussing the well-established merits of photography as an art form finding acceptance in museum collections (even back then the arguments had pretty much been settled). But social documentary photography on the other hand has until only recently began to be seen as art and with limited (if not significantly growing) volumes of work being seen at exhibitions, galleries and museums.
The current deep recession might have something to do with renewed interest in social documentary photography – as it cyclically does – as people become more reflective on social ills and global problems that mirror their own economic distress – as it did in the early 80’s. But there is also a growing long-term trend of seeing social documentary photography in galleries and being more readily accepted as art. One has only to see the amazing success of photographers like Pieter Hugo whose 30×40 can go for US$ 30,000 and whose subject matter – while more conceptual certainly touches on social documentary themes, to understand that rather than a passing interest, social documentary photography has set down its stall in the art world and is here to stay.
But there is certainly a contradiction between the two worlds that will probably take time to adjust and settle. The largely humanistic approach (notwithstanding photographers such as Martin Parr) of social documentary photography sits uncomfortably with the values that the art world holds dear, namely concept, the abstract and composition that together contribute to the essential timelessness of a piece. There is the danger of trivialising the grave subject matter which many social documentary photographers tackle in its commodification by print sizes and limited edition offerings that borders on the exploitative.
I think approach and execution of subject is always key in understanding which social documentary photography is right for the walls and which is better off in editorial format in a magazine or on an NGO poster campaign. As social documentary photographers fine tune their approaches (as many have done highly successfully) away from actual subject matter and towards the conceptual, using subtle color patterns and composition rather than subject to express their chosen themes, then social documentary photography will increasingly start finding a successful home in the art world now that the traditional line of income from media outlets is all but extinguished.