What’s up at DUMBO?
For more than 150 years, photographers have engaged with the question: “Is photography art?”, championing what in each era photographers felt to be the unique or defining characteristics of the medium. As times change these characteristics fall away into the categories of photo and art history, from pictorialism to modernism to surrealism to every other -ism. These categories as they have congealed make sense of how the past was made sense of in it’s own time. Some photographers have disavowed art; others have insisted on it.
Abiding throughout all these permutations, however, has been the notion that a photograph derives some important part of its effect from its insistence that something happened before the camera, and that despite the idiosyncrasies and patterns of technologies and style and the categories of visual knowledge and information, something was there before the camera.
Photojournalism and documentary photography have taken many forms but at their heart of all witnessing is this nugget. Despite all of the forms that photography can take that can be called “documentary”, if there is a claim to the real then that indexed moment is given enormous respect. Concerned photography celebrates human accomplishment and decries injustice by bearing witness through authorial eyes. The “decisive moment” celebrates the intuitive alignment of composition, information, and feeling, all within the four edges of a frame.
As someone who values documentary photography as a means to describe the world, I recognize that it is often activist, sometimes scientific, essential to open societies, and necessarily humanistic. The way in which a photographer makes sense of the world is a valuable prism through which a society can make sense of itself.
So I’m intrigued to see what the New York Photo Festival has in store for us. It’s not a festival of photojournalism or documentary photography explicitly, but the associations of three of the curators, The New York Times, Aperture, and Magnum, make it impossible to think about this festival without explicitly acknowledging the role of photography in the press, the legacy of modernist documentary photography, and the legacy of concerned photography. Institutions have always played an important role in defining the directions of art and other forms of cultural production. In this sense the NYPH follows in the footsteps of Szarkowski’s important MoMA shows.
Contemporary photography is full of interesting ideas challenging the way in which the medium and its possibilities are defined, and I expect the festival will be an interesting statement on those possibilities. I look forward to seeing how the satellite shows articulate with the central curated exhibits. I’ll be curious to see how these takes on photography resonate with what we have come to expect from and for documentary photography, and I am especially interested in how the humanism at the core of documentary photography plays out in work that in many ways seeks to break frames, challenge expectations, and redefine the very categories and units of photography.
I know it’s not part of the remit of the festival, but the question in my mind will be: what possibilities do new modes of photography have for the humanist documentary tradition? And, no longer asking “Is photography art?”, I will be asking “In what sense is art photography?” What possibilities does the future hold?