In 1967 John Szarkowski curated the exhibition New Documents for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Below the main paragraph from the press release:

Their approach differs radically from the documentary photographers of the thirties and forties, when the term was relatively new. Then, photographers used their art as a tool of social reform; “it was their hope that their pictures would make clear what was wrong with the world, and persuade their fellows to take action and change it,” according to Szarkowski, “What unites these three photographers,” he says, “is not style or sensibility; each has a distinct and personal sense of the use of photography and the meanings of the world. What is held in common is the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look at it without theorizing,”

For the 1978 exhibition Mirrors and Windows, curated by John Swarkowski, the MoMa sent out a press release. The below paragraph is self-explanatory:

In John Szarkowski’s view, the dominant motif of American photography during the past 20 years has been a movement “from public to private concerns.” Unlike the generation of the 1930s and 40s, Szarkowski suggests, the gener­ ation that came to artistic maturity and public recognition after 1960 is characterized by a pursuit of highly personal visions of the world rather than by any attempt to offer a comprehensive program for social or aesthetic progress.(Arbus et al., 1978).

Although on the next page of this press release, a more conclusive statement on the exhibition:

What unites the photographers included in the exhibition is their com­mon “pursuit of beauty: that formal integrity that pays homage to the dream of meaningful life.”(Arbus et al., 1978).

In both cases, I understand what is happening, but not sure I fully agree. In previous periods this passive, or better non-activistic registration with artistic intentions existed I try to find the difference between the work and intention by numerous photographers around 1900 up to the interbellum. Either in depicting and artistically looking at their world and definitely not in asking for changes or action. They also found the world worth looking at without theorising it. There was no activistic agenda; there was no journalism involved. It was the same urge for self-expression of their view on their world in their time. Sure, decades later, a continent away, all seem different, but is it really?

Looking at the congress and panel discussion at the MoMa for the 50th anniversary of the initial exhibition in 1967, the summarising conclusion was not the documentary angle as Szarkowski suggests but the modernism, to introduce humour and without theorising, depict the flaws and beauty of the direct world as they interpreted and found it as an individual. It is more their personal interpretation than an interpretation for another. Indeed, the classification “street photography” comes into play. Rosler argues: What is documentary if it is not a species of realism. This however seems not reversible. Martha Rosler quotes the philosopher Terry Eagleton: “Artistic realism cannot mean; “Represent the world as it is” but rather: “represent it in accordance with conventional real life modes of representing it”(MoMA LIVE, New Documents: Fifty Years Later, 2017)
Nevertheless, one of the questions from the audience (a visitor with a very British accent) touches something else. They (the three photographers) are all US photographers, photographing their experience of their US world and context, displayed and curated in the US by Americans for an American audience. Of course, New York was the “metropolis” of the world (Rosler). Still, the risk of too much nationalism and big-apple navel-gazing can get in the way of a geographically broader view on the “documentary photography” development during that time of just before.

In my search for alternative modernism in this genre, I stumbled upon the work of Daido Moriyama, I dedicated a separate post to this artist.(Moriyama Daido Photo Foundation and Moriyama Daido Photo Foundation, 2020)

When looking decades later at the Tate Modern in 2003 “Cruel and Tender”, what comes to mind is the naked-directness and the absence of humour, although Arbus’s work was exempted from humour anyway. One could define this as “truth” but the stretch of that time modernistic boundaries is obvious and most work is thát honest and direct, it becomes almost alienating again.

An article about an interview with the then director of the Tate Modern in 1982 Alan Bowness, indicating Tate’s struggle with photography as art generically, not in the latest, “reporting” photography. The delay on MoMa seems explicable here. (Brittain, 2004). It was not the artistic development of photography itself, it was the conservative gallery that was the delaying factor.


Research task: Challenging Boundaries


Paul Seawright tries to create art photographs with a narrative and context or vice versa. His work is serene but knowing the context rather intense. As he calls it, giving up the story slowly, not intense, entering with a bang. IT is not about the now or the event, it is about the context and visual mood or relation, although mostly geographical.

In his video he explains how he tries to find a balance between explicit depiction and artistic narrative. The short intense docu shot of life now, or the longevity release of the story by means of artistic photography. Does the message or narrative always need to be explicitly and obvious, or can one rely on the viewer intellect to slowly build his narrative thru artistic exposures, indicative or indirect to the event or situation?

If it is too explicit, the work becomes journalistic, and if it becomes too ambiguous it becomes meaningless. It seems indeed a thin line. His holy grail is to get the viewers engagement and from there release the image’s meaning up slowly.

Looking at the work of Seawright, it is indeed helpful to understand and know the context, looking at his work without knowing its context seems meaningless indeed, for that it might perhaps be too far towards art, it can hardly stand by itself when it comes to meaning.

Overall I think Seawright has a good point, art becomes more interesting when there is sufficient meaning and journalistic images become more interesting when created artistically. It is although, beyond the discussion of either (journalistic- or art-)value and by being a compromise between art and journalism, the risk the result is neither is louring.


Bibliography/Reference list

Arbus, D., Caponigro, P., Cohen, M., Dater, J., Davidson, B., Eggleston, W., Erwitt, E., Friedlander, L., Haas, E., Heinecken, R., Krims, L., Metzker, R., Meyerowitz, J., Papa-George, T., Rauschenberg, R., Ruscha, E., Shore, S., Tice, G. and Uelsmann, J. (1978). Mirrors and Windows FOR I MMEDI ATE RELEASE American Photography since 1960. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jun. 2020]. (2016). Daido Moriyama. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jun. 2020].

Brittain, D. (2004). Cruel and Tender: The Real in the TwentiethCentury Photograph (London: Tate Modern until 7 September; Museum Ludwig, Cologne from 29 November 2003–18 February 2004. Visual Communication, [online] 3(1), pp.27–30. Available at: [Accessed 6 Jun. 2020].

The Museum of Modern Art. (n.d.). [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jun. 2020].

Imperial War Museums (2018). Catalyst: Paul Seawright. [online] Vimeo. Available at: [Accessed 5 Jun. 2020].

MoMA LIVE, New Documents: Fifty Years Later (2017). New Documents: Fifty Years Later | MoMA LIVE. [online] YouTube. Available at: [Accessed 5 Jun. 2020].

Moriyama Daido Photo Foundation and Moriyama Daido Photo Foundation (2020). moriyama daido official website. [online] moriyama daido official website. Available at: [Accessed 6 Jun. 2020].

Tate (n.d.). Cruel + Tender: The real in the twentieth century photograph – Exhibition at Tate Modern. [online] Tate. Available at:

The Museum of Modern Art. (n.d.). New Documents | MoMA. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jun. 2020a].

The Museum of Modern Art. (n.d.). New Documents: Fifty Years Later | MoMA. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jun. 2020b].