The Responsibility of Perception
In terms of impact it is fair to
say that Group M have had a far smaller public profile than members would have
liked. Whether this has been unfair treatment, or just desserts is a matter for
investigation. A critical exploration of their activities must involve an
assessment of their use of the documentary medium, especially in the light of
the criticisms it has more recently received (see Chapter I). This will
inevitably lead to a discussion of what role documentary photography may have
in the world today. Whilst there is scope for an entire dissertation in this
last question, a limited review is needed to tie Group M in with the wider
The group’s poor profile at the
time appears to have been largely attributable to their being in the right
place at the wrong time. The late 1950s through to the 1960s was a transitional
period in Australian photography. It lay on the cusp between the outward
looking modernism of the pre-, and immediate post-WWII period, and the more
personalised statements from the 1970s on.
Although Group M’s influences characterise them as modernists, they may still
have benefited if they had been active five to ten years later. During this
period they may have found a more receptive atmosphere, both within the medium,
and in the world at large. At their time of operation outlets for work, be they
in print or in galleries, were rare. By the 1970s specific photographic
galleries had been set up, and more aesthetically based photographic courses
had been established.
Both of these created an environment where photography was disseminated and
discussed in greater depth. The group may well have received greater criticism,
but they would at least have come under more notice. As it was, they had to
spend valuable energy in trying to create an environment open to receive what
they had to offer.
Group M’s legacy has also been less
than what may have been expected. Although they played a part in creating the
Australian photographic scene that followed them, a number of factors,
including their unaligned stance, and relatively short period of activity, have
rendered them largely invisible. Their major supporters were their
contemporaries or predecessors, and their period of visible activity did not
extend into the photographic renaissance of the 1970s. Had they been able to
ensure that more work was held by institutions, or represented in publications,
they may have retained greater currency. As it is what printed material that
survives does so in reasonably inaccessible catalogues and journal reviews. It
is not surprising then that they have rated only minor mentions in the
photographic studies of Gael Newton and Isobel Crombie, and nothing at all in
that of Anne-Marie Willis.
Unfortunately the redirection of photographic energy away from the salons, and
towards the universities, has seen the activities of other amateur
proponents—such as Group M—similarly overlooked. This is perhaps
understandable when one surveys the then photographic scene from a current
position. In comparison with what has followed, Group M look far more like a
camera club than members considered themselves to be. With time, what appeared
to be important differences have become less distinguishable as photographic expression
has broadened. Indeed, one could argue that certain shots produced by Group M
could easily have been found then, as today, in salon exhibitions.
Another paradox one strikes when
seeking to assess Group M is that for all their self-professed adherence to the
traditional documentary ethic, not all their output or thought is as closely
allied to this area as one may expect. In post-war America there was a line
clearly drawn between two styles of photographic expression. On the one hand
was the outward looking, conservative, populist, documentary style,
characterised by the Family of Man.
This was countered by artists seeking to use the medium as a personal tool for
psychological and spiritual contemplation.
As Harry Callahan reflected:
If man wishes
to express himself photographically he must understand...his relation to life.
I am interested in relating the problems that affect me to some set of values
that I am trying to discover and establish as being my life. I want to discover
and establish them through photography. The interior drama is the meaning of
the external event and each man is an essence and a symbol.
These photographers sought to
redress the perceived faults of the documentary which for Minor White amounted
to showing “to society less than it is and to people only a fraction of what
They consequently attempted, in the words of Aaron Siskand, “to see the world
clean and fresh and alive as primary things are clean and fresh and alive”.
To achieve this they utilised photography centred on the close-up, the
textured, the abstract and the fragmentary.
It is easy to assume that because Group M were so simpatico with the Family of Man that members adhered to
the total photographic approach advanced by this exhibition. This is not the
case. By operating outside America the group was not subject to exactly the
same influences. Whilst their outlook was predominantly outward some of their
number—notably John Crook and George Bell—did at times seek a form
of expression based on personal revelation. Compare for example, Siskand’s
statement with this of Crook’s:
perhaps one of the photographer’s jobs to continually try and see the world
afresh...thus through the photographer's expression all may come to understand
more about the world around them and take delight in deeper feeling and wider
breadth in their vision.
This manifesto could also apply to
Bell. Of all the members of Group M, it was he who most clearly produced works
privileging an intimate understanding of the world, predicated on a feeling for
the fragmentary and the textured [see Figures
57 & 58]. Finally, Group M and the Moggs Creek Clickers before them
were certainly not a party to the conservative agenda of the day. They held
left-of-centre views and sought to change the hide-bound salon system. Group M
therefore were positioned further away from the modernist documentary ethic,
especially in its Family of Man
incarnation, than they themselves believed.
The primary reason for this
disjuncture is that for key members of Group M, the humanist philosophy
contained within the documentary path was a vital component in their outlook on
life. They adhered to it with a zeal that bordered on the religious. They may
not have followed any particular faith, but the passion with which they
espoused the documentary cause made up for this. The depths of this passion are
based, I believe, on an experience of the self-transformational power of
documentary photography. Time and again in their testimony one strikes a
similar refrain. For Albert Brown his camera gave him insight and understanding
of various disadvantaged groups. For Roy McDonald his work made him “more
human” and “changed him as a person”. For John Crook his camera was his “third
eye” which “helped [him] to see”.
The practice of recording their subjects had a powerful effect upon their
lives, bringing them into contact with situations, and probably emotions, which
they had not experienced before. Kiko Denzer has been quoted in Chapter I as
suggesting that much of the zeal of early documentary photography came from the
reactions of concerned members of the middle class upon the discovery of
poverty. Denzer contests it “gave them a place in the world” and encouraged
them to “forge a personal understanding” of how the other half lived.
That Group M’s work had a profound effect upon their lives cannot be argued.
Neither can there be any denying the group’s sincerity in their desire to
effect social change. Where the matter is more open to debate is how far this
‘personal understanding’ can be relayed to a third party. As James Guimond has
detailed in a survey of comments by viewers of FSA exhibitions, the work
“touched [them] selectively”.
Euan McGillvray has similarly suggested that the documentary idiom has never
fully dealt with the problem that whilst the photographer may be included in
the ‘decisive moment’, his or her audience is not.
Whilst clearly some viewers can be moved by contact with an experience by
photographic proxy, it is unlikely that this epiphany will strike universally.
Group M’s ‘mission’ may have been based on the noble cause of engendering
social change, but its success could never be as sweeping as was hoped for.
Having found the use of the
documentary ethic by Group M is problematical does this invalidate the work?
And what of the style worldwide? Does it have a place in the postmodern world
to “sharpen our indignation [and] act as a shaming device”,
or “are we as a culture now too cynical—or just too exhausted—” to
“Have we let intellect dominate emotion to such a degree that our hearts are
In its traditional expression, the
style still finds its supporters and one can find examples of its ability to
promote social justice. A notable case is that of the inhabitants of the
Japanese coastal town of Minamata. Progressively poisoned by the dumping of
mercury waste in their bay by a chemical company, they fought for many years to
obtain compensation. An important element in their struggle was the photography
of Eugene and Aileen Smith. They documented the human cost of the
poisoning—the illness and birth defects—and publicised the cause
For the Smiths, whilst endeavouring to be “honest and fair” there was no
attempt at being ‘objective’. Theirs was a cause in which they believed
passionately and they wished to convey that passion to the reader.
However whilst their work has been hailed by some as “photoactivism at its
best”, to others it is mere “histrionics”.
A similar dichotomy permeates reactions to the work of the Brazilian
photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. A recent series of his, Workers, revises Lewis Hine’s or Wolfgang Sievers’ essentially
positive relationship between humanity and work, by highlighting his subjects’
exploitation as much as their dignity. For some, Salgado’s work has a mythic,
monumental presence that sweeps the viewer up and inspires an emotive response.
As one observer put it: “It’s like a
Family of Man exhibition for our time, stripped of the original’s
sentimentality...tougher, warier and much more bitter.” Others though have been
less impressed, finding a “strong sense of 1930s to 1950s moralistic
photojournalism” or “heroic archetyping” that is disturbing.
The point is that contemporary
criticism of documentary photography has seriously challenged not only its
objectivity, but also its claim to being a universal language and ‘the truth’.
Photography is seen to be enmeshed in a variety of other discourses—social,
political and economic—capable of “oversimplifying ambivalences and
Photographic reality is similarly seen to be mitigated by other agencies such
as the camera itself, the photographer’s choice of subject and manner of
depiction, the where and how of the way works are viewed, and the
intertextuality between images.
More recently, the development of digital imaging has opened the way for easier
manipulation of a picture, further compromising the by now forlorn claims of
the medium to some form of objective truth. The question raised by this is
whether the above points compromise documentary photography irrevocably.
Certainly it is possible to come away from a reading of Susan Sontag’s On Photography despairing of ever being
able to use a camera again.
As in all things there is a middle
path, but it is one that requires a broadening of the definition of the term
documentary and a recognition of the potential pitfalls inherent in its
practice. The strength of Sontag’s criticisms overshadow the fact that she was
not seeking the destruction of the entire medium, but to revise the use of
photography in modernist and capitalist discourses.
Australian photo-journalist Peter Davis argues that rather than negating the
power of the image Sontag is suggesting ways it can be better used. For Davis
the importance of Sontag’s work lies in its opening up the medium to the debate
on the subjectivity of truth and the rights of the subject.
The documentary canon can also be
redeemed by the realisation that such work can have a wider variety of
expression and presentation than that which was current during the period when
modernism was at its peak. Whilst certain images may stand alone in their
ability to communicate solely by
visuals, not all documentary photographs are equally informing. Peter Davis has
often found it necessary to include text with his work, both as captions and
accompanying articles. He considers that this is a strategy which can mitigate
the potential power imbalance between photographer and subject, by allowing the
subject to present his or her own story more fully.
Innovative display can also heighten the effect of documentary photography,
something Group M members were clearly aware of. In recent years, the American
photographer Alfredo Jaar has sought to shape creatively a viewing environment
for his work, by employing mixed media installations that juxtapose his
photographs with an unusual means of display. By symbol and metaphor he leads
viewers to his point of view. This is illustrated in his exhibition on the
plight of the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong entitled Fading. By placing images under water in shallow metal trays, he
highlights the print development process, and reflects on how issues such as
those of the boat people can have a brief currency in news reports before
‘fading’ from view’.
The Italian Dennis Del Favero stretches the form even further. His response to
the rape camps of Bosnia has been to juxtapose interviews with victims, with
photographs of portions of the human body, displayed in large unframed prints.
Although not descriptive in a FSA sense the work contains just as much ability
to shock and spur into action.
The above suggests that there are
choices available to would-be documentary photographers that allow them to
function as an effective vehicle for change. Whilst the criticisms of the past
twenty years have trained the spotlight upon the fallacy of the medium’s claims
to objective truth in general and the field’s ability to exploit its subject in
particular, the power lies with each photographer to make choices that can
redress the matter. By recognising the power a photographer may have over how
reality is represented one can be more sensitive to the issue. By choosing to
be less intrusive, one can interact more with one’s subjects, and become aware
of potential networks of power which govern the relationship. But in the end it
is still the photographer who holds the camera. Peter Davis tells the story of
an experience in India just after the 1994 earthquake. Initially, he felt
impotent as a photographer to allay the suffering, so began to work with the
rescuers removing rubble. However he reverted to his chosen profession after an
Indian pleaded with him to use his pictures to relay the situation to the
world. Davis did this and his photographs were used to encourage international
For Davis, in this situation, his equipment and experience were more valuable
than his brute force. Whilst one can no longer accept that the medium conveys
an absolute truth, photographers can still operate successfully if they are prepared
to accept the responsibility for how they choose to represent reality.
Each needs to have in effect a responsibility of perception.
G., Shades of Light: Photography and
Australia 1839-1988 (Australian National Gallery and Collins Australia,
Sydney, 1988), p. 132.
Newton, Shades; Crombie, I., Sites of the Imagination (NGV,
Melbourne, 1992); Willis, A-M., Picturing
Australia: A History of Photography (Angus & Robertson, North Ryde,
1988). Newton discovered them when following up a reference to Urban Woman, but as I have indicated
some of her comments have been wide of the mark. See p. 198, note 17.
made by Euan McGillvray in personal communication 2/6/95.
J., American Photography: a Critical
History 1945-the Present (Abrams, New York, 1984), p. 75.
in Ibid., p. 54.
White in Ibid., p. 55.
in Ibid., p. 54.
Crook in Australian Popular Photography July
1962, p. 43. Indeed on being read Siskand’s quotation Crook readily agrees with
it. Interview with John Crook
Albert Brown to University of Texas, 10/1/91, p. 2; interview with Roy McDonald
4/8/95 1/240-50; John Crook in Photovision
K., “The Documentary Imagination of Lewis Hine” History Today Vol. 38, August 1988, p. 55.
J., American Photography and the American
Dream (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1991), p. 101.
McGillvray personal communication 2/6/95.
G., “The War for Reality” Photofile
46, November 1995, p. 2.
S., & Coleman L., “Sebastião Salgado: An Archaeology of Photojournalism” Photofile 46, November 1995, p. 7.
E. & A., Minamata (Holt, Rinehart
and Winston, New York, 1975); Age
30/9/95, p. A16.
Smith, Minamata, pp. 7-8.
Gemes, J., “Profile: Juno Gemes”
Photofile 46, November 1995, p. 24; histrionics- Martyn Jolly, photographic
lecturer, in Edwards & Coleman ,“Salgado”, p. 12.
Edwards & Coleman ,“Salgado”, pp. 6-13. Mythic- Matthew Sleeth,
photographer, p. 8; monumental- Annette Mauer, teacher, p. 8; Family of Man- Craig McGregor,
photographic lecturer, p. 11; moralistic- John Williams, photographer, p. 9;
archetyping- Peter Solness, photojournalist, p. 12.
Dream, p. 18.
Green, American, p. 195.
with Peter Davis (hereafter PD) 1/8/95 1/240-60.
1/125-50. Obviously by framing the text the photographer preserves the dominant
K., & Jaar, A., “The Art of Inclusion: Alfedo Jaar–an interview, Photofile 46, November 1995, pp. 14-19.
B., “Motel Vilina Vlas–Dennis Del Favero” Photofile 46, November 1995, pp. 28-31.