Human Documents

Human Documents

By Robert Gardner

Peabody Museum Press

Harvard University Press – £37.95

Like mathematics and music, photography penetrates across all barriers, languages and revolting class division. But unlike music, photography or rather the camera, doesn’t lie. Maths is what it is, and as such, will always add up. Beautiful music will always remain beautiful, and as such, will always be unquestionable. On the other hand, deceitful music will ALWAYS remain deceitful, dishonest and something merely devised as music, such as corporate devised, consumerist bollocks.

But photography is a different medium altogether.

Admittedly, one will always invariably be bombarded with the cheap’n’nasty, slut like photography of the shopping precinct, but even here, it is what it is. And it doesn’t lie. Relocate to the upper echelons of humanistic photography meanwhile, and we find ourselves amid ethnology; so remarkable, so inspiring, it borders on the visual poetry of movement.

In ‘Giving Visual Witness’ at the outset of Human Documents, Robert Gardner writes: ‘’Though photographs can be quintessential, they are never beyond compare, not even Robert Capa’s image of the falling Spanish soldier. That image and a number like it are subject not only to being judged anew but also to being outdone.’’ Not only is it hard to argue with Gardner, one cannot help but agree. For just as we ourselves feel naturally compelled to (occasionally) judge, so too are we (occasionally) lured into outdoing one another.

Yet, just as said mode of behaviour can turn inwards, thus becoming perpetually damaging; so too can it turn outwards, and artistically at least, become rewardingly humanistic – like much of the photography throughout this truly arresting collection.

Containing almost a hundred images taken by eight different photographers – which, although widely separated by geographies and cultures – Human Documents gives ‘’credence to the notion that photography has an important role to play in a fuller understanding of human nature.’’

One such example, are the twelve photographs by San Franciscan photographer, Alex Webb, whose images predominantly suggest global disjointedness.

Whether by way of reflection, angle, non-pristine composition, purposeful abstraction or intentional mistake, Webb’s work highlights a sensation of feeling off kilter. A mode of social deportment, which, if you really think about it, we can all at some time or another most definitely relate to. As Webb himself testifies: ‘’By ‘dislocation’ I do not mean purely geographical dislocation, though that is certainly true of these images. I mean something more complicated than that; a psychological, cultural, emotional dislocation. A sense that somehow something is slightly askew.’’

So even dislocation doesn’t lie. Then again, how can it?

Photography, like ethnology, is indeed the one true medium through which we are capable of seeing ourselves. Regardless of interpretation. Regardless of indoctrination.

As Eliot Weinberger writes in ‘Photography and Anthropology (A Contact Sheet)’ immediately following Gardner’s aforementioned Introduction: ‘’A photograph, like a line of poetry, has no fixed meaning. On the one hand, it does not exist without a caption, mentally provided by the viewer when the subject or context is recognizable or by the photographer when it is not. We either know what we are seeing or need to be told. On the other hand, it cannot be paraphrased; no words can convey all that we are seeing. A photograph tells us something, but never enough; much of its power is precisely in that it gives us some indefinable sense of the subject matter while propelling us to imagine the rest, the world outside the literal frame.’’

David Marx


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