Exercise 1-5: A Postmodern Documentary 

Notes from Klages, M. (2003) Literary theory: A guide for the perplexed: Postmodernism: Postmodernism-Mary Klages (notes)

Notes on postmodernism: 

Postmodernism is a highly contested term used to signify a critical distance from modernism which came to prominence in the mid 1970s (although the term can be traced back much earlier) and has given rise to a vast body of literature in virtually every discipline in the humanities and social sciences. There are broadly three main ways the term postmodern is used: to name a specific style in art and architecture, to name the present historical period, to name a point of rupture/disjuncture in epistemology. (Buchanan, 2010: 375) Postmodernism remains difficult to define as it is applied to many spheres of activity and disciplines. Postmodern writers postulated that modernity had run its course and was being replaced by new forms of social organisations with a transforming influence on many aspects of existence with globalisation of capital, ideas, information and images being central to this. (Wells, 2009: 21) Postmodernism literally means after the modern and represents a critique of modernism’s limits and emphasis placed on progress, and in the case of the arts, the materiality of the medium of communication. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009:21) In reference to the breadth of use of postmodern as a term, Eagleton (1996: 200) says this:

“in promising to cover everything from Madonna to meta-narrative, post Fordism to pulp fiction [postmodernism] threatens thereby to collapse into meaninglessness.” 

Some definitions: 

Postmodernism follows modernism by rejecting the boundaries between high and low art and rigid genre distinctions. Pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony, playfulness are emphasised while favouring reflexivity/self-consciousness, fragmentation, discontinuity and ambiguity. Postmodernism differs from modernism in the attitude to these trends: rather than uphold the idea that art can provide unity, coherence and meaning postmodernism posits that the world is meaningless and therefore art cannot make meaning, postmodernism plays with this nonsense. (Klages, 2003)

A term used to describe styles in art, literature, architecture and popular culture that engage in parody, bricolage, appropriation and ironic reflexivity: as if “there is nothing truly new to say, no ultimate knowledge to reveal.” In application to art/visual style, it is a set of trends in the art world of the late twentieth century that question concepts of authenticity, authorship and the idea of style progression. The styles of discontinuity and pastiche employed, particularly on forms of advertising and popular culture, speaks to viewers as both jaded consumers and through self-knowing meta communication. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009:454)

In art circles, postmodernism meant the rejection of themes and subjects that interested modernists such as abstraction and the subjective expression of unique intellects. In many media, artists reintroduced the human figure into their work and turned to mass produced kitsch for inspiration. Photographers often dwelled on the body and focused on images appropriated from commerce, advertising and films. (Warner Marien, 2014: 442)

By 1970-80s, many critics reversed modernisms concern with the aesthetic and focused on cultural contexts influenced by the politically aimed writings of Walter Benjamin. Postmodernism calls into question the universality and progressiveness of modernist ideas, offering a fragmented world view and often focusing on social, rather than aesthetic issues. A feature of postmodernism is the constant revival of old ideas rather than the progression of new ones, the concept of a fluid fragmented self-replaced the notion of a single unified identity. Recognisable imagery from mass culture is a common strategy as opposed to abstract expressions of the artist’s mind. (Bull, 2010: 11-12, 137-40)

Philosophically postmodernism is defined as making the collapse of certainty, loss of faith in explanatory systems, sense of dislocation consequent on the global nature of communication systems and loss of a clear relation between signs and referents. (Wells, 2009: 349)

The terms postmodernity and postmodern differ: Post modernity is a comprehensive philosophical and historical term literally meaning the end of modernity – the fond hopes of the enlightenment onwards are not only discredited but seen as dangerous illusions. Postmodernism is a narrow cultural/aesthetic term referring to a form of culture that corresponds to the world view of postmodernity. Typically, postmodern work is arbitrary, eclectic, hybrid, decentred, fluid, discontinuous and pastiche like. Metaphysical profundity is spurned for a kind of contrived depthlessness which focusses on playfulness, lack of effect, surface and passing intensities. Attempts to reflect a stable reality beyond itself are rejected. A negative authenticity can be attained by flaunting ironic awareness and wryly drawing attention to it sown status as a constructed artifice which draws attention to its own intertextual nature. Postmodernism attempts to dismantle the intimidating aura of high modernist culture by deconstructing the border between high and popular art and producing self-consciously populist or vernacular artefacts offered as objects for pleasurable consumption. This demotic, user-friendly art judges all hierarchies of value as privileged and elitist: “There is no better or worse, just different.” (Eagleton, 1996: 200-2)

Jean-François Lyotard: 

The key text for postmodernism in philosophical terms is ‘The postmodern knowledge: a report on knowledge’ (1984) by Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard is credited as transforming postmodernism into a concept to be reckoned with, giving intellectual respectability while deepening its penetration. Postmodernism was defined as incredulity towards grand narratives of the past, for example, the Marxist idea that revolution was inevitable and would bring with it beneficial social change or the enlightenment ideal that progress would be achieved through technological advancement. The destruction of grand narratives unsettles the traditional notions of reason and rationality and sees the spawning of multiple little narratives. These competing notions would provide a fertile chaos which would feed a new freedom from the oppression of scientific knowledge. Small/mini narratives are stories that explain small, local events rather than large universal and global concepts. They are situational, provisional, contingent and temporary, making no claim to universality, truth, reason or stability. From his work, a broad theory that explained the present moment as a state of flux, propelled by instantaneous information churned out by mass media was construed. (Buchanan, 2010: 377, Klages, 2003, Macey, 2000: 307, Warner Marien, 2014: 442)

Frederick Jameson: 

Jameson is a Marxist cultural critic who provided economic answers to the problems Lyotard raised, for example in ‘Postmodernism, or, in the cultural logic of late capitalism’ (1984) saw postmodernism as a cultural formation that accompanied the current stage of multinational/consumer capitalism and theorised that postmodern culture is the superstructural expression of late capitalism. He argued that commodity fetishism has become so extreme that it is the commodification process itself that is being consumed. (Buchanan, 2010: 378, Klages, 2003, Macey, 2000: 307)

Jean Baudrillard: 

Posited the notion of the simulacra – idea that on postmodern society there are no originals, only copies. Baudrillard questions the existence of reality itself, for example, it could be argued Disneyland is more real than the ‘real; America in which it was built. Also, Las Vegas hotels designed as reconstruction of other places such as Venice or New York – essentially reconstructions that are décor from commercialism. (Klages, 2003, Macey, 2000: 307, Wells, 2009: 22)

Postmodernism and photography: 

Postmodern ideas fostered new thinking about social documentary photography by challenging assumptions about the cause of poverty and the power of photography to report them. What became termed ‘thinking photography’ which combined practice with postmodern theory and helped push photography out of the darkroom and into the forefront of the humanities.

In his introductory essay to the influential ‘pictures’ exhibition, Douglas Crimp acknowledged how the experience of media created a generation gap between those raised in the time of mass media and those who grew up in a less image saturated time (pre-world war II.) He argued that our experience is governed by pictures and next to these our first-hand experience begins to retreat and seem more trivial. The relationship between pictures and reality becomes reversed -where once they functioned to interpret reality they have now usurped it. (Warner Marien, 2014: 441-2)

Postmodernism questions the efficacy of the photograph – although it retains its cultural place within culture as a means of representation we are saturated by its presence which now celebrates multiplicity. (Clarke, 1997: 220)

Postmodernism in art photography is defined by critics such as Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp, Abigail Solomon-Godeau and Victor Burgin (‘Thinking Photography’ (1982) particularly influential) These critics made connections between the techniques and work of artist using photography, primarily through appropriation, who were regarded to be doing this in opposition to practices of modern art history and culture of capitalism. Arguably, however, these ideas were those of the critics rather than the artists themselves. (Bull, 2010: 11-12, 137-40)

Examples of postmodern photographers: 

Sherrie Levine: appropriation of photographs by Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Eliot Porter which repressed the notion of her art as original and unique.

Richard Prince: appropriation of mass media images which became examples of the convergence between image making and social analysis which became known as critical practice.

Cindy Sherman: in ‘Untitled Film Stills’ exaggerated stereotypes born from films – viewers could recognise the source of her images because the poses condensed the much-repeated portrayal of women. Although they were self-portraits they also did not reveal Sherman which played on the notion of the postmodern copy and its opposition to ideas of invention and genius. (Marien Warner, 2014: 442)

Notes from the article ‘In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ by Martha Rosler. 

‘In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ is an influential essay originally published in the catalogue to Rosler’s 1974-5 series ‘The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems’. The paper is complex, far reaching and has compelling ideas – many of which I am sure I will return to in the future. It is difficult to address all of these here without this exercise taking on a life of its own, so I will summarise the main aspects that I gained from the essay.

In the paper, Rosler explores themes of power, objectivity and context in what amounts to a critique of the American tradition of documentary photography. She argues documentary consistently frames and objectifies and underprivileged (powerless) subject for a privileged (socially powerful) middle-class viewer and cites the work of Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, David Burnett and Dorothea Lange to illustrate her points. Through viewing documentary photographs, the privileged viewer is interpellated as morally superior and reassured about their own status and social power. In turn, the consumption of these images can be likened to the wider western consumption of products. The aestheticised images support the viewer’s identification with the photographer rather than the subject which is often presented as an exoticised ‘Other’. The viewer identifies with the position of the photographer and their individual authorship becomes a focus of discourse surrounding the nature of documentary photography. (Durden, 2013: 195-8) Rosler posited that documentary photography was unlikely to illicit change as,

at best, it can only show suffering, degradation and despair and can do nothing to illuminate these woes. The depiction of working class, immigrant and slum life ranged from sensationalist journalism to social work propagandising, “the reification of wrongs”, they failed to see these as fundamental to the social system that tolerated them. (Wells, 2009: 96)

The context of the essay is that Rosler was part of an informal study group (also including Allan Sekula and Fred Lonidier) that formed in the mid-1970s and emerged as intellectual and visual leaders of a new social documentary that challenged assumptions about the causes of poverty and the power of photography to report them. The discourse of this group dovetailed with the civil right and feminist movements of the time and became known as ‘thinking photography’. Particular influences were Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht. (Warner Marien, 2014: 437-8)

Although ‘In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ is often seen as a wholesale rejection of documentary photography, Rosler specifies that she is discussing documentary “as we know it” thus, leaving open the possibility for future forms that do not fall under the patterns of representation she discusses. (Durden, 2013: 197)

The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems 

Described by Rosler in the essay as a “work of refusal”‘The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems’ consists of black and white photographs of the Bowery, an area of New York, paired with “poem like collections of words” that describe drunkenness. (For example: stewed/boiled/corned/picked/preserved/canned/fried to the hat.) By juxtaposing text and photography, Rosler demonstrates how both of these methods of communication are unable to capture both social reality and the people who inhabit it. (Durden, 2013: 197)

By using the familiar conceptual art technique of combining images and text Rosler is not intending to provoke concern but to examine the inherent weakness of words and pictures while puncturing humanist assumptions about the ability of documentary photography to contribute to human progress. The two parallel representational systems do not add up to a conscientious description of the area. The work was retrospectively classed as postmodern because the theme of undermining the truth value of visual and verbal texts is a typically postmodern concern – a critique of realism as well as being suspicious of aesthetic appearances. (Warner Marien, 2014: 451, 491)


I have been inspired by Rosler’s style of writing and ability of expression, here are some passages from the essay that caught my attention. (Numbers in brackets are page numbers from Bolton, 1992):

“The Bowery, in New York, is an archetypal skid row. It has been much photographed, in works veering between outraged moral sensitivity and sheer slumming spectacle.” (303)

“How can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photographic practice? What remains of it? We must begin with it as a historical phenomenon, a practice with a past.” (303)

“Documentary, with its original muckraking associations, preceded the myth of journalistic objectivity and was partly strangled by it.” (303)

[The photographs of the Bowery are part of the] “aggressive insistence on the tangible reality of generalized poverty and despair. A reality newly elevated into consideration simply by being photographed and thus exemplified and made concrete.” (303)

“The notion of charity fiercely argued for far outweighs any call for self help.” (304)

“Yet the force of documentary surely derives in part from the fact that the images might be more decisively unsettling than the arguments enveloping them.” (306)

“The exposé, the compassion and outrage of documentary, fuelled by the dedication to reform has shaded over into combinations of exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psychologism and metaphysics, trophy hunting – and careerism.” (306)

“The mainstream documentary has achieved legitimacy and has a decidedly ritualistic character.” (306)

“The liberal documentary assuages any strings of conscience in its viewers the way scratching relieves an itch and simultaneously reassures them about their wealth and social position.” (306) 

“Documentary is a little like horror movies, putting a face on fear and transforming threat into fantasy.” (306)

Discussing Diane Arbus: “With the appropriate object to view one no longer feels obligated to suffer empathy…the boringly sociological becomes the excitingly mythological/psychological.” (307)

[Documentary testifies to the bravery and manipulatives of the photographer who,] “like astronauts, entertained us by showing us the places we never hope to go.” (308)

“I would argue against the possibility of a nonideological aesthetic; any response to an image is inevitably rooted in social knowledge- specifically, in social understanding of cultural products.” (315)

Discussing Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’: “Are photographic images…like civilization made on the back of the exploited?” (315)

“…the monolithic cultural myth of objectivity (transparency, unmediateness)…implicates not only photography but all journalistic and 

reportorial objectivity used by mainstream media to claim ownership of all truth.” (319)

“…the higher the price that photography can command as a commodity in dealerships, the higher the status accorded to it in museums and galleries, the greater will be the gap between that kind of documentary and another kind, a documentary incorporated into an explicit analysis of society and at least the beginning of a program for changing it.” (325)

“Perhaps a radical documentary can be brought into existence. But the common acceptance of the idea that documentary precedes, supplants, transcends, or cures full, substantive social activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary.” (325)


Bate, D. (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts. (2nd Ed.) London: Bloomsbury.

Bolton, R. (ed) (1992) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, MT: MIT Press.

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.

Durden, M. (2013). Fifty Key Writers on Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Eagleton, T. (1996) Literary Theory. (2nd Ed.) Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Klages, M. (2003) Literary theory: A guide for the perplexed: Postmodernism. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/maryklages [accessed 4th June 2017]

La Grange, A. (2013) Basic critical theory for photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press.

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Rosler, M In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) in

Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, MT: MIT Press. Pps 303-340

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed.) Abingdon: Routledge.


I feel like I could continue studying this essay as there are so many issues raised in the paper along with photographer, works and movements cited that deserve further research. As the exercise brief only states to make notes from the essay it is difficult to know what to concentrate on or where to stop, rather than try to cover everything that Rosler discusses I have tried to mention the main themes – I am sure this is a paper I will return to many times in the future. I am particularly interested in the way Rosler has developed her analysis into a body of work and this is something I am very interested in incorporating into my own work going forward.


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