Not Quite Documentary Art
Despite its title — “Framing and Being Framed: The Uses of Documentary Photography” — the exhibition at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University contains many artworks that are not, strictly speaking, documentary photographs. Some of them are not even documentary in nature. They are more conceptual projects that employ photographic material ranging from snapshots of everyday life to portraits and conventional documentary imagery.
But this in no way negates the show’s powerful premise, which is to encourage viewers to think about the ways in which artists and photographers use and abuse documentary principles. Nina Felshin, the gallery’s curator, has done a terrific job assembling interesting and provocative work in this vein, the best of which invite viewers to consider issues of agency, context and interpretation in documentary-based art.
Take, for instance, Wendy Ewald’s “Towards a Promised Land” (2004-2006), a collaborative conceptual project comprising photographs, banners and sound recordings. For 30 years, the artist has put cameras in the hands of children all over the world to record their impressions of life and the world around them. The present installation documents her work with 22 children living in the English seaside town of Margate, all of whom are asylum seekers and refugees.
Ms. Ewald spent 18 months interviewing children in Margate, taking their photographs and teaching them to use a camera. Showing here are installation shots of her photographs of the children, displayed as public banners around the streets of Margate, along with the project’s 2006 book, “Towards a Promised Land.” There is also an audiotape including snippets of the children’s personal accounts of their experiences. It is quite moving.
Employing elements of self-representation, participation and collaboration, Ms. Ewald departs from standard documentary conventions in which the artist is at arm’s length from the subject. Her project is less a documentary than a kind of testimonial. The same goes for Eric Gottesman’s “Sudden Flowers,” an ongoing installation of photographs and video made in collaboration with children in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in an effort to improve the public image of Ethiopia abroad. Here the participants are openly trying to reshape an image of themselves.
Much of this work illustrates a simple point: The way in which subjects are perceived depends on the lens through which they are viewed. Emily Jacir toys with this idea in her photographs of the annual Israeli Day Parade in New York. On the one hand, several images emphasize bonds of friendship between the United States and Israel, with parade participants carrying flags from both countries and wearing T-shirts with pro-United States slogans emblazoned across them. On the other hand, other images contain nasty anti-Arab references.
Artists also complicate traditional assumptions about documentary imagery by restaging, rehearsing, or simply evoking past events for the camera. Matthew Buckingham’s “Will Someone Please Explain It to Me, I’ve Just Become a Radical” (2008), consists of 12 photographs of the interior of a building at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where in 1967 a sit-in against recruitment on the campus by Dow Chemical, manufactures of napalm, used in bombs during the Vietnam War, ended in a violent police action against the protesters. The artist invites us to project our own thoughts onto these now empty interiors.
By contrast, An-My Le is a more conventional documentary photographer, using a large format camera to create richly detailed black-and-white photographs of young American marines doing training exercises for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at a military base in the Mohave Desert in California. Her accurate and engaging rendering of simulated battlefields evokes the harsh reality of soldiering in desert conditions, but also, in a quite profound way, brings the war home.
Also bringing the past back to the present is Kota Ezawa’s “Simpson Verdict” (2002), an animated projection based on the actual courtroom footage of one of the most widely publicized legal cases in history, O.J. Simpson’s 1997 murder trial. Focusing on the emotionally-charged final minutes, as the defendant and his legal team awaited the jury verdict, the footage is simplified and abstracted to focus on Mr. Simpson’s movements and gestures. The result is a case study in body language.