Documentary and the Powers of Description (1986)

Graham, Robert. (1986). Documentary and the powers of description. In D. Cumming, Reality and Motive in Documentary Photography. Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.
© Donigan Cumming

It shows great wit that the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, a young institution descendant of the National Film Board and its documentary tradition, should sponsor the exhibition of a photographer whose work stands apart from and questions that tradition. Serving as a challenge, a critique and a correction, Donigan Cumming’s Reality and Motive in Documentary Photography appears at a time of epistemological anxiety when representations are viewed as the arbitrary tokens and worthless baubles of communicative exchange.

In the past, documentary has been burdened with the obligation to be the record of the observation of external reality and to forward the obtained data for social transmission. In its heroic period, documentary joined representation with action and sought to provoke social change. But the solid conceptual base upon which it was once grounded has become unfixed in a contentious debate over the accuracy and purpose of photographic rendering. Increasingly mannered and codified, documentary can now lend its surface appearance to ‘docudrama,’ a mongrel form of partial invention where the actual and the artificial mix it up together to recreate what may have never been. At such times, there seems little alternative between the factual realists and those who reflect on the results and see nothing but ‘points of view.’ In this disintegration, many see scant choice between the temptations of silence and direct, unmediated action.

Historically, the word document meant official, diplomatic papers. Documentary evolved to include the notions of ‘evidence’ (both judicial and scientific) and ‘instruction.’ As such, documentary encompasses a variety of activities including, but not limited to, a strictly identified genre. I do not believe that a sufficient understanding of the present condition of documentary photography in general and Cumming’s work in particular can be based on the narrow field of an isolated area of photographic history. I propose therefore to cut across some established distinctions and borders and to examine briefly how the history of the employment of photography as a research tool in anthropology illustrates some of the issues which plague documentary today.

John Grierson first applied the term documentary to film in a 1926 review of Robert Flaherty’s Moana, and identified in Flaherty’s work the attempt to draw out from the material actuality of location, in its spontaneous gestures, the essential description of the place.

In the western Pacific not far from where Flaherty shot, and not much later, the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson pioneered the use of the camera in ethnographic fieldwork. Forty years after, in 1976, they met in California and argued about their earlier work. David Lipset recounts their discussion in his book Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist: “At one point, Bateson supposed that the ‘photographic record should be an art form,’ in which the cameraman follows behavior, rather than leaving the camera on a tripod. But artists, Mead said, produce unreliable data…. The purpose of ethnographic film, she believed, was to produce footage so that others could restudy it.”1

This would not be the only time that an innovation of this century provided the technological realization of an 18th century goal. For what Mead was maintaining, and Bateson resisting, was the model of ethnographic observation based on Enlightenment criteria of ‘fact,’ obtained rigorously and available to anyone for evaluation. Bateson’s resistance was not anti-scientific, for he had come to believe, on scientific grounds 2, that the act of observation was inevitably prejudicial to the event, that descriptions were constructed and not found (“the name is not the thing, the map is not the territory”) and that the filmic record should acknowledge this by appearing in a state of motion similar to that which the participants (including the anthropologist) experience. The jumping camera is, metaphorically, Bateson’s repudiation of the distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ and his attempt to raise the description to the next logical level: observation plus the revelation of observation.

Fueled by the bad conscience of colonization and the horror of the incommensurable, a tremendous debate continues within Western anthropology over the issue of observation. Together, the critiques coming from cognitive and cultural relativism question first the perception and then the judgment of the observer. The effect of camera optics is to position figures within the imaginary box of rational space, thus lending support to the objectifying procedures of ethnographic research. However, ethnocentric projection directs both the making and the reading of the photographic image in confirmation of an already troubled relationship between the observer and the observed. According to this analysis, the researcher is helpless against any ingrown bias which would taint all findings and their subsequent application.

After scrutinizing the Samoans, documentary, in its domestic appearance, turns around and makes Samoans of us all. Classification and typification provide the means for encoding social representations, and are also elemental to any realist form of art. 3 Such generalizations are the initial stages of that attempted social predictive power which Alasdair Maclntyre in After Virtue argues is the false base and empty promise of the authority of the expert and the bureaucratic manager. 4 In claiming knowledge of law-like generalizations, civil and corporate managers seek to exert the manipulative influence of their explanatory powers. To the degree that we behave typically and see typicality in others (anthropologizing the neighbours), we confirm the bureaucratic ability to describe us. Casting each other as Others, we deliver ourselves to such influence. It is a feature of Otherness to be made knowable and predictable and for the reception of its appearance to be preformed in anticipation.

Problems of observation can also be felt by the observer. In his 1939 work with photographer Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee evokes the scalding self-consciousness and anxiety that can arise when intrusive, inquiring survey disturbs long-standing social protocols. A reluctant sociologist, Agee sensed keenly that disruptive and alienating research into a traditional rural community could be a source of guilty and uneasy pleasures: “I realize… that these I will write of are human beings, living in this world… and that they were dwelt among, investigated, spied upon, revered, and loved, by other quite monstrously alien human beings, in the employment of still others still more alien; and that they are now being looked into by still others…”5 Alternatively delighted and condemning, Agee knew that the production and consumption of his commissioned examination bore no relation to or benefit for the lives observed.

Returning to the present, we now find that even as technology has increased the precision of photographic information, there has arisen along with it a greater doubt and fear of deception. Even before the development of computer-aided editing and montage techniques permitted the synthesization of an entirely persuasive yet counterfeit photographic record indistinguishable from the real thing, the truth value of documentary photography had been under attack. The critique of a naive documentary positivism is so well established and available that James Keegstra and Ernst Zundel could, in their 1985 Canadian trials (Keegstra for promoting hatred against Jews and Zundel for publishing anti-Jewish propaganda), defend their denial of the Holocaust by systematically maligning the evidence (including the documentary photographs) as fabricated, doctored or manipulated and in the service of a group of people receiving compensation from the West German government. Like similar recent controversies in Europe, the Zundel and Keegstra affairs show that, at the “transformation of memory into history,” as Pierre Vidal-Naquet put it, even primary facts are vulnerable to ideological ambush.

As a crude application of an orthodox media skepticism — question the evidence and identify the interests — the revisionist argument has a discomforting familiarity to it and demonstrates the danger in leaving around half-cocked ideas to be picked up by either the innocent or the notorious. Certainly there can be no doubt that photographic imagery is composed of a contingent selection of perspective, focus and emphasis and is subject to the distorting effects of local and general interests. The notion of the photograph as a clear window on the world is simply no longer tenable. Media specialists and guides, trained to examine within the frame of the picture, report back an increasing opacity. The credulous and the suspicious share a fixation on the brute datum of the photograph — one seeing accuracy where the other sees error — but both conclude their search (and thus their findings) where things should just begin. The material from which photographic meaning is constructed is not limited to the raw image alone. What a documentary photograph says is neither unknowable or irrefutable.

When pictures appear, their acceptance is subject to consensus and, in turn, accepted pictures become standard and contribute to future consensus-formation. Thus the photograph occupies a position of alliance or conflict within an argument. In judicial terms, a picture may be evidence but it is not a witness. Implicitly, a documentary photograph illustrates some testimony and serves as a supporting or declaiming trope. As a rhetorical figure, its purpose is to illuminate declaration. When documentary bound itself to the power of its facticity, it laid itself open to doubts about its verifiability. Having abandoned its claim as a special instrument of pure data collection, it can now be situated among discursive and not empiricist activities. The question is, In what manner can documentary and social science continue to accompany each other?

© Donigan Cumming

Donigan Cumming’s work does not, of course, provide a complete solution to these problems, nor is he the only photographer to be concerned with them. But while Cumming approaches documentary along the well-worn path of critique, he also goes further, advancing a model of documentary which avoids the realist fallacy and proposes an alternative way to speak of and with documentary.

It is customary to divide photographers into two groups: the naturalists, who trust they are showing something real, and the expressionists, who know they are displaying only their own sensibility. Neither fits Cumming. Against the notion of documentary observation based upon scientific method, he displays the procedure as a social conduct and interplay. While this places the work in civic photography, there remain barriers to its usefulness to the generalizing methods of bureaucratic management. Cumming signals his activity as a photographer, but this self-reflection does not replace the relaying of physical presentation, display and description.

The Montreal critic George Bogardi can write that the “probing curiosity displays affection,” while California writer Greil Marcus told Cumming that he was the first photographer to treat Presley fans with respect. Because documentary photography involves itself with the actual, the social relationships established in photographic practice have been central. While documentary method objectifies the viewed, Cumming’s documentary conduct highlights the subject-to-subject relationship. And the nature of that relationship is encounter, which Edmund Husserl in Cartesian Meditations characterized as the simultaneous experience of others as physical beings, “psychophysical Objects,” governing psychically their natural organisms and experiencing us in the same world as we experience them. 6

Principally, there are the bodies. The maimed, the scarred, the ill and the old have bodies which speak particularly stridently of being a certain body. Upon and around these bodies are the clothing, furnishings and possessions (the documentarian’s usual trunk of props) which mask and reveal, cover nakedness and fill emptiness. Unlike the figures of Diane Arbus who remain forever in the ‘strange,’ the initial impression of strangeness in Cumming’s work is quickly succeeded by a curiosity. Alerted, we are led to the “fusion of horizons” in the words of H.-G. Gadamer and to consider how others might see us — not as typifications, but as complex agents; not in the name of a universal humanist individualism (there is no pretence of portraying an identity), but for the sake of recognizing human diversity.

Illegible to ordinary documentary reading which gives easy clues and ready cues to elicit what the viewer already knows, Cumming’s work exemplifies what Clifford Geertz in The Interpretation of Cultures calls “thick description.” Geertz writes: “If we want to discover what man amounts to, we can only find it in what men are: and what men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness… that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow and less than a primitivist dream, has both substance and truth.”7 The conversation begins in the viewer’s head (that curiosity, that quizzing) and proceeds as the attempt to utter a fuller, richer descriptive language of our social lives. In the end, the controversy is not over photographs, but over the ways in which photographs are applied to expand or limit our mutual representations.

The images we all carry about with us (including our self-images) are always in flux, ever changing. This repertoire shapes and sometimes names our experiences — and so we occasionally see ‘Diane Arbus’ people, or have ‘Garry Winogrand’ moments, or enter ‘Lynne Cohen’ spaces. Inasmuch as our experience is mediated and our vision prepared in this way, the conflict over images and through images is vital. The dominant mass-media image sources are resisted whenever there appear alternative descriptive systems and we can expand the variety of our image stock and increase the means of our comprehension.

Meanwhile there is a growing theoretical literature which indicates the possibility of a social science that goes “Beyond Objectivism and Relativism” (to borrow the title of Richard J. Bernstein’s fine book). If I am correct that the camera was employed to satisfy those Enlightenment notions of scientific truth which formed the base of the Anglo-American social scientific tradition, then it follows that documentary may be undergoing a transition related to the retooling of the social sciences themselves. As the historian Hayden White writes in Tropics of Discourse: “I have tried to show that, even if we cannot achieve a properly scientific knowledge of human nature, we can achieve another kind of knowledge about it, the kind of knowledge which literature and art in general give us in easily recognizable examples. Only a willful, tyrannical intelligence could believe that the only kind of knowledge we can aspire to is that represented by the physical sciences.”8 The descriptions and illustrations of social reality, inasmuch as they shape the formation of that reality, require as much art and imagination as we can bring to them.

Robert Graham

Robert Graham was born in Montréal in 1950, and did both undergraduate and graduate studies in Communications at McGill University. Since 1980, he has been writing criticism on photography, architecture and other disciplines for Canadian art magazines, including Parachute, ‘C and Vanguard.


1. David Lipset, Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), p. 286.

2. As Niels Bohr said, “It is wrong to think that the task of Physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” In the human sciences, the ‘objects’ of investigation are knowing, learning and adapting subjects capable of absorbing or repelling the things said about them.

3. SeeJohnTagg,”TheCurrencyofthePhotograph”in Victor Burgin, ed., Thinking Photography (London: MacMillan, 1982), p. 135.

4. Alasdair Maclntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp. 88-108.

5. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (New York: Ballantine, 1966), pp. 13-14.

6. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations (The Hague: M. Nijhoss, 1960), p. 91.

7. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 52.

8. Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 23.