Documentary photography traded on the status of the official document as proof and inscribed relations of power in representation that were structured like those earlier practices of photo documentation: both speaking to those with relative power about those who were positioned as lacking, as the “feminized” Other, as passive and pathetic objects capable only of offering themselves up to a benevolent, transcendent gaze—the gaze of the camera and the gaze of the paternal state. But in its mode of address, documentary transformed the flat rhetoric of evidence into an emotionalized drama of experience that worked to effect an imaginary identification of viewer and image, reader and representation, which would suppress difference and seal them into paternalistic relations of domination and subordination on which documentary’s truth effects depended. (12)
John Tagg, The Burden of Representation
Tagg’s comment is typical of the postmodern response to 1930s documentary. The focus of study has been on the institutions that fostered a mode or style of representation thought to be oppressive. The practitioners themselves, unfortunately, lived to hear it. In a sense, the problem lies in the use of representation as a mode of communication. Communication requires motive, and the motives (from the point of view of most contemporary theory) were hidden and insidious. Only aesthetically focused photographers like Walker Evans have remained safe from attack. The “imaginary identification of viewer and image, reader and representation” are sanctioned when that identification is aesthetic or poetic, and suspect when it is political or rhetorical.
However, the boundary between the poetic and the rhetorical is notoriously indistinct, subject to the vagaries of taste. Overtly political aesthetics such as that of Leni Riefenstahl are hailed as transcending their political beginnings, whereas the work of the New Deal photographers is seen as promoting a paternalistic view of government, which has little redeeming aesthetic value. Such considerations become quickly heated matters of discussion, which avoids a deeper issue—how do visual works act to facilitate communication? Why do pictures have such a sustained appeal as evidence that seems true, compared to the prose which appears around them?
I feel there is no support for Tagg’s assertion that pictures constituted “a flat rhetoric of evidence” which was somehow transformed into an “emotionalized drama” by the emergence of documentary aesthetics. Prior to the invention of photography, images were used to communicate in ways that were hardly unemotional. Prior to the invention of photography, images were used to convey an impression of the real. Photography was thrust onto the world stage during a time when conflicting economies of representation held sway. Images were as frequently used to subvert hierarchy (political caricatures, etc.) as they were used to support and authorize it (heroic portraiture). The situation in which the documentary aesthetic emerged reaches deeper and wider than most contemporary writing implies.
The fate of the picture is harnessed to the power of the word. The dynamic interaction between them has been scarcely studied outside fairly narrow political contexts. Such studies have usefulness when considering the nature of the institutions that fostered documentary projects; however, they tell us almost nothing about the way words and pictures work together. This is the unexplored country that I find myself in.
To place an image and text on a page to communicate implies not only a motive (whether hidden or overt), but also a relationship between the two. It involves conventions of communication, and expectations on the part of a readership. At the most basic level, an image is most often accompanied by a caption. The caption closes a relationship between text and image; it attempts to make the motives for the inclusion of the image clearer. It constitutes a trope, a mode of arrangement, which can be quantified.
In its earliest incarnations, the captioning of images is a strategy of authorization. By connecting an image with its creator, credibility is established. Conventions for captioning emerged in the eighteenth century deeply tied to the technological modes of reproductive practice.