Two Documents

Two Documentaries

In his seminal 1973 book Documentary Expression and Thirties America, William Stott offers a traditional humanist rationale, and a genre approach meant to join several media. In adopting this approach, Stott treats images as text.

As literary analysis, this book seeks to prove that documentary—whether in film, photograph, writing, broadcast, or art—is a genre as distinct as tragedy, epic, or satire, but a genre unlike these traditional ones in that its content is, or is assumed to be, actually true.

As a cultural history, this book surveys the documentary expression of the 1930s and early 1940s, and suggests that not only that a documentary movement existed then but that recoginiton of it is essential to an understanding of American life at that time.

. . . Though critics and historians who treat the culture of thirties have remarked on “the ‘documentary’ techniques characteristic of the period,” they haven’t examined the literature the techniques brought into being. Here this literature is studied in detail. (ix-x)

The “literature” studied by Stott is broad in both context and use, and overriding any institutional boundaries is the assumption that these works are human documents— “A document, when human, is the opposite of the official kind; it is not objective but thoroughly personal” (7).

Fifteen years later, John Tagg approached a narrow subset of this material and declared:

Mobilizing the means of mass reproduction, the documentary practices of the 1930s, though equally the province of the developing photographic profession, were addressed not only to experts but also to specific sectors of a broader lay audience, in a concerted effort to recruit them to the discourse of a paternalistic, state-directed reform. Documentary photography treaded on the status of the official document as proof and inscribed relations of power in representation. (The Burden of Representation 12)

There are clearly two types of document at work here—one “factual and official” and another “human and emotional.” The choice is in how you read the context. What both approaches have in common, however, is an insistence on reading these texts and images as rhetoric— in Stott’s view, documentary represents a metaphoric similitude with the human condition. In Tagg’s view, documentary represents the attempt to perpetrate a hoax by presenting and authorizing a “false document” meant to perpetuate power relations, rendering the “feminized other” as subject.

It is possible that both approaches are valuable, though they are posited on opposing poles—Tagg’s critique is purely material, whereas Stott’s approach is informed by assumptions regarding psychology. Stott interrogates the documentary effect as a dramatic and personal experience; Tagg interrogates documentary’s exchange value—its contiguity with the fabric of socioeconomic life.

Perhaps one of the most striking feature’s of William Stott’s approach to the textual analysis of 1930s documentary expression (as opposed to Tagg’s documentary evidence) is that it is centered on desire. There arose, in Stott’s thesis, a desire from the people (evidenced in proletarian literature) to document their social condition. Tagg avoids discussing the inevitable conclusion of his modified Marxism (reached by Foucault) that each attempt at social regulation contains within it the seeds of resistance. The power dynamic works both ways; in Tagg, documentary is the villain. In Stott, documentary is the hero.

Neither approach, however addresses completely the fundamental question: how does documentary represent? The gaps involved in a transcendental (Stott) or aporetic (Tagg) approach to representation do not adequately explain documentary’s validity, or lack thereof. In both accounts, the pinnacle of documentary’s attainment is in the work of Walker Evans and James Agee— Let Us Now Praise Famous Men— because it separates text and image and renders problematic the idea that anything can be represented at all. And yet it is documentary, in both senses of the term, in style if not in substance.

The dominant discourse of using both image and text in combination to represent, which persists today, has far deeper roots than explored by either of these studies. The evidentiary stature of the image (not limited to the photograph) and its consequent comment or interpretation remains problematic. A barrier has been repeatedly erected between word and image that has yet to be convincingly stabilized, or torn down.