Is the fate of photographic works already decided at the moment when the pictures were taken by professional photographers? From the beginning, are they destined to be hung on the wall of high-art galleries or be printed on the glittering surface of coffee-table books? Of course, in this age of image overflow, photography has won the status of serious art and has inscribed its name among the glorious list of fine arts. There is no reason to feel strangeness in front of huge print of black and white photographs at MOMA or the Met, and it is even very natural in the middle-class culture to consume those artistic images to enjoy a life of leisure. It is clear that photographs are the object of enjoyment whether as high- or middle-brow art.
What if the photographs are, however, representing not just the beautiful and bright parts of the world which give aesthetic satisfaction to us, but the ugly and dark side of life which makes us inconvenient, especially in the mind and time of appreciation? What if this pure art is dealing with the secular subject such as hunger, poverty, violence and refugee in underdeveloped world? Or rather, conversely, how do we have to perceive this transition in which photojournalistic documentary photography turn into fine art?
The latter case seems to be that of Sebastião Salgado. His photograph works are at once historical documents and aesthetic objects. According to Stallabrass, “Salgado is hardly the only photojournalist who has been pushed to the borders of the fine-art world”(134). How does that kind of tendency in photojournalism happen, and why is that form of representation justified and criticized? That is also one of Stallabrass’ questions to Salgado’s works.
For me, this seems to be a very crucial question concerned with the reason for its existence. A few months ago, when a California-based activist- photojournalist’s works have been exhibited on George Mason campus for a while, I visited the small gallery and spent a half hour trying to analyze twenty or less documentary photographs. Most of the pictures are describing lives of (illegal) Mexican migrant workers in the United States. I knew only a little about the facts they represent and wanted to learn more about them. However, what impressed me was that the qualities of those photographs were far below my expectation, not to mention the composition and proportion of the frame. The photographs seemed too poor to be exhibited in a gallery, as if they have been taken by an amateur photographer who had not had serious education at all – though I’m still not sure if that was intended effect in order to represent the very poor quality of migrant workers’ lives. Interestingly, I could not focus on the content the photographs were describing due to the inferior aesthetic quality of them. Does this mean that even journalistic photographs have to be accompanied with the artistic quality, if they should be at least impressive to the viewers? Then, will the documentary photographs fail in their social purpose without aesthetic achievement?
It does not look like that simple question insofar as photography has entered into the commercial world as well as the realm of the fine art. While Salgado’s photograph books are sold at a high price, his photograph works are displayed in a high-art galleries waiting to be sold to the rich patrons. If his works did not have artistic value, they would not have been so popular in secular or art world. That might be one of the reasons Salgado is criticized by critics for complicity with the system of repression it describes (135; 145). But it seems to me that uncomfortable contradiction involved in modernist art from the beginning – commodified high art or artworks as commodities. That is also what Rancière has seen in “Problems and Transformation in Critical Art”: “Critical art that invites you to see the signs of Capital behind everyday objects and behaviors risks inscribing itself into the perpetuation of a world where the transformation of things into signs redoubles the very excess of interpretative signs that make all resistance disappear”(83).
If it is true that “aesthetics and politics can’t go together” in critical art – Salgado’s photojournalistic works are certainly included in this category – what can be done by photography as a critical art? Whatever it brings as a critique into the realm of the fine art, it cannot evade its fate as an accomplice in maintaining the system status quo. How do the starving Ethiopian refugee children and their mothers in Salgado’s work – hung on a gallery wall or printed on a book – contribute to improvement of their own lives? Though Stallabrass also does not seem to find fundamental solution for that, he thinks that those critical photojournalist works are trying to uncover ideological masks covering us and the world because they are “dangerous” – “Salgado is dangerous because … he begins to reveal an image of the operation of global capital”(160). Nonetheless, I am still not so satisfied by the conclusion that critical art and critical photography have potential to threaten (make uncomfortable) the system in which the images thrive and predominant.