Martha Rosler: In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)

In looking at documentary and social reform the course notes urge us to look at Martha Rosler’s essay ‘In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ which was written in the 80’s.

I found this essay quite difficult to get into. Rosler has a tendency to jump around a bit and I found her sentences padded with extraneous material that ran off topic quite frequently.

Martha Rosler is an artist, photography, videographer from Brooklyn, New York and her work focuses on the built environment, public life, architecture and issues from everyday life with special focus on how these affect women.

In a panel discussion on this essay at Parsons, moderator, Susan Bright states that the  essay is about looking, the gaze, subject, object. This is at the heart of the essay. It then goes on to cover truth, neutrality, and the positions of power between sitter and photographer.

Rosler (p 303) begins her essay by stating: “The Bowery, in New York, is an archetypal skid row” and wonders why photographers seem so drawn to photograph the down-and-outs living in this street. She then poses the question “how can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photographic practice” (Rosler, p 303).

She makes mention of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, documentary photographers who argued to rectify the wrongs of society. Documentary photography, according to Rosler, is a product of moralism. It is a way to appeal to the elite classes via magazines, books and newspapers and even art galleries and museums, to bring attention to various socio-political or economic events occurring and affecting the lesser classes in America. The references in the essay are all American.

Documentary is a little like horror movies, putting a face on fear and transforming threat into fantasy, into imagery. Once can handle imagery by leaving it behind. (It is then, not us.) One may even, as a private person support causes.

(Rosler p. 306)

11 year old girl picking potatoes
Callie Campbell, 11 years old, picks 75 to 125 pounds of cotton a day, and totes 50 pounds of it when sack gets full. “No, I don’t like it very much.” Lewis W. Hine. Location: Potawotamie County, Oklahoma. Call Number: LOT 7475, v. 2, no. 4593 [P&P]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Rosler regards the type of photos taken at The Bowery as victim photography. Perhaps she feels that the photographer is taking advantage (or abusing) the homeless people’s situation by exposing them to film. Would they willingly consent to be photographed if they were sober? Again the elite classes are shown a world that they would not normally (or willingly) travel to. This brings us to Diane Arbus’s images where “she arranged her satisfyingly immobilized imagery, as a surrogate for the real thing, the real freak show” (Rosler p. 307). It is impolite to stare, especially at strange people. This we are taught as children, but now in our “pugnacious self-interest” we are free of this convention and can look and stare to our hearts content at these freaks of society without the need to feel empathy. No one is standing by with a cap asking for a handout.

Documentary photography has been misrepresented by being used in various commercials. An ad running in the Canadian Vancouver Province newspaper in 1971 done as a documentary expose on the mudmen in New Guinea, only revealing at the end that it is really an ad for Canadian Club whisky. In a similar vein a Visa ad features a man and a little boy, both sporting berets, riding a bicycle down a tree-lined street, with a few loaves of baguettes strapped to the carrier. Rosler recognized the photo as one done by Elliott Erwitt in the 1950’s for a tourism agency.  The Visa ad was recreated in 1979 by a TV commercial company.

Documentary photography tends to have two moments. The first moment is the immediate one when an image is captured and held as evidence of that split second moment in time. The second is the “aesthetic-historical” moment, a moment less defined, where the viewer gives way to the aesthetics of the image. This second moment is rather dangerous as with the passing of time we tend to lose the specific reference in which the photograph was taken. The historical aspect often gets lost over time and we put our own skewed connotations to the image.

As examples of this we can see David Burnett’s photograph, Detained Prisoner taken in 1973 after the coup in Chile. There is no historical record of who the man who is flanked by two soldiers is. All we know is that he was a prisoner. Did he survive, was he freed? We shall never know. In contrast, Dorothea Lange’s photograph of Florence Thompson, Migrant Mother, a destitute migrant working in the 1930’s, has stood the test of time in the photography world. Florence Thompson remarked in 1972 that she allowed Lange to make the photograph of her in the hope that the photograph would help her. The camp where Thompson resided was fixed up but unfortunately Thompson was no longer there, so she never benefited directly from the help. Thompson’s story has become entrenched with the photograph that Dorothea Lange took during the New Deal Era.

So the credibility of the image comes into question as does the objectivity and transparency. But the Right who see elite classes and lower classes as natural evolutions “wish to seize a segment of photographic practice, securing the primacy of authorship, and isolte it within the gallery-museum-art-market nexus, effectively differentiating elite understanding and its objects from common understanding” (Rosler p 320).

By the early 1980’s documentary photography has moved away from recording social causes. The new generation of photographers now documented life, the real world, the commonplace in a very personal way. They found that the banal was worth looking at.

Towards the end of the essay Rosler again turns to The Bowery, informing the reader on how she documented her body of work. She used adjectives and nouns as metaphors alongside her photographs. The first series consisted of adjectives one would use to describe various states of inebriatedness to illustrate the journey into alcoholism and ending in death. For the adjectives she drew on words pertaining to the outside world as well as the Bowery. In the second series, she used only nouns and these pertained exclusively to the Bowery.

Arguments made by documentary photography “have been twisted into generalizations”, have become commodities with high prices attached to them. The more commercialised the documentary image becomes the less clout the argument will have.

The liberal documentary of the past that appealed to the elite classes is something of a bygone era. It has been supplanted by a contemporary type of documentary where racism, gender issues, class oppression, exposure to types of abuses are the norm. But as always the story will be told by the photographer from his/her point of view.


Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’. in The Context of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. ed. by Bolton. R. Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 303 – 325.

Martha Rosler (n.d.)  [online] Available from: [Accessed 18 May, 2015]

Confounding Expectations: Revisiting “in, Around, and Aterthoughts on Document Photography” [vidcast, online] Aperture Foundation at The New School: Documentary Photography. Sponsored by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. 15/11/2010. 1 hour 28 mins 18 secs. (accessed 18 May, 2015)


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