Tag Archives: ethics

Photography reading group – Solomon-Godeau’s ‘Canon Fodder – Authoring Eugène Atget’ (1986)

The Photography Reading group met yesterday  in a hangout, and five of us were present. The text for discussion was Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ in Photography in the Dock. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 28-51 and the essay itself was written in 1986.

After a rather slow start and after getting used to SG’s hugely academic and complex style of writing, this text turned out to be about

  • authorship, and who decides it
  • who are the decision makers about what constitutes the accepted canon of photography, and what motivates them
  • the perceived importance of a singular style
  • whether the subject can be the photographer rather than his work.

SG used Berenice Abbott’s marketing of Atget’s vast oeuvre to the American arts institutes as a vehicle for discussing the enormous power that the gatekeepers in those ‘hallowed halls’ have to both make or break the careers of individual photographers and also to dictate what work the public should be told is important (the canon). She goes into some detail about John Szarkowski’s hold on the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his commitment to making the previously unknown work of Atget an acknowledged part of the photographic canon and to bringing his work to the attention of the world through four separate exhibitions. In some ways, this trajectory to fame had much in common with the more recent ‘discovery’ of Vivien Maier’s work – the hidden genius making vast numbers of superb images that are only discovered later, and which make vast sums of money for the people who promote them.

All this was a precursor to asking questions about whether a singular view – the personal voice – is essential for work to be recognised by the establishment, whether the acknowledged canon of the history of photography is static or changes over time, and whether alternative histories using different photographers as examples are equally valid. With regard to the first of these, one of the issues with Atget was his great variety of styles which made pigeonholing him difficult, when the fashion in the 20th century was to focus on artists with a very specific, easily recognisable style. Although still very prevalent, there is an encouraging trend more recently towards accepting photographers such as Thomas Ruff and Wolfgang Tillmans, whose style is less important than the themes they explore. SG makes a good case for questioning the solidity of the accepted canon, offering several examples of previously lauded photographers whose work has almost completely disappeared from public discourse, while suggesting that a different establishment/ different gatekeepers would come up with a variety of alternative lists depending on their own interests and fashions within their own circles of influence.

The reading group then went on to discuss the effect of funding realities on decisions about what art is promoted to the public, and how current interest in the ethics of Corporate Social  Responsibility (CSR) can affect those decisions. Also, the bottom line that exhibitions need to make money and bring prestige to the organisations which stage them and that means making hard decisions about what the public would like to see, as well as what is currently viewed as ‘the best work’.

We talked about curation and how it is a subjective process which cannot escape the prevailing public discourse and the curator’s own interests, and how different curators would produce different representations of any artist’s work. (An interesting sideline from this is the idea of giving a group of people the same archive and asking them each to produce their own interpretation of it, which I think would be fascinating).

Finally, I very much enjoyed SG’s subliminal message in this essay. Without making any direct mention of it, I realised that almost all the photographers she referenced were women, and Berenice Abbott’s image came before Eugène Atget’s in the text, despite Atget being its ostensible subject. Abbott’s role and motives in the raising of Atget’s work was also discussed briefly, but without coming to any specific conclusion.

Overall, an interesting read and subsequent discussion, as always.




Exercise 3.3 – Breaking the news?

In some ways, this exercise is very similar to the last. We are asked to review an image of an impending tragedy and to comment on the ethics of the photographer. The image is one showing a man standing on the tracks of the New York subway with a train bearing down on him. The man, Ki Suk Han, was killed moments later. The image caused uproar when it was published shortly afterwards with the banner title’ This man is about to die’, with people in particular focussing on the photographer’s motives. Apparently, the photographer, an off-duty photojournalist just lifted his camera when he saw what was happening with the aim of letting the train driver know there was a problem with his flash, and took the photos almost on autopilot. Subsequent studies of what happened established that Mr Han had been deliberately pushed off the platform by an agitated man who had been bothering other passengers, and whom Mr Han had attempted to calm down. It later turned out that this man had severe mental health issues.

Public outrage seems to have focussed on two aspects of the New York Times front page story, which included the image. Firstly, should they have bought the photograph and published it, and secondly was the motivation of the photographer questionable? It is a strange fact of modern life that we tend to focus our fury on people other than the perpetrator, and this is what seems to have happened here. The man who actually caused the accident is invisible in the image and in much of the reporting, while the photographer was roundly condemned for a variety of failings, including not trying to help the victim (although nobody else did either) and making money from his death. Questions were also asked about whether the New York Times had broken the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, and in particular the section on Minimizing Harm. Having looked at this, I would argue that there is scope for concern about this element of this Code, namely that journalists should

  • Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if other do.

My own reaction to the image was to consider it in relation to other similar images, and the internet is rife with these. Almost any of the images in this series – 45 haunting photos of people in their final moments before death has the same issues as the NYT one and adverts for series such as this regularly turn up on my own Facebook timeline. To me, the issue stems from the NYT’s decision to print the photograph and to run the story, not with the photographer who made the image. That person was acting automatically, and could not realistically have helped the man, but the NYT publishing of the image and story were, in my view, pandering to lurid curiosity rather than providing useful news. The fact that it was also the NYT is relevant – it is a broadsheet newspaper that considers itself to be at the more intellectual end of the journalistic range. If the National Enquirer had published it, I don’t believe there would have been a similar outcry.