Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 7, 2014
Fred Ritchin Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen New York: Aperture, 2013. 175 pp.; 40 color ills. Paper $19.95 (9781597111201)
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When the French daily Libération published its November 14, 2013, print edition “sans photo,” marking photography’s absence with empty white fields, did its public, as it read that day’s “paper,” take note? Or did it encounter this smart protest against the decline of the photojournalist’s profession as a meme, liking and sharing it on smartphone screens? Did Libération strip its website and app edition of photographs too? Such questions are not easy to answer in retrospect, as homepages do not appear to be archived, and who, if anyone, loaded a screenshot onto a blog? The state of photojournalism in the age of digital media is precarious indeed, and Fred Ritchin’s Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen attempts a comprehensive reckoning with the many issues facing a socially engaged photographic field in pronounced technological flux and existential uncertainty. Like its subject, the book is exhilarating, informative, often very insightful, unpredictable, and at times a bit hasty, fragmented, and diffuse.

Ritchin’s premise is that with the digital we have entered into a radically new and uncertain photographic age, leaving behind a simpler world where the photojournalist functioned as the “societal scribe” who opened windows onto distant matters of concern and focused collective attention where needed. Publics are generally savvy to the folklore of photographic transparency just as the old model of centralized print-media concentration is evaporating. Any mainstream media that survives has shifted its visuals from the stability of the page to the fluidity of the screen, creating an environment where no single photographic image, however powerful, however impressively sanctioned, is likely to gain significant traction. Furthermore, the proliferation of cheap cameras and easy access to online distribution channels has fostered reorientation by both editors and publics toward the work of (often) anonymous nonprofessionals in the photographic recording of the world’s affairs. The photojournalist can now be openly discussed as an “endangered species” (12) and all concerned are right to ask whether “photographs still actually help anyone” (22).

All of this might prepare readers for a reactionary foray into the halcyon days of Leicas and LIFE, but for Ritchin, a deeply pragmatic commentator, teacher, and veteran editor of photojournalism invested in the measurable social efficacy of the image, there is little point in lamenting this present condition or idealizing an imperfect past. What is offered instead in Bending the Frame is a consideration of how photography might best exploit the technological and institutional reality we now inhabit. Alert to the limitations of documentary and photojournalism as communicative practices, Ritchin is nonetheless firm in his conviction that photography still has important work to do in mitigating injustice and ameliorating conflict. Indeed, the postmodern critique of socially committed photography informs Ritchin’s expressly practical discourse, and its rejection of the contradictory mythology of photographic objectivity and heroic authorship leads him to a useful reaffirmation of the subjectivist orientation of Gay Talese’s and Tom Wolfe’s “New Journalism.” Theirs is a reflexive (he calls it “dialectical”) journalistic position now embodied most visibly in the work of photographers associated with and/or celebrated by the contemporary art world. But Ritchin sees this model realized most successfully in the figure of today’s nonprofessional (and typically happenstance) visual journalist—with cellphone camera in hand, ostensible social contiguity with her or his depicted subject in place, and a nontraditional distribution network a smartphone tap away. This is not to say that Ritchin prescribes the retirement of the professional, and Bending the Frame offers a rich catalog of transformative work produced by the pros. Instead Ritchin is suggesting that the nonprofessional’s negotiation with her or his social, technological, and institutional habitus most reliably reflects the new realities faced by socially committed photographers (whatever their affiliation) and offers an urgent improvement upon the deeply compromised old ways of doing things.

That the engaged photographer stands to gain at least as much from an understanding of anonymous cell phone photography as from the work of Magnum and VII goes almost without saying. With every passing week more grim news is reported concerning the photojournalist’s profession. But the notion that the model of the citizen photojournalist offers more than a spectacular alternative to a fading norm merits some hearing. For Ritchin the failure of professional photojournalism can be credited to two fundamental errors. First is its tendency to produce pictures that look less like the world it promises to relate to than to look like professional photojournalism, full stop, leveling geographic, cultural, and historical differences in the service of providing pictures that resolve matters of immeasurable complexity into a single tidy icon. Ritchin is especially convincing on this point, observing, in a subtle refutation of a logic privileging the evidentiary purchase of the analog over the digital, that “a photograph that strives to provide a single answer [to complex questions] intimates its own manipulation” (48). The second fundamental error of much professional photojournalism—and one so successfully evaded by the amateur—is a reluctance to leave behind a framework anchored in the profession’s analog foundations.

Photography, for Ritchin, has become a conceptual trap for the documentary project. The fixity of paper-based media necessitated a photographic reportage characterized by gross oversimplification: a story, of any degree of complexity, would necessarily be reported with perhaps one but certainly no more than a few photographs, and editors naturally sought out those images that told the story most clearly. Few stories worth our attention can be folded easily into this frame’s—the magazine’s or newspaper’s—inflexibly tight and linear template. This is not the case with digital media, which can be nonlinear and virtually limitless in its presentational capabilities. But too many photographers and editors now working in a digital universe continue operating as if the old constraints apply. Ritchin points to the pervasiveness of Flash slide shows in even the most adventurous mainstream platforms for serious photojournalism, which tend to feature some daily sampling of photographs accompanied by captions and brief commentary. While the technology has changed from top to bottom (and the capabilities have changed much more), such presentation differs little syntactically from what Jacob Riis was dealing with when the Sun published wood engravings after his “flashlight” pictures of tenements in 1888, not to mention Robert Capa in VU or James Nachtwey in Time half a century and a century later. Ritchin argues convincingly that socially committed photographers must abandon the notion that digital photography is simply an enhancement of the analog. Ritchin usefully equates the term “digital photography” with “horseless carriage” and notes the latter term’s failure to encompass the full structural transformations that followed from the distinctiveness of what was after all a different beast altogether. What Ritchin demands is a digital photojournalism that fully exploits the capabilities that digital media allow. It is these capabilities that the smartphone-wielding amateurs invariably embrace, by virtue of their rudimentary equipment, their very exclusion from a mainstream media harnessed to outmoded editorial conventions, and their consequent dependence on far more dynamic social media platforms. “Rather than attempting simply to imitate previous media while offering an increase in inefficiency, digital media,” Ritchin argues, must “eventually involve a more flexible, integrative ‘hyperphotography’ that takes advantage of the many potentials of digital platforms, including links, layers, hybridization, asynchronicity, nonlinearity, nonlocality, malleability, and the multivocal” (57).

Having established this program, much of Bending the Frame is dedicated to surveying the landscape of projects that Ritchin sees as more or less fulfilling its promise. A favored example is Basetrack, wherein a small team of embedded photographers tracked a thousand Marines stationed in southern Afghanistan in 2010–11 through their use of smartphones and their activation of Google Maps and Facebook news feeds as platforms for connecting Marines with their families in a genuinely dynamic fashion favoring community and access over any succinct visual aggrandizement of war. Ritchin is also as likely to seek out lessons in the exceptional forebears from the analog era. Ritchin offers Gilles Peress’s 1984 book Telex Iran: In the Name of Revolution (New York: Aperture) as a necessary object lesson in photojournalism’s potential to remark upon its own status as mediation rather than the assertion of some “definitive reality” (33). Bending the Frame offers a veritable catalog of ready subjects for scholars seeking insight into the shifting currents of recent documentary practice.

Worth mentioning is Ritchin’s way of dealing with the work of figures associated with the art world. Familiar names pepper his book’s pages, from Walker Evans and Chris Marker to Alfredo Jaar, Sophie Calle, Trevor Paglen, and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Refreshingly, however, these names are nowhere privileged, and their projects are included among a great many more produced by veterans, activists, scholars, social workers, scientists, and concerned citizens all mobilizing photographic media in fresh ways resistant to the conventions that have for so long stymied photojournalism. Art photography for Ritchin is but one way of reckoning visually with the world, in other words, and by no means is it automatically the best one. He does find merit in Jaar’s 1994 response to the Rwandan genocide, in which the Chilean photographer’s contribution consisted of his refusal to exhibit—for a project in Sweden—his photographic documentation of that nightmare’s aftermath, as if to refuse the very possibility of photography’s ameliorative potential. But Ritchen is at least as energized by the late theatrical producer David Jiranek’s 2000 Through the Eyes of Children: The Rwanda Project, for which Jiranek and his staff initiated a program of photographic workshops for children orphaned by that genocide. Where Jaar’s project instructs its Western audiences on the limits of photographic evidence to teach anything of value about Rwandan reality, Jiranek’s offers the survivors of the same calamity the opportunity to consider the question for themselves.

For all of the book’s real merit, Bending the Frame suffers from significant organizational problems. Ritchin’s inventories of innovative projects and useful precedents can become exhausting. Later chapters sometimes read like annotated lists, devoid of clear argument or analysis. Frequently the taxonomies framing Ritchin’s chapters bend rather too much for this reader, leading to unnerving juxtapositions. One chapter, highlighting photographic attempts to redress rather than simply illustrate human suffering, races through projects as varied in media and intention as W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (trans. Anthea Bell, New York: Random House, 2001), Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency (New York: Aperture, 1986), and a dizzying array of digitally based projects treating subjects as diverse as elderly memory loss, global warming, political violence in Latin American dictatorships, global AIDS, and prison healthcare. Ritchin’s rush through these photographed subjects has the unwanted effect of leveling the very real differences distinguishing them. Such leveling and reductive parallelism is obviously anathema to Ritchin’s convictions and to the purpose of his book.

Near the end of Ritchin’s distillation of the chaos that is the contemporary field of visual journalism, he describes a clever 2005 installation by the Istanbul-based artist Beliz Demircioğlu Cihandide. Her work featured a monitor displaying a field of black-and-white static accompanied by the clear music of children at play. A wooden, hand-shaped plane was installed beside the monitor which, when touched, resolved that static to reveal in full color the cheerful children who before could only be heard. The two-part lesson Ritchin takes from this work is a useful one: first, “only by staying engaged can we move forward”; and second, “the image is not a given, it is a collaboration” (153). Presumably Ritchin takes this piece’s ethos as his own: to lend clarity through sustained engagement to the disorder that is the field of his book’s inquiry. Unfortunately, his readers are left with not enough signal and far too much noise. This may be his point (though it is regrettable that he did not claim it). Fragmentation, more now than ever, is the definitive condition of our present media environment, the atmosphere within which any socially committed photographic practice must breathe. Fragmentation has also of course been ascribed to the digital image, and it finds its basis in the ontology of analog photography (Ritchin makes a nice point about Ansel Adams’s zone system in this connection). But Ritchin is not concerned with meditations on ontology and arguments about the historical continuity of photography as a medium; his investment in understanding the character of the medium is motivated by a desire to see it most effectively exploited, not as a medium per se, but as a tool for the transmission of actionable information about the world. His account, refreshingly unambiguous in its faith in the documentary project’s continuing potential to improve our world, insists on our embrace of the complexity of things as they are.

Jason Hill
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of Delaware

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