What makes a document

Response to post by Jose Navarro


Having read through this post I must also agree with Rob Townsend’s comment about “the difficulty in finding something new to add to the discussion”. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try, although I may well mostly reiterate what has been said before. I will also mention a couple of earlier comments that encapsulate the issue of what makes a document

From CurrieHannah: “An image cannot simply become a document just by simply ‘being’”

From SarahG: “For a photograph to be a document I feel that there needs to be another level applied to the ‘seeing’ or ‘reading’ of the image”

Both comments suggest that a photograph cannot become a document without accompanying context. As Jose’s example of his Grandfather shows, the status of the image as a document changes as the available context changes. The photographer may have a purpose in mind when taking a photograph, but the available interpretations will alter over time and according to the viewer’s own interests and predispositions. In that sense all photographs are polymorphic and can have multiple meanings, not all of which are present when the photo is taken. Eugène Atget produced many photos of Paris around the turn of the century which are regarded as objective documents of Paris at the time. That wasn’t why he produced them in the first place – he intended them as artist’s aids – so the documentary context has only arisen after the event. That doesn’t alter their status as documents though, in the same way that the historical and political aspect that Jose later assigns to the photo of his grandfather is still valid.

This helps me to clarify to myself the legitimacy of describing any image as a document of some sort or other but doesn’t help define what a document is. It has been said that for an image to be a document it has to be something ‘real’. Since that applies to all photographs, including surrealist, it doesn’t seem to help. They may not be of a subject that can exist in nature but it seems to me they can still stand as documents, even if only of the work of the photographer. Maybe it is possible to find or make a photograph about which nothing at all can be said, but I very much doubt it. In which case surely all photographs are documents in some way or other?  

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