The 1980s saw the emergence of a ‘new documentary’ movement aiming to make work that avoided ‘liberal sentimentalism’ and exposed social conditions and representational modes in order to propose social change. It had expression, namely, in the 1984 exhibition ‘The Way We Live Now: Beyond Social Documentary’ curated by Abigail Solomon-Godeau at P.S. 1 in New York, and took shape through publications like Afterimage and Exposure.

Among its most active supporters were artists and theorists based at the Visual Arts Department at the University of California at San Diego, namely Allan Sekula and Martha Rosler. Sekula’s 1976 essay ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary’ and Rosler’s 1981 essay ‘In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)’ set the theoretical foundations for a renewed form of documentary, rejecting both the photograph as evidence characteristic of traditional documentary and the photograph as self-expression typical of what they termed ‘art-documentary’. Embraced during the 1960s and 1970s by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the work of Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander, art-documentary, they argued, had drained the genre of its political and social critical potential, transforming it into a practice whose aim was to transcend its reference to the world by being first and foremost an act of self-expression on the part of the artist. Sekula and Rosler defended instead a form of activist, militant documentary, aimed at exposing causes rather than consequences of social wrongs, and enabling the poor and oppressed to take action for themselves. As Diane Neumaier (1984), a critic writing at the time, put it, ‘this work always has as its project the radicalization of the audience’.

In an essay published in 1987, the art historian Grant Kester examined how works produced then used formats and formal strategies that were extraneous to how documentary photography had been presented and seen. Rosler for instance chose to exhibit The Bowery (1974-5) work in a grid pattern to minimize further the single-print aesthetic, while Sekula used the ‘ensemble’, a sequence of photographs combined with an accompanying text, to counter the tendency to incorporate photography into the museum, the tendency to produce work designed for judgement and acceptance by that institution. Kester argues, however, that the grids, the photo-text ensembles and other similar formal strategies, used to ‘frustrate aesthetic co-option (or alienate us from a literal reading of the photo-as-fact)’, came to define the movement and kept it primarily within the institutionalized art photography world. For Kester, The Boweryin particular ‘is fully situated in an art context and depends on a reading ‘educated’ as to the historical conventions of social documentary’.

The paper will discuss the propositions of the movement through the work of several artists and photographers involved (including Rosler, Sekula, but also and among others Fred Lonidier, Joan E. Biren, Martha Tabor, Cathy Cade, Deborah Barndt), concentrating specifically on work addressing the theme of labour. Focusing on these photographic works, the paper will examine the innovative visual strategies they employ and will discuss their success in fulfilling their (often contradictory) aesthetic and activist goals. The aim of the paper is to identify visual strategies and creative experiences that can inspire and directly influence engaged photographic visual production in the present moment.

Dr. Andreia Alves de Oliveira: Photo artist and researcher in photography, based in London. PhD practice-based, Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM), University of Westminster, London (2015).