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Documentation is an Illusion

In earlier posts I have discussed the burden of expectations that photography operates under because of its role as "documentation". Then my argument was that although the vast majority of photographs operate as documents, e.g. in newspapers, that there are many other roles for photographs, e.g. as an expression of creative imagination, and that there is no reason to believe that the rules for documentation applied to all photographs.

Now I think that the argument needs to go beyond this. I think the word document/documentary is suspect at its core, and is so much at risk for misuse or misunderstanding that it needs to be abandoned completely.

There are no "documents", no true records of "how it really was". Every photograph is a personal intervention, first by selection of space (framing), then by selection of time (release shutter). These choices, if made by people, have a message, a reaction that is expected from the viewer.

I grant that the intent may be to inform rather than to incite. I would prefer to use the word "report" when this is the aim rather than "document". If my aim is to inform you then I should follow methods and standards fit for that purpose. If my aim is to share a fantasy with you then there are no bounds.

I see on the New York Times web page an invitation to "Help us Document the decade". This is perverse. Why not just "Help us Remember the decade". Using the word "document" invites us to participate in an attempt at objectivity that is unnecessary and doomed.

Why not just acknowledge that this effort, worthy as it most likely is, is going to be a subjective personal effort of intersections between people and what happened mediated by a camera.

Because they will appear in a newspaper, it would be perfectly reasonable to request, or stipulate, and make a further request that the style of the photographs be "realistic" as in no further creative intervention beyond the "taking" of the photograph.

I think this would be better statement of what is the undertaking here, and a pretty worthy one at that.


Cranberry Harvest

For more than a month I was able to follow the cranberry harvest in Bourne, Falmouth and Wareham. For the most part I was following the harvest team of Handy Cranberry Trust.

There was the dry harvest in Cataumet and the wet harvest in Cataumet, Falmouth and North Falmouth.

The wet harvest is probably familiar. The bogs are flooded, the berries dislodged and a sea of red surfaces. The harvesters move deliberately and gracefully through the water. Are they walking ON water? No but they are walking IN water, and there is a total and special grace to their movements.

Part of that grace comes from the riot of red they move in. The red of the floating berries is so intense that one becomes addicted. More red, more red. But the work is going in the opposite direction. Slowly the red vanishes, sucked up the tubes and spilled into the truck. The blue pools remain, but they too will disappear when the bogs are drained.

How does one move through this watery terrain? The threshing machines plod, but they appear to float. The illusion would be rudely undone should they stumble on a drainage ditch, so a Moses marks the way with his staff, showing the way through the red sea with his staff, and guiding the submarine threshers to safety.

There is a less romantic but equally interesting dry harvest. But here there is no watery solution to the problem of to get the berries without crushing them. The only solution is to tread carefully and from the outside in.

There is one other cool move for getting the berries from lowland to highland, and that is to airlift them.