Martha Rosler

In my formative feedback for assignment 3, my tutor suggested that I look at the work of Martha Rosler, specifically her 1974-5 series, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, which is an interesting example of a photographer who was questioning documentary practice before the digital era.

In her series, which is about photography and drunkenness, Rosler combines photographs of the Bowery district in New York (known at the time as an area frequented by vagrants and alcoholics) with various words for drunkenness.  Each of her photographs contains broken bottles and no people.  In an interview for the Museum of Modern Art, Rosler commented that she deliberately excluded people from her images because:

“In effect, this is an attack on humanistic documentary in which we are supposed to read something back from the faces of the suffering poor.  It’s a work about people who are not entitled, the way the viewers are entitled.  The viewers are entitled to stand their ground, in whatever exhibition space, and to look at the pictures and look at the words.  But the people who are pictured there, are like people who have wondered through a very long exposure photograph, and haven’t even left a trace, except, for the broken bottles that are visible in every picture.”

Rosler’s approach make me think about Susan Sontag’s assertion (in her book On Photography) that there is a predatory violence to photography, that:

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”

It is interesting that this is exactly what Rosler has tried to avoid, and yet, according to her MoMA interview, she had people tell her that her work was cold because is didn’t include people.