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What is a document? Atget & art: A843: 4.5.1 & 3

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 16 Oct 2017, 16:26

What is a document? Atget & art: A843 Combination of 2 exercises in this question

… an architectural photograph would be called a document, as would a chronophotograph, a police i.d., or an X ray. They had one thing in common: all of them were pictures that went to work.

The document was a fundamentally practical picture that lay at the bottom of visual culture as a base line, a point of departure, an objective pole. The document lived out its time quietly in the basement, many floors below the storied academic hierarchy, well below genre, well below still life, way below landscape.

(Nesbit, 1992, p. 16)

Yet Atget had no pretension to avant-gardism; there was no dada slap, no minimalist dirge; his materials were those of any documentary photographer without nostalgia for the old-style authorship of the easel painter or poet; his combinations were made with the same technical signs used by his peers. For him, authorship involved lyric impersonality and a credit line … Perhaps he was cheating a little when he called himself an author; he had neither won the right nor did he have the right kind of work to back up the claim in court. But for Atget the law existed to be exploited. And so without ceremony Atget bent the law and trafficked between cultural and industrial zones; he hustled his work back and forth across the border, playing to any market he could.

(Nesbit, 1992, p. 99)

Apply this exercise to the ‘documents’ below? (My extension of the exercise to make some sense to myself of this section of the course)

I have certain problems with the pedagogy of this bit of the module, so I’ve rather adapted how much and how I answer the exercises. For instance, the style of going through the Nesbit essay (themes with comments in between) made me feel too much as if I were being guided to a certain interpretation of this writer that I don’t (yet) feel able to share. So much so that it became a barrier to learning and I’m sure this wasn’t intended. I still haven’t got the author-teacher’s interpretation matched in my understanding and thus I’ll have to wait till something clicks, other than offering my first go at the Nesbit essay (opens in new window). Yet I’m very sure I need to try and understand the task here, especially since a ‘document’ is a description of something that in Barthes would be a (lisible or scriptible) text.

In Nesbit a document appears to be some artefact – in writing or image that represents some ‘thing’ in the world – that primarily has a ‘use value’, often as a ‘tool’ in some process of technical understanding, sale or manufacture. Hence both pictures below are interpreted by the text as things of which, an ironmonger or decorative iron craftsperson, might have interest. The picture is practical – and the term ‘praxis’ is not a million miles away from articulation here. The document is, for Atget, like a commodity in Marx, assessed as a ‘use-value’ and an ‘exchange-value.’


Ultimately Nesbit evokes Atget’s relationship to the ‘market’ as a means of negotiating the interaction between use and exchange value, since the latter allows for an excess of cultural or created (advertising) meaning over use to change the exchange value of the artefact. As I see it is that ‘excess meaning’ that allows Atget to make a silk purse of a useful sow’s ear, art out of documentary representation. Sale value is based in the ‘traffic between cultural and industrial’.


Atget's shop front

Atget stair-rail

When I look at these 2 documents together, I don’t quite get the point that both would interest an ironmonger. I don’t deny that is potentially true but it hides too much that would be uppermost iun the mind of the ironmonger in contemplating each. The ‘iron bars’ are decorative and carry images from nature, but their meaning for the ironmonger would be hegemonically controlled by their function as a source of ‘security’. In contrast the flora and scrollwork (nature and art) captured in the iron stair railing would emphasise decorative (or show) value over their menial role in guiding a gentleman or lady up the steps. In the second picture, the ironmonger would be concerned with distributions of open and closed space – both as a plastic 3-D effect and in conveying the theme of the staircase as a portal to somewhere – together with arches and sill barriers / thresholds.

Granted both speak of relationships between materials used in building and decoration and interactions between these. However the concern of the use of glass in the first seems to address different discourses and I hence still see a role for the notion of text in Foucault.

The idea of document though is superior in allowing us to see the role of the means by which use value and sale value interact. The meaning of the second picture, for instance circles around the use of decoration and free space (decorative play) to enhance the value of what is documented and its price over its use. Whilst that might be so in the first one, the issue is not so stark. The decorative plays (dreams) but also functions (to advertise commodified service of food and beverage for instance). The work with the reflective qualities of glass – that combines representations of outside and inside, visible and invisible figuration and hybridity in figuration is part of the ‘excess meaning’ that raises the documents value as ‘art’ (and here not just as decoration). Perhaps it also ‘queers’ the pitch by making disturbing what ought to be ‘normal’. The faces of the proprietor and other person seem to carry even more meaning here and allow themes of security in the ironwork to morph into their opposite – the role of the frontage to invite and repel and the insecurity that guards these functions.

So here is a deeper commonality. Both documents are about entry that occurs between differently constituted spaces It allows insight beneath what the document ‘masks’.

All the best


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