Boring and Interesting: Learning from Everything
Has the impulse to survey and record the here and now taken on a quickening urgency for photographers in post-earthquake Christchurch? The change that is happening around us is extraordinary and accelerating with a rapidity particular only to disaster and war. And the prevalence and ease of digital technology means that, now more than ever, photography is the tool to document the way things are today, weren't yesterday and won't be tomorrow.
Yet a number of Christchurch artists whose primary medium is photography, have, by and large, sidestepped the obvious sense of historical obligation to snap every swiftly altering vista for posterity. It's a charge best left to photo-journalists, memory institutions and every Joe Bloggs with an iPhone and a flickr account. Artists can give us something more than a visual document.
The American photographer Walker Evans made a distinction between the photographic document and what he identified as documentary style:
Documentary? That's a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear... The term should be documentary style. An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has a use, whereas art is really useless.
Therefore art is never a document, though it certainly can adopt that style.
The events of history, however, can turn an artist's photograph into a document because we can choose, or are even compelled, to interpret it as a useful record of a place and time long after it was made. Doc Ross didn't even intend his early photographs of Christchurch's central city to be art, as such. In the late 1990s, Ross was making seascapes and abstract images and the photographs he took of buildings and streets in Christchurch were the result of a more reflexive mechanism. By framing the city through his lens, Ross used his camera to become familiar with, and generate a fondness for, his newly adopted home. The resulting negatives were stored unprinted and unvisited in his archive until March 2011; it wasn't until helping fellow artist Paul Johns retrieve his belongings from his studio and flat in the red zone, surrounded by collapsed and freshly demolished buildings, that Ross suddenly realised he had a collection of recent images of the city that formed an inadvertent historical record. In a similar way to the photographs of Dr A.C. Barker in the mid 1800s, Ross gives us access to a visual treasure trove that evokes the streets and buildings of a lost Christchurch, only this one is sharply familiar.
Doc Ross Gravestones Building Sydenham Christchurch c.1999. Silver gelatin photograph
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