Monday, November 23, 2009

Isn't it ironic...don't you think?: Documentary Photography

I've been thinking a lot lately about the genre of documentary-style photography as I've been analyzing my own work and trying to figure out how to push it in a new direction.  After many hours of volleying ideas in my mind, what keeps returning to the forefront are the concepts of irony and sarcasm.

In "Bowling for Columbine," Michael Moore was responsible for the now widespread trend of injecting irony and sarcasm into documentary film:

With his signature sense of angry humor, activist filmmaker Michael Moore sets out to explore the roots of this bloodshed. In doing so, he learns that the conventional answers of easy availability of guns, violent national history, violent entertainment and even poverty are inadequate to explain this violence when other cultures share those same factors without the equivalent carnage.
Written by Kenneth Chisholm 
courtesy of

Moore, of course, tied together the horrific school shootings with tangents such as the ease of purchasing guns in America, the position of the NRA, violence in video games and movies, etc.  All of these seemingly disparate ideas are brought together as a way of examining what causes violence in America.

Other documentaries have done this more recently, such as Ric O'Barry's "The Cove," a documentary of dolphin slaughter.

Among other juxtapositions, this film mixes graphic scenes of dolphin killings in Japan with seemingly lighthearted scenes from the TV series "Flipper" and footage from aquatic parks like SeaWorld, illustrating how the image of the "smiling dolphin" has been built up to create a demand for their capture.

from "The Cove"

The relatively recent appearance of irony and sarcasm that has become common in modern documentary film is also part of what I feel distinguishes modern documentary photography from its predecessors.  It's also an element I'm working on integrating in my current work.

Eirik Johnson is one photographer who has been touching on this in Sawdust Mountain, and I've been getting quite a bit of inspiration from that body of work.  At the same time that he photographs the destruction caused by the timber/logging industry, he also includes images of totem poles for sale, murals on buildings of our thick untouched forests, etc.:

Freshly felled trees, Nemah, Washington

Alley Mural, Aberdeen, Washington

Missy beneath her 600-year-old Spruce, Hoh River, Washington

(c) Eirik Johnson

I like his biting documentation of this issue and it's something I'm working on as well.  I look forward to getting some feedback from you about this topic in the coming weeks...

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