by Donna Gustafson and Andrés Mario Zervigón. The University of Chicago Press, January 2017. 229 p. ill. ISBN 9783777429533 (h/c), $55.00.
Reviewed May 2018
As the title suggests, Subjective Objective: A Century of Social Photography argues that the so-called documentary medium is not immune to artistic license. This scholarly catalog is the result of a graduate seminar class and an exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum (Rutgers University), co-curated by the author Donna Gustafson (PhD, Curator of American Art and Mellon Director for Academic Programs, Zimmerli Art Museum) and Andres Mario Zervigón (PhD, Associate Professor, History of Photography, Department of Art History, Rutgers University). The book is international in scope, examining renowned and less-established photographers.
Although global in scale, its main focus is social life in the United States and Soviet/post-Soviet Russia. Other works are by European and a small selection of non-Western photographers. The book claims to feature a century in photography, but German industrial workers of the early 20th century, 1930s America, Bill Owen’s 1960s suburbia, and Soviet Union Russia get all the attention. In the introduction, Gustafson outlines the premise--to challenge the very concept of documentary photography “to break through traditional discussions of the genre by approaching the subject with a wide enough lens to contextualize.”
Through this interpretation the authors reinvestigate motives behind such photos to advance social reform and draw attention to the manipulation of these “neutral” subjects. The medium is not merely evidentiary, but an artwork in its own right. To have an impact on the public psyche and elicit change a photograph must move its audience. Demonstrating this point are unpublished works from the Zimmerli and loaned works from private and public collections. Artists from different generations are compared and themes of industrialization, technology, and the ways in which images are disseminated for public consumption act as catalysts.
The remaining two essays are by Sarah M. Miller (PhD, University of Chicago) and Julia Tulovsky (PhD, Moscow State University). Given their expertise, the scholars provide thorough evidence, and, for the most part, clear arguments if sometimes assuming too much of the reader (with the exception of Gustafson’s discussion of Bill Owen). Rich in images, the hardbound catalog includes 185 plates (some color) that gleam on the acid-free paper. The publication features a selected bibliography, catalog of the exhibition, and an index.
Undeniably, the subject of social photography has a strong scholarly lineage, and though this book reproduces some well-known photographs, it seeks to undo notions of purity making it a refreshing addition. Moreover, it acknowledges similar emerging perspectives, for example, the 2011 exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia A Hard, Merciless Light: The Worker Photography Movement, 1926-1939 by Jorge Ribalta. Ultimately, the text is a well-researched, highly persuasive addition to the discourse on social photography and one which can appeal to an audience of college students and scholars.