The doorstep portrait: intrusion and performance in mainstream American documentary photography by Didier Aubert.
This article looks specifically at twentieth century American documentary photography, and how the considerations surrounding the practice shape the visual outcome of the photographs themselves. There has been long running concern in documentary photographic practice about the intrusion of the photographer into the subject’s world, the legitimacy of the photographs as actual record, the risk of exploitation, and the purpose that the images serve. Documentary photography is often tied to the presentation of the ’worthy poor’ (ref), and to the seeking of equality and social justice for the subjects.
Aubert has identified and focuses on what he calls the ‘doorstep portrait,’ or the ‘threshold’ portrait’, as a format which embodies these concerns, and “can help clarify some of the underlying dynamics” (p.3). In these portraits, the door, porch or threshold is seen as symbolic of the whole house, and the private realm within — it is the front, as distinct from the back realm. The house itself is seen as a defining marker of social standing and equality, with house ownership equated to a socially acceptable standard of living. Issues of the negotiation of photographer access, the performance of the subjects and the idea of dignity in the face of adversity also emerge through a reading of the doorstep portrait as a photographic convention.
The doorstep portrait is defined by three conditions which Aubert outlines: the subject is posing; it is a frontal presentation where subjects face the photographer, and they are in front of their house; the setting of the image is “always a significant yet metonymic part of their houses (doorstep, porch, threshold)” (p.5). Aubert sees images which fit this mold, as metapictures (as defined by WJT Mitchell), which address the single question of “the legitimacy of transforming the private lives of American individuals or families into public visual discourse” (p.5). The work of Dorothea Lange is cited as a key example of this type of image.
These photographs articulate the relationship between photographer, subject and audience, as they grapple with the boundaries of the public and the private. Both the photographer and subject are acutely aware of the interaction taking place and that there is a negotiation occurring. Erving Goffman’s characterisation of social interactions as performances, from his work The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959), is cited as a means to further understand the dynamic at play. Interestingly, in the pursuit of understanding the social and spatial relationships, Aubert pints out that, “it is easily visualised through photography, if only because the picture itself is always the screen which brings together – yet necessarily separates – sitter and photographer, subject and observer.” (p.9)
The fact that the subjects have some control over their representation and have granted access is central to Aubert’s argument, and the posing and facing the camera is seen as evidence that agreement has been reached. Aubert asserts that the setting itself allows the subjects to “manage their public presentation of privacy” (p.12). Analysis through the lens of Edward T. Hall’s model of proxemics reveals the images to have occurred at the close end of the public distance, or the far end of the social distance. (p.12). However, Aubert is also quick to point out that the presentation of self, whilst within the control of the subjects, still fits within acceptable conventions of ‘decorum’ (p.13).
Aubert also discusses John Biln, who offers a critical commentary on a housing scheme, and associated the doorstep portraits, in an article in Assemblage magazine. Biln uses the doorstep portraits as evidence to benchmark the success of the scheme against. According to Aubert, what Biln highlights is the fact that a house reforms the subject, and that once they have a new house they no longer qualify as suitable documentary portrait subjects. As he describes: “Once the ‘backstage’ of threshold portraits has been reformed, the transition to public performance no longer makes sense, and these families will be expected to conform to socially accepted norms both inside and outside of their homes. The doorstep portrait performance will no longer be relevant, and the traditional narrative of ‘dignity’ that defines the photographic representation of the ‘worthy poor’ will no longer be necessary” (p.14).
Keywords which emerge in the text and are useful for further discussion are facade, front and back, inside and outside, threshold. All of these can be applied in some capacity to photographs, people and architecture, and relate to the issues of privacy I wish to explore. Also emerging from this article is the idea of the spatial and visual coming together - that the photograph is evdence of mediation of the public and private.
Aubert, D. “The doorstep portrait: intrusion and performance in mainstream American documentary photography.” Visual Studies. Apr2009, Vol. 24 Issue 1, p3-18.
The Holy Ground: Liminality in the Photograph, the Corpse, and Physical Space. by Amy Tudor
Tudor's article is concerned with the way in which the corpse and the photograph can both be considered liminal spaces - as they occupy a space in between other states. Tduor also relates the state of liminality to notiions of the sacred and the profane, as discussed in the work of anthropologists Mar Douglas and Edmund Leach.
"Douglas found that taboo occurred when something was taken out of its prescribed cognitive category and became ambiguous, a state which caused 'cognitive discomfort'" (p.143).
Tudor bases her analysis of the photograph as a lminal space by reference to Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. The idea that the photograph is never separated from and is forever tied to its referent is take as afundamental starting point. Tudor goes on to define and utilise Barthes' categorization of the photographer as Operator, the audience as Spector, and the subject or thing photographed which Tudor now labels the Spectrum. Reference is also made to the notions of the studium and the punctum.
A photograph that interests the Spectator does so because it advenes (from “advenience”), a word that implies that the photograph has taken the viewer on some “adventure” on viewing it (Barthes 19). Though the photograph is by no means in motion, it still retains the quality of animation, though what it animates – makes alive – is not the referent but the Spectator: “The photograph itself is in no way animated...but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure” (Barthes 20). (p.146).
It is, in fact, that liminal space the photograph wishes to capture or “take.” The more liminal an object’s nature between categories, as we have seen through Douglas and Leach, the more taboo and sacredstyle="font-size: small;"> it becomes, the more, to quote Barthes, it has the potential to 'advene'. (p.146).
Tudor, A. "The Holy Ground: Liminality in the Photograph, the Corpse, and Physical Space." The International Journal of the Humanities, 2010 Volume 8, Number 6. p.143- 155.
I will take the idea of the ability of a photograph to advene, along with notions of liminality to look at the ways in which photographs function within the specific liminal space between the public and the private.
'The Majesty of the Moment Sociality and Privacy in the Street Photography of Paul Strand' by Mark Whalan.
"and something of that experimental view of subjectivity and morality accounts for the power of Strand's photos"
"that ambition to disarticulate the private from the personal informs and animates these photographs".31
Strand was part of an intellectual circle--the Young Americans--who were fascinated by such instants; they located the interchange between the creative personality and the wider community as the conduit for the aesthetic enrichment so necessary to their vision of social reform. Yet they were troubled by where the boundaries between personality and society, self and other, might lie, when reconciling individual and community in a relation of mutual nourishment. Strand found that these complex and highly abstracted
questions--the participation of personality in community and, indeed, how these things were mutually constituted, and how structures of time either reinforce or critique a mass-production economy--could be made concrete in a photography that tested the limits of the privacy of others. Was personal synonymous with private? Was privacy reducible to a naked individualism that was anathema to community? Did art have special exemptions from the rapidly shifting sands of public feeling (and national jurisprudence) around privacy? When did communal affiliation tip into the affect of intrusion? The risky business of playing with privacy in photographs became the perfect vehicle for mobilizing these questions in aesthetic form.
Whalan, M. 2011, 'The Majesty of the Moment Sociality and Privacy in the Street Photography of Paul Strand', American Art, 2, p. 34.
Wolf's project, Real Fake Art is an example of a contemporary project which utlises the convention of the doorstep portrait.
I feel also, that despite the lack of people in the images the Bastard Chair series mentiuoned perviously is also relevant, as many of these are also located near doorsteps, and they also depict a certain amount of bleeding of the private in to public space.
Nour Dados. Liminal transformations: folding the surface of the photograph. Conserveries
mémorielles#7 | 2010: Seuils, Thresholds, Soglitudes