installation shot of Jorge Ribalta's exhibition at MACBA

Documentary’s Futures Past: Jorge Ribalta in conversation with Stephanie Schwarz

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Since his 2005 exhibition Jo Spence: Beyond the Perfect Image, independent curator and historian of photography Jorge Ribalta has organised a series of exhibitions exploring the role and place of documentary photography in modern culture. A Hard, Merciless Light: The Worker Photography Movement, 1926-1939, promoted the following conversation, which explores some of the inadequacies and gaps in our current histories of documentary photography.

Stephanie Schwartz: I would like to begin with a question about history. A brief survey of recent exhibitions in the UK and Europe, including your exhibition, The Worker Photography Movement, 1926-1934, which was on view at the Museo Reina Sofia last year, suggests that we are in need of—perhaps searching for—a new history of the document. Do you agree? Concerns about the status and meaning of documentary are certainly ripe today, yet it seems that we are not very clear about what we mean when we talk about documentary or documentary photography. Can we start with a working definition?

Jorge Ribalta: Yes, I think we need more narratives dealing with the historical exclusions produced by the canonical Anglo-American history of modernism, from “new vision” to postmodernism, so to speak. We need a complex and political history of modernism. The major institutions involved in the production of a history of photographic modernism, such as the MoMA or Beaubourg, still offer reductionist, formalist, flat and devaluated repetitions of the old narrative. They are also imperialist, in the sense that the hierarchical division between the centres and peripheries of photo-modernism is strongly predetermined.

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Published in Photoworks Issue 18, 2009
Commissioned by Photoworks

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