Fotograf Magazine

Documentary in the Expanded Field

Documentary Across Disciplines 1 is a book connected to the three editions of the Berlin Documentary Forum biennial (2010, 2012, 2014) held under the auspices of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin and curated by Hila Peleg, one of the editors of the book.

The Berlin Documentary Forum, as well as the book itself, could be considered within a wider context of reflective documentary practice already visible at Documenta 11 (2002, curator Okwui Enwezor). Another significant output, a project by Marie Lind, is called The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art (2008). Unlike these points of reference that built their interest in documentary on the discourse of contemporary art, the Berlin Documentary Forum and the reviewed book belong more firmly to the context of documentary film.

In her introduction to Clemens von Wedemeyer’s film study, Evgenia Giannouri aptly sums up how Documentary Across Disciplines approaches documentarism, when she talks about a “documentary in the expanded field” hinting at Rosalinda Krauss’s thesis of a “sculpture in the expanded field”. She points out the changeable space of documentary practice with its highly ambiguous approaches to narrative, construction of montages and the use of new technologies in documentary film production (Leviathan was shot with GoPro) and in the new documentary media (biometric data and visualisation of the “big data”). It is not a coincidence that the editors of the book, Hila Peleg and Erika Balsom, do not consider documentary practice to be a strictly defined genre, but rather a critical method.

The interest in changeable space on the line between documentary and fiction is apparent throughout the book, for instance in an essay called Reading Between the Images by Christa Blümlinger, who talks about “cinéma science-fictif” in her older text, refering to André Labarth’s essay on the film language of Chris Marker and emphasizing the subjective view of the artist as the central point for the composition of image and sound in this genre. A separate subject when it comes to the thin line between documentary and fiction — the use of montage — is discussed by Antonia Majaca and Eyal Sivan. Sivan concludes that the transformation of documentarism into art is leading to a point where curatorship is a documentary montage, and, as far as film is concerned, documentary works are shifting towards fiction.

And even when nobody talks about montage as such, they stress the importance of the composition of sequence photography — for instance in Ariella Azoulay’s essay “Photography Is Not Served: ‘The Family of Man’ and The Human Condition”, where the author re-examines the review of Steichen’s exhibition The Family of Man. Discussing the exhibition, Azoulay also revisits Roland Barthes’s texts, warning against (not only) his focus on photographs as ultimate products of representation and urging to take into account the context of their origins. Based on her reading of Steichen’s compositions of photographic sequences and texts combined with the ideas of Hannah Arendt and her book The Human Condition, she offers a new interpretation of the exhibition as a visual declaration of human rights, thus revising the criticism of the time that accused The Family of Man of an ideological attempt to create universal humanism.

The range of texts is quite wide; the book includes essays about various facets of documentary practice, from the collection of interviews or films about death (Sylvere Lotinger) to documentary films about court proceedings and work with evidence, narrative and interpretation (Stella Bruzzi), to texts outside of the discourse on documentary film, for example, Kris Fallon’s essay about the use of “big data” visualization as a documentary medium, to practically a manifesto text by Zach Blas discussing the issues of biometric data and where they fit in in the control mechanisms of contemporary society. Blas’s text can be read as a follow-up to John Tagg’s study from his book The Burden of Representation on the connection between photography and the institutions of control and repression in the beginnings of photography; it poses a question about potential historical parallels made possible by the progress in technologies. Harun Farocki, a distinctive figure of documentarism, and his work, especially his observance documentaries, are also reflected, though another distinguished figure of critical realism, Allan Sekula, is surprisingly left out.

The scope of the book provides an introduction to complex discussions about documentary practice, and we can only hope that its reflection of the historical roots of documentarism will become a starting point for a wider debate about the future of documentary film and that this year’s silence of the Berlin Documentary Forum will be no more than an intermezzo filled by this book.


Jan Kolský



BALSOM, Erika a Hila PELEG. Documentary across disciplines. Cambridge,
MA: The Mit Press, 2016. ISBN 9780262529068.