Imagine a photograph of a rectangle of blue sky, with a few inconsequential clouds. That is all you see. There is nothing special about the color of the sky. By itself, it would mean nothing. But if you explain that the photograph was taken on September 12, 2001, or even just title it September 12, 2001, the photograph now takes on an entirely different meaning based on the external information. If you added a curatorial card next to the image that explained that this photograph was taken in New Jersey the day after the September 11 attack on one of the most traveled air routes along the east coast of the United States, then suddenly a banal image of dull sky becomes charged as a political and social statement.
In Revealing Pictures: Photographs from the Christopher E. Olofson Collection, (http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/art/exhibitions/3013) there are a series of documentary photographs. One, by Edmund Clark, is titled Negative Publicity #117 (Swimming Pool in the Hotel Gran Melia Victoria, Palma de Mallorca), 2014. It shows just what it says: a glass-enclosed swimming pool with a garden outside. It is inviting, beautiful. The title does not quite convey anything in particular, and all we see is this swimming pool. However, the curatorial note by the picture puts the image in the context of the "war on terror" under President George W. Bush, and that this was a facility used by CIA operatives engaged in rendition activity, noting that they were performing illegal functions while in plain sight. Another image by Daniel and Geo Fuchs shows apparently hundreds of multi-colored files in a storage facility; mildly interesting in itself, the image takes on new meaning when it is explained this is from the former East German Stasi offices of state security.
I have a series of photographs of Revolutionary War battlefields. Without identification or explanation, one looks at a field or even a city block. Once one knows it is the exact site of some monumental event—where people died—the ordinary suddenly becomes a different image entirely, informed by external information. Such may have a place as a documentary image, but it does raise the question whether such images—otherwise technically solid—can otherwise resonate as "art' without the external information. Or whether that matters?
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