Photographic documents are central to our culture and we all have a sense of what they look like and what they do. We use pictures like this all the time. Despite the evident importance of the document, however, there has been remarkably little critical attention paid to it.
The document is always defined by its viewer, who brings his or her specialist requirements to it. For those who employed Atget’s images, aesthetic significance was of little or no relevance. Information, content, detail, and use are what count in documents.
According to Nesbit, ‘an architectural photograph would be called a document, as would a chronophotograph, a police i.d., or an X ray’. The document, then, had no absolute form: the same image might be used by different specialists, and so it had to be open to interpretation.
Historians of science have recently paid considerable attention to investigating the category of ‘objectivity’ – a key concept in the functioning of the photographic document and in other documentary media. Common sense
suggests that objectivity is a self-evident part in the toolbox of science and other specialist forms of observation.
The modern conception of objectivity began to take root as a response to the capitalist division of labour, which fragmented work and knowledge into increasingly specialized portions. Some intellectuals responded to the challenge of specialization by adopting the values of detachment, disinterestedness, and self effacement,
thereby asserting a stance seemingly outside particular interests.
This conception of objectivity entails eradicating all traces of the observer, which are seen to interfere with the process of recording data. This point of view presents observation as an activity independent of actual observers and their personal investments.
- MAMTA MANTRI