'Past Tense': Rebecca Bengal on documentary and the language of truth

On a cold, bright day at the end of January 2020, I sat with Paul Graham in Manhattan, photo books spread over a tabletop, looking through the images you see here now by photographers and filmmakers whose work I had come to know within the past couple of years, some within the past several decades. As the pages turned, as books opened and piled up and were rearranged next to each other, subtle connections began to reveal themselves like reshuffled cards. The luminous, anxious, and hardened men wandering harsh western landscapes in Kristine Potter’s Colorado (Manifest) and the Black young men outnumbered by a throng of white boys and men prowling a rocky riverbed in Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s One Wall a Web. The isolated beauty of Gregory Halpern’s half fictional Southern California (ZZYZX) next to Richard Choi’s churches and lonesome kitchen tables and cluttered bedrooms (the unpublished project What Remains) which are so wholly interior that they could ostensibly belong to anywhere in the world. The brightly painted car washes and check cashing storefronts contrasted with the empty, spackled-over walls where pictures once hung, contrasted with the people who used to live among those pictures (Piergiorgio Casotti and Emanuele Brutti’s Index G). A teenage son and father on the sidewalk suited up in Sunday best, the young man tugging gently, endearingly, on his father’s ear (Vanessa Winship’s she dances on Jackson).

As we talked, I began to imagine how the images would recalibrate once they were hung together on museum walls, shuffled again, how they would inevitably take on new meaning when seen in another time and place: fall 2020, just ahead of the U.S. presidential election. While it is accurate to say that, with these bodies of work, Wolukau-Wanambwa, Winship, RaMell Ross, Potter, Curran Hatleberg, Halpern, Choi, and the collaborative team of Casotti and Brutti are each operating somewhere within the geographic landscape and psychic terrain of the United States of America, such an assertion feels heavy-handed. These are works that resist that kind of statement-making definition. These are works that resist easy categorization, too, slipping somewhere in the boundaries between genres. Realism is only a starting point, a lure.“My work begins with the ‘notion’ of documentary,” Gregory Halpern has said of ZZYZX, his 2016 photo book which takes its title from a village on the edge of the Mojave Desert and which summons a California both real and imagined, downtrodden and mystic. The village is, alphabetically, the last named town in the California atlas, but figuratively it is a stand-in for a half-imagined setting of drenched light and Joshua trees and bus stops and boardwalk and open horizon. “Documentary” is an entryway to fiction. Similarly when he began making his film Hale County This Morning, This Evening, a 2019 nominee for the Academy Award in Documentary, RaMell Ross deliberately invoked “documentary’s language of truth.” “You use the documentary genre because it’s a space where people are predisposed to truth, which is a great, great entryway into an idea,” Ross said. “The premise of truth puts viewers in the frame of mind to receive larger truths.”

A quiet fell over the Metrograph theater in New York City after a screening in 2018, as if to extend the spell of what we had all just seen. One of the principal aims Ross outlined in his manifesto for the film, to “participate, not capture”, calls to mind Roy DeCarava, who, working from the 1940s through to the 1990s, subverted the traditions of social documentary photography. His deliberately subjective pictures affirm instead the camera’s capacity for what he described as “creative expression”. As Teju Cole has written, DeCarava “insisted on finding a way into the inner life of his scenes.” ­­­

Top photograph: Curran Hatleberg
Bottom photograph: Gregory Halpern

Excerpt from 'And the Clock Waits So Patiently' by Rebecca Bengal, from 'But Still, It Turns' edited by Paul Graham, published in February 2021.

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