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The doorstep portrait: intrusion and performance in mainstream American documentary photography

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Documentary photography has always been confronted by criticisms and self-doubts about its method and purpose. Can pictures ostensibly intruding into the lives of the poor and the destitute, whether taken by academics, reformers or professional photographers, ever be legitimate? This article suggests that these concerns actually determine the way mainstream American social photography looks. Such is the case, at least, in a cliche which has run through the US documentary tradition since the 1930s, and which could be labelled 'doorstep portraits'. Examples drawn from the famous Farm Security Administration archive and from Oraien Catledge's work in Atlanta's Cabbagetown in the 1980s show individuals and families sitting for a picture on the threshold of their house. This image is a meaningful convention because it seems to encode the nature of the relationship between photographer, subject and audience. This ritual 'presentation of the self' takes place as the private lives of the sitters are being transformed into public visual discourse through the photographic image. The first part of this paper attempts to define doorstep portraits as a kind of 'metapicture' - to use W.T.J. Mitchell's term. The issue of 'access' in documentary practice is then briefly described as the methodological problem which this metapicture engages. Erving Goffman's definition of 'performance' and Edward T. Hall's proxemics provide a theoretical framework for understanding how this engagement works. Finally, the normative dimension of documentary's visual conventions in the context of liberal reform discourse is re-examined in the light of this model.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2009-04-01

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