Fine Art Photography Series
Documentary Photography

Definition, Characteristics, Photographers.
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Death of a Loyalist Soldier during
the Spanish Civil War (Sept 1936).
Photograph by Robert Capa.
Remains controversial.


Portrait of Floyd Burroughs
Alabama sharecropper (1936)
Photograph by Walker Evans.

Documentary Photography (1860-present)

Contents

Definition and Characteristics
History
Mathew Brady
Tim O'Sullivan
William Jackson
Social Documentary Photography
John Thomson
Paul Martin
Jacob Riis
Lewis Hine
Farm Security Administration
Leni Riefenstahl
Newspaper Photography and Photojournalism
Erich Salomon
Henri Cartier-Bresson
Bill Brandt
Robert Capa
Rise and Fall of Picture Magazines
Distortion and Manipulation of Images
Contemporary Documentary Photography
Famous Documentary Photographers

For more about the early inventions upon which today's lens-based art is founded, see: History of Photography (c.1800-1900).


PHOTO GLOSSARY
For short explanations of
camera and photographic
terms, please see:

Art Photography Glossary.

CAMERA ARTISTS
For the Top 80 len-based
artists and inventors, see:
Photographers: 19th-Century.

Definition and Characteristics

There is no precise definition or meaning of the term "documentary photography", since it is really an umbrella term for a variety of camerawork. However, in order to distinguish it from other forms of fine art photography, we can say that "documentary photography" is a type of sharp-focus photography that captures a moment of reality, in order to convey a meaningful message about what is happening in the world. Unlike photojournalism - which concentrates on breaking news events - or "street photography" - which focuses entirely on an interesting moment of normal everyday life - "documentary photography" typically focuses on an ongoing issue (or story) which it relates through a series of photographs. Shot by some of the world's greatest photographers, documentary photos are typically designed to draw public attention to real-life situations which (in the opinion of the photographer) require urgent remedial action. Typical themes include: shameful, discriminatory, or harmful working or living conditions associated with a particular group of children or adults; health issues or scandals; environmental problems, violation of human rights, and many other issues. In addition to social documentary photography, there are two other separate forms of documentary work: war photography and conservation photography. The genre of war photography - exemplified by the photographic work of Don McCullin (b.1935) - speaks for itself. Conservation photography meanwhile - exemplified by Ansel Adams (1902-84) - is a type of documentary nature photography that draws attention to wildlife and natural environment issues. One should note, however, that the documentary genre embraces far more than the categories cited above: the Depression-era rural portraiture of Walker Evans (1903–1975), and the photo-series on the action-painting of Jackson Pollock, by Hans Namuth (1915-90), being two cases in point. And how should we categorize the amazing collection of photos of disappearing Parisian architecture amassed by Eugene Atget (1857-1927), or the photos of Parisian night-life by Brassai (1899-1984), or the River Rouge car plant shots of Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), or the chronicle made by Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) of the culture of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. NOTE: See also Holocaust art, including the powerful documentary photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, taken at Buchenwald.

In short, documentary photography is as wide as the world it seeks to record.

For a brief guide to the aesthetics and artistic nature of lens-based art, please see: Is Photography Art?

 

History

The simple beginnings of documentary photography can be found in the work of the British photographer Philip Delamotte (1821-89), who was among the first artists to use photography as a means of recording important events - such as the disassembly of Crystal Palace - following the invention of calotype photography. Travel pictures by Francis Frith (1822-98) as well as others commissioned by firms such as the London Stereoscope and Photographic Co also represent key beginnings. People were extremely interested in detailed pictures of far away places, famous people and important events. The battlefield landscapes and groups photographed by Roger Fenton (1819-69) in the Crimea were authentic representations of war, although dull by today's standards. Sponsored by print publisher Thomas Agnew, Fenton went with the blessing of the British Government. A great scandal had occurred - five soldiers had died from disease for every one killed by the Russians. A new government needed to prove that they were now giving troops the right facilities. This is one reason why Fenton's 360 pictures often show orderly camp scenes, supplies, formal groups of officers, and battlefields long after the action. Dead bodies are rarely shown. People said the camera could not lie, although reality and truth were being distorted even then, in 1855.

Mathew Brady (1822-96)

Fenton was the first but not the most prolific documentary war photographer. The American Civil War (1861-1865) was covered far more extensively, using photography which did not sidestep the carnage. The idea of covering this war was the brainchild - and obsession - of one Mathew Brady, well known proprietor of fashionable portrait studios in New York and Washington. Brady had already published a portrait series of "Illustrious Americans" and was convinced of the historic importance of documenting the war. He received reluctant official clearance to work in the battle zones, but no financial backing. However Brady spent thousands of dollars putting teams of collodion photographers into the field to cover most important aspects of the war. Some 7000 negatives were taken, mostly by employees, although all credited as 'Brady photographs'.

Of course, other photographers covered war scenes too, but none with Brady's thoroughness and organization. He saw himself as the pictorial historian of his times, and his obsession with the war photographs contributed to his financial downfall. After the war ended in 1865, people were too sickened by the conflict to want reminders. The government were not at first prepared to buy the collection and by the time Brady had been voted a realistic sum he was hopelessly in debt. Today most of the Brady pictures are housed in the Library of Congress, Washington.

Tim O'Sullivan (1840-82)

A few years after the war an ex-Brady photographer, Tim O'Sullivan, was working at another new aspect of documentary photography. The now United States sent out expeditions to map and discover geological information about its lesser known territories - Nevada and the Rockies, Panama, New Mexico. Photography was the ideal way to document the mountains, passes and other scenic marvels to show in detail to officials back home in Washington DC. Imagine how exciting it must have been to take pictures of a virtually unknown canyon. They would have been the equivalent of today's space survey photographs of other planets.

William Jackson (1843-1942)

Other photographers trekked West with those packhorses and tented expeditions of the late 1860s and early 1870s. The most famous was William Jackson, a professional photographer who freelanced scenic views along the newly completed Union Pacific Railroad, then joined surveys through Wyoming and the Yellowstone region. Like O'Sullivan he had a flair for landscape composition, using wet plate view cameras and stereo cameras. Jackson's photographs of the wonders of Yellowstone were exhibited in the halls of Congress as evidence of expedition discoveries. They strongly influenced votes in passing the 1872 bill creating Yellowstone as the first US National Park. Several of the natural features these surveys discovered were named after members of the expeditions, including their photographers. Hence Jackson Canyon, Jackson's Lake, Mount Haynes, Mount Watkins and others are all reminders of pioneer documentary photographers.

Social Documentary Photography

Just as Brady pictures helped to show what war was really like, documentary photography was gradually put to use revealing the lives of the poor and underprivileged. Dr Thomas John Barnardo, famous British founder of homes for destitute boys, started using photography as early as 1870. He was shrewd enough to have professional photographs taken of boys as they appeared on arrival and again when they left the Barnardo homes. Each photograph was mounted on a card like a carte-de-visite, with text printed on the back explaining the work of the homes. Cards were sold and collected in sets. They created very effective publicity as well as raising funds to pay for food and clothing.

John Thomson (1837-1921)

A few years later, in 1877, a book called Street Life in London was published by social reformers John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. It described the lives of various specimens of the London poor and contained 36 Thomson photographs (reproduced by Woodburytype). The photographs documented examples of the various trades of the times. John Thomson's collodion pictures are 'set up' in the sense that most of his subjects were posed in their normal environment, a street crossing sweeper or a newspaper seller. He photographed them in an unsentimental but rather detached way - like carefully recorded examples of an unusual tribe or species. (The 16th-century painter Peter Bruegel the Elder recorded medieval peasants' activities in a similar way.) Nevertheless it was quite a breakthrough to publish photographs of such 'unsuitable' subjects as the poor and neglected: some people thought it mis-use of an artistic medium.

Paul Martin (1864-1944)

New snapshot cameras from the late 1880s onwards made it easier to create photographic records of ordinary people's lives in a less formal way. Many such pictures have become lost with time, but a few collections remain and now give us valuable information. There exists for example much work by Paul Martin, a London wood engraver turned photographer. Martin handled the normal run of professional work but also enjoyed recording people and things as seen by the man in the street in the 1890s. Mostly he took photographs with a large disguised box camera. It looked like a parcel or case and was arranged to be operated when held under his arm. Martin could therefore photograph whatever he was looking at without anyone noticing. None of Paul Martin's photographs plead for reforms or express a point of view other than his interest in fellow human beings. They simply record the authentic passing scene and as such were dismissed at the time as 'non-artistic'. (It is sad that amateur photographers who grew more advanced and competent turned away from contemporary life and the real world, leaving this to hit-or-miss beginners. Similarly professionals could find no market for pictures of everyday scenes photographed in the cheaper parts of town.)

Jacob Riis (1849-1914)

The injustices underprivileged people were forced to live with were much greater in the 19th century than today. It was a time of 'self-help' - the poor were accepted as having failed and held up as a warning to others. The public had a detached, morbid interest. They went to lectures with titles like The Heathen Abroad and The Unfortunate or Improvident At Home.
Despite this, honest documentary photography could make people become more concerned. It could show convincingly and in great detail just what it was like to live walled up in the slums, or to work 10 hours a day in a cotton mill or coal mine at the age of 8 or 9.

Conditions were particularly bad in parts of America, a country hurrying to catch up in industrial growth after the civil war. It seemed people did not matter as much as reducing production costs and increasing profits. A New York newspaper reporter called Jacob Riis cared passionately about the situation in his city, where children worked for 30 cents a day and whole families lived rough in damp cellars. During the 1890s he wrote bitterly about slums, campaigning for better living, learning and working conditions. He discovered for example that a third of a million people, mostly immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, were packed into one square mile of the Lower East Side.

People thought Riis was exaggerating, so he took up photography to prove his reports. Flashpowder allowed him to record pictures of destitute people at night and under other technically difficult conditions. Riis was not interested in photography's artistic aspects. He turned his picture evidence into lantern slides and used them to give public lectures. They were also crudely reproduced as illustrations for nine books including his now famous 1890 title "How The Other Half Lives".

Riis' photographs revealed facts and situations most citizens hardly imagined existed. Eventually his efforts resulted in new child labour laws, schools became better equipped, and some of the worst slums were pulled down and replaced by settlements and open spaces. In New York today Jacob Riis Park marks the site of one of the worst areas - a permanent reminder of this early documentary journalist/photographer.

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)

Other reformers discovered the persuasive power of photography too. Lewis Hine, an ex-labourer who worked his way to university and a degree in sociology, was sickened by the way the US Government put welfare of corporations before welfare of people. In 1908 he gave up his teaching job to become a full-time documentary photographer, having learnt how to use a view camera and a flashpowder device.

Hine began photographing some of the tens of thousands of people entering America at that time to find the promised land - immigrants who typically ended up working in sweat shop factories, living in slums. Soon he was hired by the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and travelled the US as investigator/photographer showing the way industrialists were using youngsters for cheap hard labour. About 1.7 million children were then in industrial employment, but most citizens just accepted this - until Hine turned the statistics into detailed pictures of flesh-and-blood people. Often he infiltrated a factory with a Graflex hand camera hidden in a lunch box, then interviewed and photographed child workers.

Hine discovered situations such as youngsters of 6 or 7 in cotton mills working a 12 hour day. He took statements, recorded their height (against his coat buttons) and general health, then photographed them unsentimentally in their cramped dangerous work conditions. All this sort of human information was paraded publicly through NCLC pamphlets which, thanks to the development of halftone blocks, were now illustrated with photographs.

Some people called Hine a muck-raking journalist; others called him a conscience with a camera. Either way his thousands of photographs and detailed case histories chipped away at the powerful opposition of employers against reforms. Hine carried on this work into the 1930s until a federal law was finally passed against child labour.

The Farm Security Administration

In 1929 the New York stockmarket crashed. It was the beginning of a depression which lasted throughout the 1930s. Soon millions were out of work, and many businesses came to a stop. On top of all this a prolonged drought hit the farmland plains of central America during 1932-1936, creating a great dustbowl from Texas to the Dakotas. Mechanization by tractor had already forced small farmers off the land and reduced the jobs available. Now this combination of disasters made people trek westwards into California. They included sharecroppers (migrant workers who normally followed the season's crop of peas, oranges, cotton, etc.), and failed or dispossessed farmers. Whole families were piled into battered cars, or pushed their belongings in handcarts. People lived in tents and shanty towns at the side of the highway.

A Resettlement Administration was set up by the US Government to help these unfortunate people. In 1935 it was named the Farm Security Administration, and college graduate Roy Stryker (1893-1975) was hired to run a historical section. In the spirit of Hine and others he decided to employ photographers who could show Americans directly what it was like to live in the stricken areas. Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), Walker Evans (1903-75), Arthur Rothstein (1915-85), Ben Shahn (1898-1969) and other photographers (about 30 in all but no more than 6 at a time) were briefed to take persuasive pictures, get to know the refugees' experiences at first hand.

Stryker was a brilliant user of photographs - he had a sense of historical perspective like Brady. Both saw the value of recording events of great social significance. But now that pictures could be fed directly to the nation's Press people throughout the country could see the scandal of these rural slums. Members of the FSA unit photographed migrant camps, denuded landscapes, abandoned homesteads, people on the highways, families helpless, defeated, forgotten. Mostly they avoided pictures which were just picturesque, or smug or false. Stryker even had photographs taken of rich Americans down on holiday in Miami at the time, to strongly contrast the life-styles.

FSA pictures and captions were distributed to newspapers and magazines; exhibitions were sent to Washington DC, New York and other cities. John Steinbeck, inspired by Dorothea Lange's immigrant pictures, researched and wrote "Grapes of Wrath". Walker Evans' pictures were used by poet James Agee in his book "Now Let Us Praise Famous Men". Documentary movies were now being made too - they contrasted sharply with the glossy image of America given by Hollywood at that time.

Public support blossomed and soon Government aid for resettlement schemes increased - transit camps were set up, work provided, help given for people to start again. It was a classic example of a small group of photographers succeeding in changing a situation. The FSA unit lasted from 1935 until it was absorbed into the US Office of War Information in 1941. By then photojournalism was well established in both America and Europe.

Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003)

The German film-maker and photographer Leni Riefenstahl exemplifies the dark art of propagandist film and photography. Best known for her documentary films "Triumph of the Will" (1934) and "Olympia" (1936), which promoted the values of Aryan superiority and Nazi ideology to the world, she pioneered many of the cinematographic techniques that we take for granted today. In the 1970s she also produced two books of colour photos documenting the Nubian tribes of the Sudan. Unfortunately her talents were overshadowed by her Nazi art and her association with Hitler.

Newspaper Photography and Photojournalism

The technical problems of reproducing photographs in ink on the printed page were largely solved during the 1880-1890s. Compulsory education for children up to 10 years had started at about this time too. This meant that by the turn of the century far more adults were able to read (although not very well). Existing newspapers, with their solid columns of small type, were not very encouraging to this new readership. Newspaper owners realized that news expressed in pictures, with easy-to-read captions and short paragraphs would capture a vast new market. This led to papers like the Daily Mirror, launched in 1904 as the world's first newspaper illustrated exclusively with photographs. It was an instant success.

The newspapers employed their own photographers, and also bought photographs from press photo agencies which sent out cameramen covering most main news events. Their jobs were essentially to sum up a situation or a person in one picture, then rush this through ready for the next edition. Speed was more important than technical quality (one reason why plates were preferred - they could be wiped off and enlarged when still damp from processing). Most of the first news pictures were portraits, but as lenses and photographic materials improved more action pictures became possible. Flashbulbs were used for subjects under difficult lighting conditions. By 1907 photographs could even be transmitted by telegraph wire from one newspaper office to another - including country to country. 'Hot' news pictures could be distributed almost as fast as the written word.

The possibilities of using photographs in print became even greater when weekly picture magazines began to appear, in the 1920s. Here the photographer could be given more scope - allowed several pages to tell a story and develop a theme through a series of pictures. For example, instead of the single press photograph of a goalkeeper saving a goal the magazine could give in depth coverage of "A day in the life of a goalkeeper". A picture feature allowed much broader aspects than one news happening to be covered.

Photographers on picture magazines needed to work in ways similar to a journalist, aiming for picture sets with an interesting story line and a strong beginning and end. This sort of work soon became known as photojournalism. It differs from straight documentary photography in that events are more openly interpreted by the photographer or magazine. Like written journalism a picture essay can relay a personal point of view. Nor does it end with the photography, for choice and cropping of prints, text writing, and the way the sequence is laid out on the magazine pages can strengthen or weaken the final picture story. The art editor, whose job it is to put the photographer's work together in a meaningful way (rather than just grouping them on the page) becomes an important member of the team.

Picture magazines really began in the mid-1920s in Germany, when that country was the printing centre of the world and also the source of the world's most advanced cameras with wide aperture lenses. These were beginning to make possible photography in quite dim lighting, without needing the flash paraphernalia of the press photographer. Probably the earliest picture magazine was the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (Berlin Illustrated Newspaper) in 1928.

During the 1930s the new style reporting spread throughout Europe and America. The publishers of Time Magazine began LIFE in 1936; rivals launched Look the following year. In Britain Picture Post and Illustrated appeared in 1938 and 1939, Paris Match in 1949. In fact 1935-1955 was the golden age for picture magazines.

 

Erich Salomon (1886-1944)

The most talented photographer working for Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung was a discreet self-effacing Jewish doctor, Erich Salomon. In the early 1930s Europe was a hive of international conferences. Politicians met in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Rome, hoping to avoid impending conflict, trying to set up a League of Nations. Conferences between diplomats and statesmen were held behind closed doors - the only photographs that people saw were formal wooden groups posed for the Press.

Salomon had a tiny Ermanox plate camera. Disguising himself in evening dress and exploiting his ability to speak seven languages, Salomon politely gatecrashed many conferences. He discreetly passed among famous politicians, taking photographs by available indoor lighting, with the camera half hidden under his jacket. His unique sets of pictures conveyed the general atmosphere and showed the personalities of those taking part at unguarded moments, engrossed in after-dinner discussions. They contrasted sharply with the blinding flash and smoke which everyone associated with cameramen and made them an unwelcome nuisance.

For the magazine reader this new form of political reporting gave a real feeling of 'being there'. What were these people talking about - what were they plotting? Other photojournalists followed Salomon's lead, mostly with smaller cameras such as the Leica which allowed pictures to be taken in quicker succession and gave greater depth of field. Sadly Salomon was to die in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz extermination camp.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)

Probably the most famous and original of all 'candid' reportage photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson originally aimed to become a painter. He started taking photographs in the early 1930s when he bought a Leica and found it a marvellous device for capturing what he describes as 'the decisive moment' in everyday situations. In other words he maintained there is one fleeting fraction of a second in which the significance of an event can be summed up and expressed in the strongest possible visual composition.

Cartier-Bresson was mainly a photographer of people - but not as a social reformer or news event reporter, simply as observer of the passing scene. His pictures document ordinary people with warmth and humour, never influencing his subjects but showing them at moments of extraordinary intensity. Typically he would turn his back on a newsworthy event - procession, celebration, etc. - to concentrate on the reactions of onlookers.

Cartier-Bresson never used flash or special lenses, and the whole of each negative is always printed without cropping. He photographed the people of most countries, but excelled at showing fellow Europeans. His pictures were used in all the most important magazines, and many books for more than 60 years. They were also purchased and exhibited by many of the world's art galleries.

After World War II, in 1947, Cartier-Bresson and photographers Robert Capa and David Seymour formed a picture agency called "Magnum". Run as a co-operative and owned by the photographers themselves, Magnum has members in various countries. It sells pictures to publishers of all kinds and has become the most famous photojournalistic agency of its kind in the world.

Bill Brandt (1904-1983)

One of Britain's most distinguished photographers was also working as a photojournalist during the late 1930s. Bill Brandt was born in London and in 1929 learnt photography in Paris as assistant to Man Ray (Emmanuel Radinski) (1890-1976). Reportage work was the new most challenging area for young photographers, and Brandt was influenced by the work of Cartier-Bresson and others. He returned to Britain during the depression years, producing pictures of the industrial North which made pointed comparisons with other richer levels of British society. He was also an exponent of Pictorialism with a series of staged photos of suburbia.

Brandt's work appeared as picture books such as The English at Home and A Night in London. He also undertook many Picture Post assignments (where his pictures often appeared anonymously as was common at that time). Later Brandt was to specialize in landscapes, and books of original experimental photographs such as distorted images of the human form.

During the war years (1939-1945) most photojournalists worked for organizations such as the US Information Service, or the British Ministry of Information, or were drafted into Air Force or Army photographic units. The British Army Film and Photography Unit produced over 137,000 documentary pictures of offensives; there was an equivalent organization in Germany called the PBK (German Propaganda Corp).

Robert Capa (1913-54)

Robert Capa, who hated war and tried to depict its futility, became a renowned war photographer. Like many war photographers, both Capa and fellow Magnum founder David Seymour (1911-1956) were to die in action a few years later - Capa covering conflicts in Indochina, and Seymour in Egypt.

Rise and Fall of Picture Magazines

In some ways picture magazines of the 1930s and 1940s were the modern equivalent of the stereoscope cards of the nineteenth century. At their best they offered the ordinary person a window on the world - coverage of great events, a peep behind the scenes, a day sharing the lives of famous people - in greater detail than newspaper press photographs could ever provide. They could also make readers more aware of the gap between what life is, and might be.

Of course, the magazines always contained a great deal of purely entertainment material such as cute pictures of animals, stills from new Hollywood movies, the latest fashion craze. But they could also be powerful moulders of public opinion on more vital issues. Unlike today's colour supplements most of them ran occasional crusades on issues like bad housing, pollution, help for the disadvantaged, and so on. They took sides rather than going for bland neutral coverage. This made a lively and much more interesting magazine but put responsibility on the shoulders of photojournalists, writers and editors. The production team had to be well informed and able to present a reasoned argument rather than propaganda. They were operating possibly the most persuasive visual medium in the days before television - for cinema newsreels were mostly flippant and quickly forgotten.

Picture magazines influenced each other too. Stefan Lorant (1901-97), a Hungarian Jew and editor of the Munich rival of Berliner Illustrierte left Germany under Nazi pressure. A few years later in 1938 he became Picture Post's first editor. Together with photographers Kurt Hutton (born Kurt Hubschmann) (1893–1960), Felix Man (1893-1985) and other European refugees, he brought the use of 35 mm cameras and the ideas and layout of German picture magazines to Britain. They filled Picture Post (and its rival, Illustrated) with action pictures and features which looked very different to traditional British weeklies like Tatler or Illustrated London News. In America other European immigrant photographers such as Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995) and Robert Capa made outstanding contributions to LIFE. In Britain, Larry Burrows (1926-71) was the outstanding photojournalist for LIFE.

Picture magazines thrived during the conflict and excitement of World War II, despite the shortage of paper. They seemed to sell everything they could print and had enormous status. However, by the 1950s Picture Post had begun to lose its sense of purpose. Even the novel use of several regular pages of colour could not revive it. Illustrated closed in 1958, Picture Post in 1957, Look in 1971. LIFE lingered on in more-or-less its original weekly form until 1972.

Television had taken over as a faster, more universal method of visually communicating news and features; it was also stealing most of the advertisers. By the 1970s photojournalism had lost a lot of its influence, although it remained in magazines such as Stern (Germany) and Paris Match (France), and in a number of expensively produced company magazines for the oil industry, etc.

Distortion and Manipulation of Images

The way the world is presented by documentary photography is often distorted in one form or another - it is almost impossible to be completely objective and truthful. As equipment and materials improved they gave greater freedom to decide what and when pictures were to be taken. And once photographs could appear in publications the photographer's choice of moment was followed up by decisions on which picture(s) were or were not to be used, the ways captions were written, and how pictures were related one to another across the page.

Half-tone reproduction gave documentary photography a huge audience and made it influential. People soon wanted to manipulate such a powerful medium. Photographers began doing this by posing their subjects, and choosing the viewpoint, lighting and moment in time; editors by selection and presentation of their results.

Manipulation need not always be bad. For Dr Barnardo's before-and-after pictures, boys were usually dressed up in rags to recreate the 'before' situation. One of the FSA photographers was severely criticized when it was discovered he had shifted a cow's skull several feet from a patch of scrub grass to make a stronger picture. However, neither really distorted the truth of the general situation they were trying to show - they simply communicated it in a visually stronger way.

On the other hand, from the early days of picture newspapers it has been normal practice to file photographs of prominent people looking confident, defeated, aggressive, stupid, etc. Such pictures are pulled out and reproduced as press portraits to suit the mood of the moment, when that person is either favoured or disliked. Again, an editor can easily select from a photographer's picture series an image he would normally reject. By adding a headline and caption he gives it strong meaning.

People gradually realized the publicity they could gain through photography. A demonstration often becomes violent when professional photographers or TV crew are seen to be present. In one extreme instance in the late 1960s a public execution was held over for 12 hours, as the evening light was too poor for the press to take pictures. The concerned photographer therefore has to ask him or herself whether something they document would have happened that way had he not been present? Should a wide-angle lens be used, which makes close-ups of people with their arms out look more violent? Would grainy film and dark printing make bad living conditions look worse?

As can be seen, the more strongly the photographer or editor feels about a particular situation the more tempting it becomes to present it in a powerful way. Strictly objective recording is almost impossible - in any case it often gives cluttered pictures which confuse what is being shown. But then, too much concern for clarity of presentation can distort the real events. In practice documentary photography has to function somewhere between these extremes.

Contemporary Documentary Photography

Since the mid-60s or thereabouts, the era of Postmodernist art has witnessed a widening range of documentary camerawork, in keeping with the advent of globalization, as well as changing moral views and increased social fragmentation. Famous postmodernist artists who have produced noteworthy documentary photographs, include: Diane Arbus (1923-1971) whose harrowing black-and-white photos of freaks, eccentrics and marginal individuals in New York, proved too controversial for many art critics; Bernd and Hilla Becher, who chronicled disappearing styles of industrial architecture; Garry Winogrand (1928–1984) and Lee Friedlander (b.1934) who focused on America's cultural landscape; Robert Adams (b.1937) - whose photos appeared in the seminal 1975 exhibition entitled "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" - addresses the outdoor landscape; William Eggleston (born 1939), one of the pioneers of colour documentary photography; and Nan Goldin (b.1953) whose contribution to contemporary art includes numerous series of documentary photos on deviant groups and feminist issues. See also works by Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Stephen Shore.

Famous Documentary Photographers

Here is a short list of some of the greatest exponents of documentary-style photography, listed in chronological order:

Roger Fenton (1819-69)
Pioneer war photographer.

Mathew Brady (1822-96)
Photographed the American Civil War.

John Thomson (1837-1921)
Pioneer social photographer noted for "Street Life in London" (1877).

Tim O'Sullivan (1840-82)
Pioneer wilderness photographer of the American West.

William Jackson (1843-1942)
Influential landscape photographer notably of Wyoming and the Yellowstone region.

Jacob Riis (1849-1914)
Famous for his pioneering social documentary photographs of New York slums, especially his series "How The Other Half Lives" (1890).

Eugene Atget (1857-1927)
Noted for his archive of shots taken of buildings in Paris.

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Famous for his exposure of child labour working conditions in West Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, and elsewhere.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
Precisionist painter noted for photographing the Ford Motor company car plant in Michigan.

Roman Vishniac (1897-1990)
Jewish-American photographer who catalogued Jewish life before World War II.

Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
All famous for their portrait photos of Depression-era individuals and families.

Ansel Adams (1902-84)
Famous for his 'wilderness photography of the American West.

Ken Domon (1909-90)
Renowned for his photos of survivors of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, and child poverty in the coal-mining community in Chikuho, Kyushu.

Hans Namuth (1915-90)
Famous for his photographic series on artists like Jackson Pollock, the Cubist Stuart Davis; the pop artists Andy Warhol, George Segal and Roy Lichtenstein; the minimalist sculptor Richard Serra and others.

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
Notorious for her photos of freaks.

Robert Frank (b.1924)
Renowned for his series entitled "The Americans" (1959)

Larry Burrows (1926-71)
Photojournalist for LIFE magazine noted for photo-essays on the Vietnam war.

Don McCullin (b.1935)
Highly respected photographer of individuals caught up in war zones.

Steve McCurry (b.1950)
Best known as a National Geographic photo artist.

Nan Goldin (b.1953)
Feminist photographer noted for her ground-breaking work among minority social groups.

Nadav Kander (b.1961)
Best known for his blunt series of photos of the Yangste River, in China.

Social documentary photographs are regularly shown in some of the best galleries of contemporary art across America.

• For more about social documentary photography and photojournalism, see: Homepage.


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