Lauren the role of documentary in contemporary photographic



Research Project



















































































essay seeks to understand the role of documentary in contemporary photographic practice
with specific reference to its display and dissemination. Specifically, the
move of the documentary photograph towards the photobook and the gallery, away
from traditional forms such as the newspaper or magazine and what effect this
has on the reading and the impact of the image in relation to the intent of
varying forms.

defined documentary as ‘the creative treatment of actuality.’ (Winston, 1995,
p.11) This suggests that the documentary photograph is not a solely objective
piece, and instead can be influenced by the photographer’s use of their creative
skills. This idea is consolidated by Ian Walker when speaking of the ‘documentarian’
who ‘takes the real and filters it through his or her subjectivity.’ (Walker,
2002, p.23)



the majority of photographic uses previous to the term’s introduction were what
we would now automatically designate as documentary, it becomes clear that the
documentary concept is historical, not ontological.’ (Photography at the dock
pg 169) – while the term documentary was not in use historically, the
photography they were producing would be classed under this sub section of the
photographic genre.


late arrival of the category of documentary into photographic parlance implies
that until it’s formation, photography was understood as innately and
inescapably performing a documentary function.’ (Photography at the dock pg


and up until the early 20th
century, the word document was believed to be applicable to most photographs. –


Tate defines documentary photography as ‘a style of photography that provides a
straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and
events…’ (


for objective transcription – photography on the dock pg 171


Catherine Belsey idea of expressive realism –

truths about the period which produced them – 
about the world in general or about human nature – and that in doing so
they express particular perceptions, the individual insights, of their
authors.’ (Belsey, 1980, p.2)


“‘Documentary Value’ was the phrase
John Grierson used in reviewing Robert Flaherty’s Moana for a New York newspaper in 1926′ – (Claiming the real,
Winston, pg 8) – When the term documentary is first used


















The term ‘documentary’ was not yet in
circulation when some of the most poignant images in the forerun to documentary
photography were being made. (Bull, 2010, p.107)

For example, the likes of Jacob Riis
and Lewis Hine. Their work was social documentation, which was later linked to
the term ‘documentary’. (Ibid, SECONDARY REFERENCING.)


records the misfortunes of ‘others’ in order to petition the ‘people’ for the
need for social change…’ (Roberts, 1998, p.82) This type of photography work
was linked to ideas around social reform, which is very much what the
documentary photograph was in the late 19th century. It was hoped
that by showing people areas in their own society they were not necessarily
aware of would bring about the necessary change to better the lives of those
less fortunate.


 ‘social reformers sought to educate a middle-class public with images
which made visible those areas of their society where injustice and poverty
abounded.’ (Clarke, 1997, p.147)


Jacob Riis is significant in
this context as he is considered to mark the beginning of the documentary
tradition. (Clarke, 1997, p.147) Riis pioneered the use of flash photography to
allow him to photograph places he couldn’t beforehand, to ‘capture evidence of
insalubrious and overcrowded tenement housing’, (Franklin, 2016, p.58) in New
York’s Lower East Side. Riis’ documentation of these spaces was to sit
alongside his writing in How the Other
Half Lives (1890) to be more impactful than his writing alone, and to aid his plight for
reform. He found in his role as a journalist that his writing wasn’t enough, ‘I wrote about it, but it seemed to make no impression.’
( So, this implies that Riis
was making the move from the magazine/newspaper to the book he was working on, How the Other Half Lives, as he felt
that this was going to have more of an impression on the people he was trying
to reach with the work.

Luc Sante (cited in Franklin,
2016, p.58)  a New York writer, was very
positive about Riis, describing him as a ‘one man band of social reform…’ However,
Riis also had his critics. His use of the magnesium-flash was dangerous,
Derrick Price, a Welsh writer said Riis ‘brought terror everywhere he went’.

‘They were escaping a camera that,
according to Riis’s critics recorded it’s subjects as ‘passive sufferers of
poverty’ in an ‘act of subjugation’ (Doc. Impulse pg 58, see photography at the
dock pg 176)


second significant
example in this area of documentary photography is Lewis Hine, who declares
himself as a ‘sociological’ photographer (Clarke, 1997, p.147) Hine’s
documentary practice spans a range of subject matter, such as immigrants and
sweat shops, (Ibid) although he is most well-known for his work around child
labour. Hine worked as staff photographer for the National Child Labor
Committee (NCLC), with the work he produced over thirteen years there
considered to have had a profound impact on the changing of laws surrounding
child labour in the United States of America. His time with the NCLC is
certainly significant/poignant
as they were ‘one of the first organizations committed to using photography to
bring about change’ (Franklin, 2016, p.59) What seems key about Hine is that
not only was he recording these details of child workers, but also
disseminating them. HOW? This dissemination is what gave others access to his
work and gives proof of the need for change. (Bate, page 50, secondary referencing?)
Working as one of the first photographers to openly use their images for change,
he is almost pioneering a technique for social change.

Different to the work of Riis for
example, Hine is considered to allow his subjects to ‘retain their own sense of
self.’ (Clarke, 1997, p.148) He does this by alerting people of the presence of
the camera, this can be seen with his subjects usually looking back at the
camera. Hine is well respected for never exploiting his subjects, he doesn’t
simplify the image for any reason, allowing even small details to have huge
power. (Ibid)

this section necessary Lauren??? If so expand, what effect does that have vs.
Riis’s approach?

how Hine and Riis both displayed and sieemeinated thir work and the impacts
each had with their work.
























Farm Security Administration (FSA) is a government sponsored agency, directed
by Roy Stryker and established in 1935. The FSA was made up of several
photographers, such as, Dorothea Lange, Margret Bourke-White, Russell Lee,
Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn, among others. The 1930’s was very rich for
subjects of documentary photography, with events such as the Wall Street Crash
in 1929 and the Great Depression. Many of the photographers under the FSA were
responding to this. (Clarke, 1997, p.148)

depression was seen as the result not of conscious economic processes, but of
unforeseen and controllable forces that were exceptional and therefore in need
of patient remedy and not radical transformation.’ (Art of interpution pg 82)…
Now expand, what were photographers doing to give this impression in their


to William Stott, Documentary expression.. to talk about of the worthy poor
being promoted rather than the unworthy poor.



FSA represents the point where notions of reportage in American photography
become codified as documentary.’ (The art of interruption, pg 79)



Stryker, the director of the project, not only stipulated the specifics of
region, milieu, or activity when making assignments, he often further indicated
what type of mood, expression, “feeling” he was after – what we would now term
the rhetoric of the image. Those photographers, like Walker Evans, who had
their own aesthetic agendas did not fare well at the F.S.A.’ (Photography at
the dock pg 178.)


to the extent that photography is less able to deal with collectivity than with
individuality, work such as the F.S.A. project demonstrates a probably
inevitable slippage from the political to the anecdotal or the emblematic.’
(Photography at the dock, 179)



Lorentz – ‘She has selected with an unerring eye. You do not find in her
portrait gallery the bindle-stiffs, the drifters, the tramps, the unfortunate,
the aimless dregs of a country.’ (Talking about the work of Dorothea Lange,
photography at the dock pg 179)


of the graphic legacy of the F.S.A. is currently embalmed in a collective
nostalgia about the 1930’sor enshrined as a humanist monument to the timeless
struggle against adversity or revered as a record of individual photographic
achievement.’ – (same as above)

 ‘The FSA was a rural rehabilitation agency set
up under Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide he to those who were destitute or on
the verge of destitution.’ …..’an extensive record of one of the worst affected
areas of the Depression.’ (The art of interruption, pg 79)











































1955 the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA) hosted the exhibition, The Family of Man (Steichen 1955) and
this exhibition is representative of a transition in the display and dissemination
modes of documentary photography. ‘…the kinds of photographs found in a
documentary context of newspapers and magazines moved to being exhibited in an
art gallery.’ (Bull, 2010, p. 112) The exhibition was curated by photographer Edward Steichen, comprised
of 503 photographs, from 273 artists, coming from 68 countries.

The movement/ change in display/form of
these kinds of photographs is not strictly linear and therefore The Family of Man does not mark the first
instance in which these types of works were seen in a gallery setting, although
it is pivotal in the acceptance/progress due to the scale of the exhibition and
it’s undoubted success.

The exhibition
travelled both nationally, throughout the United States and also throughout the
globe, reaching over nine million people between 1955 and 1962. The book
accompanying the exhibit now remains in permanent print.  (


The exhibition contained photographs which
explained man to man. (Steichen, 1986, p.20.)


many exhibitions curated by Steichen, the exhibition is described as retaining ‘aspects
of a photojournalistic context.’ (Bull, 2010, p.112) Firstly, in considering
these photojournalistic tendencies, the look of the show should be considered. ‘…the
museum walls resembled the pages of Life…Visitors
walked through the exhibition as if strolling inside the pages of a magazine.’ (Shall I explain what life is???
Panzer, 2005, p.20)


to this, Bull (2010, p.113) likens the exhibition to magazine photojournalism
in its concept, presenting to the viewer a ‘humanist’ view, ‘…an approach
familiar from much magazine photojournalism…’ (Bull, 2010, p.113)


while this exhibition is significant in the movement away from traditional
forms such as the newspaper and magazines, it’s certainly seems poignant that
Steichen is hanging on to certain elements/aspects/??? From these more
traditional forms. However, what should be considered is why Steichen may have felt
this was necessary and how the move from the newspaper to the gallery wall
effected how we read these images, and who reads these images, regardless of
these elements that have been continued into a new setting.

consideration should be given to the change in audience that will occur due to
the change in form. A newspaper for example is very widely read, especially due
to the variety of stories inside. Often, we can engage with a newspaper article
unintentionally, we often see the front page plastered outside of the
newsagents for example, or more so in recent times on the news (TV) or across
social media (online). The newspaper allows for a very wide dissemination of its
content as it is cheap and widely accessible for the majority of people through
a number of channels. Moving this content into a gallery however, could
potentially reduce its reach, it could be argued. More of a conscious effort is
required to engage with gallery works, as it becomes more ‘exclusive’.
Typically, people pay to view works in a gallery and so it is less readily
available for free. Also, people will usually have to travel to a gallery, and
so have more of an awareness of what they are going to see, unlike the way we engage
with a newspaper. This could cause a reduction on the audience. This also
limits the type of people in which the work can reach. Not everyone in society,
particularly at this time would be in a position to pay to see artwork. To see
work in a gallery it requires more of a conscious effort to engage with it than
in the newspaper, and potentially less people will be prepared or ……. to make this
effort. Typically, you would expect to see a more upper class cut from society
in the gallery setting. While this is less true today, it’s something that you
do have to consider due to the time period in which the exhibition takes place.

The question
arises from this as to how the class of an individual will affect their accessibility
to viewing a particular image or exhibition. If we consider how Rosler speaks
about privileged people viewing documentary photography as a form of art in a
gallery setting, she suggests that the engagement with such art form is to
reassure the viewer of their own powerful position.

liberal documentary assuages any stirrings of conscience in its viewers the way
scratching relieves an itch and simultaneously reassures them about their
relative wealth and social position…’ (Afterthoughts)


this is true, how would the likes of the working class fit into such a setting,
if at all? This statement from Rosler implies a certain, limited, audience to
the documentary photograph as a form of art. Something to think about is whether
this is relational to the intention and function of the art, or if this is one which
doesn’t necessarily allow the images to perform their desired function.



If we consider what the function of The Family of Man was, we can then
evaluate its success.


of the exhibition – opened the gallery up to more people??


consideration of the popularity of both the exhibition and the book argues
against this point of reduced reach. The exhibition was immensely popular and
millions of people, globally, engaged with the works, was supported through sponsorship
from the United States Information Agency (USIA).

could be something to consider in that the move into the gallery space makes it
feel less about engaging with the news and current affairs and more about art,
it might attract a completely new audience. I think that this brings to light
the issue of intention and it’s important to give consideration of the varying
intentions that come with the varying forms. In this case, the intention of the
gallery exhibition was to ‘explain man to man’ (Steichen ????).





it’s successes, The Family of Man has
been criticised, notably/famously by Roland Barthes in The Great Family of Man. Barthes opinion on the exhibition presenting
to us a ‘human community’ was that this ignored differences from our culture
and our history.  (Barthes, 2009,



to mention in this section of the essay, reference to the move to photobook for
example giving more editorial
control to the photographer.

of this freedom from editorial control and the increasing emphasis on
supposedly subjective, individual viewpoints on topics was the formation in
1947 of Magnum, a co-operative photo agency where all members retain control of
how their images are used’. (Bull, 2010, p.111)

who have self published to allow for this, for example Alec Soth and Little
Brown Mushroom, or Stephen Gill and Nobody Books.



is the intent of the newspaper image vs the intent of the gallery??













Photobook can also be seen as a key vehicle in the display and dissemination of
the contemporary documentary photograph. This mode of display for the
documentary image became popular with the growth of subjectivity in the field
of documentary photography. (Walker, 2002, p.22)

Frank can be considered to mark the beginning of this tradition, of documentary
photographers ‘…presenting subjective facts in their photographs.’ (BULL, secondary
referencing, p.111) With his book The
Americans, which was to be an influential piece on future photographers.


set out on a tour of America in the 1950’s, with the intention of building his
own point of view on the country, and the publication of this in 1958/9 is what
introduced ………. To this subjective strand of the documentary photograph, introducing
the photobook as a key vehicle for a photographers opinion. (Bull, 2010, p.111)
The photobook allows for this subjective expression, much more so than many
other forms of presentation, forms that were popular prior to this, due to the
editorial control/freedom it allows the photographer.
























Frank, The Americans (1958?) is
considered poignant with regard to documentary photography and the photobook,
and ‘redefined documentary in terms of a radical photographic style.’
(Clarke,1997, p.155)




















‘…the term ‘photojournalism’ is used –
both within the field and more widely – as a synonym for, rather than a
subdiscipline of, the more encompassing and progressive term ‘documentary.”
(Franklin, 2016, p.172)  – speak
about this somewhere.


In the
conclusion, come back to grierson’s idea of photography being the creative
treatment of actuality, and Winston asking what is left of actuality after it has
been treated creatively.