A Photo Teacher |

(Re)Defining Documentary Photography – Then and Now

Posted in PHOT 267 by Paul Turounet on February 1, 2010

In considering the work of Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, the FSA photographers (Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and others), and August Sander, documentary photography has implied a practice in which the photographer examined a socially conscious concern of the time within an extended form. An extensive series of images as well as the use of text are utilized to provide an in-depth examination into a subject with the intention to suggest empathy and/or social change.


Documentary photography is extended form — that is, a work composed of a sizeable number of images. Some relation to text is a given, even if it’s only minimal, as in the identification of subject, date, and location; the text may in fact be extensive. There is no external time limit implicit in this form; some documentary projects have stretched over decades.

For this reason, the documentary photographer is likely to have the opportunity to refine the project, not only through the analysis of the work-in-progress at various stages but even by the reshooting of unsatisfactory segments of the work. The elaborate nature of such projects lends itself to subjects that are seen as enduring; for much the same reason, the final forms they assume tend to be durable: the book and the exhibition have to date functioned as the primary embodiments of documentary projects, though certain audio-visual formats are serving this purpose with increasing frequency.

– A.D. Coleman, from his essay, Documentary, Photojournalism, and Press Photography Now – Notes and Questions and published in Depth of Field.



© Jacob Riis, One of Four Pedlars Who Slept in the Cellar of 11 Ludlow Street Rear, 1892 (left) and Walker Evans, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1936 (right)


Documentary photography has come to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery. Like photos of children in pleas for donations to international charity organizations, liberal documentary implores us to look in the face of deprivation and to weep (and maybe send money, if it is to some faraway place where the innocence of childhood poverty does not set off in us the train of thought that begins with denial and ends with “welfare cheat.”)

The expose, the compassion and outrage, of documentary fueled by the dedication to reform has shaded over into combinations of exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psychologism, and metaphysics, trophy hunting – and careerism.

It is easy to understand why what has ceased to be news becomes testimonial to the bearer of the news. Documentary testifies, finally, to the bravery or (dare we name it?) the manipulativeness and savvy of the photographer, who entered a situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay, or combinations of these and saved us the trouble. Or who, like the astronauts, entertained us by showing us the places we never hope to go. War photography, slum photography, “subculture” or cult photography, photography of the foreign poor, photography of “deviance.”

– Martha Rosler, from her essay, In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) and published in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, edited by Richard Bolton



© Danny Lyon, In Loving Memory of Pupi, from Knave of Hearts, 1999


Documentary photographers such as Ken Light, Shelby Lee Adams, Sebastião Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Lauren Greenfield, Eugene Richards, and James Nachtwey, have immersed themselves into the experiences of others in the contemporary social landscape with the desire to heighten a sense of social consciousness with an audience. While having a sense of concern for issues in the real world, Danny Lyon, Larry Clark and Nan Goldin have infused their observations of others with their own sense of personal experience.


A new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal end. Their aim has not been to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy — almost an affection — for the imperfections and frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value — no less precious for being irrational . . . . What they hold in common is the belief that the commonplace is really worth looking at, and the courage to look at it with a minimum of theorizing.

– John Szarkowski, from the Introduction (wall label) to the New Documents exhibition, February 28 – May 7, 1967 at the New York Museum of Modern Art.


He makes a poor argument for the value of disengagment from a “social cause” and in favor of a connoisseurship of the tawdry. At what elevated vantage point must we stand to regard society as having “frailties” and “imperfections”? High enough to see it as a circus before our eyes, a commodity to be experienced . . . But rather than the sympathy and almost-affection that Szarkowski claimed to find in the work, I see impotent rage masquerading as varyingly invested snoop sociology — fascination and affection are far from identical.

– Martha Rosler, from her essay, In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) and published in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, edited by Richard Bolton



© Pedro Meyer, Viejo con billetes, 1985 (left) and Deshoyando al borrego, 1985 (right)


Contemporary documentary practice by photographers such as Fazal Sheikh, Simon Norfolk, Luc Delahaye, Paul Graham, Martin Parr and Pedro Meyer examine the social world with a measured sense of contemplation, challenging the traditional conventions of documentary photography in revealing a vision and voice about the real world.


As I see it, the intentions of a documentary photographer are to record some aspects of reality, by producing a depiction of what the photographer saw and which portends to represent that reality in as objective a manner as possible. If we can agree to that description, I can already see our critics pounding on their desks accompanied by some degree of glee on their faces, as they suggest that this is precisely the reason why there is no room for the computer to be used in recreating documentary images.

I believe we have already discussed in all sorts of forums the fact that photography per se, is tantamount to manipulation. That the impact of the lens selected, the film chosen, and all the other technical variables leave ample room to question the so called “faithful representation” of reality.

So why are so many people up in arms about the idea that a photograph edited in the computer is not really a true documentary representation? As I have come to understand it, it has mainly to do with past traditions and customs.

– Pedro Meyer, from his essay Redefining Documentary Photography and published in The Real and the True: The Digital Photography of Pedro Meyer



© Pedro Meyer, Where Is The Money?, 1985 – 2000


In considering these historical/contemporary contexts and points of view to define documentary photographic practice, how would you, as a working photographer, define documentary photography as a form of visual communication in the twenty-first century?

What role and function do you believe documentary photographs serve in society?

And lastly, thinking about your initial interest and desire to create photographs within this genre of photographic practice, what do you see yourself photographing, what do want these photographs to reveal and why?

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