30th August 2013
Documentary photography usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle significant and historical events. It is typically covered in professional photojournalism, or real life reportage, but it may also be an amateur, artistic, or academic pursuit. The photographer attempts to produce truthful, objective, and usually candid photography of a particular subject, most often pictures of people.
In the opening section of the course manual for Gesture & Meaning, Alfred Stieglitz is brought to our attention as an early practitioner of what we now call ‘Documentary Photography’ and an image of ‘The Terminal’, from 1893 is provided to illustrate this notion. Later in the passage it states, ‘Stieglitz was very concerned about the initial treatment of immigrants arriving in large numbers from Ireland and Europe…….’, and a further image is used to illustrate this ‘The Steerage’.
From the research I’ve been able to undertake on Stieglitz there doesn’t seem to be any indication at all that he was 1. ‘documenting the ephemeral nature of everyday life’ in New York. 2. he had any interest at all in new immigrants, other than as a source of an image he wanted to make.
His early interest in photography was in Pictorialism, a movement that saw its heyday from about 1885 – 1915, where the photographer attempted to capture an image with an apparent appearance similar to painting. To this end soft focus was used and other mechanical means of stressing the image to make it appear more ‘painterly’ were employed. The first mention I can find of his devotion to capturing the ephemeral was of his 3 hour wait in a New York blizzard to make an image of a stagecoach as it approached him. His contemporaries at the photographic club derided this effort as a waste of time ‘as the image was out of focus’! Stieglitz is said to have retorted that the image was exactly as he wanted it to be and what he was trying to achieve was nothing to do with blurred or sharp. Stieglitz apparently went on to develop this with his images of a changing New York, not in the documentary style of clear-cut images and making a point, but a documentary with Pictorialist images, where image construction was paramount and the end result should be more pleasing to the eye than historical or realistic fact. ‘The Terminal’ made during the same blizzard was another marathon of suffering on the part of Stieglitz, and whilst both images show a long since disappeared lifestyle, they don’t provide much documentary evidence that shows detail, his interest was purely in the picture the scenes made.
Until such time a Stieglitz made an Atlantic crossing, with his wife and young daughter in 1907, I doubt that the wealthy Stieglitz paid any more attention to the welfare of immigrants than any other man in his strata of society. No mention of any connection with Jacob Riis or Lewis Hine can be found, with whom he would surely have been familiar living in New York, if he was socially concerned about immigrants. He was bored on the trip and stumbled upon a scene of immigrants in steerage, from his lofty position in first class, of which he wrote ‘I saw shapes related to one another, a picture of shapes, and underlying it a new vision that held me……..’ (sic), (YouTube.com, Alfred Stieglitz – The Eloquent Eye) he rushed off to get his camera, constantly worried that the scene would change whilst he was away and the image he desperately wanted would disappear. Fortunately it was still there when he got back, and with his final plate he made the famous image ‘The Steerage’. So, he didn’t make that image as a documentary photographer from social conscience, he made it because the shapes pleased him and at some point in time others have ascribed a more altruistic ideal to his motives for making the image.
From 1915 onward Stieglitz was more concerned with making many different images of his new wife Georgia O’Keefe and his study of clouds, he certainly didn’t display any interest in documentary photography himself and his gallery displays in New York, at which he spent most of his time, did not support one documentary photographer or other artists of this genre. Therefore to hold him as an early example of Social, or any other form of, Documentary Photography is rather confusing when his abiding interest was in Modernism. If anyone is to be held up as a leading example of early Social Documentary Photography then there are probably three that should share that honour, Henry Mayhew, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Earlier examples could be sought from the American Civil War with Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner , Timothy O’Sullivan et al, and from the Crimean War with Roger Fenton.