Early Social Documentary In Britain and America

13th September 2013

There is a great deal of biographical information on early American social documentary photographers but very little on British artists of the same period (1880 – 1920), and the suggestions made in the Student Handbook for who to look at as models are people who should not be categorised as Documentary Photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron, Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, Henry Peach Robinson.  Of the three, Sutcliffe would be the nearest, as he made many images of Whitby and the surrounding area, including many of the local people.  However, the images he made weren’t for use to make any social points or changes, they were purely documentary.  Henry Mayhew is credited with photographing for his book ‘London Labour and the Poor’ 1851, although research leads me to believe that he probably didn’t make the images himself but employed someone who could, as photography was in its infancy at the time, requiring a dedicated technician, and he was more concerned with the research and writing of socially responsible articles and books.  Bill Brandt is probably the most famous early photographer of social documentary from the British school, although his influence wasn’t really felt until the early 1930’s, and his ancestry would suggest he was as much German as British.

The question that arose in my mind was, why were the Americans more prominent in this field than the British?  Was it because the Americans were more advanced when it came to working for social justice?  Did the British class system hinder the progress?  Did the Americans care more?  Did the British care less?  A lot of questions that need to be looked at to get at the reasons.  After reading copious amounts of information about the growth of poverty and the issues surrounding this, on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems that there are a number of factors that brought about the apparent differences between the two societies.

It wasn’t a case of the British being indifferent to the suffering of the poor, far from it, 19th century parliamentary legislation shows that, in England at least, they were pioneers in the introduction of good working practices to ensure that the young and women were protected from the excesses that their American counterparts were subjected to.  Great Britain was the first nation in the world to become highly industrialised and with that came the use of power machinery which required less strength and bulk to operate it, so children became a cheap source of labour to man it, as did women.  As early as the second decade of the 1800’s parliament was making sure that hours were limited for the employment of children, still horrendous by modern standards, but they paved the way for later legislation that was introduced to outlaw their use at an earlier point in time than in America.

Change in Britain occurred through the campaigning of well-to-do liberal reactionaries such as Henry Mayhew and later Charles Dickens, whereas in the US it happened at the turn of the 20th century and required a more graphic form of proof to stir the American public into action, the photograph.

Meanwhile, America didn’t see a shift in their economy from agriculture to industrial as early as Britain and it wasn’t until after their civil war that things began to expand, as did immigration, and the immigrants became a cheap source of labour to expand their industrialisation.  Most immigrants to the US arrived through New York and having few, or more likely no, relatives to move on to they stayed there and made the city the most densely populated city in the world at that time.  Making it to the US was only the first rung of the ladder.  Many eastern and southern European families clubbed together to send one family member to the US where the promise of a better life meant that with luck, hard work, a lot of hardship and saving the whole family could eventually emigrate there.  This meant that immigrants were prepared to live in sub-standard housing that long-term American residents wouldn’t contemplate living in; it was cheap and allowed them to save more money to send home.  The other side of the coin was that they spoke little or no English and were ripe for exploitation by employers, they didn’t have the same rights as American citizens, which is still true today for one class of child, and therefore could be exploited again by the landlords.  Packed as many as 20 to a room into buildings especially constructed for them called tenements, without proper sanitary arrangements the area of the ‘Five Points’ became a notorious slum, with high levels of crime, gangs, illness and death.  At the same time, rural America saw factories spring up requiring workers, the same sort of workers that had fueled the British industrialisation, and without any effective legislation children became the main source of labour.  This practice spread from the farms where children as young as five years old were expected to pick 20 lbs of cotton a day for the sum then of 20 cents, that’s equivalent to 6d in British coinage of the day, and in today’s money 2.5 p

One of the main reasons change occurred in America was the threat that was the rapidly expanding disenfranchised, poor, immigrants that were flocking in their millions to the perceived golden land.  The differences in the standards of living between the middle and upper classes of the long-term Americans and the poor was greater then than today, although today the wealth difference is far greater.  It became obvious to some that if something wasn’t done about the way these poor people lived then a couple of things would happen.  Epidemics of disease would break out that could become uncontrollable at a time when medicine had little or no defence against the majority of fatal diseases, and a revolution could occur when the vastly superior numbers of the poor decided enough was enough and took matters into their own hands, all his threatened the comfy structure of the middle and upper classes, and so something had to be done to awaken them to the threats.

The advances that had taken place in the technology of photography and printing, with good quality, half-tone pictures from photographs, meant that many more people who could influence legislators could be graphically informed of the situation, and with a sense of self-preservation they rallied to the causes and empowered the men and women who were prepared to go out and do the investigation on their behalf, something that wasn’t as necessary anymore in Britain.

Interestingly the reticence of the American elite to encompass any change that threatened their profits meant that it was 1941 before any effective legislation was enacted by their government to protect children from exploitative working practices.  Even then this legislation does not cover all children in America and children of itinerant labourers from outside the US are still exploited today.

It’s therefore no surprise that there is more information available about early US social documentary photographers than British, and the two most prominent in this field at the turn of the 20th century were Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.


2 Responses to Early Social Documentary In Britain and America

  1. Catherine says:

    Good review Eddy – fills out the gaps in the Martha Rosler work that we discussed.

    • Eddy Lerp says:

      I have to say that I hadn’t thought of it in that context as this is specifically about named individuals rather than the generality of Rosler, but you’re right it starts to give the details to the general.

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