What is Documentary Photography?

7th October 2013

I came to the course Gesture and Meaning with an idea that I new what Documentary Photography was.  I’d just finished People & Place and I’d managed to fit the same theme to each and every assignment that progressively showed the difficulties of living as an older person in social supported living accommodation.  Wasn’t this the very essence of what documentary photography was all about?  The crusading images highlighting problems that need to be addressed by society at large?  Telling a story through the lens?  I thought so, but now I’m not so sure that this is all Documentary Photography is, or at least the way it works, a series of linked images, showing context and meaning with a moral.  If that’s not all Documentary Photography is, then what else have I thought it could be?  Some half-baked ideas I’m sure, but I do know that I’m not happy with the original definition I thought I understood with the wonderful ideas and examples of the great documentary photographers of the past and present guiding the way to my future photographic path.

The word documentary, we’re told, derives from the middle French word document which itself comes from the  Latin word documentum,  the meaning of both translate to a common understanding of example, proof, lesson.  In which case the documentary photography tradition encompasses all three words in its objectives.  The one thing it does lack though is the plural,  example not  examples, proof  not proofs, lesson  not  lessons,  and it’s this that I’ve been thinking about lately.  Does / Can a single photograph, unsupported by linked images from the same scenario be classed as documentary photography?  Because so far I have believed it needed more than one image, which is against the definitions use of the singular.  I know I’m being pedantic and the definition given is for one document, but the way I see it interpreted in photography means that multiple images are needed as proofs, examples and lessons and I want to explore the concept of a single image in Documentary Photography.

As a for instance, supposing a documentary photographer manages to capture a single image which they feel has to be brought to the attention of the world at large because of some moral or legal obligation contained within it, does that single image constitute documentary photography?  I’d say it does, although it doesn’t meet the definition I first set out, but does that necessarily matter?  I’ll come back to that later.  If then, a single photograph can be considered to be documentary, does a single photograph taken by anyone of anything constitute Documentary Photography?  For instance, family sat on beach, one member gets up takes, takes photo’ of group, is that an example of Documentary Photography?  In some ways yes it is.  It’s a documentary photograph of a personal/private/family occasion, but the big question is, does it fit within the Documentary Canon that we as photography practitioners and students consider in our studies?  If we say no, then that can cast doubt on many images that are currently within the Canon, I immediately think of Martin Parr, if we say yes, Martin Parr immediately springs to mind again, but does this mean then that critics, editors and curators aren’t doing their job when I cannot think of any galleries or exhibitions that have concentrated on the sorts of images produced by the general public.  Now that may be because I’m too inexperienced to know about this, and I’d appreciate someone who does know clarifying this for me, but generally I can’t personally believe that this type of image is, what I’d call, true documentary photography.  I think it’s now becoming clear that what constitutes the accepted definition of Documentary Photography is not as clear-cut as I first thought, even though I’d taken into account the blurring of the lines between documentary and photojournalism, which is in itself another can of worms.

Coming back to the point I left hanging in the previous paragraph “…….although it doesn’t meet the definition I first set out, but does that necessarily matter?”  Definitions as far as I’m concerned are there to give a broad outline or direction, not something that has to be dogmatically and rigidly adhered to, so the answer for me is, no it doesn’t matter, but for some I know it does and this is what raised this question in the first instance.  If we only follow the accepted definition dogmatically and rigidly, are we entirely sure that the definition is broad enough in the first place?  Could those who made the definition be wrong, or was it made at an earlier time when conformity was de rigueur?  Definitions, like rules, are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.

It’s clear to me that certain images are stand-alone Documentary Photographs because the subject they have captured and the scene itself conveys so much information it tells ‘the story’, and I wonder if that is where the line between documentary and photojournalism is crossed?  A good documentary photograph that tells a full story also makes an excellent photojournalistic image, and vice versa, and so it becomes obvious why the line between the two genre’s becomes blurred.

So, back to the title of this piece, What is Documentary Photography?  Am I any nearer the answer than when I started?  Probably, possibly, but there’s always room for improvement in one’s understanding and there’s always room to push the boundaries of any definition, and finally, isn’t Documentary Photography now considered art?  If that’s so, then Documentary Photography can be anything you want it to be, it’s the interpretation of the artist that now counts…..isn’t it?  Are you sure?

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4 Responses to What is Documentary Photography?

  1. jsumb says:

    Arguable the greatest exponent of the form ‘documentary photographer’ was Walker Evans. He was passionate enough about his practice that he was the first photographer to be fired by the FSA for not towing the line as set out by Stryker – which was to bring back images that support the political view that funding infrastructure projects to alleviate the effects of the Wall Street crash brought about by rampant capitalism. Walker Evans, as you probably know was an inveterate documenter, apart from his work through the South of America documenting the plight of the poor, in his own (non FSA) special way, he spent a good deal of photographic time documenting all sorts of other things. The people who travelled on the subway in New York, he did this with a concealed camera – controversially, He also documented signs and in particular road signs, the signs that are painted on the roads – you may have seen these in the US national archive.
    So, what’s my point? Well, a documentary photographer makes documents, I suppose you could say that the clue is in the title. Walker Evans made documents from the things he found around him as well as the things he set out to find. Those road signs seem to have a ring of verisimilitude about them, not very controversial, maybe a bit boring, but nevertheless they don’t seem to have any air of untruthfulness about them. But then some of his other work starts to raise questions, what about those subway shots? And then there’s the work he did in the south documenting the lives of the poor and dispossessed with James Agee, there’s so much coming to light about how Evans posed these shots, and maybe gave a lie to their plight, exaggerating those conditions.
    So what’s my point. That every photograph is a lie? That a documentary photographer is therefore a lier? Perhaps, but the critical thing thing for me is that the photographer presents the viewer with a singular aspect, the viewer has only two choices; to look or not to look, and that didactic level of control provides photographer with too much responsibility, or the spectator with too much information to provide a critical appraisal of the narrative and context of both single images or a series of work.
    You may find this interestinmg as well. http://www.disphotic.lewisbush.com/2013/10/10/7913what-is-documentary-photography/

    • Eddy Lerp says:

      Very interesting John but not quite what I had in mind when I wrote the piece. However, the URL link you gave was very pertinent, particularly the penultimate paragraph about Steiglitz. I can’t agree with what Disphotic says about the photograph as Steiglitz himself wrote that he was only interested in the aesthetic of the scene, so any Documentary denotation or connotation has been attached later by critics. I wrote a piece about this earlier for this course, you can find it here if you’re interested, https://lerpysphotographylog2.wordpress.com/alfred-stieglitz-documentary-photographer/

      Thanks for bringing that blog to my attention I think I’ll follow it from now on.

  2. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox
    and now each time a comment is added I get four emails
    with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from that service?
    Bless you!

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